By David de Winter – Sports Editor
Friday night sees the start of the 2015 Six Nations tournament in Cardiff with a potential hum-dinger of a match between Wales and England. That will set the tone for what will hopefully be five weeks of intense, brutal, physical but also entertaining rugby. It is the most open tournament that I can remember and every team is in with a shout of winning the title (yes, even Italy). But who will emerge victorious on the 21st of March? Let’s take a look.
This is a big tournament for England. After runner-up spots in the previous two Six Nations championships, it is high time that Stuart Lancaster’s team delivered, especially given England’s ultimate goal of winning the World Cup in the autumn on home soil. They have not been helped by a spate of injuries to key players like Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Ben Morgan and Joe Launchbury. England are not short of fly-half alternatives but George Ford, if he starts as expected, is being thrown in at the deep end and it could simply be a case of sink or swim. He has been electric for Bath so far this season but international rugby is a whole different animal. I’m looking forward to seeing the evergreen Nick Easter back in an England shirt. He is a wonderful ball-carrying number 8 who is a deceptively talented footballer and a brilliant off-loader. His experience, whether from the bench or from the start could be a key component for the red rose. Also, watch out for the explosive Kyle Eastmond. If he gets a start outside his club teammate Ford, his Jason Robinsonesque running can slice open any defence. Three home fixtures will certainly help England’s cause but I think they will struggle against France and Ireland. The absence of Lawes and Morgan will be keenly felt.
Ah, les Bleus, surely the singularly most frustrating team in the history of rugby. Capable of mind-boggling brilliance one minute and then staggering incompetence the next. The beauty of the French side was that their rugby embodied everything that was inherently Gallic: grace, elegance, style, flair, panache. I know it’s a cliché but it’s true. In recent seasons they have lost their raison d’être somewhat, preferring to shove the ball up their jumper and batter away and defences which has been torturous to watch. I think I actually cried once a couple of seasons ago when France played so implausibly badly; I thought back to the days of Christophe Lamaison, Thomas Castagniède and Emile Ntmack with misty-eyed nostalgia.
Mais all is not lost. Recent results have been encouraging, including an impressive victory over Australia in November. Wesley Fofana’s running angles are so brilliant that I have to put an ice-pack on my crotch every time I watch him to calm down. Yoann Huget is a similarly mesmeric runner and France seem to have finally found a settled half-back partnership of Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Camille Lopez. The rugby romantic in me wants to see the return of the old France I used to know and love. If they can get their old joie de vivre swagger back then the sky is the limit.
As much as I really want the French to win, it’s hard to look beyond Ireland. They only lost one match in the entirety of 2014 (the Six Nations defeat to England at Twickenham) and autumn victories against both South Africa and Australia show that they are a real force to be reckoned with. It will certainly be strange for them to start a Six Nations tournament without Brian O’Driscoll but the emerald isle have plenty of experience elsewhere to call upon. Paul O’Connell continues to defy the laws of ageing, consistently putting in top-class performances for club and country. Conor Murray has improved no-end to become in my opinion the northern hemisphere’s best scrum-half. And having the best fly-half too in Jonny Sexton is a handy bonus (although will miss the Italy match with concussion). There are rumours that Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy will be back for that trip to Rome which will further strengthen an already formidable forward pack. I can’t see a notable weakness in their team and the defending champions will once again be the team to beat.
After an impressive 2013 Six Nations campaign where they beat both France and Ireland and played some exhilarating rugby, 2014 was a chastening year for the Italians. Zero points from five games was not exactly what il dottore ordered. There was a morale-boosting victory against Samoa in the autumn but despite possessing a smattering of world-class talent like Sergio Parisse, lock Quintin Geldenhuys, flanker Alessandro Zanni and promising centre Michele Campagnaro, the quality is lacking, particularly in the backs. New Zealand-born Kelly Haimona is the latest player to attempt to fill Diego Dominguez’s shoes but he is relatively untested at international level. Italy are capable of springing a surprise or two on their day, especially if they can get the mercurial Luciano Orquera on the pitch, but unfortunately I can’t see them winning more than one game at the most in this tournament.
After a fairly forgettable 2014 Six Nations, Scotland are improving rapidly under the stewardship of Vern Cotter. Having had long-standing try-scoring issues, they scored 11 in their three Autumn Internationals. Despite the loss of winger Sean Maitland, they still have the free-scoring Tommy Seymour, Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg in a dangerous-looking back three. Greg Laidlaw and Finn Russell seem to have formed an understanding at half-back and the Gray brothers, Jonny and Richie, will be the engine room in the forwards, ably supported by Jim Hamilton, John Beattie, Alasdair Strokosch and Blair Cowan. If they can compete up front and provide good attacking ball for Laidlaw to release their pacy backs then I can see Scotland posing a few problems. Although they might not win too many matches they are a dangerous prospect and should not be underestimated.
As much as my heart wants Wales to win, I just can’t see it happening this year. Their game has become too compact, too up-your-jumper. The expansive flair game that was the basis of the 2005 and 2008 Grand Slams has all but disappeared in favour of a pragmatic but uninspiring approach based on territory and percentages. I am all for a simple gameplan – it worked against a dreadful South Africa side in November, but I doubt it will reap rewards in this campaign. Wales will be looking to their wide men Alex Cuthbert and George North for inspiration, but without a ball-playing midfielder (oh for the days of James Hook or Gavin Henson, or even Tom Shanklin), I can’t see them finding much space to work in. Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies have key roles to play. Biggar has developed into an astute number 10 capable of impressive game management and Davies’ passing ability will be key to releasing North and Cuthbert on the wings. Jamie Roberts has been in good form for Racing Metro and will batter defences all day with his penetrative runs. As much as it might be effective, I am not a fan of ‘Warrenball’ and I think the rather ponderous and predictive attacks can easily be blunted by an organised defence. It could be a chastening Six Nations for the Welsh.