Thursday, February 02, 2006

My Six Nations Preview

This year's Championship is a critical one for all six teams. With the World Cup is only 18 months away, this is the time when teams will be setting out their stall and measuring where they are.

So how do I see the teams as they stand at the moment?

Following the World Cup win of 2003, the England rugby squad were set to take the 2004 Six Nations simply by turning up, - that is, until the French decided otherwise. Beating England in the Stade de France by a meagre three points sealed their destiny and gave France their eighth grand slam. England didn't return to form in 2005 either and, so again, opportunity passed them by. But this season is looking much more promising. With some sterling pre-season performances against the Aussies and All Blacks, England are right on track and this could very well be their year. The team are strong, mentally and physically fit, and the hunger, which may have been lacking over the last couple of seasons, is back with a vengeance. An impressive November with a good win over Australia, a close defeat to the All Blacks and a ‘thumping’ of the Samoans have revived their belief and sparked the momentum that Andy Robinson has so desperately been searching for. This year's Championship must be used to up that momentum and make Twickenham a fortress once more. "We have an extra 9,000 seats at Twickenham for the first time, it will be an awesome atmosphere and is a great game to have first up," he said of the 4th of February opener. Wales have not won at Twickenham since 1988 and after a string of injuries to key stars, will be hard pressed to retain their ’05 Glory.

Last year the Irish were hotly tipped to run away with the Grand Slam with great Munster and Leinster players in tip top form but when the chips were down, they buckled under pressure and ultimately paid the price for their numerous false starts. Wales took victory in the Millennium stadium and the Irish headed home empty handed. Never ones to quit though, the Irish are once again out for blood and with the World Cup just around the corner they need to step up and comprehensively take this Six Nations. A year ago everything pointed towards Ireland winning the championship for the first time in 20 years. But, as so often is the case in the world's oldest international rugby tournament, things did not go to plan and Wales swept through to a surprise clean sweep. "That's the beauty of the Six Nations," said Ireland’s Captain Brian O'Driscoll. "This time last year we were being hyped up and no-one gave Wales a chance. This year, the way the fixtures fall, it will be a big ask for both of us."

Currently, the French are faultless. They are odds on favourites to follow up their 2004 grand slam victory with another series of excellent performances and snatch the Six Nations from the current Welsh cup holders. They only narrowly missed out last season when Wales beat them 24-18 so they are out for revenge and they just might get it on the 18th March. If you love flair, passion and unstoppable drive to win, then look no further than France for 2006. France start as favourites, partly on the back of their impressive displays in the November test series and partly due to the fact that they face both England and Ireland in Paris. The French will be looking to stamp their authority on the tournament once more and set the ball rolling towards a successful World Cup campaign at home base next year. "Our target is to remain unbeaten at home right through to the end of the 2007 World Cup," said France coach Bernard Laporte.

Gavin Henson and the rest of the Welsh side, set the Six Nations rugby stage alight in 2005 - but can they do it again? With a very surprising, to all but the Welsh, grand slam victory under their belt, they now have the confidence and self belief needed to go back out there, and fight to retain their honour and glory. Their pre-season matches didn't go as planned leaving the fans wondering if the Welsh had truely lost their form - maybe the 2006 Six Nations will answer the question! Ranked 6th in the World, another grand slam could see the Welsh climb even higher - and that's clearly an incentive! Coach Ruddock has also had to contend with a significant injury list, while suspension currently removes Gavin Henson, Dafydd Jones and Ian Evans from his plans. This could be a very tough Championship for Wales.

The last time Scotland won the Six Nations was in 1999 when they pipped England to the post on score difference (and don't the English still remember, - God, it hurt). It's been a long time coming for the Scots and though their support is unwavering, they really do need to get themselves into gear and start making their mark in this competition. Second from bottom of the table last season was certainly disappointing but could this have been the kick in the backside they needed? The Scots have the fighting Celtic spirit and this could be the year they surprise the pundits and bookies alike by coming out all guns blazing. Scotland are desperately hoping new coach Frank Hadden can pull them out of their current rugby recession. A brave performance against the All Blacks in November may have just been the spark that ignites the flame.

Since joining the Six Nations in 2000 when it officially changed from the Five Nations to the Six, the Italians have been a little slow off the mark and each year they are never heavily tipped to make any waves in the competition. Their six previous seasons have seen them at the bottom four times, including last year but steadily they have been improving, giving more than one team a fright along the way. The Italians have been working hard and though it is unlikely that they could win the Six Nations this year one or two surprise upsets may not be out of the question! Italy will also be looking at turning a few heads and will be sure to give it their everything, in a Tournament that has allowed them to grow and improve as a team. With new coach Pierre Berbizier, expect to see an injection of Gallic flare in their backs.

My Prediction

The following is how I expect the competition will play out, but as is the case in all sport and human endeavour, the unexpected can, and generally does, happen (I hope):

  1. France
  2. England
  3. Ireland
  4. Wales
  5. Scotland
  6. Italy


Jackie said...

Just hope the first tow positions are reversed!! :O) just off to southport for a coiuple of days. hope you have nice weekend!!

Jackie said...

Sorry not 'tow' but 'two'.. not 'coiuple' but 'couple' ..that'll teach me not to preview!!! :O)

Mark said...

I hope so too!

Eddie said...

Hi Mark,
Just a couple of pointed questions from someone whose great-grandad was a preacher in the chapel, (can't you just hear that Welsh accent?)
(1) How come Wales can only field 15 players, (until a yellow card),
when England field 18, albeit 3 of them wore green jerseys?
(2) How come England can throw a pass to the right winger that was at least 2 metres forward when Wales give away a penalty for a pass behind their line that was, at best flat, at worst 1/2 metre forward?
I'll say no more.....Grrrrrrrrrrr

Mark said...

Sorry Eddie, I must have been watching a different game!

Eddie said...

Yeah, and I bet you get your glasses from the same place the ref does as well!
Ah well, Super League starts this weekend, thank goodness! Forwards as quick as Union backs and backs who could give olympic athletes a race!

Mark said...

Eddie, is that why they have to stop for a breather after every tackle?