After a rewarding few months in which they preoccupied themselves with the clubs sides in the Heineken Cup, rugby fans across Europe can look forward to their annual two-month international bonanza beginning this Saturday in Saint Denis. The World Cup just past has only served to whet our appetite for the six-week bonanza as several scores and grudges formed in New Zealand remain and will, or will not, be settled in the coming weeks. The World Cup also painfully reminded us how ridiculously uncompetitive international rugby is when put on a global scale. Shaun Edwards, Wales’s defence coach, even came out to say that winning a grand slam was tougher than winning the World Cup due to the absence of poorer teams in the Six Nations. He couldn’t be more right. So what grudges will be settled in the coming weeks? Will there be a grand slam? Will there even be a triple crown? Will Ireland be crowned Six Nations Champions on St. Patrick’s Day in London?
Firstly, let’s turn our attention to the Azzurri, a rugby side which must surely be smarting from the clinical dismantling the Irish undertook on them in Dunedin last October. While this Six Nations may have come a little too soon for a completely fresh start, there are signs of recovery from the disaster down under. Jacques Brunel takes over from Nick Mallett and aims to develop both the team and the structure of the game in Italy. Couple this with the move to the 82,000 capacity Stadio Olimpico and Italy will prove to be awkward opposition to the English and the Scots who travel there. But that’s where it ends. Brave performances in Paris, Dublin and Cardiff will not be enough to prevent defeats there.
The Scots will get their chance at revenge in their very first match against the side who knocked them out of the World Cup and their greatest enemies – England. Even better for the Scots, it’s in Murrayfield and the good people at BBC Weather predict a cloudy, windy evening with outbreaks of rain or snow. Lovely. Having rucked and mauled their way to a victory over the English and casting away the bad memories from New Zealand, that’s where the Scottish journey in this championship will end in terms of victories. The last-day clash with the Italians in Rome will serve as the wooden-spoon decider yet again.
Following this difficult start for Stuart Lancaster’s interim period in charge of the faltering English chariot, a difficult trip to Rome will act as the match which will oddly define his period in charge. Defeat would obviously mean disaster and will serve to rubber-stamp Lancaster’s time in charge as an interim one. Victory in difficult circumstances could instil a new togetherness which could carry them on to another of victory in the championship against perhaps the Welsh or the Irish – with perhaps being the crucial word there. The RFU and the game of rugby in England is in crisis, shown clearly in both the World Cup and the performance of their club sides in the Heineken Cup. This Six Nations won’t be the championship that resolves it.
France’s record in championships played on even-numbered numbers over the last decade and a half makes for an intimidating one. Grand Slams in ’98, ’02, ’04 and 2010, along with a championship victory in 2006 points predictions of the victor of this year’s championship in one direction. France also seem relatively content by their own volatile standards. Gone is the moustache and madness of Marc Lievremont, replaced by the experience of Phillipe Saint-Andre, a coach who has experience of the club scene in France and England from his time at Sale and Gloucester. The only prospect of the French slipping up on a grand slam could come in Cardiff on the last afternoon of the championship. Playing a Welsh side that could well have the championship to play for in their own back yard would make for a daunting prospect for anyone.
Despite the unpredictability over almost every side in this year’s championship, the level of uncertainty over the Welsh is probably the strongest. Can they recapture the form of New Zealand where they came within one Sam Warburton sending-off from a final? Or will the increasing amount of injuries scupper their chances from the very first weekend? Is Alain Rolland going to be refereeing one of their matches? Silliest question first – Alain Rolland is not refereeing a Wales match, but is refereeing two others. The other two questions won’t have an answer until about 5pm this Sunday afternoon. A good start in Dublin could kick-start a ruthlessness which the Welsh last displayed in the Six Nations in 2008, a grand slam which concluded with a victory over France in Cardiff. Defeat could see them stumble through the tournament half-heartedly, bringing upon themselves the ignominy of a defeat in Twickenham.
So, where does this all leave Ireland? A sense of hope is constantly threatened by a realism which can be attained by a simple glance at the fixture list. The Welsh match is key, yes, but one senses that victory is futile. For a week, the optimists amongst us may see the victory as a spring-board towards a triple crown, a championship victory and maybe even a grand slam. The realists amongst us will quickly realise that we are playing in Paris six days after the Wales match. Whether it be Stade Colombes, Parc des Prances or Stade de France, Irish hopes of a grand slam have seen an end in their familiar Parisian surroundings on all but three occasions since 1954. Matches have taken place there where the only thing to cheer for if you were Irish was if you got the first score. This year will be no different, unfortunately. Nonetheless, a decent performance in Paris should give enough encouragement to ensure that Ireland go on to record easy victories over the Scottish and Italians, before one of those rabble-rousing performances in Twickenham for St. Patrick’s Day guarantees the triple crown.
In conclusion, here is how I predict this year’s Six Nations Championship will finish, thus how it almost certainly will not:
1st: France (Grand Slam),
2nd: Ireland (Triple Crown),