Sports Editor, Charlie Redmond, takes a quick grasp of the Six Nations Championship and discusses what we can expect when it kicks off on Saturday, February 6th.
Tomorrow sees the return of competitive international rugby, with France and Italy set to kick off the annual Six Nations Championship. The Six Nations Championship is a competition played by the six main powers of European rugby; England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, and Italy. The competition has been played in some shape or form since 1883 (as the Home Nations Championship), and Ireland are the current Champions of the prestigious rugby competition.
Due to the increasing standard of rugby throughout the continent, the competition has become far more closely fought, with the traditional whipping boys proving themselves capable of toppling the strongly backed favourites of the competition, with the most recent example being Italy defeating France 23 – 18 in last season’s edition of the competition.
The City previews the six teams taking part in the competition and evaluates their chances of lifting the famed Six Nations Championship Trophy.
The current champions, Ireland, have won the previous two editions of the competition and are hoping to complete a historic third successive title. This will be a new beginning for the Irish team as former captain and stalwart Paul O’Connell retired from international rugby following Ireland’s quarter final exit of the World Cup at the hands of Argentina. O’Connell’s retirement sees Rory Best fill the Munster man’s shoes, becoming the captain of the Ireland team.
Ireland did not live up to their billing during the World Cup but their Six Nations credentials cannot be doubted. Ireland are the current holders, have won the previous two editions and on paper have a very young and talented side. The major setback for Ireland is that Leinster back Luke Fitzgerald has been ruled out of the competition with a foot injury, which he picked up at an open training session at The Aviva Stadium last Friday. Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and Peter O’Mahony will also miss the competition.
Captain : Rory Best
Coach : Joe Schmidt
Strengths : Ireland’s main strengths undoubtedly lie in their back row and centre positions. Ireland are blessed with world class players such as Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, and Rory Best. If Joe Schmidt can keep these players fit and mould them into a team they will have a very strong chance of retaining their title.
Weaknesses: Ireland’s main weakness will be the fact that Paul O’Connell has retired from the team. The Munster hero was an inspiration on the field and put in countless mammoth displays for Ireland. With his retirement, Ireland lose vital experience and leadership. Their key challenge will be quickly adapting to life without Paul O’Connell.
Betting: Ireland are currently 4/1 with Paddy Power to win the championship outright.
England will enter the Six Nations in good stead, as domestically English rugby teams are competing at a very high level in European competition, which bodes well for their national team. Five of the Eight Champs Cup quarter finalists are English teams. England finished second in last years competition and are looking to go one better this year following the appointment of Eddie Jones as Head Coach. England are historically one of the most successful European rugby teams having won the World Cup in 2003. They have also won twelve Six Nations Grand Slams. With one of the most well structured Leagues in European rugby, England have a constant conveyor belt of young talent and will be hoping to take advantage of that this year.
Captain : Dylan Hartley
Coach : Eddie Jones
Strengths: England now have a very well drilled coach in Eddie Jones who will bring diligence and structure to the English set-up. Jones helped coach Japan to an Asian Championship in 1996 and was also the assistant coach of the South African team which won the 2007 World Cup.
Weaknesses: England played poorly in the World Cup on home soil so therefore many of the games pundits are wary of England’s ability to deal with high quality opponents. England were dumped out of the World Cup in the group stage, which damaged their reputation greatly.
Betting: Paddy Power have installed England as favourites for the competition at the short price of 13/8.
Wales go into The Six Nations with perhaps the best squad of the competition. Their World Cup chances were dashed by a string of injuries to key players, but with these players returning from injury, Wales look like a force to be reckoned with. Wales were in the hunt for last year’s title up until the last day but ended up finishing in third place. Warren Gatland, Wales coach, will be hoping his side can continue their growth since last Autumn’s World Cup. Dan Biggar excelled during the World Cup and Welsh fans will hope that the out half’s stock continues to rise during this competition. Welsh veteran Alun Wyn Jones was also nominated for World Rugby player of the year, highlighting the quality of players that Warren Gatland has at his disposal.
Captain : Sam Warburton
Coach: Warren Gatland
Strengths: At this moment in time Wales posses one the most talented number 10’s in world rugby. Dan Biggar’s ability to keep score from dead ball opportunities is vital for the Welsh as it means that you can never rule them out of a game. The 26-year-old has already scored 209 points in 39 games for Wales.
Weaknesses: Whilst Wales are notoriously difficult to score against, they need to be able to score more tries in order to win the Six Nations. They rely heavily on Dan Biggar to kick points. The fact that Wales lost out on second place last year by points difference stands testament to this.
Betting: Paddy Power currently place Wales as second favourites at 9/4.
Who knows what to expect from France? Occasionally brilliant, more often than not average. However, on their day they are capable of beating anyone. France have failed to finish higher than fourth in the last four editions of the competition and this is something which new coach Guy Noves will be hoping to change. France will miss the experience of Thierry Dusautoir but Guy Noves has assembled a fresh, young squad to contest this year’s Six Nations Championship. Gone are the days when the French were the team that everyone feared, but Guy Noves’ side are most definitely dark horses to win the Six Nations.
Captain: Guilhem Guirado
Coach: Guy Noves
Strengths: It can only get better for France. As previously mentioned, they failed to prosper in the recent past, so therefore there is a lack of expectation on the French team. This could very well see them flourish and really challenge this year. France also have a lot of talented individuals such as Wesley Fofana and Guilhem Guirado, and it will be interesting to see if Guy Noves can somehow weave a team out of these seasoned stars and the vast quantity of young blood he has drafted into the squad.
Weakness: France were humiliated by New Zealand in the World Cup, so it goes without saying they have evident problems. Wesley Fofana will miss France’s opener against Italy and France will miss him. France seemed far too open at The World Cup and this is something that Guy Noves will have to remedy fast if France are to concede less.
Betting: Paddy Power have given France a slightly flattering 11/2 chance of winning this year’s title.
Scotland are the least successful of the home nations and had an absolutely terrible Six Nations last year, finishing dead last. Scotland earned the wooden spoon having lost all 5 of their games and conceded a whopping 128 points in the process. This being said, Vern Cotter’s men came extremely close to beating Australia and earning themselves a World Cup semi-final spot, but were denied at the last minute. This World Cup loss may have been hard to take, but it showed that the Scots had improved dramatically under Vern Cotter’s guidance. If Scotland’s World Cup performance is anything to go by, this could well be the year the Scots show the rest of Europe what they are made of.
Captain: Greg Laidlaw.
Coach: Vern Cotter.
Strengths: Vern Cotter has assembled a side that are capable of truly challenging their opponents. Their back row is full of energy and pace, and their out-half’s kicking ability means they will find themselves playing in dangerous areas of their opposition’s half. Greg Laidlaw is both a star internationally as well as domestically for his club side, Gloucester. He can propel the Scottish side with his excellent leadership qualities.
Weaknesses: Scotland concede far too many points. In the last Six Nations they conceded 128 points and during the World Cup the conceded a further fourteen tries. If Scotland are to improve they need to limit the amount of scoring chances they afford to their opponents and tighten up their defence.
Betting: According to Paddy Power Scotland have an outsider’s chance at 11/2.
Italy joined the competition in 2000 and have thus far failed to win a Six Nations Championship. They are seen as the perennial whipping boys of the competition, but the Italians are growing stronger year after year. Last year’s victory over France shows that Italy are capable of defying the odds. However, Italy aren’t entering the Six Nations in good form. They had a dismal World Cup and they are missing various players through injury. Italian club sides, such as Treviso, are getting more attention on the European scene but this is not translating into success for their national team. This will be a tough Six Nations for Jacques Brunel’s men who will be hoping to avoid the wooden spoon for a second consecutive year. Italy have gotten the wooden spoon ten times in the last sixteen years.
Captain: Sergio Parisse
Coach :Jacques Brunel
Strengths: Sergio Parisse, their key player and captain, has returned from injury so this will come as a great boost for The Azzurri. Italy are also known for having a dogged defence and a tenacious pack, so if they can frustrate their opponents they may be able to earn themselves a few points in this year’s competition.
Weaknesses: Italy have an aging squad. Italy’s key player, Sergio Parisse, is now 33. Their squad’s age shows true as Italy tend to concede crucial scores in the last quarter of games which eliminates any chance of victory. Italy also tend to to switch off at the end of the competition, heavy defeats to both Wales and England in their last matches of the previous two Six Nations stand testament to this.
Betting: Italy are complete outsiders, with Paddy Power granting them odds of 500/1.
BY CHARLIE REDMOND
(PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Miller. Sourced through Flickr)