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6 Nations Preview

In Rugby Union on February 3, 2010 at 6:53 pm

The 2010 Six Nations kicks off this weekend with Ireland looking to regain their Grand Slam crown. They should face some stiff competition though, with France, Wales and England all out for revenge and the Scots and Italians well capable of causing havoc. Here’s a look ahead to this year’s tournament:

Ireland

Last year’s Grand Slam winners will enter this year’s tournament as favourites, and rightfully so. Dealing with expectation is just one more thing that this team has had to adapt to in the last few years.

Before Kidney took over in mid-2008, question marks remained over the make-up of the squad. The team was still struggling to blend, as Leinster’s sometimes thrilling back play had yet to be successfully grafted on to Munster’s grinding pack. Eddie O’Sullivan’s overly conservative style had failed, and tension remained between the two sets of players.

It didn’t take long for Kidney to show his worth, as the cagey Cork man managed the situation expertly. A clear the air meeting was held among the squad, where grievances were aired and hatchets were buried. The players emerged with a sense of togetherness and purpose, and they’ve done a fantastic job of realising their potential ever since.

Last year’s performances were a sea change from the 2008 Championship, where they laboured to home wins over Italy and Scotland, and the result was the side’s first Grand Slam since 1948. They followed that up with an unbeaten November series to finish the calendar year undefeated and earn Kidney the IRB Coach of the Year award.

Strengths: This Ireland side is full of confidence right now, and will feel that they have the beating of every team they face, especially after they shut down the World Champions in their last outing. In addition to this, Munster, Leinster and Ulster are all in excellent form, despite the latter’s elimination from the Heineken Cup. With a backline containing Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe, they have plenty of finishing ability, along with a battle hardened pack that should provide them with plenty of go-forward ball. They also have real options at fly-half for the first time since David Humphreys’ retirement, and the competition for the 10 jersey should keep Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton even sharper and hungrier than usual.

Weaknesses: Not too many obvious ones, but the front row is a worry. John Hayes has been asked to do far more than is reasonable, and there has to come a time when his body begins to rebel against the constant punishment. On the other side of the scrum, Cian Healy is an immense talent, but is inexperienced.  Anchoring an international scrum at 22 years of age is a huge ask, and his raw power still requires refinement. Elsewhere, Ronan O’Gara  seems to be recovering his form at the right time, and will need to play well to make the most of Sexton’s unfortunate injury. The lack of a groundhog in the back row could also allow teams to slow down ball on the deck, although that hasn’t been too much of a problem in the past.

John Hayes will shoulder a heavy burden once again

Key player:

Brian O’Driscoll: Not exactly sticking my neck out with this one, but even after all these years he remains the best player in the team. Not much more to be said about this man, he can do it all, and if he fires then Ireland will have every chance of regaining their crown.

Point to Prove:

Ronan O’Gara: Returning to the team for the opening game after losing his place to Jonathan Sexton back in November, O’Gara has to produce if he wants to keep hold of the no.1 spot at out half. Some indifferent early season form had many questioning him, but if he can set his backline free and kick his goals then he could be back in the cockpit for the rest of the Championship.

Outlook: Should be in the shake-up, but fixtures in the Stade de France and Twickenham will be pivotal. They’ll take care of Italy on Saturday, and then everything hinges on the trip to France. Win, and they have a great chance of at least a title. Lose, and the campaign could turn ugly.

Last year: Grand Slam Champs

Autumn results: Australia, D 20-20, Fiji, W 41-6, South Africa, W 15-10

Fixtures: Italy (H), France (A), England (A), Wales (H), Scotland (H)

First game: Italy at Croke Park

Team: R Kearney, T Bowe, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, A Trimble, R O’Gara, T O’Leary; C Healy, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P’Connell, K McLaughlin, D Wallace, J Heaslip. Replacements: R Best, T Court, L Cullen, S O’Brien, E Reddan, P Wallace, K Earls.

England

A 2nd place finish in last year’s Championship failed to mask the failings of Martin Johnson’s England side, and the doubts were confirmed in the Autumn. A torrid November saw the English go down at home to Australia and New Zealand, while their lone win over the Argentinians was booed mercilessly by the Twickenham faithful. A poor 6 Nations performance could spell the end of Johnson’s tenure, as he comes under increasing pressure from both the fans and a host of ex-players who’ve been queueing up to take a pop at their former captain. The team seems to lack direction under him, and his choice of Steve Borthwick at captain looks like a bigger mistake with every passing day. They’ve shown little or no ambition in recent performances either. The beleaguered Leicester man looks unable to utilise a speedy and powerful back line, and their predictability has cost them dear

Strengths: They have some talented players in their back line, with Ugo Monye, Delon Armitage and Danny Care all capable of punching holes in a defence. They also possess a bruising back row and still one of the most reliable kickers in the game in Jonny Wilkinson. They’ve also picked a creative centre partnership of Flutey and Tait, which should take some of the pressure off Wilkinson, who has a very ‘no-frills’ style of play.

Weaknesses: Discipline. For a team with Martin Johnson at the helm, they concede a baffling amount of penalties, often at crucial times. Elsewhere, Injuries have robbed them of their usual bruisers in the front row, while captain Borthwick is probably not worth his place in the team anymore. Behind the scrum, Jonny Wilkinson still struggles to bring his outside backs into the game enough, which limits the attacking talents at his disposal. With ball in hand they’ve become predictable and stagnant, and too often struggle to break teams down. One solitary try against Argentina is a disgraceful return for three home November internationals.

Key Player:

Jonny Wilkinson: If he can kick his goals and distribute the ball well, they should have a chance in most games. The English defence is still stout, and they rarely give up too many points, despite numerous transgressions at the breakdown. If Wilkinson can get the ball in the hands of his flyers in space, then they will score points. Especially if he’s there to kick the goals.

Point to prove:

Steve Borthwick: With Simon Shaw adding an invaluable physical presence, Louis Deacon on the bench and lineout wizard Nick Kennedy also breathing down his neck, Borthwick is lucky to be still in the team. If he wasn’t captain, he probably wouldn’t be. He needs to repay his coach’s faith in him by stepping up, and instilling some discipline in his wayward pack. If he doesn’t, he’s likely to be shown the door in March, along with Johnson.

Captain Steve Borthwick is under pressure for his place in the team

Outlook: If they win their first game at home to Wales, then they should take care of Italy and come into the Ireland game on a high. That will be tough, but in Twickenham, it’s likely to be close. They will always have a chance against the Scots, and you never know what French team will turn up. Realistically though, three wins will be difficult, and still may not be enough to appease the Angst-ridden English public.

Last year: 2nd

Autumn results: Australia, L 18-9, Argentina, W 16-9, New Zealand, L 19-6

Fixtures: Wales (H), Italy (A), Ireland (H), Scotland (A), France (A)

First Game: Wales (H)

Team: D Armitage, M Cueto , M Tait, R Flutey, U Monye, J Wilkinson, D Care, T Payne, D Hartley, D Wilson, S Shaw, S Borthwick (capt), J Haskell, L Moody, N Easter. Replacements: S Thompson, D Cole, L Deacon, S Armitage, P Hodgson, T Flood, B Foden

Wales

Finishing a disappointing 4th in last year’s Championship, the Welsh had a mixed Autumn. Wins over Samoa and Argentina were leavened by a close defeat to New Zealand and a battering at the hands of the Aussies. Robbed of some key players through injury, Warren Gatland’s team enter the tournament relatively unburdened by the weight of expectation, which is when they’re often at their most dangerous

Strengths: Usually overflowing with creativity and ambition, they looked somewhat laboured in their Autumn outings. The return of Lee Byrne will be a huge boost, and the James Hook experiment could also pay dividends. The Ospreys man will play outside the hard-running Jamie Roberts in the centre for the first time in a Welsh shirt as they reshuffle their back pack. It could be the spark they’ve been missing. In the pack, they have a rock solid front row, a balanced engine room and a nice blend in the back row. Alun Wyn-Jones should provide a steady supply of line-out ball, and if Andy Powell and Ryan Jones can provide some go-forward ball then the backs will have the platform they need. Martyn Williams will also be crucial, both in slowing down the opposition ball and acting as a link man to keep their attacking flame from sputtering out.

Weaknesses: Surprisingly subdued in November, they only managed four tries in four games, with three of those coming against a gutted Argentina. Against the organised defences of New Zealand and Australia, they failed to cross the whitewash. They badly need to regain the spark that has defined them in the past. At scrum half, Gareth Cooper is a contentious call. Picked ahead of his club mate Richie Rees, Cooper has a job on his hands to convince in the absence of Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel. In the pack, Gareth Williams has been called up as a late replacement for Matthew Rees and will need to hit his darts in the lineout, while Andy Powell needs to show that there’s more to his game than just charging up blind alleys

Key Player:

Lee Byrne: Probably the best full back in the game right now, Byrne’s return for the match in Twickenham will give the Wales side a massive lift. Byrne is a speedy attacking threat from full back, and also has a cannon of a boot to augment his solid defence. Capable of shredding the opposition if given a gap, he will help create space for his fellow backs and provide the X factor which this Welsh team badly needs.

Point to prove:

Shane Williams: The form of Shane Williams must be a concern for the Welsh management, who badly need one of the game’s best finishers to threaten. Lethal on his day, the winger has looked to be trying too hard at times lately, as he’s struggled somewhat with the Ospreys. Opposing teams have found it surprisingly easy to limit his space in recent games, and denied the chance to dart through gaps, the diminutive dangerman has been able to offer little else.

Shane Williams has been struggling lately

Outlook: Always dangerous, so you can never count them out. Should have too much for Italy and Scotland, while their clash with the French is often the game of the Championship. England and Ireland away will be tough, but a win in Twickenham on Saturday and they have every chance of another title.

Last year: 4th

Autumn results: New Zealand, L 19-12, Samoa, W 17-13, Argentina, W 33-16, Australia, L 33-12

Fixtures: England (A), Scotland (H), France (H), Ireland (A), Italy (H)

First Game: England (A)

Team: Lee Byrne, Tom James, James Hook, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams, Stephen Jones, Gareth Cooper, Gethin Jenkins, Gareth Williams, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Andy Powell, Martyn Williams, Ryan Jones (capt). Replacements: Huw Bennett, Paul James, Bradley Davies, Jonathan Thomas, Richie Rees, Andrew Bishop, Leigh Halfpenny

France

During Marc Lievremont’s  time in charge, this French team has had all the consistency of a Gareth Gates album. The constant chopping and changing of the side has shown no signs of abating, with the former French back rower making a whopping ten changes to the side which was crushed by the Kiwis last time out. It’s not all down to Lievremont though. There are some notable absentees which threaten to derail the French challenge this time out. Injuries to slap-headed destroyer Fabian Barcella and lock Roman Millo-Chlusky will damage the pack, while injuries to Maxime Mermoz and Damien Traille, in addition to scrum half Julien Dupuy’s suspension for gouging, robs the back-line of a few star performers. Les Tricolores had a typically French Autumn, following up a heartening wins over Samoa and the World Champion Springboks with a terrible display against New Zealand. Their last two Six Nations campaigns have seen the win six out of 10 games, and they will badly need to find some consistent performances to avoid a similar result this time out.

Strengths: This French team has it all. They just need to be in the mood. Unfortunately, there is never any guarantee of that. Their production line of props should ensure they have a solid base in the scrum, and their back row can be devastating on its day. Francois Trinh-Duc is a richly talented out-half who can control a game with his kicking, while the centre partnership of Jauzion and Bastareaud is immensely dangerous.

Francois Trinh-Duc adds an extra dimension to the French backline

Weaknesses: Apart from Lievremont’s insistence on experimentation, their pure Gallic mood swings make it a thankless task predicting how they’ll play. Poitrenaud is capable of genius from full back, but can also be a liability, while Trinh-Duc’s inexperience could be exploited should he allow any mistakes to affect his game. Scrum half Morgan Parra’s kicking can sometimes be less than perfect, and they are always just one step away from a meltdown.

Key Player:

Francois Trinh-Duc: It looks as though the coach has found his man at fly-half, and Trinh-Duc has played every 6 Nations game since his call up for the 2008 tournament. At barely 23 years old, the Montpellier player looks like a serious talent, and if he can fulfil his potential then Les Bleus will have finally found an answer for their problem position. A threat with ball in hand, he is also an efficient passer of the ball who can kick for territory in a way that the French have been crying out for. Will need to prove his temperament though, as he will be tested. If he can keep cool, then France will have a great chance in this tournament.

Point to prove:

Matthieu Bastareaud: Another young talent, centre Mathieu Bastareaud is a dynamic presence and has a great future ahead of him at just 21 years of age. His partnership with Jauzion in the centre could provide just the right kind of alchemy to fire the French.

He will be under pressure though. Dropped for the Autumn internationals after farcically faking an assault claim to cover for a messy night on the town.  Will have to win over a sceptical public and prove that he has matured. Otherwise, he could find himself back on the scrap heap for a while.

Chances: Excellent, if they can play to potential. The first game in Scotland should tell us a lot about how serious they are in the tournament. A good win there will set them up for the home game against Ireland, who they have an excellent record against. After that, they are all winnable games. Wales away will be tricky, but they should expect to beat the English and Italians at the Stade de France.

Last Year: 3rd

Autumn results: South Africa, W 20-13, Samoa, W 43-5, New Zealand, L 39-12

Fixtures: Scotland (A), Ireland (H), Wales (A), Italy (H), England (H)

First Game: Scotland (A)

Team: Clement Poitrenaud, Benjamin Fall, Mathieu Bastareaud, Yannick Jauzion, Aurelien Rougerie, Francois Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra, Thomas Domingo, William Servat, Nicolas Mas, Lionel Nallet, Pascal Pape, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Fulgence Ouedraogo, Imanol Harinordoquy. Replacements: Dimitri Szarzewski, Luc Ducalcon, Julien Pierre, Julien Bonnaire, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, David Marty, Vincent Clerc

Scotland

Have found it increasingly difficult to make an impression since 2006, when they finished 3rd with wins over France and England. They remain ferocious competitors though, and a win can never be taken for granted, especially in Murrayfield, where they beat the English in 2008 and the Welsh the year before. They showed both sides of their frustrating play in November, when they shocked the high-flying Australians with a 9-8 win, before crashing 9-6 against Argentina.

Strengths: They always have a tough pack, and if they’re able to turn the game into a trench war they excel. Always good at the breakdown, on both sides of the ball, they have also found some dangerous backs in recent years.

Weaknesses: They just lack penetration, and struggle to score points. Scored only two tries against Fiji in November, before the missing edge nearly cost them a famous win over the Wallabies and saw them slip to defeat against the Pumas.

Key Player:

Phil Godman. Has a few weapons outside him in Max Evans and Sean Lamont, and will need to get them in space if the Scots are to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Will also need to be immaculate with his territorial kicking to keep his side in the right areas of the field. The inclusion of Paterson should take some pressure off his often less than impressive goal-kicking, and having captain Chris Cusiter inside should also help.

Point to prove:

Chris Paterson. Recalled to the side after Rory Lamont’s injury, Paterson will be desperate to make a compelling case for retention on his 99th appearance. Will add some vital accuracy with the boot, but has to bring more to the table to convince the selectors that he’s worth sticking by.

Outlook: They’ve only been saved the embarrassment of the wooden spoon in the last two tournaments by Italy’s ineptitude, and 3 wins would be seen as a great success in this year’s competition. Have a chance on Sunday to catch France cold, and will expect to beat Italy. A win over England at home is also achievable, but anything more is unlikely.

Last Year: 5th

Autumn results: Fiji, W 23-10, Australia, W 9-8, Argentina, L 9-6

Fixtures: France (H), Wales (A), Italy (A), England (H), Ireland (A)

First Game: France (H)

Team: Paterson; S Lamont, M Evans, Morrison, T Evans; Godman, Cusiter (capt); Dickinson, Ford, Lowe, Kellock, Hines, K Brown, Beattie, Barclay. Replacements: S Lawson, Jacobsen, Gray, MacDonald, R Lawson, Grove, Southwell

Italy

The Italians collected their second wooden spoon in a row in a winless 2009 tournament, and have only won one of their last 11 Six Nations games. A testing November series saw them well beaten by the Springboks and the All Blacks, before they gained some retribution with a win over Samoa.

Strengths: A battering ram of a scrum has given them a foothold in most games, while their pack generally performs admirably.

Weaknesses: The backs provide all the menace of a sedated Care Bear, and generally find a way to undo all the good work done by the men up front. Half back is a particular concern, with naturalised Aussie Craig Gower likely to be wearing the no.10 jersey.

Key Player:

Marco Bortolami: In the absence of world-class no.8 Sergio Parisse, the onus is now on lock Bortolami to galvanise his troops. He is a towering presence in the second row, bringing all the aggression and physicality we’ve come to expect from this admirable Italian front 8.

Point to prove:

Craig Gower: Or whoever wears the 10 jersey. Gower will need to play immaculately to give his team a chance, as Italy’s only hope is a stout defence and a 10 man game. If he can control territory with his kicking, his pack is capable of doing the rest.

Outlook: Unfortunately for Nick Mallet’s men, the fixtures have not been kind. Away games against Ireland, Wales and France are likely to be damage limitation exercises, while their record against England is abysmal. They will target the Scottish match as their most winnable fixture, and could scrap their way to a result in what’s likely to be an eyesore of an encounter

Last Year: 6th

Autumn results: New Zealand, L 20-6, South Africa, L 32-10, Samoa, W 24-6

Fixtures: Ireland (A), England (H), Scotland (H), France (A), Wales (A)

First Game: Ireland (A)

Squad: Forwards: Matias Aguero (Saracens), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Francais), Marco Bortolami (Gloucester), Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester), Lorenzo Cittadini (Benetton Treviso), Carlo Antonio Del Fava (MPS Viadana), Paul Derbyshire (Petrarca Padova), Simone Favaro (Banca Monte Parma), Quintin Geldenhuys (MPS Viadana), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Benetton Treviso), Fabio Ongaro (Saracens), Antonio Ravanello (Benetton Treviso), Salvatore Perugini (Bayonne), Josh Sole (MPS Viadana), Manoa Vosawai (Banca Monte Parma), Alessandro Zanni (Benetton Treviso).

Backs: Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Francais), Riccardo Bocchino (Femi-CZ Rovigo), Gonzalo Canale (Clermont), Gonzalo Garcia (Benetton Treviso), Craig Gower (Bayonne), Andrea Marcato (Benetton Treviso), Andrea Masi (Racing-Metro), Luke McLean (Benetton Treviso), Simon Picone (Benetton Treviso), Matteo Pratichetti (MPS Viadana), Kaine Robertson (MPS Viadana), Michele Sepe (MPS Viadana), Alberto Sgarbi (Benetton Treviso), Tito Tebaldi (Plusvalore Gran Parma).

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  1. In England’s defence for the Autumn Internationals, missing the likes of Easter,Flutey and Armitage hurt them badly. I genuinely think that they could very well win the championship. Especially with the likes of Tait in form and a very impressive Ugo Monye..watch this space

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