First, an admission. I am no expert on rugby union, would never claim to be much more than a casual follower and some of the game’s technical aspects go straight over my head. Usually I stick to sports I feel qualified, through years of keen observation and sometimes unhealthy obsession, to write about with confidence in my knowledge and interpretation. But I’ve always watched and enjoyed the Six Nations, such an intoxicating mix of passion, intensity and (usually) good-natured nationalism. From my slightly detached perspective I can appreciate the physicality and the creativity without worrying too much about the strategic detail. I’m not completely clueless though and, based on scant but not insubstantial evidence, I’m nevertheless going to use this platform to predict how I think this year’s competition might pan out. This, then, is an outsider’s assessment.
I have been deeply impressed by Stuart Lancaster. Although he was well-acquainted with the next generation of talent from his former role with the Saxons, England’s accidental head coach could have come an almighty cropper by introducing too much new blood too soon. In the aftermath of a disastrous World Cup he had the guts to shake up the squad and trust to his judgement, even though his initial chances of being given the role full-time appeared slim. The new players have not let him down and, having become accustomed to sterile and rather negative tactics under Martin Johnson, performances have been brighter even if last year’s second place was achieved with just seven tries in five games. Though the landmark success against the All Blacks took the headlines and should do wonders for confidence, it is worth noting how strongly they competed in defeat in the other autumn internationals.
Joe Launchbury’s energy has enhanced a forward line which already includes the strength and power of the much improved Dan Cole but England’s challenge is to attach a little flair to the undoubted solidity. Adept at building the phases, they still struggle to finish off good positions. I would include David Strettle on the opposite wing to his clubmate Chris Ashton in a bid to overcome this problem. The exciting Manu Tuilagi impressed alongside Brad Barritt against New Zealand so that partnership ought to be given the opportunity to flourish if the former regains fitness. There is good competition for places which should keep the incumbents on their toes. Danny Care, if he can cast his off-field distractions aside, offers a robust alternative to Ben Youngs at scrum half, while Owen Farrell cannot rest easy with Freddie Burns, who many more astute judges than me reckon to be a star in the making, coming up on the rails.
Rarely can a team have fallen from grace so spectacularly but Wales, who delighted in the Grand Slam twelve months ago, have descended into a sorry plight since. Seven successive Test defeats, including that latest embarrassment against Samoa, have left them ruing the loss of Warren Gatland to freak ill-fortune and Lions commitments. A crippling injury list has not lightened their mood yet I would be wary of dismissing them entirely. In George North and skipper Sam Warburton they can still call on individuals who can turn a match, while Eli Walker’s quick feet and ability to find space illuminated the Heineken Cup for Ospreys; he clearly has the potential to make a name for himself. Uncertainty at fly-half in the absence of Rhys Priestland is a worry and the destiny of the whole campaign for the Dragons may be decided early, as the Irish descend on Cardiff tomorrow.
The men in green look a promising blend of youth and experience. The return of Brian O’Driscoll and Rory Best, allied to the dangerous attacking dash of Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy makes a persuasive case, but Ireland might be over reliant on the passing and kicking of Jonathan Sexton, soon to become one of rugby’s best remunerated stars. If Wales can be overcome in their opening match, then England are next in Dublin and momentum is often irresistible. Yet it could so easily go the other way which is why the scheduling may turn out to be a critical factor. Sadly, I can only see one way it might go for Scotland. In turmoil after the Tonga debacle and the resignation of Andy Robinson, the historic summer win over Australia has been swiftly forgotten. Ten new faces have been included in interim coach Scott Johnson’s first squad so it seems that yet more rebuilding is about to be attempted. With Italy and their talisman Sergio Parisse well capable of causing an upset somewhere, I think the Azzuri can set their sights higher than simply avoiding the wooden spoon.
Which leaves us with France. I feel much the same about France and rugby as I do about Holland and football. Ignoring the blatant bias associated with Johnny Wilkinson and a certain drop goal, my most treasured memory came courtesy of that thrilling fightback by Les Bleus to topple the might of the All Blacks in their epic 1999 World Cup semi-final meeting. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. When the French cut loose they are a sight to behold but the word ‘mercurial’ might have been invented for them. The current fifteen will look to their pack as a driving force though the dynamic running of backs Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana will frighten less mobile opponents. Last season their challenge fizzled out and heads do have a tendency to drop when their gameplan begins to take in water. Being away to both chief rivals for the title will not assist their cause.
I’m going to stick my neck out and say this will be England’s year. I feel they have more options to shift the balance if things are turning against them. It will not be a stroll and I expect a good number of close, tense matches with seemingly minor incidents, and possibly a dose of good fortune at key junctures, proving pivotal. Avoiding the concession of too many penalties will be crucial, and Chris Robshaw and his team must not fall back into old habits on this front. France will be next, with Ireland condemning the holders Wales to a fairly limp defence in fourth, ahead of an Italian squad who will the scent the blood of both of them on arrival in Rome. Scotland, alas, will add to their collection of kitchen utensils. How much conviction? Well, not very much actually. But just imagine if I really knew what I was talking about. Game on!