O’BRIEN’S PUB, NEW YORK CITY – The world’s oldest international rugby tournament is finally here again. The Six Nations Championship, RBS 6 Nations or 6N (our preference) kicks off Saturday and we couldn’t be more giddy. Long before the Tri-Nations and Rugby Championship and before the Rugby World Cup, there was the this competition in Europe. Originally, it was the Home Nations Championship (1883–1909), which pitted England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales against each other. It became the Five Nations Championship in 1910 when France joined the party. But enough of the past, let’s get the present with our 6 Nations Preview. The teams are listed in the order that yours truly sees them finishing
France: The most exciting Les Bleus side we have seen in years and reminiscent of the French sides of the late ’90s and early ’00s. They have struck the balance between the slick handling, flair play and the ability to knuckle down and grind. They showed this ability in the Autumn Internationals, going 3-0. Their flair was evident against Australia… They had full-game focus against Argentina and were combat-ready in the pack against Samoa. They have areas of concern but look more complete from 1-15, than any other side. This squad is aware of its potential and has yet to flash any of that notorious French ennui in their matches. Finally, at the risk of making many of you cross-eyed with rage, the world of rugby is a better place when France plays the game with their historic beauty.
England: After years of delaying transition, England have finally embraced it. There were low expectations last season with Stuart Lancaster’s coaching staff, but positive results gave hope. That hope was tested in the Spring and Autumn Internationals with some poor play but the HUGE win over New Zealand gives Lancaster more freedom and support than ever. Moreover, England will likely put out the youngest 6N squad they have in ages. But it’s not all Roses… They are lacking balance in the backrow but did launch a gem of flanker-turned-lock in Joe Launchbury. Meanwhile, the backline options are plentiful but finding the right combo is the tricky part. Star Manu Tuilagi is unavailable for the first match against Scotland and the huge question of who starts at #10 looms. Does Owen Farrell’s huge game vs the All Blacks get him the nod or does Toby Flood regain the jersey he relinquished due to injury… England has a deep, talented young group and are expected to be better. How they fare against a more structured opponent will make or break their title hopes.
Ireland: There is talent all over the Emerald Isle but will the right talent be selected? But even right here, within the Rugby Wrap Up offices, battle-lines have been drawn re the ability of coach Declan Kidney – and those battle-lines are all over Ireland. Those that support him point to the blooding of new talent in the Fiji game and trouncing of Argentina the following week during the Autumn Tours. They also point to his knack for recognizing talent. Then there are those that call him “Kidinme” and wanted him fired after the Rugby World Cup. They demand the IRFU not renew his contract. They put the “ire” in Ireland and one can’t deny their cause. There was the 60-0 loss to NZ, his persistent selection of Ronan O’Gara, his intended passing over Donncha Ryan – injury eliminated that – and his refusal to start provincial combo of Eion Reddan and Johnny Sexton together. Did we mention his freezing out of the young Ulster players, who he only played in a non-cap match against Fiji? The current team has no Paul O’Connell, a new captain in Jamie Heaslip and a rusty Brian O’Driscoll. So, to the chagrin of RWU contributors Declan Yeats and Kevin Fegan, this strange bunch look to nothing more than a 3rd place finish.
Wales: How the mighty have fallen! It is no wonder one can hear shouts from Welsh fans cursing the British & Irish Lions! The last few iterations of the Lions seem directly related to downward spirals for Wales. The problem? The loss of quality players. This time, fans are complaining about the loss of Head Coach Warren Gatland – who is coaching the Lions. Assistant coach Rob Howley has been manning the reigns and lost a 3-match series against Australia in the spring and all 4 matches during the Autumn Tours. Howley is also scheduled to join the Lions as an assistant coach, so he will juggle duties with defense coach Shaun Edwards. Combine these factors with the Welsh injury crisis – particularly at lock – and you just don’t see them being able to compete with the Top 3.
Scotland: Scotland’s head coach Scott Johnson is another assistant coach promoted to head coach on an interim basis. Previous head coach Andy Robinson had brought Johnson on board as the new skills coach, which was desperately needed. However, in their first campaign together the team went winless, including a loss to 2nd tier Tonga. Robinson stepped down with immediate effect… The problem Johnson was brought in to fix – poor handling/decision-making that killed phases of good play and butchered tries – still exists. Moreover, we really don’t believe he has the cattle in the Scottish backs to play the kind of rugby played in Johnson’s Australia. Full Disclosure: I am not a Scott Johnson fan because of his horrid tenure as TEAM USA Head Coach, so I root against him at every opportunity. This will continue despite my great granddad being 100% Scot.
Italy Break out the Wooden Spoon – the Italians are expected to finish last… again. But they are not as easily beaten as they were last time. They will fight everyone to the end. If teams switch it off too soon – like France in 2011 of Scotland 2012 – you will pay dearly. However, they still have not solved the problem of inconsistent play at scrum-half and fly-half. And despite the nation’s proud soccer history, Italy struggles to unearth a top-class kicker who can play a backline position with skill. Their wins come on strength and will. Hopefully they will come around on the importance of skill, sooner rather than later.
That’s it for now. We welcome your comments below and please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @RugbyWrapUp, @JunoirBlaber, @Declan Yeats, @Mathew Drew Turner and @Ebstide52, respectively.
As always stay low and keep pumping those legs.