CASTRES, FRANCE – If history is to be believed, France will win this year’s Six Nations. Afer all, they have won all four tournaments after a Lions’ tour in the professional era. In fact, they have been so dominant in those four competitions that they have only lost one game in those four tournaments: against Scotland in 2009’s opener.
But enough history. How are this weekend’s opening matches likely to shape up?
Wales v Italy
Italy finished fourth in last year’s Six Nations. But here’s an early prediction. They are highly unlikely to repeat the trick in 2014.
Like his England opposite number Stuart Lancaster, the Italy coach Jacques Brunel has opted picked a relatively inexperienced side. Unlike the England coach, however, it’s because he has had no choice. In fact, rather more akin to France; the Azzurri have been plagued by injuries – forcing Brunel to give Benetton Treviso winger Angelo Esposito his Italy debut, while also starting the inexperienced Michele Campagnaro, Leonardo Sarto and Tommaso Allan.
Veteran flanker Mauro Bergamasco, meanwhile, will become Italy’s longest serving player – but there is no place for his brother Mirco, even though he has finally recovered from a knee injury that kept him out of the side for the past two years.
Wales coach Warren Gatland has no such worries. His side appears in such rude health that he can even afford to keep regular captain Sam Warburton on the bench – though the flanker was on alert for a while as Dan Lydiate hopped back over to Paris, where he plays his club rugby for Racing Metro, to be at at his fiancee’s side for the birth of his daughter.
So, injury-hit Italy against fit but probably tired Wales (don’t forget that the Welsh provided the bulk of the Lions squad that toured Australia). Italy are likely to attack around the fringes, which will play right into the home side’s hands. Wales will be professional and clinical and will put Italy away easily enough. But it probably won’t be pretty.
France v England
Apparently, England new boy Jack Nowell was refused entry to a cinema in Bristol this week to see Martin Scorcese’s Wolf of Wall Street. So, don’t be too worried when you see someone who looks too young to shave take to the pitch of Stade de France for Le Crunch. He’s supposed to be there.
Head coach Stuart Lancaster has stuck firmly to his selection guns for this most difficult of Six Nations’ opening matches. His backline features senior side debutants Nowell, of Exeter Chiefs, and Northampton centre Luther Burrell; while Jonny May has one cap. Billy Twelvetrees, by comparison, is an England veteran with a mighty eight caps. Then there’s fly-half Owen Farrell with 19, and fullback Mike Brown, who has 21. Recalled scrum-half Danny Care is the old hand of the bunch, with 42. Between them, the seven backs boast just 91 caps.
If it wasn’t obvious before, then it’s clear now. Form, potential and consistency count for more with the England boss than reputation.
But he’s asking a lot of his young guns. Stade de France can be a brutal place – and this French side is bristling with talent of its own.
The pack has been put together with one objective – to put the hurt on the England forwards, while the backs are a brutal combination of electric pace and terrifying power. Burrell and Twelvetrees, in particular, have a tough job. They have to keep Mathieu Basteraud and Wesley Fofana honest for 80 white-hot minutes. That was difficult enough to type. Imagine what it will be like to do.
But there are weaknesses. Expect England to target the inexperienced halfback pairing of Jean-Marc Doussain and Les Bleus’ new boy Jules Plisson early. The Stade Francais fly-half has been handed an awesome responsibility – namely guiding and marshalling this French side, which can take the term ‘mercurial’ to levels even Freddie Michalak had never considered to new levels.
One thing you can say. England will be organised. All Stuart Lancaster’s sides are. If they can weather a likely early French storm in Paris, expect them to be ahead – just – by the time referee Nigel Owens blows the final whistle.
Ireland v Scotland
When Brian O’Driscoll walks out on the pitch at the Aviva Stadium for the beginning of his final Six Nations, he will be Ireland’s most-capped player of all time. It’s his 129th outing in the green of Ireland, surpassing long-time team-mate Ronan O’Gara.
He’ll probably get the biggest cheer as the players walk out, which is a little unfair on Rob Kearney – who is set to win his 50th cap on Sunday. And, if his body can stand up to the demands of five more Six Nations games, he will overtake Aussie scrum half George Gregan as the most-capped player of all time.
Not that O’Driscoll is an emotional selection for new head coach Joe Schmidt – just as dropping him wasn’t an emotional choice for Warren Gatland during last summer’s Lions’ tour. This is modern, professional-era rugby. There’s no room for sentimentality and O’Driscoll deserves his place in the side.
Just as Declan Kidney used to base his Ireland side’s round the Munster squad he knew so well, so Schmidt has stuck to what he knows – which means there are plenty of Leinster players on show.
Not that the change of scenery in their opposite numbers will make things any easier for visitors Scotland.
Coach Scott Johnson – who, like O’Driscoll, is starting his final Six Nations – doesn’t have the depth of talent at his disposal as his opposite number. But he’s a canny coach, who will have drilled his side to play to their strengths. He has sprung a surprise, however, in picking old Warrior Duncan Weir at fly half ahead of Ruaridh Jackson, and 33-year-old Sean Lamont needs to prove he still has the legs to get from one end of the field to another.
Centre pair Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor, lock Tim Swinson and blindside Ryan Wilson are all set to make their first Six Nations starts as Scotland look to build on last year’s third place. But a winning start at the Aviva against an Ireland side looking for a perfect send-off for their talisman O’Driscoll? That’s got to be high on the list of things that aren’t going to happen.
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