6 Nations Preview 2013
With just 2 days to go until the 6 Nations party rolls into town to decide the kings of European Rugby, it’s worth a look at the state of play before the Wales v Ireland encounter kicks us off on Saturday.
In this Blog we will be looking at the all important form of the 6 countries to try and predict has become increasingly unpredictable, the outcome of the Northern Hemisphere showpiece.
Why is it so special?
From Treherbert to Toulouse, from Galway to Glasgow, when its match time and the pubs are full and streets empty in rugby towns, villages and cities across Europe, it won’t be hard to find a few tour stories of years gone by.
My personal favourite was one told by the voice of Rugby himself, the late great Bill McClaren. Bill told of a group of Welshmen who had ventured up to Edinburgh on a last minute rugby tour, in the days that preceded the internet, mobiles and confirmation emails. The group found themselves in the back of a taxi searching for their bed and breakfast in the wee small hours the morning after match day. They tried and failed, eventually asking the driver how much he would charge to take them all the way back home to Wales. After a week and a half staying with the Welsh boys and their families the Scotsman returned home with bloodshot eyes and countless stories to tell. In the years that followed the Welsh lads would visit the driver, his friends and family with the Scottish contingent returning the favour on the reverse fixture each year.
This is one of doubtless hundreds of stories over the years of 5 (and now 6) nations doing battle on the field but sharing in beer, laughter and song, the joys of such a magical tournament.
The Form Guide
In March last year Wales were crowned Grand Slam champions for the third time since Mike Ruddock’s class of 2005 ended 27 years of hurt for the passionate principality. Their crowning victory of their clean sweep (2012) came at home to Les Bleus and sent Wales firmly into party mode and surely (following their semi final heartache at the Word Cup in New Zealand) announced their arrival at the top table of the sport.
As with all matters relating to Welsh Ruby their boom to bust culture is ever present with issues relating to the regions finances, a player drain and poor domestic and international form. Since that crowning day in Cardiff last year they have lost every game and gone into virtual freefall within the IRB Rankings. Wales will be desperate to re-kindle confidence and momentum opening weekend against the Irish. The form guide in recent years states that they either finish fourth or win the grand slam and with two huge games from the start (Ireland home and France Away) it will quickly become clear which way they are heading.
Declan Kidney and Ireland are often criticised for fielding a dads army of players due to their ageing squad. Last year’s 6 nations brought an agonising opening weekend loss to Wales followed by a painful draw (away) against France. A bruising defeat at the hands of England Up Front left a question mark over their performances in a tournament that could (barring a couple of refereeing decisions) have been so very different. Again (as with Wales) Celtic consistency is yet to be shown following their own Grand Slam there has been a slow decline and some alarming lows on the (IRB) rankings board (similarities again with their Celtic cousins) following a battering tour of New Zealand. The autumn campaign however can be remembered for the blooding of some exciting youngsters, which poses the question as to whether the dads army will be rejuvenated this year?
A change of coach (Philippe Saint-Andre) has brought more stability and consistency than the (often crazy) Marc Lièvremont era which saw Muntinee, Moustaches and a first defeat to the Italians. Saint-Andre’s inaugural 6 nation’s report card will read: two defeats and a draw – with the playing resources they have at their disposal will know they should do much much better.
Indeed that is precisely what they did in the autumn, with a hammering of Australia, coupled with dogged beatings of a dangerous Argentina and Samoa. France look to be ripening and will take some stopping this year. Depending, as the adage always goes, on which France turn up and whether panache, consistency and control can be added to their undoubted power and class.
What a difference a new coach makes. From the World Cup which saw the naughty boys brigade sent home at the quarters at the hands of France, a hammering of New Zealand has made for a very interesting turnaround in fortunes. In truth England haven’t been far away from knocking over one of the Southern Superpowers. In particular some agonising encounters with South Africa and dubious kicking decisions were laid to rest by an enthralling if unexpected hammering of the All Blacks.
Last year’s Six Nations proved a rarity for England, an interim coach mixed with relatively low expectations which, aside from the Welsh and Scott Williams in particular, were exceeded with a very solid 2nd place finish. However following the appointment of Lancaster on a permanent basis and their most recent victory it will be normal service resumed as England will again expect.
A step forward will be needed from the young squad to convert promise into results and silverware.
The Scots have not been impervious to the Rugby Rollercoaster that has been boarded by Wales and England. The sound bites from the Andy Robinson Era were of performance standards, the need for a winning mentality and to score more tries. Sadly however none of these three key requirements really materialised as a collective and imploding performances in key games saw their World Cup campaign end for the first time at the group stages.
The SRFU firmly backed their coach regardless of their World Cup exit and 2012 Six Nations Wooden Spoon and despite, a vastly encouraging (unbeaten) summer tour, the autumn proved a string of poor performances too far and Robinson duly walked away from the frustration of steering the ship for the Scots.
Since Robinsons departure the SRFU have appointed Scott Johnson as head coach with the likely brief of avoiding the wooden spoon in this year’s 6 Nations.
Much was made of the inclusion of the Italians to the traditional 5 Nations format, discussions in the main centred around the need to support the global development and growth of the game. Few can argue that although Italy have propped the table up on the majority of occasions they have added something special to the tournament over the years. From the majestic Sergio Parisse, the metronomic kicking of Diego Dominguez and of course the barnstorming Bergamasco brothers, not to mention Griffins side burns.
The realistic objectives of head coach Jacques Brunel will be similar to that of his Scottish counterpart, although it will be interesting to see whether the inclusion of the Italian teams in the Pro12 has made an early impact on the National Team.
The First Weekends Fixtures and Predictions
Saturday 2nd February 2013 – 13.30 – Wales v Ireland (Cardiff)
This is more than likely going to be the tightest encounter of the weekend. Wales will be desperate to get back to winning ways but have been blighted by injuries over the last few months. Ireland on the other hand welcome back their talisman Brian O’Driscoll and will be seeking to blend their youthful autumn vigour with their solidity at regional level and end a run of three test defeats in a row to Wales. Home advantage is key and I think Ireland will come second best to Wales. This prediction is down to the home crowd and the need for Howley and his team to make a statement and put an end to a painful losing streak.
Score Prediction: Wales 17 Ireland 15
Saturday 2nd February 2013 – 4.00PM – England v Scotland (Twickenham)
It’s hard to predict anything other than a comfortable win at home for England and the key for Scotland will be to silence and expectant crowd following their win against World Champions. Scott Johnston will have to ensure Scotland keep their defensive discipline, avoid England’s set piece and grow into the game. Attack could well be the best form of defence for the Scots and territory will be massive in this game, if Scotland’s attack doesn’t turn up and mistakes creep in, they will be dispatched easily.
Score Prediction: England 32 Scotland 10
Sunday 3rd February 2013 – 3.00PM – Italy v France (Find name of stadium and place)
France will return to the Italy for the first time since Nick Malletts‘ class of 2011 bagged their first ever French scalp. The memories of French despair and Italian jubilation on that day will count for little when the match kicks off on Sunday. Philippe Saint-Andre has built on the power-play evident within the French League and extremely evident to all who watch the Heineken Cup. Despite home advantage its highly unlikely we will see a repeat of ‘that’ win. Expect plenty of kicking from the Azzuri and plenty of tackling for that matter and a comfortable day at the office for the French.
Score Prediction: Italy 8 France 30
Whatever happens this weekend there will be controversy, TMO’s, Flair, Force and Finesse in equal measure – One thing is guaranteed whether your Red, Green, White or Blue, it’s going to be emotional and I can’t wait for it all to start.