With the Six Nations championship set to get under way on Saturday, Kieran Beckles looks ahead at what promises to be a great few weeks of rugby.
Defending champions Wales will start as favourites to retain their title. The pressure is on the Welsh team. Warren Gatland has taken over as head coach, and the signs have been positive after promising performances in the Autumn internationals.
Ending their Twickenham hoodoo, they also ran South Africa and New Zealand agonisingly close and secured a famous victory over Australia. For many rugby experts they are now seen as the premier side in the Northern hemisphere.
Should Wales successfully defend their title, they will have made history. The motivation is there for them to retain it and so is the quality. They will have the difficult game against France at the Stade de France to contend with, but despite this disadvantage, they remain the bookies favourites to be crowned champions on March 21st.
Ireland have many reasons to be optimistic going into the tournament. With the quality of Munster and Leinster players in the side, their experience is vast. Munster are reigning European champions and embody the Irish ‘never say die’ spirit.
After their poor showing at the World Cup in France last year they will be eager to redeem themselves. With the departure of Eddie O’Sullivan, there is renewed optimism in the Irish camp. The appointment of successful Munster coach, Declan Kidney, as Irish head coach could provide the springboard for success.
If Kidney can instill the same fighting spirit is Munster side were famous for then Ireland stand a real chance. Kidney’s me enjoy the luxury of France and England having to make the journey to the vocal Croke Park. The start their campaign against France, and should they win, it may inspire them to greatness.
France are the last side being realistically tipped by experts to have a chance of snatching back the trophy from the Welsh Valleys and bringing it back to Paris. They have an unpredictable coach who likes to play unpredictable rugby.
Marc Lievremont, has experimented with players and tactics and it remains to be seen has he settled on what is his best team. He has stated publicly that he is a building a team capable of winning the World Cup in 2011. Does this mean he is uninterested in the Six Nations?
Probably not. In the Autumn Internationals he seemed to abandon his loose tactics, and suggests that this time around the French mean business. With difficult trips away to Ireland and England their consistency will be crucial. However they do have the added bonus of facing the reigning champions, Wales on home soil.
England have been discounted as major contenders for the tournament. Despite Brian Ashton leading England to second place last year, it proved unacceptable and he was sacked. Martin Johnson has been brought in as a technical coach and the figure head for English rugby.
England has seen a massive reversal in its fortunes. The last time they claimed the Six Nations title was during the glory years under Clive Woodward in 2003. They have been hapless ever since. Largely disappointing in the autumn internationals, England fans could be forgiven for being pessimistic about England’s chances.
Johnson faces the massive task of getting the best out of the player he has. Do England have a chance of winning? Realistically, no. This campaign may be more about rebuilding and Johnson coming into his own as England coach.
After a stubborn performance in the World Cup against Argentina in the quarter finals, Frank Hadden still finds himself as coach of the Scottish squad. After a period of ‘over-achieving’, in the previous two Six Nations tournaments, they have managed a solitary win.
Mike Blair is Scotland’s fulcrum. Everything revolves around him and as their best player rightly so. His passing and timing are exceptional. With the limited resources that Hadden has to work with, Blair provides a glimmer of hopes for Scottish fans.
They will hope to improve on their solitary wins in previous campaigns. With the visit of Italy, they seemed assured at least one victory. They also have the capabilties to run Wales close at Murrayfield and earn a hard fought victory against England at Twickenham.
It seems unlikely that Italy will provide a stern test for any of the other Six Nations sides. This is despite the claims from their highly respected coach, Nick Mallet, that the Italians can win it in the future. However, they could prove difficult to beat in Rome.
Their coach, Mallet is vastly experienced and with him calling the shots, Italy may show glimpses of magic. The frequency of these moments of brilliance could be the difference between a slaughtering and a hard fought narrow loss or possibly even victory.
Mallet will certainly look at their ties at Murrayfield and Twickenham and think that the Azzuri have a chance. It seems likely that they will provide at least one upset during the tournament. Ultimately though they seemed destined to finish last.
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