Six Nations 2014 preview: France, Ireland & Italy

Six Nations 2014 preview:

Italy

Last season: 4th (P5 W2 D0 L3)
Coach: Jacques Brunel
Captain: Sergio Parisse

Often the bridesmaids of Europe’s perennial rugby competition, Italy at long last came to the Six Nations party with a bang in 2013, fully capitalising on their three home games to record a personal best of two wins to finish an impressive fourth ahead of both Ireland and France – whom they both ‘humiliated’ in the eyes of their competitors. In the 12 months that have followed, to say Italy have since gone and improved can be somewhat of an overstatement. Sadly for Jacques Brunel, Italy remains in a state of unbalance between the forwards and the backs, desperately lacking a creative spark in the backline that has eluded the country since the days of Diego Dominguez. With only two home games this time around against Scotland and England, a repeat of last season is unlikely but if they can avoid a tenth wooden spoon since 2000, it will be a case of better than nothing.

Fixtures: Wales (A), France (A), Scotland (H), Ireland (A), England (H)

Ireland

Last year: 5th (P5 W1 D1 L3)
Coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Paul O’Connell

Four campaigns ago, Ireland claimed an historic Grand Slam via an injection of confidence and self-belief brought on by a change in management. Now fresh with Joe Schmidt taking over from Declan Kidney’s tired and somewhat uninspiring panel, thoughts of a repeat campaign have indeed been thrown about, and why not. Make no mistake about it, Ireland head into the latest edition of the Six Nations in perhaps the best shape in terms of overall experience, but this often only counts for so much over five bruising and attritional weeks of high-octane rugby. With a host of key players on the wrong side of 30, this could well be the tournament for young pretenders to begin stating a case for next autumn’s World Cup. For Schmidt, he can only do better than fifth and three losses last season. Ireland’s biennial itinerary of away visits to London and Paris haven’t borne fruit since 1972, but should the general performance against New Zealand (less so, Australia) be replicated in their home openers against Scotland and Wales, the momentum gained could be telling.

Fixtures: Scotland (H), Wales (H), England (A), Italy (H), France (A)

France

Last year: 6th (P5 W1 D1 L3)
Coach: Philippe Saint-Andre
Captain: Pascal Pape

Guessing which French team will show up on match day has become a regular game over the last few seasons. It’s an inconsistency perhaps best summed up by going from World Cup runners-up (and pushing New Zealand to the very end) to finishing dead last in the Six Nations less than a year and a half later. In Philippe Saint-Andre, France have themselves an assured coach with the backing of his federation, perhaps emphasised by the fact that France have only won two of their last 11 tests – at home to Scotland and Tonga respectively. Taking the recent record into account, 2014 will be the year where Saint-Andre’s world cup plan comes to a head. Losing Thierry Dusautoir removes France as pre-tournament favourites. But if Saint-Andre can somehow address balancing the equation that is his half-backs, which hasn’t been helped by the recent foreign influx of talent to the Top 14 in that region, Saturday’s opener against England has all the makings of a pulsating encounter to avoid losing the chance of a ‘Grand Chelem’ at the very first attempt.

Fixtures: England (H), Italy (H), Wales (A), Scotland (A), Ireland (H)

In the video above, Matt Dawson returns to join Will Carling & Scott Quinnell as they catch-up on the nail-biting final rounds of the Heineken Cup, catch up with another one of Matt’s Celebrity Friends and answer your Twitter questions.

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