It’s that time of year again. The time of year when every rugby fan starts planning their weekends religiously, trying to schedule watching three games of high-class international rugby around other, arguably more important, things like work and sleep. I am, of course, talking about the Six Nations, which starts this weekend, with each of the countries involved hoping that this is their year.
Ireland go into this year’s championship as the reigning champions, and will have high expectations of retaining their title. After a highly successful, undefeated autumn test series, and with their teams continuing their good form in the Guinness Pro12, Joe Schmidt’s men can rightly consider themselves to be favourites. With world class players such as Jonny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip leading from the front, it would take a brave man to bet against the Irish. However, with both of the aforementioned players ruled out of the opening game, a tricky looking trip to Rome, as well as having to travel to Cardiff, no-one is expecting Ireland to have it all their own way.
If Irish fans think their injury list is bad, then spare a thought for their English counterparts. Stuart Lancaster has to contend with injuries to key men across the park, with Manu Tuilagi, Joe Launchbury, Ben Morgan and Owen Farrell to name but four ruled out of at least part of the tournament. Add to that away games against Ireland and Wales, and one could be forgiven for writing off England’s title chances. It’s not all doom and gloom for Lancaster’s side, however- in Jonathan Joseph, they arguably have the form centre in the competition, alongside highly talented young team mate George Ford at fly half, and a solid looking forward pack. Expect England to be in the mix come the end of the championship.
By contrast, Wales have very few problems to manage this time around. By contrast to twelve months ago, when the WRU was more concerned with fighting each other than their opposition, the Welsh, led by captain Sam Warburton, go into the championship with a relatively settled squad. With the Ospreys leading the way in the Pro12, thanks in no small part to the form of scrum half Rhys Webb, and George North lighting up Europe for Northampton, Warren Gatland can afford to be relatively optimistic about charges’ chances this year. Despite this, it remains to be seen how big a loss 95 cap prop Adam Jones will be, having announced his retirement from internationals just before the tournament.
Last year was a year to forget for France. Despite renewed hope in the wake of new talent coming through the ranks, fourth place was viewed as a failure by the French media. This year, however, there are murmurs amongst fans and pundits alike that Philippe Saint-Andre has finally settled on his strongest team. Featuring precocious young fly half Camille Lopez, exciting Racing Metro winger Teddy Thomas, and the return from injury of talismanic captain Thierry Dusautoir, it would take a very brave individual (who may happen to be borderline insane) to rule out the French.
Since taking over as Italy coach, Jacques Brunel has had very little to cheer about. Two wins in 2013 were followed up by drawing a blank in the 2014 championship. The emergence of young talent such as Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto provided a silver lining to Italian fans, and it looks like this year will follow a very similar path. Any team with the indomitable Sergio Parisse in the back row, however, cannot be discounted to provide a few shocks, and with home ties against France and Ireland, you never know…
So what of Scotland? After a dire championship last year, change was required, and in the form of coach Vern Cotter, it arrived. A summer tour which focused on expanding the depth of his squad was followed by a rarity from a Scotland fan’s point of view- an autumn test series with more positives than negatives. With players such as Jonny Gray, Blair Cowan and Finn Russell now fully integrated into Cotter’s squad, and a strong showing in the autumn behind them, Scotland will target their three home games as they look to improve upon recent showings in the Six Nations, and possibly match their best result in the tournament (third in 2006).
So there you have it. With a new trophy to play for, and a batch of new talent to keep an eye on, this promises to be a mouth-watering tournament for all involved. And I made it through the entire article without mentioning the World Cup on the horizon…