After the 2013 Six Nations, we will most likely learn two things—Wales aren’t nearly as bad as they looked in the Autumn internationals and England aren’t nearly as good. France look to be in great shape and are likely winners, while a big question mark hangs over 2009 champions Ireland. Italy may show signs of progress.
Pundits, albeit mainly in the English media, seem to think this current English team compares favourably to their all-conquering 2003 predecessors. However, one victory against a tired and depleted All Blacks at the end of a long tour and season doesn’t make them world beaters.
Undoubtedly, Stuart Lancaster has worked wonders with a squad that just over 15 months ago was an embarrassment to the proud tradition of English rugby. In New Zealand during the 2011 World Cup, the English team were more interested in dwarf throwing contests than the actual World Cup. This led to much soul searching in the RFU and the appointment of Stuart Lancaster as head coach looks inspired.
This resurgence has led to absurd expectations, with most rugby commentators anointing a still callow England as Grand Slam champions-in-waiting.
Key player: Owen Farrell —terrible in Limerick against Munster, sublime against Racing Metro when he kicked an incredible 32 points.
Key match: Ireland in Dublin
Prediction: Third. Will have comfortable victories over Scotland, Italy and Wales and may squeak it against France, but likely to fall short against Ireland in Dublin.
This year’s Six Nations will tell us a lot about where Ireland and England are. England travel to Dublin in 2013 and have a dismal record against the Irish over the last 10 years, last year notwithstanding when the Irish scrum crumbled in Twickenham.
It is difficult to know if the real Ireland is the team that performed abjectly in the last test in New Zealand or the team that produced a performance of verve and vigour against Argentina.
Kidney has made some big calls this year; appointing Jamie Heaslip as captain over the legendary Brian O’Driscoll and selecting the exciting inexperienced Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo on the wing for the first game against Wales.
Ireland on their day are capable of hurting anyone and have the best out half in the competition in Jonny Sexton. Concerns persist about the match fitness of Brian O’Driscoll and the absence of the incomparable Paul O’Connell is an enormous loss. The Munster titan ensured that the Irish pack was feared and the Irish line-out an offensive weapon.
Lately the line out has looked shaky and the terrible Irish scrum has long been the Achilles heel of this squad.
Key player: Jonny Sexton. If he brings his Leinster form to the green jersey, Ireland are in a good place. At his best, there is no better out half to get a line moving and Sexton is a running out half, with a break that keeps opposing defences on their toes.
Key match: England in Dublin
Prediction: Second. Ireland will beat Wales, England, Scotland and Italy but will find a very strong France too hot to handle. The pack isn’t good enough to win the Grand Slam and Ireland have not effectively replaced David Wallace but a triple crown is a live possibility.
The hoariest cliché in European sport is that you never know what French team will turn-up. After all, France lost to Tonga in the World Cup, didn’t deserve to qualify for the knock-out stages, were extremely fortunate to beat 14-man Wales and were then robbed by New Zealand in the final in Auckland by a disgraceful refereeing performance.
France looked in fine form during the Autumn Internationals and are currently the most impressive of all European sides. If they perform any way near their potential they should win this year’s championship if not take the grand slam.
Key match: England
Key player: Morgan Parra
Prediction: First. The French will beat Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy but may struggle against England in "Le Crunch." Still, they should win the Championship on superior points’ difference. They are the best team in Europe
The reigning grand slam champions who played so well in the 2011 World Cup were dismal in the Autumn Internationals, albeit with a much-improved performance in the last game against Australia. The net result was they were knocked out of the second tier of rugby nations and are now languishing in ninth place in the World rankings.
Still, confidence is never a problem with the Welsh—even when they look appalling, they are never disabused of the notion that it’s not the 1970s and they are not world beaters anymore.
To be fair, there were mitigating factors for their recent performances—a nasty accident to coach Warren Gatland put him out of action and they suffered many injuries to key players. Losing one world-class second row is unfortunate, losing three is just plain careless. They are not nearly as poor as they looked when whitewashed last autumn. Then again, they weren’t as good as they looked when they won an extremely fortuitous grand slam last season. Their backline is still exciting and capable of running great lines, but their pack is very weak.
Key player: Mike Phillips. A real in your face physical scrum-half, Phillips has changed the template for international scrumhalves.
Key match: Ireland in Cardiff.
Prediction: Fourth. Wales will struggle against England and France with a weakened pack. First day out against Ireland is very important for Wales—lose that and their season will unravel.
The Scots will sing their anthem proudly—the bag pipers will play, the fireworks will explode in Edinburgh and then they will lose woefully. One big, brave losing performance against France or England is the height of their ambitions.
The Scots have three good players and 12 players that should be relegated to playing club rugby. The Autumn Internationals reinforced the abject state of Scottish rugby and the woeful performance of Edinburgh in the ERC has added to this impression. Italy have passed them out and will likely condemn Scotland to the wooden spoon.
Key player: Richie Gray—The Scots' most effective ball carrier last season and the one truly world class Scot.
Key match: Italy
Prediction: Wooden Spoon
Some competitive performances in the Autumn Internationals showed Italian rugby is developing, but not at the pace we might have expected. Still the Italians look superior to Scotland. They may trouble Wales too.
Key player: Sergio Parisse
Key match: Wales
Prediction: Fifth. Will beat Scotland.
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