The worlds best rugby competition starts this weekend when the Six Nations 2014 begins. As always there will be national bragging rights at stake and no doubt plenty of thrills and spills along the way.
Our Director of Rugby Gareth Dyer will again be providing his take on each round of games along with his predictions as to what will happen. Last year he scored a creditable 12 correct predictions from the 15 games played improving on the previous years 10 correct predictions. So the pressure is on! The comments below are Gareth’s and are not reflective of PGRFC. For those of you reading his column for the first time, you should know that he is a passionate Wales supporter so he apologises for any biased views from the outset!
“Well it’s my favourite part of the rugby calendar. The Six Nations is an amazing competition and one that raises the nationalist passions of all European rugby supporters. This promises to be one of the most open tournaments in years (I believe any one of four teams have a realistic chance of winning the title). It’s also the year after a Lions tour and in the past this has given the French an edge with the Four Home Unions teams deemed to be not as fresh as would be the case in other years. Even so it will take something pretty special for France to go from the Wooden Spoon to Championship aces inside 12 months.
It’s the penultimate 6N prior to next year’s World Cup. The coaches will have one eye on their build up to RWC 2015 and it is this elongated run in that may shape some selections and their respective approach over the coming weeks. So what’s my take on the health of the six teams as the tournament begins:-
England – The pack is starting to develop into a formidable unit but the need for a sharper cutting edge behind the scrum remains. Forced by injuries to look at younger options in the backs, Stuart Lancaster will hope that Billy Twelvetrees can provide the midfield class that has been missing since the days of Will Greenwood. An opening day win is a must if they are to build on a promising display against New Zealand.
France – Well who knows? They were very poor through most of 2013 and there seems to be a lack of cohesion between the coach and his players. Is the money rich French club game and all its international signings having such a negative impact on the performances of the French national team? The loss of Dusautoir is massive. The opening day game against England is huge for a team that is starting to get used to losing.
Ireland – There should be genuine excitement about the Irish after their last gasp defeat against New Zealand in November. The regions are going well in the Heineken Cup but Ireland have flattered to deceive before. The backs still look too lightweight whilst the loss of Sean O’Brien and the lack of form for Jonny Sexton are big obstacles that need to be overcome. They will need to employ the “Leinster wit” developed by new coach Schmidt to overcome their shortage of big ball carriers.
Italy – Whilst they are hard to beat they often struggle to win. Last years campaign showed promise of a more adventurous approach and wins over France & Ireland and a close defeat to England showed promise. Will target their home games as their away form has too often been found wanting.
Scotland – They have a decent pack but the lack of discipline (Jim Hamilton anyone?) and the shortage of basic skills at the highest level means they don’t score enough tries. They have to find a way of getting Messrs Hogg, Maitland and Lamont into their attacking game more. Have they found a midfield to do this?
Wales – going for an unprecedented third successive championship. They have a settled side that is experienced and physical. European rugby holds no fears for them given their record over the last 8 seasons but its time for Wales to add some much needed subtlety to their game. It’s only if they do this will they finally start to become realistic contenders on the bigger stage.
Wales vs Italy
Turning to the first weekend of games, it all starts in Cardiff when the defending champions face Italy. On paper this is the perfect start for Wales. They are notoriously slow starters and will want to get some form and momentum before a tough trip to Dublin in round two. Italy (whilst much improved in last season’s campaign) suffered a negative Autumn series in terms of results with just a narrow win over Fiji (during which the islanders lost all control to only have 11 players on the pitch at one stage) in the W column. The Azzuri pack is physical but is ageing and can the Italian backs create and execute enough try scoring opportunities? Parisse will always be a key player but Orquera at fly half really needs to build on a promising tournament last year. Wales are missing the likes of Jonathan Davies and Ian Evans but still have most of their main men in good working order. Overall I think Wales will have far too much firepower and will win with something to spare. Wales by 15-17.
France vs England
The result in Paris could define what both England and France can realistically expect from the tournament overall. An England win will see them installed as favourites for the title with both Ireland and Wales to travel to Twickenham. An English defeat and suddenly a second consecutive away game in Edinburgh looks a tougher assignment. With the likes of Flood, Tuiliagi, Foden, Yarde and Wade all unavailable it will take a brave coach to not only blood some younger backs but also give them the licence to go out and play. Lancaster has tended to be more structured in his approach and I think he will set England up to give little away this weekend. France were woeful last season and again look disjointed. Their selection at half back will be crucial whilst the loss through injury of captain Thierry Dusautoir could be a hammer blow. The French players don’t seem to have warmed to Saint-Andre despite some optimistic noises about their chances this weekend coming out of their training camp. I predict a war of attrition rather than a try fest. It could come down to the kickers in which case I will take England to win by 3-6.
Ireland vs. Scotland
The final game of the weekend is in Dublin where Scotland are the visitors. Ireland have struggled with the Scots in recent years and will be well aware of what happened at Murrayfield last season. This could be the best game of the weekend with both teams looking to apply a more fluid approach to attack. I think the confidence gained from the All Black game will see Ireland hit the ground running and whilst Scotland will give it a go, I think the Irish team’s greater attacking potency will see them come through to win. A good number of points overall but Ireland to win by 8-9.