With the first and certainly the plum fixture of the weekend taking place at the Millennium Stadium tonight, here are some thoughts on this year’s six nations tournament.
Ireland is apparently the favourite, with England close behind. Unfortunately, owing to the lack of depth, Ireland is not likely to live up to the bookies’ enthusiastic appraisal. Despite a wonderful set of results in the autumn internationals, the Irish begin the tournament without Heaslip, Healy and Sexton, all absolutely vital to their cause. That should not trouble them greatly against Italy, even playing away but Sexton’s continuing problems with concussion must be creating huge anxiety, not only for this tournament but for the World Cup too. Their shortage of class replacements is highlighted by the selection, for this game, of loose forward O’Brien, who has played almost no rugby since his long term injury. Kearney, Bowe and Zebo make a potent back three, the centre combination in the post O’Driscoll/D’Arcy era is useful, O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Best are all world class forwards but Ireland without Sexton is a side at least 20% less effective.
England should probably be six nations favourites, although they are particularly hard hit by injuries. Farrell, Tuilagi, Morgan, Lawes, Wilson, Launchbury, Parling, Barritt, Eastmond and Tom Wood are all missing for the visit to Wales. With a settled combination, Wales will expect to win this match but an upset will be a big boost for England and make them firm favourites for the title. None of the other teams has anything like the resources of the English. Even missing their best three locks for this game, they are able to put a solid second row on the field. The tight phases remain considerable weapons for them and there are still quality backs such as Mike Brown. On the outside, especially against Wales, weaknesses could be exploited if the Welsh are bold enough to ensure North and Cuthbert get the ball. As the tournament progresses, England will need to add aspects to their play outside forward dominance. In the World Cup, against southern hemisphere teams, the forwards will not be enough.
On paper, Wales look a good team but whether they have the sort of mental strength of the wonderful sides of the seventies is doubtful. With the addition of Webb at scrum half, the back line looks complete and very dangerous. Biggar must be the flyhalf at the world cup and outside him he has terrific three quarters. The loose trio of Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau is top class but much will depend on the front five. If they can match fire with fire against the old enemy tonight, Wales should be feeling well satisfied.
The most difficult team in world rugby to analyse is always the French. So unpredictable and so much a team of moods, nobody ever knows what to expect from the French. Two South Africans, Kockott and Spedding, make their starting debuts tomorrow and the Kockott/Lopez combination is the 14th halfback pairing of the Saint Andre era. After missing the whole of the 2014 campaign, Dusautoir is back and is part of a useful back three in the scrum. Bastareaud and Fofana are a dangerous centre pairing and there is pace out wide. France need to win at home against Scotland but whatever happens, we will probably be none the wiser as to the future possibilities for the French.
Scotland boast their best balanced team for many years. The tight five is impressive with Murray, Ford and Dickinson in the front row, backed by the very large Gray brothers at lock. Unusually for the Scots, they have pace and size on the wings in Visser and Seymour and the elusive Hogg at the back. However, once the injuries set in, the lack of depth will be exposed. As always, they will play close to their potential.
Italy are likely to be the whipping boys of the tournament. Only the admirable Sergio Parisse and the aging Castrogiovanni are world class. They will probably front up in the pack but are likely, as always, to find the going tough at the back, where they do not possess sufficient, pace, size or skill to bother the best.
It is a fairly open tournament this year and there are probably four sides that can win it.