No clear winner ahead of Six Nations

Date published: December 2 2013

Next year's Northern Hemisphere showpiece is difficult to call following a frustrating November Test window for all concerned.

Next year's Northern Hemisphere showpiece is difficult to call following a frustrating November Test window for all concerned.

All six nations registered wins in November but the list of victims is hardly exceptional – Tonga, Japan, Fiji, a struggling Argentina and weakened Samoa – with only one instance of a win over one of the top three sides in the world. The overall record for the Northern nations was eight games won, eleven lost.

England's victory over Australia was a rarity and gives them the ammunition with which to continue goading Wales over their dire run of 18 straight defeats against the world's top three, regardless of Warren Gatland's team having won back-to-back Six Nations titles.

Pool A at the Rugby World Cup will leave one of England, Australia and Wales out in the cold.

Heading into the Six Nations after once again failing to defeat a Southern Hemisphere giant is a familiar feeling for Wales – enough to spur them on to more success in a competition where their current record is strong, unlike against the Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks.

The return of Adam Jones, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies will be welcome, but there are other selection issues to contend with.

George North's impact at Test level is staggering, but there is an argument to move him into midfield in order to get more out of those blockbusters carries he makes so often.

Working Justin Tipuric into the back-row is an ongoing dilemma, with the combination of the Osprey and Sam Warburton working brilliantly against England back in March when Wales won 30-3.

Fly-half is an area of continuing indecision too as Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland struggle to make the jersey their own, with James Hook – a talismanic captain now at Perpignan – left watching on with 73 caps at the age of 28. Rhys Patchell also waits in the wings.

Solve the algorithm in those areas and Gatland will have an immensely strong unit at his disposal. Whether winning a record third successive title or even a Grand Slam is enough to get over the disappointment of another near-miss against the Wallabies however is hard to say.

England proved that their pack of forwards is world-class, with Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes not turning out to be as one-dimensional as expected. That is testament to Lawes' growing maturity as he begins to run England's lineout.

Alex Corbisiero is out – with his ongoing injuries a source of huge frustration – but Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler have both proved themselves in the loosehead slot. Dylan Hartley's road to redemption from his red card in the Premiership Final is nearly complete. Chris Robshaw emerged out of the Test series with his head held high.

The problem for Stuart Lancaster is his backline. Joel Tomkins bluffed his audition at outside centre and Billy Twelvetrees struggled to receive enough possession to make an impact. Owen Farrell remains too ponderous at times, while the impact of Manu Tuilagi in the centres was sorely missed.

Mike Brown though was a standout performer at full-back and has made the shirt his own, but England are now sweating on the fitness of Marland Yarde and Christian Wade with Ben Foden ruled out and Chris Ashton's form still indifferent on the wings. England still will definitely be contenders, with Wales' trip to Twickenham on March 9 circled in red.

Ironically England's best performance last month came in their only loss, the 22-30 defeat to the All Blacks, who also produced the best out of Ireland.

Joe Schmidt is working to implement a new regime and the signs are that if Ireland's pack can play to that level of intensity shown against New Zealand on a consistent basis then they will cause the opposition problems.

Rory Best is expected to be fit in time for the tournament and Ireland's pack looks solid, particularly with Sean O'Brien on the openside at his best.

The trick will be on who to select alongside Brian O'Driscoll in midfield – either the younger Luke Marshall, or Gordon D'Arcy if he can match the resurgent performance he put in against the All Blacks. Conor Murray was outstanding against New Zealand, but has to keep on producing that level of quality.

Such was the magnitude of how Ireland shook the world champions that they will be expected to contend for the title. They host Wales in Dublin, but must travel to Twickenham and Paris. In Schmidt's first year in charge, that leap from 5th to 1st may prove a step too far.

Which leaves France, Scotland and Italy – the latter two lacking enough cutting edge or consistency respectively to contend.

Les Bleus meanwhile have had an abysmal year even by their own erratic standards, defeating only Tonga and Scotland to win two matches out of 11.

The talent is there but the tactical choices made by Philippe Saint-André leave plenty to be desired, with France operating a cagey game-plan that allows for little self-expression. Against the Springboks they tried to beat them at their own game and came up short.

There is hope in the form of Sofiane Guitoune on the right wing РPerpignan's free-scoring 24-year-old Рwhilst Brice Dulin is a find at full-back. The adaption of R̩mi Tal̬s to Test rugby at fly-half is a work in progress, but it beats the inconsistency of Fr̩d̩ric Michalak.

Discarding the duo of Louis Picamoles and Maxime Médard for the Test against South Africa shows that Saint-André has complete and utter faith in his own decisions, whether they are correct or not. France have the players to win the Six Nations, but it's down to execution where they appear to fall short.

Given the right momentum and luck with injuries, arguably any one of Wales, England, Ireland and France could lift the title in the middle of next March.

The fine margins should make for a great Championship, but also shouldn't camouflage the fact that for the Six Nations the gap between themselves and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa remains significant.

by Ben Coles