Planet Rugby

Six Nations: Tournament Preview

28th January 2014 15:00

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Six nations launch 2014 captains line up

Will the trophy be wrestled away from Wales?

The 15th Six Nations Championship is nearly upon us, with four teams in with a good chance for the title and Wales eyeing a hat-trick.

Read our nation-by-nation previews here:

Wales
England
Scotland
Italy
Ireland
France

Warren Gatland and his coaching staff possess the ideal combination of experience and success, with the majority of his squad being part of the Grand Slam in 2012 and the title success in 2013.

Hat-tricks in the six-team era are unprecedented. England won three in four years back in 2000-2003, France too between 2004-2007, but three straight? Not yet.

Wales have certainly been the best team around over the last two competitions, building on the foundations laid by their young squad at the 2011 Rugby World Cup when others toiled. England overhauled their squad and ethos under a new coach, Ireland's decline under Declan Kidney continued and Philippe Saint-André's reign has been chaotic. All three of those teams now are settling, offering a genuine threat to Gatland's history boys.

Ireland might have not been part of the title conversation had they not come so close to turning the world upside down with victory over the All Blacks. The manner of their loss was only so heartbreaking due to how close they came to beating New Zealand for the first time. The intensity they played with, the execution, were on a level not seen by men in green shirts for years. But can it be reproduced?

There is also the small matter of saying goodbye to Brian O'Driscoll. All the signs point towards this being the 35-year-old's final championship. The Six Nations was ultimately the making of him, his hat-trick at the Stade de France in 2000 winning him not just the respect but also affection of rugby fans the world over. That bond has only grown stronger with time and while of course national allegiances come first, the sight of O'Driscoll winning another Six Nations title wouldn't be so painful to most. Under the guidance of his old Leinster boss Joe Schmidt, you sense that Ireland's most-capped player and record try scorer has the best possible chance of bringing his glittering career to a successful close.

England's chances are also strong, built around a powerful pack that continues to impose itself on the world's best teams. If they can just create enough space and chances for their backs, the onus being on Billy Twelvetrees and Owen Farrell, then a first Six Nations title for Stuart Lancaster is within reach. England feel as if they are headed in the right direction under the former school teacher's guidance, their young squad continuing to soak up experience.

The fixture list also favours them, with their two biggest challengers in Ireland and Wales having to visit Twickenham. Home advantage in those two matches cannot be underestimated now the sides appear to be achieving parity.

Can France really be a contender for the title after finishing bottom last season? It's not entirely improbable, and their chances are certainly greater than say Scotland or Italy.

That being said, for every forward step, Saint-André's men are then pushed one back. Guaranteeing a week's release from the Top 14 ahead of the Six Nations was seen as a great victory for the national team, a chance to rest key players before the beginning of the championship and bond the squad with an extra week's worth of preparation. It just came a week after Thierry Dusautoir was ruled out of the tournament due to injury.

Certain players in the world you just cannot replace - McCaw, De Villiers, O'Driscoll, O'Connell - players of equal importance when it comes to talent and experience. Losing the 2011 IRB Player of the Year is a loss for the whole tournament, not just les Bleus. You can add to France's misfortune finally settling on a fly-half, Rémi Talès, and playing him continuously before losing him to injury for that crucial opener against England in Paris.

Why rule out Scotland and Italy? A spineless attack is Scotland's biggest flaw. Despite scoring the second highest number in last year's tournament with seven, too often Scotland lack the power or skill to unlock the best defences. That shouldn't be the case with Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg floating around in the back three, but if there is no space then Scotland's two most talented backs have few chances to express themselves.

Scotland's pack is hard-working and their set-piece solid, good enough to compete, but they just lack the execution and depth to win the whole competition. Uncertainty over who will fill the number ten jersey - Duncan Weir or Ruaridh Jackson? - is another ongoing headache.

Italy's current situation is more alarming, having regressed at a rapid speed from their wins over Ireland and France last season. The Azzurri were hapless on their June tour to South Africa and then laboured through November with only an unconvincing win over Fiji to show for their efforts.

Their forwards will always compete, but defensive frailties and ill-discipline undo their best efforts. Let us hope their performances are closer to the earlier part of last year than the rest of 2013.

Which leaves the champions. The future of the domestic game in Wales might be a shambles, the national captain Sam Warburton lambasted by Welsh supporters for signing with the WRU rather than Cardiff Blues as Leigh Halfpenny heads overseas, but Wales remain strong - even with Ian Evans suspended and Jonathan Davies and Ryan Jones injured for now. They are the favourites, have the best squad, the most creative set of players and a coaching staff who are equally bullish and inventive.

Wales will be tested - England, Ireland and possibly France will make sure of that - but Warburton's men have history in their sights. It cannot get started soon enough. Brace yourself for the annual highs and lows.

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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