Six Nations, One Objective

It's as synonymous with springtime as the flowering of the first  daffodil. But with the toughest players in Europe playing for national pride, there won't be any flowers on offer.

 

It’s the oldest tournament in rugby, and one of the greatest traditions in team sport.

The six nations begins in just over a week’s time and with the coaches looking for an early indication of how their squads are gelling for the World Cup in France next summer.

Passionate national rivalries and the faithful pilgrimage of thousands of fans always makes for a colourful spectacle as each team goes in search of the ultimate prize, the coveted Grand Slam.

Last year, Wales warmed the hearts of rugby fans all over the world by securing their first clean sweep for 28 years, but since then stories of “injury woes” and “unexpected setbacks” have made the champions underdogs for this year’s crown.

The question being asked by commentators is not whether Wales can defend their crown, but who will take it from them.

Here are your runners and riders.

First with their hand up are the French. A brace of southern hemisphere scalps and a strong performance in the Heineken Cup from the club sides sees Les Blues start the tournament as favourites.

Traditionally strong up-front, traditionally majestic in the backs, it is only their third tradition - the ability to put in an awful performance for no apparent reason – that makes them anything less than cast iron certs for the trophy.

The return from suspension of captain Fabien Pelous with his 102 caps-worth of experience and the home advantage in their match against England means the French seem to have the title there for the taking.

Overcoming their own demons will be crucial and if they repeat last year’s shambolic performance against Scotland they might well find themselves caught out early in the competition.

With the third “grand chelem” in four years at stake, I wouldn’t bet on it. Even with the late loss of the sparkling centre Thomas Casteignede the indications are that the 2006 French vintage could be one to savour.

Also showing strong credentials are a resurgent England who’s fast improving squad suddenly looks like it might put up a fight for the World Cup next year after all.

Though some will have one eye on March 12 and “le crunch” showdown in Paris, the world champions must focus to avoid a repeat of last year’s opening three defeats that saw them become early candidates for the tournaments traditional booby prize, the wooden spoon.

As usual, England’s main weakness appears to be behind the scrum. Here, the loss of Olly Barkley will rob them of the inventiveness that their carefully drilled backs so desperately need.

More sleight of hand from coach Andy Robinson will be required to manufacture a three-quarter division to do something with the feast of possession the hefty pack looks set to provide.

That enviable unit could be further bolstered by the addition Lewis Moody who makes his return for club side Leicester this weekend. With the experience of Lawrence Dallaglio already included, Robinson is spoilt for choice in the back row, a strength-in-depth that could be a crucial advantage as the six-week tournament progresses.

After a dismal 2005 that was rounded off by a home walloping from the All Black 2nd XV, Irish players and coaches have been keen to emphasise that the World Cup next year is their primary focus.

Nevertheless, this year’s 6 nations will give a strong indication of how the rebuilding is progressing and there is still an outside chance of the Irish mounting a challenge for the silverware.

The squad selected for their first game points to youth over experience. Most notably, 55 cap veteran Shane Byrne has been left out exposing a possible weakness in the front row.

Blooding uncapped hooker Jerry Flannery in the first match against Italy runs the risk of turning an early confidence booster into a miserable day for the backs, as the Italians will surely be looking to put pressure on up front.

Nevertheless Lion tourist Paul O’Connell returns to bolster the pack and if they can get control of the ball, Denis Hickie’s pace and the strong, elusive running of captain Brian O’Driscol l look set to trouble any defence in the competition.

Playing France and England away (the latter on St Patrick’s weekend) makes this year a tall order for the men in green, but a solid display from this young squad will give the coach Eddie O’Sullivan something to build on for the big one next year. It has been a good 10 years since Scotland fans could look upon the six nations with anything other than dread and this year’s tournament offers little cause for optimism. T

hough the internal restructuring that has taken place north of the border appears to be reaching a successful conclusion, and they ran an out-of-sorts New Zealand close for an hour in November, meaningful international victories are still as rarely seen as the Loch Ness Monster.

New coach Frank Hadden has recalled Leeds fly-half Gordon Ross to the squad to complicate his midfield equation and a pledge from former British Lion Scot Murray to stay in the country would have pleased the tartan army.

However, unless the Scots can summon a performance to cause an upset against the French on the opening weekend, and silence the doubters, it looks like being a long tournament for a team who’s last Grand Slam was in 1990.

Perennial also-rans Italy will be looking to bounce back from a wooden spoon last year that spelt the end for coach John Kirwan. For the team that everyone wants to win more often, just not against their side, the target remains two victories, double their record return to date in the competition that they have now achieved four times.

There is talent in the squad that new coach Pierre Berbizier has selected, notably in the form of the Bergamasco brothers of Stade Francais and Treviso speedster Simon Picone. Add an extremely physical pack and you have the makings of a challenging side, if only the backs could hold their defensive line, and (when they have it) the ball, for a few more phases.

The trip to Paris looks set to be the toughest day at the office for the Azuri, however they can take comfort from the fact that their participation continues to please the opposing fans.

England and Scotland supporters are this year’s beneficiaries of a weekend’s spring sunshine in Rome.

And what of the champions?

The opening encounter against England looks set to make or break the Welsh season.

There we will see if coach Mike Ruddock has managed to string together a squad capable of proving that last year’s victory was not a fluke. Indications from the regional sides disastrous showing point to a difficult year.

But if big game performers like Dwayne Peel, Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas can stay fit and manufacture a shock at Twickenham then the complexion of the tournament will change for the holders who should then fancy themselves to win through to a final showdown with France in Cardiff.

With enfant terrible Gavin Henson and powerful flanker Jonathon Thomas set to rejoin the squad later into the tournament, the men in red will gain manpower, but a bad start could make those reinforcements academic.