Six Questions for The Six Nations

An assessment of what the six european teams face in this year’s upcoming Six Nations tournament.

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With the World Cup now a fading memory attention turns to the upcoming Six Nations. This year is set to be yet another unpredictable one and several teams will see it as a chance to answer the critics, (we’re looking at you England). Let us also not forget that for the Home Nations this is the first audition for next year’s Lions tour. So without further ado I have earmarked six important questions that face the teams heading into the tournament in less than a month. 
1)      Qui sont les Français?
It is a question that is asked every year and in fact probably before every game the French play. In the last few years the French have faced an identity crisis not helped by their maverick coach Lievremont who seemed to be trying to emulate the old fashioned English way of grunting forward power. With Phillipe Saint-Andre as the new coach the future does look brighter for the French although let us not forget that this is a team that could have and some have claimed (myself included) should have beaten the All Blacks in the World Cup Final. Saint-Andre has an impressive CV with a track record of producing good attacking rugby and this is a French team with a lot of talent. However it comes down to the players to decide which team is going to turn up. The core of the team remains the same from the World Cup but the French are one of the few sides in the World being capable of beating the best but losing to Italy and Tonga in the same breath. The relationship between the players and the coaches will be essential to France’s success. Here’s hoping for a return to good old French flair.

Can Phillippe Saint-Andre unite Les Bleus?

2)      Can Ireland survive without O’Driscoll?
What I’m about to say may sound ludicrous, ridiculous or in fact completely insane. But I am going to say it anyway. Brian O’Driscoll’s injury is one of the best things to happen for Irish rugby in a while. Okay fine, shoot me, call me crazy but I stand by it. Yes he is Ireland’s talisman and yes he still is easily one of their best players and still one of the best centres in the world. But he’s not going to be around forever. This year gives Ireland an opportunity to try some different combinations and perhaps cap some younger players in a bid to find O’Driscoll’s successor. For this Six Nations however I won’t be too surprised to see Keith Earls popping up in the outside centre berth. Of course whilst this gives Ireland an opportunity to find an eventual replacement they also face the tough task of playing without their talisman. If Ireland can pull through this adversity they will be stronger for it. Regarding O’Driscoll I hope to see him pull through this latest injury and get back to his best ideally making the Lions tour in 2013. He is one of the greats of the game and deserves a good Lions tour after the last two have been marred by injury.

O’Driscoll misses the tournament through injury

3)      Were the Welsh just a flash in the pan?
Many will remember at the recent world cup that it was the Welsh who stole many people’s hearts. They were one of the few teams that showed any real attacking flair and really should have made the final. They benefitted from Gatland’s decision to favour youth and coming out of the World Cup they should have real ambitions to nab the Six Nations. Anything less will be a disappointment. It is important to note that the Welsh still have a tendency of losing the big games. In the World Cup they lost against both South Africa and France in games that they should have won. Their two recent games against Australia are also contests that whilst not as meaningful as the other two tests were games that Wales still could have feasibly won. There is no certainty that the Welsh will be anywhere near the same level that they were in the World Cup but it is up for Gatland and his team to prove that their performance was not just a flash in the pan. With the youth of this side they could establish a dynasty like the Welsh teams of old. If Gatland gets the next four years right the Welsh could be very serious contenders at the next World Cup. If the boys from the valleys turn up they should be favourites for this Six Nations. A special mention must also go to Shane Williams who has of course retired from International Rugby. Even though his skills were unique and the rugby world will be poorer for his absence the Welsh do have enough depth to cover his departure.

Can players like George North build on their World Cup success?

4)      Should Italy have retained Nick Mallett?  Italy is the second team that enters the tournament with a new coach in the form of Jacques Brunel. Former coach of Perpignan and and assistant coach with Les Bleus he doesn’t have the CV or recognition of a Mallett. Statistically the decision to not retain Mallett perhaps was the correct one. His win percentage was half of that of Berbizier and John Kirwan and also failed to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup a target that Italy had set themselves. However, under Mallett Italy were showing improvements with the thrilling win over France a definite highlight. Brunel’s task will be to turn Italy’s close defeats into victories and make Italy a real competitive force in the Six Nations. The national squad and will no doubt benefit from the inclusion of Treviso and Aironi in the Rabodirect Pro 12 with Treviso making good strides in the tournament. If Brunel cannot deliver at a minimum good performances and perhaps a win over Scotland the question will be asked whether letting a coach of Mallet’s stature and experience go really was the right decision.

Jacques Brunel, Italy’s new head coach

5)      Can Scotland be anything more than plucky losers?
It seems that every year Scotland are tagged as dark horses for the tournament yet never deliver. I will not be surprised to see many journalists awarding them this tag this year again. Under Andy Robinson this team has certainly improved but it cannot be forgotten that the recent World Cup was their worst showing ever as they failed to reach the quarter finals. It will frustrate the Scots further that they were the better side against both Argentina and England but on both occasions were undone by late tries. And that in short describes their plight. Scotland will never be able to compete consistently with the best until they learn how to reach the try line. They have some talented backs with Max Evans top of that list and Dutchman Tim Visser will probably be pulling on the thistle at some point in the next few years. They have some exciting future prospects including Duncan Weir at fly half who could turn out to be the solution and not Ruaridh Jackson. The youngsters have been impressing at both Glasgow and Edinburgh this year but until Scotland get past their mental barrier and find a winning culture they will always be battling for the Wooden Spoon. Scotland’s Six Nations will probably depend on how they fare against England in the first game and they need to shake the reputation of being slow starters. On a positive note for the Scots it is at Murrayfield where they have fared well against the English in recent years.

Time for Scottish young guns like Duncan Weir? (centre)

6)      Will this be a new dawn for England or more of the same?
And so onto England. England is probably the hardest team to gauge at the moment. The rugby world was shook by the shocking revelations and the fallout after the World Cup. The RFU is still in some disarray and it remains to be seen if England can cut away the cancer for good. Even if Stuart Lancaster is being viewed as an interim coach he is saying the right things. His no nonsense approach to player conduct with Danny Care as the recent example seems that he will be running a stricter regime than Johnson who entrusted a little too much trust in players that ultimately let him down. Lancaster also has claimed he is committed to a fast tempo game plan and will look to utilise England’s explosive outside backs. There is a big difference between words and transferring intentions to the field. Lancaster already has some injury issues to face with Flood set to miss the game against Scotland and possibly Tuilagi and Lawes as well. However, with Flood out and Wilkinson retired this may be an opportunity to give Owen Farrell a run-out in the number 10 shirt against Scotland. Lancaster is still yet to name his squad for the tournament and this will give us a greater indication of his intentions and philosophy. England are facing a lot of critics but this is a real chance for them to have a fresh chance. England need to prove they have learnt the lessons of the past and move away from the problems and the old playing style of the past. With the talent and playing resources at their disposal England should be challenging for honours every year. The aim for this Six Nations should be to identify players for the future but also offer a sturdy defence of the trophy. Despite an abysmal World Cup let us not forget that England are the defending champions. The key for Lancaster will be to find a balance between youth and experience. He is in a unique position where it is expected that he will not get the job on a fulltime basis. Therefore he faces a lot less pressure and this in turn will hopefully lead to better English performances. The key for this England team is to show that they have not been infected with the bad blood and negativity of the recent shenanigans.

Flood will miss the tournament

 Action starts on February 4th with France vs Italy (14:30) and England vs Scotland (17:00)

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