WITH last Autumn’s World Cup now a distant memory, attention turns to the Six Nations.
This year’s competition will see the Northern Hemisphere sides aim to right the wrongs of a World Cup Campaign that saw all six sides bow out before the semi-final stage.
Here Cardiffian sports writer Steffan Thomas assesses each sides chances.
Strengths: Normally sides would know exactly what they were going to get before facing England. However, with a new man at the helm in the form of former Japanese coach Eddie Jones, England’s unpredictability may be their biggest strength. Undoubtedly the Red Rose will be very difficult to contain upfront, but if Jones can get the best out of a talented back division then his reign may well start with silverware.
Weakness: During Stuart Lancaster’s reign the auld enemy were always vulnerable at the breakdown, with former captain Chris Robshaw, for all his qualities, not a natural fetcher. It is unclear how Eddie Jones will approach this area, but England need to develop an out and out seven in the Sam Warburton mould.
Key Player: Dylan Hartley – The volatile Hartley was a controversial selection as England captain given his poor disciplinary record. However, the Northampton Saints hooker is a powerful scrummager, with his ability to find his targets at the lineout also crucial.
Strengths: Similar to the English, Les Bleus have a new coach at the helm in the shape of former Toulouse boss Guy Noves. The unpredictability of the French has historically made them near impossible to prepare for. However, the tumultuous reign of Phillipe-Saint Andre saw the French achieve the wrong type of consistency, with their national side moving from one disaster to another. During his time in charge of Toulouse, Noves’ side was renowned for their expansive, off the cuff style of rugby. If the French can rediscover their roots then they could become a force to be reckoned with.
Weaknesses: Arguably the biggest error of Saint-Andre’s reign was his inability to find a settled half back partnership. The half-back’s are the lifeblood of any side, with Les Bleus in need of a general at 10 to unleash a dangerous set of outside backs.
Key Player: Maxime Machenaud – The Racing 92 scrum half is a real livewire, with an astute tactical game and is also a renowned goal kicker. Could potentially be the general the French so desperately need.
Strengths: Despite being limited due to their lack of quality out wide, the Azzuri do possess a ferocious pack of forwards. Lead by the magnificent Sergio Parisse, the Italian pack can more than hold it’s own in the tight exchanges.
Weaknesses: They may have a strong set of forwards, but the same cannot be said of their back division, with the Italians desperately lacking in quality behind the scrum. Goal kicking is another problem for Jacque Brunel’s side, with their inability to turn pressure into points effectively ruling them out of contention.
Key player: Sergio Parisse – Who else? The history books will surely remember the 112 times capped international as one of the finest players to have graced the field.
Strengths: The Irish enter this tournament bidding for their third Six Nations title in a row. Under the helm of the tactically astute Joe Schmidt, the Irish have proven to be experts at exploiting opposition weaknesses. Unlike the French, the men in green have far more direction with the half-back combination of Connor Murray and Jonathan Sexton arguably being the finest in European rugby.
Weaknesses: Since the retirement of the legendary Brian O’Driscoll the Irish have struggled to fill the void he left behind, resulting in a lack of creativity in midfield. The retirement of iconic lock Paul O’Connell, and an injury to Ulster lock Iain Henderson may also see the Irish struggle up front.
Key Player: Jonathan Sexton – The Leinster man has struggled for form since returning to Irish rugby from a stint in France with Racing 92. However, when at his best, Sexton is a real talisman for the Irish with his tactical awareness and peripheral vision key to Irish hopes.
Strengths: The last decade has been a dark period in Scottish rugby history, with the Scots struggling to compete. However, the World Cup was an encouraging tournament for Vern Cotter’s side, with the Scots coming within a whisper of knocking eventual finalists Australia out of the competition. The predominant reason for their improvements is that they have assembled a competitive pack of forwards. With South African import William Nel anchoring the scrum and powerful ball carriers such as Johnny Gray and Josh Strauss the Scots will at the very least prove difficult to beat.
Weaknesses: Vern Cotter may have assembled a competitive set of forwards, but old weaknesses have still not been cured. The Scots have a dangerous back three, but a lack a direction and creativity in midfield is still a big problem.
Key player: Johnny Gray – The 21-year-old younger brother of fellow test lock Richie, has quietly grown in influence over the past year. An outstanding lineout forward and a powerful ball carrier, Gray the younger is a star of the future.
Strengths: It may be a fresh four-year cycle towards the next World Cup, but there is an air of familiarity around the Welsh squad. Having defied the odds, and a horrific injury list, Warren Gatland’s Wales will also be reinforced by a number of injured players. Wales are often criticised for being overly predictable, however consistency in selection and tactics is a big advantage for the Welsh this time out. With an almost impregnable defensive system and a powerful pack of forwards, the Welsh will be a very difficult side to beat which is supported by a 75% success rate in 6 Nations matches under Gatland.
Weaknesses: Wales will have no problem winning the physical battle, but they do lack creativity behind the scrum. In a World Cup pool match against Australia, Wales failed to score against 13 Australian defenders, which highlights this perceived weakness. A move away from an overly structured and regimental approach towards playing what is in front of them could see Wales move on to the next level.
Key player: Dan Biggar – The Ospreys fly-half emerged from the World Cup with the respect of the rugby world following a set of heroic performances. The 26-year-old is a master tactician, and a reliable goal kicker, who will also be tasked with unleashing a dangerous Welsh back division.
So has our sports writer got it right?
Will Wales win the Six Nations?
Have your say by voting here
Ahead of the rugby starting on Saturday… Will Wales win the #6nations?
— The Cardiffian (@cardiffian_news) February 2, 2016