So it begins. After an unbearable year-long wait, the sparkling highlight of Northern Hemisphere rugby is upon us once more. For those of you who’ve been hankering after more Six Nations action ever since March last year – the wait is over.
And what a difference a year makes. The 2012 Grand Slam champions Wales limp into the fray after a string of international defeats, while England, a cluster of emerging talent last year, are still buzzing from a historic autumn victory over the All Blacks. We take a look at the state of this year’s six contenders ahead of the tournament’s opening weekend.
England certainly haven’t made life easy for themselves with their odds-defying win against New Zealand in December. Coach Stuart Lancaster’s side will be desperate to prove that their 38-21 victory wasn’t just a fluke victory as they go into this year’s tournament. Injuries to pivotal players including Alex Corbisiero and Manu Tuilagi have hampered Lancaster’s selection plans, but a raft of promising players in the squad should ensure a dynamic effort from this England side.
Captain: Chris Robshaw came under fire for some of his decision making in the earlier heartbreakingly close Autumn international defeats, but Lancaster has retained his faith in the Harlequins man. After leading his side to a deserved runner up spot in last year’s tournament, the flanker will be looking to go one better this year.
Key players: Spot-on kicking, strong leadership and defensive intelligence from Owen Farrell are a must, with the Saracens kicker now the preferred option at ten ahead of Toby Flood. England will also be counting on continued outstanding form in the front row from Dan Cole and smart leadership from Geoff Parling in the line-out to give the pack the upper hand.
Newcomers: Gloucester’s Billy Twelvetrees has thrived since escaping the shadow of Toby Flood at Leicester and will be looking to fight his way to his first cap and a place in the strong backs line up. Amongst the forwards, Joe Launchbury, Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola all made an impression in the Autumn and will provide fresh exciting talent in their first Six Nations tournament.
If the Autumn is anything to go by, the French are on fine fiery form going into this tournament. Studded with players from some of the Top Fourteen’s most formidable clubs, coach Philippe Saint Andre has a superb talent pool to choose from. Les Bleus face some tough clashes at Twickenham, the Stadio Olimpico and the Aviva Stadium, but if they take the away disadvantage in their stride they’ll be a tough side to beat.
Captain: French skipperPascal Pape inherited the captaincy for the Autumn internationals, with the mighty Thierry Dusautoir out through injury. After leading the side to three consecutive victories, Pape reaps the rewards and keeps the captaincy. Expect a sterling performance from the Stade Francais man as he leads a convincingly experienced side.
Key players: Frédéric Michalak will be key to French success, be it in the scrum half or fly half position, as he pulls on the blue shirt almost eleven years after making his debut for Les Bleus. Also expect Toulouse star Louis Picamoles to make a formidable impact in the scrum.
Newcomers: Saint Andre has opted for a formidably experienced squad, with an enviable number of caps between them, but Romain Taofifenua is certainly a name to watch. The hulking Perpignan lock has been in formidable form for his club and at 22 years old is very much in his prime. After earning just one cap over the summer, he’ll be yearning to make a mark in the tournament.
How far away that 2009 Grand Slam must seem to Ireland these days. With former legends like Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara now firmly in the twilight of their careers, coach Declan Kidney is looking to newer talents to resurrect the national side’s pride. After finishing the last two tournaments in mediocre third position, the men in green have something to prove this year.
Captain: Despite talismanic Brian O’Driscoll coming back from injury to make the squad, Kidney has opted for Jamie Heaslip as Ireland skipper. At 34, O’Driscoll won’t feature in the next World Cup, meaning that Ireland must begin looking further afield for a long term leader – something they seem to have found in the Leinster Number 8.
Key players: Captain or not, Brian O’Driscoll remains an inspirational figure in guiding Ireland to victory. In the pack, Cian Healy brings considerable experience to the front row, while Jonny Sexton will look to cement his bid for a spot on the Lions tour with an impressive performance at fly half.
Newcomers: Much-acclaimed winger Simon Zebo starts in his first Six Nations match and will be looking to make an impact playing alongside the vast experience of O’Driscoll and Darcy. His rampant try scoring in the Heineken Cup this year are an indication of just how much damage he can do on the wing.
Aside from a well-earned fourth place finish in 2007, Italy inevitably find themselves battling it out for fifth and last place with Scotland. But after some promising Autumn performances and a place in the world top ten secured, Italy will undoubtedly be looking to defy their critics and topple their higher-ranked rivals.
Captain: As any pundit will tell you, Italian captain Sergio Parisse remains one of the most extraordinary number 8s currently playing in either hemisphere. Italy will look to their star player and captain to lead them to one of the shock victories they are so eminently capable of.
Key players: Italy will be without either of the iconic Bergamasco brothers this year, but experienced players including London Wasps full back Andrea Masi and veteran props Martin Castrogiovanni and Lorenzo Cittadini remain firm favourites among dedicated Italian fans.
Newcomers: With former prop legend Carlos Nieto now out of the international picture, Alberto de Marchi will look to add to his handful of caps in the front row. Zebre flanker Paolo Buso may also get the chance to add to his solitary appearance if selected to play.
Left in turmoil with the departure of head coach Andy Robinson late last year, Scotland find themselves in an undeniable period of transition under the guidance of interim Aussie coach Scott Johnson. With ten uncapped players in the Six Nations squad and a new coaching team in place, few expect any real success from this year’s Scottish outfit. While the instability may prove too much, it also means we’ll see a squad playing with nothing to lose – and who knows what that will render them capable of.
Captain: With former captain Ross Ford starting on the bench, it falls to flanker Kelly Brown to lead Scotland after fighting his way back to fitness following a serious leg injury before last year’s tournament. With this many inexperienced players on the field, it’s a big ask for the Saracens man, but with the squad featuring 19 players from the same club (Glasgow) he can at least hope for some cohesion between his men.
Key Players: Despite being just 20 years old, full back Stuart Hogg made an immediate impact in last year’s tournament, including a memorable try against France – a presence he’ll wish to recreate this year. Expect Johnnie Beattie and Alasdair Strokosch to make up a formidable back row alongside Brown in the scrum, with Richie Gray (and his hair) another crucial presence on the field.
Newcomers: All eyes will be on winger Tim Visser, the Dutch-born newly-adopted Scot who roared into Scottish hearts with two tries on his debut against Fiji in November, followed by two more against the mighty All Blacks. On the other wing, Sean Maitland is another exciting new talent as he makes his debut for Scotland this tournament.
Last year’s Grand Slam title must feel like a lifetime ago to the Welsh squad by now. Battered by seven consecutive defeats since then, most excruciatingly to Samoa back in November, Wales have felt the loss of their coach Warren Gatland to Lions duty all too keenly. Interim coach Rob Howley has a wealth of exceptional players at his disposal, but still struggles to recreate the spark which saw his side storm to victory last year.
Captain: Sam Warburton clings to the captaincy, despite a marked decline in form at club and international level since his inspirational leadership at the World Cup. With Welsh morale at a low ebb thanks to successive defeats and the absence of some key players, Warburton will have his work cut out for him in leading his team to redemption.
Key Players: Wales still boast some of the most talented players in Europe, many highly deserving of a place on this year’s Lions tour. The sheer bulk and power of George North and Jamie Roberts in the backs will intimidate opposition, while Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Gethin Jenkins are a formidable and vastly experienced force in the front row.
Newcomers: Dan Biggar will be Wales’ main option at fly half, despite his relative inexperience, with Welsh fans hoping the 23 year old Ospreys half back is up to the challenge. Second row Andrew Coombs also gets his first taste of the international game this tournament.