Strathclyde Telegraph

Six Nations Preview

By Stephen McIlkenny

 

 

WALES – The semi-finalists of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and arguably the team that have the closest team spirit in the competition. Wales’ fans were united for the semi-final and crammed into the Millennium Stadium to see their loss to six-nations rivals France by a point. The Welsh side may see the return of captain Matthew Rees after Sam Warburton was given the captaincy following the injury of Rees. Warburton was controversially sent off in the semi-final with many fans feeling aggrieved at the dismissal. The bookies have them joint second favourites with England, but with them playing France in the last week of the tournament, in Wales, a packed Millennium stadium could decide where the trophy goes. However, with the retirement of Shane Williams, The welsh may lack an edge going forward.

ENGLAND – A shocking World Cup performance from the English saw Head Coach Martin Johnson removed from his position and temporary coach Stuart Lancaster take over for the upcoming tournament. This is a true transition period for English rugby and their players. Lancaster will be anxious to show he can take on the role permanently, whilst the players will want to eradicate the memory of the World Cup which saw the English put on several lacklustre displays and saw headlines on the back pages for the wrong reasons. Johnson’s lack of discipline shone through with players often out past designated curfews and being spotted in nightclubs. With numerous changes to the squad, it will be crucial to get the campaign off to a good start, although, at Murrayfield many Scottish fans will be hoping that is not the case.

IRELAND – Ireland looked impressive at the start of the World Cup. Wins over Australia, Six-Nations rivals Italy, Russia and the USA were morale boosting with many touting the Irish for at least a semi-final spot. However, they were brushed aside in an unconvincing display against the Welsh. The Ireland squad may have numerous issues to worry about with their all-time top try scorer Brian O’Driscoll not in the squad due to injury. This in turn has led to the Irish appointing Paul O’Connell as captain.

SCOTLAND – It was a historical World Cup for Scotland – the worst in their competitive history. Failing to make it to the last 16 for the first time ever was due to a lack of firepower up top and a string of defensive errors. Scotland scraped by Romania in the first match, and were not aided by the winds that saw Chris Patterson’s usually assured kicking falter somewhat. If games finished in the 78th minute Scotland would have been top of their group, instead a mistake in the last two minutes in a game against Argentina and a weak England team saw them finish third and miss out on qualification. Patterson announced his international retirement earlier in the season, and therefore kicking will probably fall onto the less assured boot of Dan Parks. Andy Robinson, however, has stayed on as coach, but with Scotland being 16/1 to win the tournament and facing an ever-improving Italy in Rome, many pundits argue that the Scots may be on course for the wooden spoon.

FRANCE – The runners-up of the World Cup in New Zealand. The French certainly did not do it in style, but instead ground out results. An easy group was made difficult by the French, and a shock defeat from Tonga was certainly not on the script for the coaching team. The favourites for the tournament may not be the safest bet, with other teams possibly on the rise as France hits a bit of a decline. Only time will tell, however, much depends on the clash with Wales, and the squad selection of the French, and indeed what French team decides to show up. Pundits and fans alikewere left perplexed by the squad selection for certain matches and the serious attitude problem shown by some of the French players.

ITALY- Once seen as the whipping boys of the tournament, there can now be no doubt that teams do not like traveling to Rome. The Italians had a poor World Cup but still looked strong going forward with exceptional pace and attacking play. The kicking of the Italians needs to be improved if they are serious about making inroads into the tournament and often were destroyed by organised teams, such as Ireland.

STEPHENS PREDICTIONS

Predicted Winners – WALES

Dark Horses  – SCOTLAND

Potential Flop – ENGLAND

There is no doubt that Wales will be up for a revenge match against France but it is how they perform against the other teams that could affect their fate. France have a major attitude problem that must be sorted. As well as that, the French do struggle at the Stade de France, especially if things aren’t going their way and the crowd begin to turn. The Welsh on the other hand will be buoyed by the World Cup display and hopeful with the massive interest in the sport to take the trophy home. There is no doubt that it will be close between France and Wales

Scotland were not impressive during the World Cup, but they were unlucky. There can be no doubt that Scotland would have qualified to the last 16 had it not been for a few awkward fumbles and shoddy defending. The simple fact is that Scotland struggle to get it over the time, and with kicking no doubt a lesser weapon with the loss of Patterson, the Scots will have to hope that they have improved their attack. Scotland may get a result against Italy, and possibly England at home. In a tournament many have predicted Scotland may not win a game, I think they may do better. However, there can be no doubt that if Scotland start off badly then the Italians in Rome may be a saving pride game.

England need to come up with the goods but with the squad constantly changing and the lack of experience in coaching, I have no doubt that England will not get near the cup. They have the skills and the players to turn it on, if they choose and they do have a point to prove but I feel France, Wales and Ireland are all potentially superior. The Twickenham atmosphere will be very vital.

February 4: France v Italy, 2.30pm and Scotland v England, 5pm

February 5: Ireland v Wales, 3pm

February 11: Italy v England, 4pm and France v Ireland, 8pm

February 12: Wales v Scotland, 3pm

February 25: Ireland v Italy, 1.30pm and England v Wales, 4pm

February 26: Scotland v France, 3pm

March 10: Wales v Italy, 2.30pm and Ireland v Scotland, 5pm

March 11: France v England, 3pm

March 17: Italy v Scotland 12.30pm, Wales v France, 2.45pm and England v Ireland, 5pm

* All games are live on the BBC.} else {