Wales worthy favourties for repeat success
February 4, 2009
Who will get their hands on the Six Nations silverware this year? © Getty Images
Frank Hadden Mauro Bergamasco Mirco Bergamasco Mike Blair Steve Borthwick Sebastien Chabal Danny Cipriani Warren Gatland Andy Goode Leigh Halfpenny Gavin Henson Marc Lievremont Nick Mallett Maxime Medard Mike Phillips Clement Poitrenaud James Simpson-Daniel Mike Tindall Jonny Wilkinson
After the pre-Christmas preamble - with all due respect to the touring sides that came to the British Isles - things start to hot up this weekend with the first round of matches in the 2009 Six Nations.
Wales, who stormed to grand slam glory last year, are favourites to defend their Six Nations title, but England, Ireland and France could have something to say about that, while Scotland and Italy will be also be hoping to make a big impact.
As always, the fixture list plays a big factor in the market, and we have a preview of what we can expect from each team this time round.
If ever a side is in transition, it is England. Manager Martin Johnson has his hands full in an attempt to get them firing on all cylinders, while the absence through injury of Jonny Wilkinson and through the selectors' choice of Danny Cipriani, has shorn the side of star quality. That may not be such a bad thing - a good team is a sum of its parts after all - but if their efforts in the autumn internationals are an indicator of what is to come, it's not going to be fun to watch.
The return of Mike Tindall and Andy Goode will add experience to their back line, which will help, but with two and a half years to go until the Rugby World Cup, there is an awful long way to go if they are to compete against the world's best. Steve Borthwick is under pressure to retain his place in the side, which can't help his mental state as captain, and Johnson has been criticised for not using the likes of James Simpson-Daniel from the start in their opener against Italy. England will revert to recent type and try to dominate through their forwards, but for me, their forwards are no longer the best in the competition. Their shortage of world-class players is an obvious hindrance and I would be surprised if they don't finish down in mid-table.
I love trying to second-guess France's attitude to the Six Nations competition. Always prodigiously talented, they do disinterested like no other team, but when it comes time to Rugby World Cup year, surprise, surprise, they come good again.
On that basis, they should amble through this year's competition, but I have a feeling they will be much more focused this time as Marc Lievremont begins the slow process of building his team for the 2011 World Cup.
Their forwards are traditionally strong - led by Sebastien Chabal, a man who would put the fear of God into most people should they stray into his path - and an impressive back row, but it is in the backs where they could really shine.
A rejuvenated Clement Poitrenaud returns to the side at fullback and anyone who has seen Maxime Medard play for Toulouse this season will have been left in no doubt that here is a player who is destined for the very top. Any team that does not keep things tight and allows the play to become broken could be in for a real shock for his fleet of foot is something to admire and behold and he is equally at home on the wing, where he will play after Poitrenaud's selection.
A little bit like England in terms of their transitional stage, Ireland begin their campaign with a daunting clash with an impressive looking France team and it could be a tough championship for them this time round.
Brian O'Driscoll captains the side once more and he will need to be on top form if Ireland are to rediscover the flair that was so prominent in their strong Six Nations efforts of recent years. Together with his Leinster team-mates, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, there is plenty of talent but they have not been firing at club level of late and confidence must be an issue for Ireland this term.
Paddy Wallace will try to set up his fellow centre O'Driscoll for the kind of exhilarating bursts that he is so famous for, but with France first up and with an away trip to Wales to end with, they are up against it in terms of winning anything.
That said, victory over the French in their first match could galvanise them for another outstanding Six Nations championship and with the kicking of Ronan O'Gara, they have control when they play well. Don't think they can win, but they might not be too far away.
Italy may only have avoided the Wooden Spoon three times since they joined the competition in 2000, but there is a lot of talk coming out of the camp that this could be their time to really put the cat amongst the pigeons.
The fixture list is not in their favour - they are away to Scotland, who they would hope to beat - and then finish with home matches against Wales and France, but their confidence is definitely growing under former South Africa coach Nick Mallett.
Their strength remains in the pack, while in their back line, Mauro Bergamasco, who will play at scrum-half against England in their opening match, and his brother Mirco, at centre, lead the way, with Andrea Marcato looking like he will be able to fill the considerable boots of the retired Diego Dominguez at fly-half.
His kicking will be important to give his team time to rest and recover - they don't have the strength in depth of the other sides - but Mallett is instilling belief and they will give even the best sides a run for their money.
It is 10 years now since Scotland won this competition - the last year it was the Five Nations, before the addition of Italy - and it is hard to see anything other than another struggle for Frank Hadden's side.
Having won just one match in each of the past two championships, little is expected from Scotland this time and though that is often when they are at their most dangerous, they have to play Wales first time out and that could put them on the back foot immediately.
Captain Mike Blair, wing Thom Evans and centre Ben Cairns all show plenty of promise for the future, but the latter two in particular are still green and they will need the experience of playing in these kind of matches before hitting their peak.
Three home matches offers them some hope of more than the one win but with Italy improving, they could have to prop up the table again.
Prediction: Wooden Spoon
On the evidence of the pre-Christmas matches alone - especially their superb win over Australia - Wales would appear to be worthy favourites to win the championship again. While the likes of France and England have struggled in recent times, Wales's flair, speed and experience means that they are arguably hitting their peak as a team right now, which spells trouble for the opposition. Home matches against England and Ireland give them an advantage, while their trip to France in round three could prove to be a winner-takes-all encounter.
The return from injury of Gavin Henson and Mike Phillips shows their strength in depth, while number eight Andy Powell looks something of a revelation in a settled pack and Leigh Halfpenny has shown real pace and aptitude on the wing. Halfpenny could be a star of the championship and he could easily be a good each-way bet to be the overall top tryscorer at 14/1 with bet365.
The worry for Wales fans will be that they may be complacent going into their first match against Scotland at Murrayfield, but I don't think coach Warren Gatland will allow that to happen.
A pleasure to watch when their backs start to fly, Wales are the side to beat and to be frank, 2/1 is not that bad a price.