Assessing the Six Nations contenders
January 29, 2014
The Six Nations has been painted red in the last two years © PA Photos
The 120th annual battle of northern hemisphere supremacy kicks off on Saturday and ESPN brings you the state of play before the first ball is kicked in anger.
This is a key championship for Stuart Lancaster and his team. England have won just one Six Nations since 2003, a poor return for a rugby superpower. Much talk has been made of England's culture, pride in the shirt and the like but mere mutterings are not enough anymore, results are essential.
England crashed to a heavy defeat in the final game of last year's competition © Getty Images
Last year's competition ended with a humbling 30-3 thrashing at the hands of Wales and you get the feeling England and the coaches are still smarting from that lesson.
Since that fateful day, England have won two Tests in Argentina but fell to a home defeat to New Zealand. Plenty of promise has been shown, but the ruthless class of Sir Clive Woodward's 2003 elite still seems to be out of reach but they do have the ability to win the tournament this time around.
A win against France in the opening match and players and supporters alike will feel the Championship is there for the taking. However, a loss in the Stade de France and Lancaster's men may struggle to rouse themselves. The World Cup on home soil is 20 games away for Lancaster's men, it is the time to find some form.
Key Player: Dan Cole has more pressure on him at present than normal. With fellow tight-head Davey Wilson crocked for the first couple of games, if Cole goes down then they have the inexperienced Henry Thomas waiting in the wings.
Area to watch: The centres have proved to be a problem in the past with little continuity found there. With Luther Burrell, Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees available - with Manu Tuilagi injured and Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph doing their best to hammer at the selection door - Lancaster has plenty of options.
Odds: England are second favourites to lift the trophy at 9/4. A Grand Slam? Well that's priced at 6/1.
Les Bleus have not been playing well recently. They experienced that winning feeling just twice in 2013 - against Scotland and Tonga - and finished at the foot of the Six Nations log last term.
Times have been grim for France fans lately © Getty Images
It must be an immensely frustrating experience being a supporter of the tricolour. They have an incredible array of talent at their disposal from one through to fifteen and clubs brimming with funds to develop their infrastructure and give the French players a chance to turn out alongside some of the world's premier talents.
That old cliché of the unpredictable French is never more relevant than now. If they find a swagger and some confidence they could sweep the Grand Slam. If things go against them and the team gets their collective back up, they could crash in a fashion similar to last year. If the latter happens, coach Philippe Saint-Andre is likely to be out of a job.
Key Player: It's too easy to pick the mesmeric Wesley Fofana so we will opt for Louis Picamoles. At his best, he stands alongside Kieran Read as the one of the two finest No.8s in world rugby but his temperament sometimes impinges his natural ability.
Area to watch: The half-backs. France have not really settled on a combination since the days of Fabien Galthie and Christophe Lamaison but in Remi Tales and Jean-Marc Doussain, there is enough ability to cause a few headaches.
Odds: France are priced at 50/1 to be the recipient of the infamous Wooden Spoon but you can get 5/2 on them to win the tournament.
With three teams into the Heineken Cup knockout stages, one of the world's best opensides tied on to a new contract and a coach who knows what it takes to win silverware at the helm, Irish rugby is in a pretty good place at the moment.
There are green shoots of optimism surrounding this batch of Ireland players © PA Photos
The Joe Schmidt era is still in its infancy and it felt like they were finding their feet in the recent autumn internationals. Their first match saw them ease past a woeful Samoa 40-9 but they were found out against Australia as the Wallabies dominated them in the set piece and emerged from a shell-shocked Dublin with a 32-15 win.
And then came the astonishing bittersweet defeat to the All Blacks. Until the last minute of the match when the Kiwis nicked it, Ireland went toe-to-toe with the best side in the world. There was no sign of them being inferior and asked more questions of Steve Hansen's men than any other team did during the November Tests. If they can bottle that performance, improve on it slightly then they can do some real damage in the Championship.
Key Player: Whoever emerges as the first-choice replacement for the injured Sean O'Brien. Chris Henry is currently front-runner for that honour but Tommy O'Donnell also has a shout.
Area to watch: This will be Brian O'Driscoll's final Six Nations, a tournament which has offered him the highs of a title in 2009 alongside some heartache. One of the game's greatest players deserves a good send-off so expect to see plenty of emotion in Ireland's performances.
Odds: They are fourth favourites to lift the title, priced at 11/2. A Grand Slam is available at 12/1.
Alessandro Zanni does his best to put off Alastair Strokosch © Getty Images
In last year's tournament Italy showed some signs of improvement, but their form in the latter part of the year was reason for concern. But first, the good bits. There was the memorable win over France in Rome to kick-off the 2013 Championship but that was followed up by losses to Wales, Scotland and England - defeats which were far from a disgrace. But then came the cherry on top of the cake, their first win over Ireland in a Six Nations match, a game played in front of 75,000 fans who packed into the Stadio Olimpico to witness the triumph.
In the autumn - a spell of Tests that followed a summer where they lost to Australia, Fiji and Argentina - their win over Fiji, who were handed five yellow cards through the match, was tainted by defeats to Australia and Argentina. Heading into this year's competition, Italy look good for a surprise win somewhere but there is little likelihood of anything more than that.
Key Player: Sergio Parisse is their talisman but he has an able lieutenant in the back-row. Alessandro Zanni is a fantastic blindside and will be one to keep an eye on.
Area to watch: Fly-half Tommaso Allen opted for the Azzurri over Scotland in the run up to the autumn Tests and looks right at home at fly-half for Italy. With Luciano Orquera also laying some claim for the No.10 shirt, for the first time since the days of Diego Dominguez, Italy have real options at fly-half.
Odds: Italy are the favourites for the Wooden Spoon, priced at 8/13 with bet365, but if you fancy Jacques Brunel's side to do something special this year, they are available at 150/1 to win the tournament.
Scotland are in a slightly weird place at present, they are still under Scott Johnson's interim control with Vern Cotter joining in the summer. It's hard to predict exactly how they will do - the players are living a purgatory-esque existence at the moment, they are trying to impress Johnson but know they will have to do it all again when Cotter finishes his Clermont Auvergne duties.
Set piece will be essential for Scotland © Getty Images
On the club front, Edinburgh and Glasgow are showing improvement with their backbone of Scottish talent doing well and they should reap the benefits at Test level. But there's still that tinge of unpredictability.
During the November Tests they were unceremoniously dispatched by South Africa, beat Japan and rallied well against Australia but in the end, Israel Folau proved to be too much of a handful. There's been improvement north of the border but not enough to better last year's third placed finish.
Key Player: Stuart Hogg is one of the few players in the Six Nations who has that ability to create a chance completely on his own - Lancaster labels it the 'moment of magic'. He looked lively against Toulon in the Warriors' recent Heineken Cup tie and should excel during the championship.
Area to watch: Other than their six-try romp against Japan, Scotland failed to score tries in their other two Tests in November. With Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour likely to start on the flanks, they will need plenty of ball so expect the focus to be on whoever starts at fly-half and in the centres and their distribution skills.
Odds: With England at home and both Wales and Ireland away, the Triple Crown is a tough ask for Scotland but you can get 33/1 on them achieving the feat.
Wales' biggest challenge will not be on the field this championship - they have the best first XV out of any of the six teams - but it will be in their heads. As the political tit-for-tat posturing engulfing the Welsh game continues to unflatteringly tick over, the Welsh rugby players will have to put thoughts of Region v Union battles to one side and focus on the rugby.
Wales will expect much from George North © Getty Images
Despite Wales' loss to Japan in June, it was a good summer for Welsh rugby as they made up the bulk of the British & Irish Lions squad. There may have been some hangover from that when they took to the turf during the autumn as they once again failed to beat South Africa and Australia but did get wins versus Argentina and Tonga.
Wales are now on the brink of making history. If they win this championship, it will be the first time a nation has won three, outright, on the bounce.
Key Player: If Adam Jones go down, Wales' scrum looks a little shaky. He may be 32 but he is still one of the best operators in the game and is, alongside their captain Sam Warburton and fullback Leigh Halfpenny, one of three first names on the team sheet.
Area to watch: Wales have had some awful injury luck in the centres with Jonathan Davies an injury doubt while Jamie Roberts is somewhat prone to the odd knock. Scott Williams is a fantastic talent and is more than an able deputy in the centres but during the autumn internationals Wales were hit hard by injuries in that department and they will be wary of it happening again.
Odds: Wales are favourites to lift the title at 2/1 and if you fancy them to repeat their 2012 heroics you can get 6/1 on a Grand Slam.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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