Now or never for Europe's finest
January 29, 2011
Italy's Leonardo Ghiraldini, France's Thierry Dusautoir, Scotland's Alastair Kellock, England's Lewis Moody, Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll and Wales' Matthew Rees pose with the Six Nations silverware © Getty Images
"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life" wrote literary pioneer Samuel Johnson in a glowing tribute to England's capital but his words are equally fitting when showered upon the Six Nations.
No other rugby battlefield commands your attention or conjures the same kind of emotion as the quest for northern hemisphere supremacy and this year's Championship, the most open in years, looks set to serve up another feast of enthralling rugby with one extra special element - the World Cup.
Although coaches and players would have you believe differently, the sport's showpiece event will cast a formidable shadow over proceedings in the coming weeks. The southern hemisphere giants have set the bar and while the likes of England and Scotland can boast victories over a Tri-Nations side in recent months the truth is that they and their European neighbours are still playing catch-up rugby and the clock is also ticking.
With the World Cup just over seven months away the Six Nations stage offers the combatants a final chance to fine tune their preparations for the big one. There may be a host of World Cup warm-up matches to whet your appetite later in the year but they will not offer the kind of intensity that is guaranteed in the Six Nations. The intoxicating mix of top class rugby and tribalism that will kick off at Wales' cauldron-like Millennium Stadium next Friday night is the closest the teams will get to the high-pressure environment of the World Cup before the battle for the Webb Ellis Cup itself.
Now is not the time to be experimenting in terms of selection although widespread injuries mean there will still be an unknown and untried element to the matches and that telling factor may prevent the Six Nations from sounding out the kind of warning required to worry those only just gearing up for a new season south of the equator.
If one of the northern hemisphere's leading lights are to upset the odds in New Zealand later this year and prove they can muster a challenge greater than one of Sonny Bill Williams' boxing opponents then a seed of doubt must be sown in the psyche of the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks. And despite a fondness for word games in some quarters, that can only be done on the field itself where the Six Nations must show they can consistently deliver the fast-paced and high octane rugby that appears to come easily to their Tri-Nations rivals. Then it is a case of hoping that they do not raise the bar again when the focus switches once more later this year.
So who is best placed to stamp their authority on this year's Six Nations and this World Cup year?
The defending champions have endured a mixed 12 months that served to remind us all of the unpredictable nature of Les Bleus. A Grand Slam and domination of the Heineken Cup suggested that French rugby was in rude health but heavy defeats at the hands of South Africa and Argentina during the summer brought them crashing down to earth. While those defeats may have been rooted in player fatigue there was no such excuse come the autumn when Marc Lievremont's side were found wanting in terms of mind and body during a second half capitulation against Australia. The Top 14 continues to dominate the European stage and offer Lievremont a wealth of options and talent but he has always been his own man when it comes to selection. A settled squad, largely free of injury, will no doubt regain their focus but they face three games on the road.
Player to Watch: Morgan Parra - the influential scrum-half will look to set the right tempo for another title challenge.
Declan Kidney's side followed up their 2009 Grand Slam with second spot last year and they would no doubt settle for the same result again this time around having seen their ranks decimated by injury most notably in the back line with the likes of Tommy Bowe, Shane Horgan, Andrew Trimble, Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy all sidelined. Add in the injury-enforced absence of forwards Jamie Heaslip, John Hayes and Stephen Ferris and you have cause for concern. The Irish drew a blank against the southern hemisphere giants last year although there were positives from an autumn series marred by poor attendances at their new Lansdowne Road home. The emergence of back-row forward Sean O'Brien as part of an in-form Leinster outfit could be key as could the fact that both England and France must travel to Dublin.
The bookmakers' favourites to win the Six Nations, England look well-placed to claim their first title since 2003 having beaten Australia twice in the last year whilst coming closest to the breath-taking brand of running rugby that the Tri-Nations were in danger of monopolising. That resurgence began at the end of last year's Six Nations and while there have been a couple of brutal reminders of their shortcomings since then, they remain a potent force. However, they too have been dealt a series of injury blows with the loss of flanker Tom Croft and lock Courtney Lawes in danger of robbing them of much of the dynamism that made them so refreshing to watch last year. Equally galling will be the injury to captain Lewis Moody whose infectious enthusiasm has also helped England out of the doldrums in recent months. Question marks remain in medfield but they enter with significant momentum and belief which along with three games at Twickenham should see them go one better than the 'top two' minimum laid down by RFU chief executive John Steele.
Player to Watch: Chris Ashton - the Saints winger emerged on the international stage last year and can cement his status as one of the world's best in the coming months.
Coach Warren Gatland has made a point of taking on the world's best during his tenure but that admirable policy has so far failed to pay dividends. Six defeats out of seven Test clashes since last year's Championship speaks for itself while a draw with Fiji did little to raise spirits. There is no doubt that they can compete when at full strength but have yet to figure out how to maintain those performance levels for a full 80 minutes. The Six Nations would normally offer a chance to re-group but a devastating injury list and the added pressure of World Cup year offers little breathing room. Stripped of their two first choice props in loose-head Gethin Jenkins and tight-head Adam Jones they look vulnerable up front but they will be boosted by the return of centre Jamie Roberts and wingers Leigh Halfpenny and Shane Williams to Wales colours. The visit of England in the Championship opener will be pivotal in terms of the tone of their challenge.
Player to Watch: James Hook - the gifted playmaker will want to underline his worth after sealing a big money switch to French side Perpignan.
Andy Robinson's side can boast an impressive five wins out of their last six Test clashes including an historic series win in Argentina and victory over South Africa yet bar Italy they are considered the outsiders for the Championship. It is true that they may lack that little bit of magic with ball in hand - they have scored just seven tries in Robinson's 13 Tests in charge - but you'll hear no complaint from the Scotland camp should the results keep coming. They must also weather injuries with centre Graeme Morrison and scrum-half Chris Cusiter notable absentees but they are bolstered by the return of flanker Johnnie Beattie while Alastair Kellock takes the captain's armband. They can also look forward to three games at Murrayfield where Robinson's quiet revolution can gather yet further momentum.
Player to Watch: John Barclay - the classy openside has been a rock in the Scotland backrow and will no doubt be a pivotal figure in their Championship challenge.
The lack of depth in Italian rugby has been well documented and they continue to struggle despite the recent inclusion of Aironi and Treviso in the Magners League. While that exposure will have benefitted certain members of the squad - with 20-year-old scrum-half Edoardo Gorileading the way - it is too soon to expect it to show results on the international stage. A long-term injuries to fly-half Craig Gower and flanker Mauro Bergamasco do not help their cause with fellow Australian-born playmaker Kristopher Burton earning a recall to the mix. They will pack their usual grunt up front with the grizzled trio of Salvatore Perugini, Fabio Ongaro and Martin Castrogiovanni not likely to be work-shy but it will be a rearguard effort in the main. As ever, any victory will be a major achievement but the Stadio Flaminio will not be found wanting for atmosphere on the three occasions the Azzurri grace the ground.
Player to Watch: Sergio Parisse - Not only Italy's best player but one of the world's finest, Parisse missed out on last year's Championship through injury and will be keen to make up for lost time.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum. Click here to follow him on Twitter