Six Nations Preview

Ahead of this year's Six Nations Championship, The University Observer's rugby experts give their predictions

Jack McCannLike every Six Nations, before the competition starts, we are left with a lot of unanswered questions that will unfold over the five gameweeks. Will the French and English manage to gain some consistency and see out the tournament? Will the Italians under Brunel be build upon their steady rise? Can Ireland bring that passion from the New Zealand game into the championship?The Welsh have been on an upward trajectory since the World Cup that is showing no signs of abating. Under Warren Gatland the team appear to have formulated the right mix of power and panache that is working for them. If George North and Leigh Halfpenny continue in the rich vein of form that they are both on for club and country they’ll be hard to stop.The French squad announced for the tournament included notable absentees due to injury. Morgan Parra and Vincent Clerc, who is a Six Nations try machine, won’t feature, but they still have Wesley Fofana who is a definite game changer. While and Louis Picamoles will have to lead from the front for 80 plus minutes in Thierry Dusautoir’s absence. The French ability is there, whether they can get the right mindset is a whole different matter.Under Stuart Lancaster, England are serious title contenders and they have forwards who can bully any tight-five in the world. However, their squad has been beset by injuries with eight regulars out including Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft, both of whom are usually reliable figures.Ireland are somewhat of an unknown entity as this is Joe Schmidt’s first tournament in charge. Even with the loss of Sean O’Brien, who has been in terrific form for Leinster, Ireland do have the quality and experience to mount a serious challenge. It comes down to whether the players believe that or not.Italy and Scotland have both improved markedly over the past few years and will challenge any team that either underestimates them or has a bad game as they have good enough players to potentially win their home games. The away games are a bridge too far at the moment.Winner: WalesPlayer of the Tournament: Leigh Halfpenny.Top Try-Scorer: Chris Ashton Ciaran SweeneyWith Wales and England in such flying form of late, and finishing off 2013 with some excellent results in the autumn internationals against very impressive southern hemisphere opposition, it is very hard to look past either of them to win this year’s competition.England had a very impressive Six Nations campaign in 2013, winning their first four games but having the Grand Slam snatched from their hands in the last game of the tournament by Wales in Cardiff.As 2013 came to a close, they pushed on from an excellent win against Australia by comfortably beating Argentina and were then very unlucky not to come away with a second consecutive win against the All Blacks having been leading by five points with 20 minutes left.With leaders such as Chris Robshaw in the England pack, and exciting backs such as Billy Twelvetrees and Chris Ashton to add to the constant threat that is the boot of Owen Farrell, any team that finishes above England will have a huge chance of winning this year’s 6 Nations.England’s biggest threat is undoubtedly Wales. The amount of Welsh players in last summer’s Lions squad was a testament to the strength and talent of their squad. Wales have a very talented pack with players such as captain Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau key to their success.In the backs, scrum-half Mike Philips and the obviously threatening George North provide Wales with an added capability to punish teams from any position on the pitch.For Ireland the display against the All Blacks was an amazing 80 minutes of rugby. However, in order to win any title, a team must do so playing badly in some games as it will be impossible to match the intensity shown against New Zealand five times in a row.While that performance was indeed heroic, one must only venture back to the week before that where a dismal Ireland performance resulted in a defeat at the hands of Australia. This is the problem with the consistency of the current Irish team and will make it difficult for them to string a run of impressive performances together this year.While France are always a huge threat in this competition, their current form, despite only losing narrowly to South Africa and New Zealand, doesn’t suggest that they’re capable of producing performances that will consecutively beat teams such as England or Wales.Winner: EnglandPlayer of the Tournament: Leigh HalfpennyTop try-scorer: George North Sean O’NeillThis year’s Six Nations Championship appears as if it will be one of the most highly contested tournaments in years. The theory that any side can beat anybody else on a given day was epitomised in last year’s championship when Ireland beat eventual champions Wales in an enthralling match in Cardiff but subsequently went on to lose to Scotland and Italy, the perennial wooden spoon contenders.Uncertainty surrounds the heavyweights of England and France. England have improved gradually over the last two seasons, but their mental frailties were exposed when losing to Ireland in 2011 and Wales last year, with Grand Slams at stake. France’s form has stagnated since the 2011 World Cup Final and this is emphasised by two losses to Italy in three meetings resulting in an embarrassing last place finish in 2013.The autumn internationals highlighted the southern hemisphere’s dominance over Europe. Despite Ireland’s inconsistent form, which included the disappointing Australian defeat followed by the dramatic loss to the All Blacks, the team will enter the Six Nations in a positive mindset after a brave display against the world champions.Ireland may be showing improvement from last year’s disastrous defeats to the Italians and Scots, but the two European minnows will both seek to continue their gradual improvement. Credible displays in November will give both nations the impetus to improve on their respective 3rd and 4th place finishes last year.The two favourites for this year’s Six Nations appear to be England and Wales. The English had a positive November series, defeating Australia and Argentina before narrowly losing to the record-breaking New Zealanders. With an ever-improving young pack, along with a potent back line, led by Owen Farrell and Danny Care at halfback, this England side seems destined to secure silverware. The question is, will it be this season?The trump card that the Welsh hold over their English counterparts is experience. The majority of the current squad have won at least one Grand Slam, if not a couple. Players such as Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate all played a vital part in a Wales-dominated Lions team that won a first series in 16 years. Wales possess undoubted quality, but a Grand Slam seems improbable as they have to travel to both the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham.Despite France’s questionable application and eccentricity at times, they possess the skill set to defeat any team. Among their pool of talent lies Wesley Fofana. The Clermont Auvergne centre has the pace to destroy any defence. His try-scoring prowess was displayed at Twickenham last February with an incredible touchdown. With Fofana leading the back-line, France could find their form at the right time.This Six Nations will be a special tournament as Brian O’Driscoll, arguably its greatest player, bows out of the international stage. The Irish team will be determined to give the competition’s record try-scorer a fitting send-off.Winner: WalesPlayer of the Championship: Leigh HalfpennyTop Try Scorer: Wesley Fofana Patrick MannWith the Six Nations looming, intriguing battles lie on the horizon. Wales have the potential to achieve an unprecedented three titles in a row. France have an uncanny ability to achieve Grand Slams after Lions tours (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010) so this omen bodes well even after their last dismal campaign.England and Ireland both share a relatively depleted squad through injuries, which can only hurt their title ambitions. Scotland’s blunt firepower and trips to Dublin and Cardiff would suggest another disappointing spring. If one was to look at Italy from a statistical point of view, they have lost 84% of the games they’ve played in the Six Nations; you’d shudder to think how confident anyone could be with this side.The impending departure of Ireland’s greatest ever player, Brian O’Driscoll, has added extra spice to what is perhaps Ireland’s pivotal game, as he seeks redemption against Wales in Dublin. Joe Schmidt’s men will undoubtedly be psychologically hurt from last autumn, on top of injuries to key men in Sean O’Brien, Tommy Bowe and Donnacha Ryan. Don’t rule out a good showing, but consistency is paramount for this team.With only Jonathan Davies set to miss the first few rounds of games, Wales have the opportunity to create history by being the first team to win the Six Nations three times in a row. Away matches to both Ireland and England will be crucial in deciding their fate. Who would bet against them having beaten both teams away in 2008 and 2012 to claim the title? Wales must start as favourites and deservedly so.England arise as Wales’ most potent rivals and are in a somewhat similar position to Ireland regarding psychological scars due to their extraordinary collapse at the final hurdle of last year’s tournament with their heaviest defeat ever to Wales.The fixture list will determine if this English team has overcome such difficulties with France and Scotland away to start. If they can get wins in both these games then momentum will firmly swing back in their favour. The loss of Tom Croft and Manu Tuilagi will severely hurt their chances, however.France are wounded in a different sense to Ireland and England due to last season’s shameful showing for a squad with talent including the likes of Wesley Fofana and Thierry Dusautoir. Philip Saint-Andre showed signs of improvement, but he must select a team consistently. Again, the omens bode well for this side due to the traditional Home Nations’ post-Lion’s tour lull.Meanwhile, teams like Scotland and Italy are just looking to stay competitive, which is vital for the Scottish team who have away trips to Dublin, Cardiff and Rome. This, coupled with a toothless backline, indicates it will be a dark spring for the Scotsmen.Injuries and statistics point to another depressing tournament for the Azzurri though. Sergio Parisse can do a lot… but this might just be a step too far.Winner: WalesPlayer of the Championship: George NorthTop Try Scorer: Alex Cuthbert