For rugby fans, the countdown till 15:30 at the Stade de France began a long time ago. Although the Rugby World Cup ended just over 3 months ago, everyone is eager for Six Nations action, indeed the tournament always produces a set of games full of passion and intensity that other fixtures just cannot match. The clashes between such fierce rivals really gets the blood boiling and therefore the first whistle that will start the tournament’s first match up between France and Italy is eagerly anticipated. There is something about this year that sets it apart from other seasons. Performances at the World Cup have raised Welsh and French ambitions to previously unknown levels, while England and Scotland fans will be eager to avoid a repeat of the autumn’s performances. Here is the lowdown on the 2012 Six Nations:
Coach: Stuart Lancaster
One to Watch: Owen Farrell
The 2011 Champions probably have the most to prove this year, both on and off the field. A woeful World Cup display was tarred even further by player antics and Head Coach Martin Johnson paid the ultimate price. Stuart Lancaster has taken over and has already rallied the country with his no-nonsense approach to management, not to mention the youthful squad he has picked. Lancaster has axed most of the experienced heads that didn’t do the business in October, while others, most notably Jonny Wilkinson have retired. The country is eager for a raft of new stars to show what they can do, with Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt, the Saracens three-quarter pairing, the pick of the bunch likely to make their debuts at Murrayfield. Fans are hoping to see England move away from the dogmatic approach of the World Cup and instead move the ball out wide into the hands of the electric back three. Lancaster though, is inexperienced at international level, as are the majority of his selected players and when the going gets tough, England could find themselves in a tricky situation. Injuries haven’t been kind either, with Toby Flood, Manu Tuilagi and potential skipper Tom Wood all ruled out of the opening game. It could well be a slow building process for the new boys of English rugby and a tough tournament could follow.
Coach: Philippe Saint-Andre
Captain: Thierry Dusautoir
One to Watch: Wesley Fofana
What can you say about the French. Defeat to the All Blacks and Tonga left their World Cup hopes hanging by a thread and the players turned on coach Marc Lievremont in a fit of mutinous rage. Then from nowhere, they produced a stunning victory over England, ground out a win against Wales, before giving New Zealand an almighty scare in the final, coming perilously close to lifting the Webb Ellis trophy. This has created a mood of buoyed optimism around the country, especially considering Philippe Saint-Andre has now replaced Lievremont as coach, ensuring that playing and coaching staff will be on the same wavelength for the first time in years. France as usual, possess an extremely talented squad, led by IRB Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir and backed up by a gnarled set of forwards, galvanised by classy No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy. The back line selection is always a lottery, with so many talented footballers to choose from, but uncapped centre Wesley Fofana has lit up the Top 14 this season with a series of dazzling displays for club Clermont Auvergne. Although it is never good to make predictions with the French, the current squad of players united under a coach who knows what he’s doing should have too much for the rest of the sides to handle, especially with three games in Paris.
Coach: Declan Kidney
Captain: Paul O’Connell
One to Watch: Sean O’Brien
While Ireland will be disappointed they didn’t make it beyond the quarter-finals in the World Cup, they can acknowledge the quality of their opponents that day. They were beaten by a superb Welsh side and after dismantling Australia in the pool stages, they can count themselves unlucky not to have gone further. This has been reflected in Kidney’s squad selection for this tournament, there are no real surprises, with an experienced core 24 players making up the training squad, whilst six uncapped youngsters will join up for experience. The absence of Brian O’Driscoll through injury could be telling though, so often the inspirational skipper is the difference in tight games and it remains to be seen how Ireland will cope without him. It could be a good test though for life after BOD and in Paul O’Connell, they have a skipper ready-made to lead the side. They boast the best back row around, in Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip, whilst Jonathan Sexton has really come of age recently at stand-off. The performance of their domestic sides in the Heineken Cup is a sure sign that the national side will go well, but trips to Twickenham and Paris could prove to be their undoing. It could well be that 2012 is the last hurrah of a golden generation that is almost ready to step aside for new blood.
Coach: Jacques Brunel
Captain: Sergio Parisse
One to Watch: Tommaso Benvenuti
Nick Mallett could consider himself a little unfortunate to be out of a job this Spring after he led Italy to a famous victory over France last year. However, the side couldn’t build on that, producing yet another disappointing World Cup campaign where they crashed out at the first hurdle. It is difficult to see how new coach Jacques Brunel can improve on last year’s performance, indeed the ex-Perpignan man can realistically only be targeting the home game against Scotland as their only possible chance of victory. His first squad selection has raised a few eyebrows, as although he has retained the majority of Mallett’s World Cup team, with 22 survivors, there are some surprising omissions. Regulars Salvatore Perugini, Carlos Del Fava, Mirco Bergamasco and Gonzalo Garcia have all been axed, leaving the squad with some new additions that make Italy an unknown force. Any side with Sergio Parisse leading the way will be difficult to beat though, and watch out for exciting backs Tommaso Benvenuti and uncapped 18-year-old Angelo Esposito, who could finally provide Italy with some much needed cutting edge. The problem will of course, lie at Number 10, where the formidable shadow of Diego Dominguez still looms over the Stadio Flaminio. Kris Burton or Luciano Orquera will be the men entrusted with the 10 shirt, but both have been tried there before with little success. It could a long tournament for the new coach.
Coach: Andy Robinson
Captain: Ross Ford
One to Watch: Duncan Weir
Andy Robinson must count himself a little lucky to still be in the hot seat at Murrayfield after a disastrous World Cup. Aside from the dismal defeats to England and Argentina, the Scots turned in a dour display against Georgia and only just edged past Romania thanks to two tries in the last 10 minutes. As per usual, tries is the problem, despite Robinson’s promise to solve the lack of thrust out wide. During the last Six Nations, Scotland were indeed more lively, throwing the ball around with an attacking verve at times, but there is still no real threat to the opposition defences. The pack can mix it with the best of them though and although losing Kelly Brown through injury is a blow, new skipper Ross Ford and highly regarded second row Richie Gray will lead the charge. Veterans Nathan Hines and Chris Paterson have now gone and Robinson has introduced an element of new blood to his squad, though the call-up announcement was dominated by the Steve Shingler saga, which ended in the player being ruled ineligible for Scotland duty. Robinson must take the brave option and introduce young Duncan Weir into the mix at fly-half, given his impressive form for club side Edinburgh. Dan Parks is in the squad, but needs to be cut adrift, while Phil Godman and Ruaridh Jackson have had their chances to set Scotland’s backs moving and both failed. A lot depends on the opening clash with England, as victory could set them on the way to their most successful tournament in years.
Coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Sam Warburton
One to Watch: Gavin Henson
So much has been written about Welsh rugby in recent months and the possible return to the glory days after a fine showing at the World Cup. We don’t need to go into Warburton’s red card again, but there will always be a sense of what could have been for the Welsh dragons. Warburton is back though, leading the side again with a host of young stars that will fancy their chances of repeating the 2005 and 2008 Grand Slam success. Coach Warren Gatland has done a fantastic job of introducing the young brigade and players like Toby Faletau and Rhys Priestland can now showcase their skills during the Six Nations. Shane Williams may have retired, but there are more talented youngsters waiting in the wings, with uncapped Cardiff wingers Alex Cuthbert and Harry Robinson looking to emulate established superstar George North in nailing down regular wing slots. The French based players have been selected, which is important for Wales who need Hook, Phillips and Byrne firing on all cylinders. Injuries are a worry though, as Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris will both miss out, whilst Gethin Jenkins and Jamie Roberts are both struggling. Roberts’s absence potentially reopens the door for Gavin Henson, who could set the stage alight once more with his refocused attitude. Anything is possible for this set of young Welsh charges and the game on March 17 against the French at Cardiff could well be a Grand Slam decider.