2012 is going to be the most open tournament for years. The traditional powerhouses of England and France are in transition, as are the Italians. Wales have stacks of injuries and Scotland will again struggle to score tries. That leaves Ireland as the only known, dangerous quantity and theirs is an ageing squad. The bookies have France as favourites with Ireland second and Wales in third. However, such is the gravity of the opening fixtures that you can expect that to change completely by Sunday teatime. For the first time in ages the playing field looks quite level. No game is a banker for anyone. Expect upsets.
2. Spotlight on the scrums
Constant collapsing scrums were the bane of fans, players and, in particular, the press during last years tournament. The BBC even introduced a handy scrum clock to help us quantify exactly how much of our lives we were wasting watching props clean grass out of their studs and endlessly go through a cycle of crouch, touch, pause…..collapse. Referees at the RWC and the club game have been kicking the arse out of it since. Discipline and technique will be key or it’ll be yellow cards all round for the front rows.
3. Partisan Punditry
There’s always that point during commentary of an England game when Brian ‘Chairman’ Moore lets emotion get to him. Tensions will boil over and the mask will slip, probably during the Calcutta Cup and some cack-handed utterance about the Scots will be unleashed. Jonathan Davies will do it too. Following a contentious refereeing decision against the Welsh he will ‘definitively’ squeal innocence, only to be proven horribly wrong by the replay. Watch out for a plethora of miserable looking injured players reporting from pitch side too. The poor buggers.
4. Squad Depths Being Tested
The physical hangover for players who went from club rugby to competing in New Zealand and straight back to their clubs will be felt in this Six Nations. The strength in depth of each nation will be severely tested. This will open the door for debutants but it could also have a key bearing on the eventual outcome. If Scotland or Wales, for example, loose another front row player then they’ll be looking at uncapped club squad players in the starting line-up. Meanwhile, anymore breakages amongst the English centres and Jeremy ‘Nonchalant’ Guscott might get a recall.
5. The Italians Being Patronised
It’ll start with a commentator remarking on how lovely Rome looks at this time of year, then a few chuckles at ‘those wise old heads in the Italian front row’ seguing neatly into a nostalgic whimsy about Alessandro Troncon. There will be endless pats on the head about how good Sergio Parisse is and how well the Bergamasco brothers are playing, even though they’re not on the pitch. What they’ll fail to grasp is that Italy are one good goal kicker away from being Scotland and that with the new professional league in Italy, within five years they’ll have a bigger pool of players to choose from than both Ireland and Wales.
Watch attendances fall this year as fans continue to veto expensive trips away for a credit crunch version of the Six Nations.
6. Schizophrenic Ireland
The enormity of the opening fixture in Dublin cannot be understated. If the Irish can beat the Welsh at home they will probably go on to win the tournament. If they lose then you can easily see them finishing fourth. They showed in New Zealand that they have the ability to be world class but equally they displayed vulnerability and a lack of ideas at times. Their back row is arguably the best in the competition and they have some exciting backs but huge question marks hang over the effectiveness of their front five. Sunday’s game will go a long way to setting a down marker for which Ireland will turn up.
7. Auditions for the Lions Coaching Job
At the moment it is Warren Gatlands job to lose. That said, an inspirational tournament from either Andy Robinson or Declan Kidney and the cat could be tossed right amongst the pigeons. Robinson will give good press and bang the walls of his glass box like a provoked mental patient during games whilst Declan Kidney will come across like a drunken passer-by in front of the microphone but make some very astute tactical decisions that will probably gain Ireland points. It’s not quite a sealed deal yet but Gatland, Robinson and Kidney will all know this tournament is very much part of the audition for 2013.
8. English Discipline
Enough has been said already about the dwarf throwing, ferry jumping and depressingly impotent rugby from England at the RWC. Stuart Lancaster has stamped a clear message of authority on the squad with some high profile omissions. What remains to be seen is whether this will transfer onto the pitch. In recent years England have been a penalty machine. Gifting field position and kicks at goal to the opposition with a lack of self-control that has bordered on reckless at times. Improvement can be measured in many different ways but clearly, for England, discipline is their main priority.
9. Crowds Falling
Did the folks in blazers at Twickenham, Paris, Cardiff, Dublin, Rome and Murrayfield not get the memo about the recession? How, with the global economy in crisis, that charging £50-100 a ticket is a bit outrageous? Especially given the alternative. The HD quality, watch again on BBC I-player in the comfort of your own home whilst swigging cheap supermarket booze alternative or the go down your local pub and enjoy an atmosphere that doesn’t cost a kidney option. Watch attendances fall this year as fans continue to veto expensive trips away for a credit crunch version of the Six Nations.
10. Wales to Win, Scotland as Outsiders
Okay, it’s prediction time and I’m sticking my neck on the line here. Even with injuries, Wales still have the quality to win it. If Sam Warburton can function under pressure and Shaun Edwards can keep their outstanding defensive structure in place then they will be a match for anyone. I also like the mix of maturity and youthful enthusiasm in their squad. A win in Dublin is crucial. Scotland on the other hand have little to prove. I fancy them against both England and France at Murrayfield and a potential victory in Rome could see them facing pivotal games in Cardiff and Dublin. Whatever happens, this year is set to be a blinding Six Nations all round.
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