With the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour taking place this summer, there is more riding on the forthcoming Six Nations championship than usual. The 119th edition of the annual tournament begins on February 2 and in order to gain Lions selection, players will have to gain the attention of the selectors by performing to the utmost of their abilities.
Autumn was the last time we saw England, France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in action and judging on their victories over Argentina and Australia, Les Blues have to be considered as the marginal favourites for a Six Nations triumph. The ease of the 2011 World Cup runners-up’s 33-6 demolition of Australia suggests that there is still more to come from France. Although Thierry Dusautoir is no longer the French captain, the 2011 World Player of the Year still leads from example, which is by smashing the opposition to smithereens. Another player to watch out for is Clermont Auvergne centre Wesley Fofana, who scored four tries in his first four international appearances, which were all in last year’s Six Nations. The 25-year-old will undoubtedly be terrorising defences in February and March.
Having lost seven matches in a row, including home defeats to Argentina and Samoa, reigning Grand Slam champions Wales – who open the Northern Hemisphere’s premier rugby union competition against Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff – are in dire straights and it is difficult envisaging Warren Gatland’s side finishing in the top three, let alone retaining their title. Following the 2012 Six Nations, Wales’ starting XV could have arguably filled all the positions for the Lions tour but injuries and lacklustre performances from their best players has affected the Red Dragons. Flanker Dan Lydiate was rightfully named as Player of the Tournament last year but is struggling for fitness ahead of their opener against Ireland while captain and open-side flanker Sam Warburton – whose tackling exploits and high number of turnovers at the breakdown make him arguably one of the best number sevens in world rugby – has not shown anywhere near the sort of form that once saw him labelled as a potential leader of the Lions. But despite their current slump, there are still some glimmers of hope for the Welsh faithful. Ospreys winger Eli Walker has been in scintillating form this season and has lit up the Heineken Cup with his immense speed and side-stepping trickery.
In terms of pre-tournament favourites, England are also right up there alongside France thanks to their record-breaking 38-21 victory over the all-conquering All Black in December. Even though England’s performance against New Zealand was of the highest calibre, it is easy to forget that Stuart Lancaster’s team suffered defeats to South Africa and then Australia prior to beating the world champions. Possessing both tremendous pace and an attacking prowess that can penetrate the strongest of defences, Manu Tuilagi is a pivotal player for England. However, the Leicester Tigers centre will miss England’s Calcutta Cup opener against Scotland at Twickenham Stadium on February 2. Nevertheless, England still have talented players in other positions, such as the 21-year-old Joe Launchbury, whose work rate defies his 6’, 6”, 18st frame, and Dan Cole, who is currently one of the best scrummagers in Europe.
Scotland have not beaten England at Twickenham for 30 years and have shown anything which suggests that that statistic is about to change. A 51-22 drubbing by New Zealand and a demoralising home loss to Tonga in the autumn caused Andy Robinson to quit as Scotland boss. Having failed to win any matches at the 2012 Six Nations, Scotland could also be set for a torrid time this year. Although Scotland do have players with tremendous potential – such as 22-year-old David Denton and 23-year-old Richie Gray – February’s Six Nations could come too soon for a side who will do well to avoid being handed the Wooden Spoon.
In recent years that embarrassing item has been awarded to Italy. During the autumn international series, Italy took solace from a narrow 22-19 defeat to Australia and a 28-23 win over Tonga. With several of their players at top European clubs, Italy can no longer be considered as the minnows of the Six Nations. Capped 91 times for the Azzuri, the vastly experienced Sergio Parisse is the heartbeat of this Italian side. A ferocious tackler and a bulldozing ball-carrier, the intensity of the number eight’s play is a joy to watch.
While Italy being crowned Six Nations champions would be considered a shock of epic proportions, Ireland winning the tournament would not. Declan Kidney’s squad have a wealth of experience in the shape of Rory Best, Gordon D’Arcy, captain Jamie Heaslip and Donncha O'Callaghan, to name a few. But it is their new look back three of flyers Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy that really sets pulses racing. All three have an eye for a try and the 21-year-old Gilroy and Zebo, 22, bring a youthful exuberance to the squad. Home advantage against England and France, on weeks two and four respectively, could also prove to be crucial. However, a lot will depend on the form and fitness of the majestic Brian O’Driscoll, who only recently returned to action following an ankle injury.
Although France have a history of faltering whenever they are labelled favourites, and a Grand Slam could be out of reach, it is difficult to see anything else but Philippe Saint-Andre’s squad hoisting the Six Nations trophy aloft in their final match against Scotland on March 16.