That time of year is almost upon us, when the under 20s are live on tv; that time when as Welshman we start off so optimistic that walking on water for our team is but a training exercise; that time when by the end of the first half of the first game we become so pessimistic the only desire we have is to brick up the Welsh changing rooms to put us out of our misery. Yes thats right, it’s that most predictably unpredictable of tournaments the RBS Six Nations.
Its the time of year when the QI cliche Klaxon goes into overdrive to a state of near permanent melt down. We’ve heard them all before, which France will turn up, Jiffy shouting numbers, isolated or wrongly pronounced French names at the players who can’t hear him, much vaunted Italian pack, the craic and the black stuff, should we call up Johnny, kilts, daffodils, the Parisian crowd will turn if things go awry, Murrayfield isn’t an easy place to play, Heineken cup form goes out of the window, not as good a quality as the rugby championship down under, Rome in springtime etc etc etc
For cliches one might read the word traditions and that is really what it represents and what makes it so good. What it lacks for in quality compared to the Southern Hemisphere equivalent it makes up for in atmosphere as it has what the others envy, mass traveling support. Not just mass traveling support but that which mingles with each other without threat of violence as there is an acceptance that, though there is a general pecking order that alters every so often, each team is capable of turning each over.
Last years tournament wasn’t a great one but did, enjoyably as a Welshman, finish on a most jingoistic of nights against England in Cardiff. Of course it shouldn’t have come to the final game, especially after our first half against Ireland, we should’ve had nothing other than a mathematical chance of winning. Enter tournament unpredictably, we didn’t win at the national anthems before hand or the intense atmosphere inside the stadium, or at the scrum. We won the week before at Twickenham where England at home to Italy should’ve been a cricket score but wasn’t, this gave the Welsh team an achievable target and the English boys knew it walking off the cabbage patch that day. The rest as they say is history.
ENGLAND- Three away games including France and Scotland could mean a tough season for them but Stuart Lancaster is on the right track. They consistently produce the best under 20s team in the Northern hemisphere and they are now starting to get more game time and crucially experience. This may not be their year but come the 2015 World Cup things might be slightly different. Corbisiero may be the big loss among several injuries. Hopefully the English will be able to discover the three quarters game to match an impressive pack. With their resources and playing base this should be an annual tournament to see who comes second to them, maybe it’s psychological. Lets hope the pundits give England a chance and leave the whole 2003 World Cup thing alone before it becomes a mill stone like 1966, so no calling for Wilkinson and see what the new young players can do.
FRANCE- Ok here goes, which France will turn up? Is this becoming something of a myth now? The France i see turn up is the consistently underachieving one. That said post British and Irish Lions year they are traditionally stronger as is their club game. That though is somewhat misleading, yes their club game is strong but it is strong because of the amount of foreign stars plying their trade in France denying the locals regular playing time. Maybe they are reaping what they are sowing. If Saint-Andre decides on a half back pairing and with 3 home games they could still be the team to beat this year, one win out of Wales or Scotland away and they could yet be champions. That said, how big a loss might Dusautoir be?
IRELAND- Like France the Irish provinces are doing consistently well in the Heineken Cup but the difference is they are predominately done with Irish players. Their under 20s are starting to produce regularly good teams now and the game seems to be in rude health, hell even the women’s team are the reigning champions. One big question might be the reaction to that recent heart wrenching All Blacks game last Autumn and distracting issues over the Lions third test dropping of BOD. If the players have no hangover from that defeat the with 3 home games this could be their year for the championship and if they don’t get all hung up on the Gatland thing then possibly another Grand Slam for O’Driscoll (a man playing for so long the great Bill McLaren commentated on him) and O’Connell to sign off with, that would be next best scenario if Wales don’t win :-)
ITALY- They may catch Wales cold, they may beat Scotland at home, they may finally beat England, with 3 home games they may pull off 2 wims or more, may, may, may, may. they may lose every game, i certainly hope not. Their under 20s are improving, the club sides in the pro 12 are still pulling off the odd shock here and there. The improvement we all want is a gradual process and in the interests of the game I hope they are here to stay. When a country can produce players of the quality of Parisse and fill 80000 into the San Siro to watch New Zealand it goes to show the interest is there. Sadly i think they may struggle this year with a raft of injuries and a pack getting a bit long in the tooth to boot but why not use this year to start blooding some of the youngsters. Despite the detractors i think the Italian presence and the Italian experience has enhanced the Six Nations, if not in results certainly in spectacle.
SCOTLAND-What of Scotland? For all the talk of which France will turn up for me its almost more of a case of which Scotland? They can win in Australia as much as they can lose at home to Tonga. They are developing some of the most outstanding talent in the Northern hemisphere, Richie Gray up front, Stuart Hogg behind. Edinburgh have recently made it to the semi finals of the Heineken, Glasgow are becoming the team to avoid in the Celtic League. What happens come Six Nations time? With England and France at home, Italy away, opening up with Ireland who may still have a New Zealand hangover, a trip to Cardiff where they have been in contention regularly (one insane 5 minutes in 2010 apart they would’ve won there of course) this has the potential to be a Grand Slam season. This is Scotland it also has the potential to be a whitewash too. Which Scotland will turn up?
WALES- What of the reigning champions. The bulk of the winning Lions tour, including captains, player of the series, 3 recent Grand Slams, going for three in a row, nice opener at home against Italy, 3 home games in total, should have the potential to create history. Whoah just a cotton picking minute, this is Wales. We have political crisis at home, the regions are bankrupt, the captain has signed the first central contract, his region are saying they wont play centrally contracted players, players injured or banned, player drain to France, it seems the whole nation of Ireland want Gatland put in his place for dropping BOD (fair play they did win, handsomely and it wasn’t the players fault), England want revenge for that mauling last year, we can struggle against Italy, which France or Scotland will turn up against us? My heart says Wales my head says no (wheres the QI cliche klaxon when you really need it?)
For what it’s worth my final table will probably be this:-