Six Nations Championship Preview
Wales well-equipped for repeat success
February 5, 2009
Will Wales skipper Ryan Jones be left holding the Six Nations silverware at the end of this year's Championship? © Getty Images
Frank Hadden Lionel Beauxis Mauro Bergamasco Jerry Collins Andy Goode Leigh Halfpenny Martin Johnson Marc Lievremont Nick Mallett Brian O'Driscoll Sergio Parisse Andy Powell David Skrela Rodney So'oialo Sebastien Tillous-Borde
'It's time for the Scrum Fantasy Rugby Game again. Do you have the nerve to take me on in my Private League?'
Scrum.com's Editor, Graham Jenkins, threw down the gauntlet and it had to be taken up but sorting out a Six Nations Dream XV with no more than four players from one country is trickier than it first appears. After several hours of concerted effort I think I have settled on my combination for the first round of matches but it was particularly useful because it brought home how few established stars there are in European rugby at the moment.
Wales and Ireland have a solid core of experience, Italy and France have a couple of stand-out players but I could not find one Scot to include in my line-up and there are precious few Englishmen who you would immediately write down on their own team sheet let alone a combined one.
Wales have to start the Championship as favourites. Last year's Grand Slam was followed up by some pretty impressive performances in the Autumn internationals - they really tested New Zealand for a half and, if they had started as they finished, could well have beaten South Africa as well as Australia.
They have also found some outstanding new blood to add into last year's mix which is a real bonus. Leigh Halfpenny offers kicking as well as elusive running whilst Andy Powell brings the sort of raw, rough edge that Jerry Collins used to and Rodney So'oialo still does bring to the All Blacks.
When Wales won the Slam in 2005 you felt they had stolen a march on the rest - they caught them out by playing a different sort of game, off-loading at almost every tackle situation so they were able to change the point of attack. The following season they were found-out and found wanting - it was no surprise.
Last year's success was built on firmer foundations but, as Scrum.com's Huw Richards pointed out recently, back-to-back Slams are as rare as props' drop goals so there will be no counting chickens.
Ireland must be second favourites. The Munster based pack is hugely experienced but appears rejuvenated; the Munster half-backs know exactly how to play off it and they ooze class outside - especially if Brian O'Driscoll can shake off his injury problems and prove he is still the most talented centre in Europe - if not the world.
France have to start third in the pecking order despite the erratic selection policy of coach, Marc Lievremont. They would have beaten Australia in November if David Skrela had kicked his goals. Lievremont has now gambled everything on Lionel Beauxis. There is not even another No.10 in the squad. Beauxis will be partnered by another inexperienced 23-year-old, Sebastien Tillous-Borde - the coach has lavished praise on both - but it will be a stern test for them at Croke Park. At least the pack has a more settled shape to it and Imanol Harinordoquy's return to form and fitness is a real bonus.
England are fourth in my rankings but only because they have a vastly superior pool of players to Scotland and Italy and it is hard to believe they can play as badly as they did in the Autumn internationals. Selection has been a major part of the problem and I offered my advice to Martin Johnson when the revised England squad was first announced in the middle of January. I said then I did not expect him to take it but I am still amazed at the conservatism of his first pick.
Injuries have obviously been a factor but bringing back Andy Goode shows just how limited his ambitions are at the moment. He is obviously desperate for that first win in a full international, is thinking of very little beyond this match and is not prepared to take any chances. He must be thanking his lucky stars England start against Italy (and an injury ravaged Italy at that) at Twickenham but I cannot see how this is going to take England forward and prepare them for Wales in Cardiff the following weekend.
Scottish coach, Frank Hadden, has done a terrific job with Scotland considering the paucity of the material he has to work with. Two cash strapped professional teams simply do not provide the sort of depth and competition Scottish rugby needs. Nevertheless, Edinburgh and Glasgow are getting stronger and so is the national team - with better goal-kicking they might even have pulled off an unlikely victory against World Cup winners, South Africa, last November.
However, there is no strength in depth (despite Hadden's insistence that this is improving) and not enough class in the back division to cause a real threat when they will almost certainly be operating with less than 50% possession.
Italy beat Scotland and ran Ireland and England close last season but they will do extraordinarily well to avoid a whitewash this time round.
Their ever optimistic coach, Nick Mallett, has an even worse hand to work with than Hadden and events have conspired against him. The pack will be solid, Sergio Parisse might even be magnificent, but he has no scrum-half (flanker, Mauro Bergamasco, will wear No.9 against England on Saturday) a No.10 who can kick but offers very little otherwise and nothing beyond him.
It ought to be a fairly predictable tournament but this is the Six Nations and nothing ever goes completely to form. I fancy Wales for the Championship but I think they may come unstuck in that Friday evening fixture in Paris so no Grand Slam for anyone this year.