Six Nations
Crunch time for Europe's finest
Graham Jenkins
January 27, 2010

"Anyone sitting here saying who is going to win the title is a brave guy."

England manager Martin Johnson's refusal to a pick a winner in this year's Six Nations was perhaps to be expected, but that is set to be the only predictable thing about the latest battle for northern hemisphere supremacy.

Europe's leading lights descended upon the Hurlingham Club in West London on Wednesday for the annual media frenzy otherwise known as the official launch. As ever, there was a buzz of expectancy within the salubrious surrounds of the venue with this year's Championship shaping up as one of the most open contests in recent years. The coaches, brimming with the renewed vigour that this time of year always brings, were in bullish mood ahead of what will be a season-defining campaign and, all bar Italy, cruelly stripped of their captain and heartbeat Sergio Parisse through injury, have reason for hope.

With a Rugby World Cup looming on the horizon in 2011, this year's Championship offers the contenders a rare chance to advance their plans for the sport's showpiece event but the pressure to deliver results in the here and now will no doubt ensure experimentation is kept to a minimum. Fresh faces may get a glimpse of life at rugby's top table but it is likely to be just that with the fear of failure stifling any thoughts of adventure.

As a result you would fancy a settled squad to steal the initiative and there is only one vying for that honour - Ireland. Declan Kidney's side enter this year's Six Nations as defending champions after a memorable Grand Slam in 2009 but they did not stop there. Victory over world champions South Africa ensured they finished the year unbeaten but neither Kidney or his indomitable captain Brian O'Driscoll are resting on their laurels.

"I was once told you don't ever defend anything, you just roll up your sleeves, give it back and try to win it again," declared O'Driscoll, who can look forward to winning his 100th Ireland cap during this year's Championship. "Our psyche will not change in any form, we will go out with the same attitude as we have done for the last 10 years or so. Build slowly, or better still, build fast and go from there."

The soft-spoken Kidney also played down the significance of his side's previous achievements. "The time to look at these things is when you're finished otherwise part of your career will slip you by. The way I see it everyone is in the same boat now." His sentiments were echoed by his skipper, "Now is the time for doing it rather than thinking about it," he insisted.

The bookmakers have installed France as favourites for the title and in doing so appear to have accepted their capitulation at the hands of New Zealand just a couple of months ago as a mere aberration. Coach Marc Lievremont is prone to sweeping changes from one week to the next so is not likely to be too troubled by planning for a tournament still over 18 months away, and he admitted as much with typical romanticism. "The Six Nations remains the most beautiful rugby competition in the world and the most important thing is to win it," he enthused.

Lievremont also admitted that his side could not live with the All Blacks in Marseille but he saw enough to offer in that game, and more significantly the victory over South Africa, to offer him hope for the challenges ahead.

"The autumn internationals showed that the French side is growing and that there is huge potential but they also showed us that there are some issues and problems in terms of consistency," he acknowledged.

If France are to return to winning ways they may find England standing in their way on the last weekend of the Championship. Free of the injury woe that plagued their autumn campaign, and that Kidney joked would have had him calling off matches, England pose a formidable threat. They finished last year's Six Nations in sparkling form and have ridden a wave of criticism since that leaves them in a strong position now.

"This is the best squad we have had in my time being in charge and it will only get stronger," warned Johnson, who also shrugged of the speculation surrounding his re-appointment of Steve Borthwick as his captain. "We know the World Cup is coming and we need to plan accordingly but you need to be competitive and winning games as well. We're here to win, we will not sacrifice games for the sake of blooding players, you've got try and do both, stay competitive and bring those guys in strike a balance between those two."

If England are to reclaim the crown they will have to do it the hard way with just two games at what was once 'fortress Twickenham' with a trip to Murrayfield and the challenge of a revitalised Scotland also on their agenda. Coach Andy Robinson lit up when recalling how the Scots had "inspired a nation" with a battling victory over Australia in the autumn and demanded a similar level of commitment in the coming weeks as they look to haul themselves up from the depths of the Championship also-rans.

"The Italian pack dominated all-comers last year, a fact Mallett is proud of, as he continues to rally against a lack of playing resources."

"We are in control of our destiny," he insisted with convincing sincerity. "We are in control of whether we win or lose. If we attack well, control the scoreboard and defend well we will win. But if we defend poorly against any team we will lose. Our defensive mindset is paramount throughout every game. It's down to us; it's not about a bounce of the ball or the referee but what we do. We perform, we win."

Wales went from Grand Slam champions in 2008 to a fourth place finish 12 months ago - although to be fair they came rather close to a repeat success - and a failure to live up to expectation in the autumn only heightened concerns. But like England they welcome back some familiar names for the Six Nations with fullback Lee Byrne and prop Adam Jones among those to bolster their challenge that begins with a mouth-watering clash with England at Twickenham - the fixture that sparked their most recent clean sweep.

"You have really got to hit the ground running in this tournament," declared Gatland, well aware of the pivotal nature of the England clash. "Both teams are very similar, and whoever wins will go in with a bit of confidence for the rest of the championship. Both sides realise how important it is to win the first game."

Italy have struggled to consistently bridge the divide between themselves and their neighbours and without their inspirational leader Parisse, sidelined for several months with a knee injury, they look destined for more Six Nations woe. If only they could bottle some of coach Nick Mallett's steely determination to lift the Azzurri to greater heights.

"We just can't be a one-man team," he said contemplating a Championship without his talisman who he considered the best No.8 in Europe. "It would be a sad situation if the only reason Italy were competitive was because Sergio Parisse was playing."

His goal? "To make it a complicated as possible for the opposition to play against us and try and play to our strengths." In other words, scrum them into submission. The Italian pack dominated all-comers last year, a fact Mallett is proud of, as he continues to rally against a lack of playing resources.

"It is critical that the team realise they are the flag bearers of the future of the game in Italy," he stressed. "If the Italian national side do not perform well there is no chance that the playing numbers will increase and they must realise that responsibility every time they run out on the field."

And so the stage is set. Six Nations. Fifteen matches. And enough twists and turns to keep even the most ardent thrill-seeker satisfied. Let battle commence.

Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.

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