As is traditional, 2013 kicks off with the premier rugby union tournament in Europe, which pits six of the world’s best teams against each other.

Joy of Six | The RBS 6 Nations starts on Saturday February 2 with Wales taking on Ireland at the Millennium Stadium. (Image | The Independent)

Joy of Six | The RBS 6 Nations starts on Saturday February 2 with Wales taking on Ireland at the Millennium Stadium. (Image | The Independent)

They face off in a round-robin format over the next month and a half to be crowned the greatest side in the northern hemisphere.

With the Grand Slam awarded to whichever team avoids defeat and the Triple Crown to the side undefeated against opponents from the British Isles, the 119th edition looks set to be closely contested. Here is how the six may fare.

England – Championship wins: 26 (12 Grand Slams)

Second in 2012

Form:

England’s most recent trophy came in 2011, although you have to go back to 2003 for the one before that. Last year saw a major restructuring, with a large number of uncapped players called up in an attempt to alter the team’s playing philosophy.

Squad:

This will be one of the least experienced in the tournament, with only Dylan Hartley, Ben Foden and Toby Flood having picked up more than 20 caps in previous 6 Nations.

Not that the side is without promise, however: young fly half Owen Farrell could be a future great, while the likes of Joe Marler and Joe Launchbury add athleticism to the pack.

Flanker Chris Robshaw has endured a shaky start as captain, but continues to grow in confidence under head coach Stuart Lancaster. Nevertheless, 2012 was the honeymoon period for this generation and they will not be allowed mistakes this time around.

Prediction:

England have shown that they have the skill to beat the very best, particularly through their win against New Zealand back in November.

However, they may lack the outright ability and polish at this stage to be consistent throughout the tournament. Tough away fixtures against Ireland and Wales will prove decisive.

France – Championship wins: 17 (Nine Grand Slams)

Fourth in 2012

Form:

Les Bleus have been the most consistent team since the turn of the millennium, with five victories in 12 years, the most recent of which was an unforgettable Grand Slam in 2010. Yet last year was somewhat less inspiring, as France slumped to fourth.

Squad:

France always have tough selection decisions given the sheer depth of talent in their club system, which leads to a number of quality players being left out each year.

However, the 2013 crop does raise an eyebrow: Imanol Harinordoquy and Maxime Médard, two of the best at club level, have been left out in favour of the ageing Fulgence Ouedraogo and volatile centre Mathieu Bastareaud.

That said, the squad is still overflowing with talent. Wesley Fofana has been electric over the past 12 months, Gael Fickou is an exciting prospect and Louis Picamoles is one of the best back row forwards in the world.

For coach Philippe Saint-André, the main issue will be selecting his strongest XV from the 25-odd world-class players at his disposal.

Prediction:

It is near impossible to predict what will happen with France in any given year. Strong victories in the Autumn Internationals could end up counting for nothing given their tendency to self destruct under pressure.

Captain Pascal Papé will need to call on every single ounce of his experience to keep the players under control, but this could in fact turn out to be a winning year.

Italy – Championship wins: none

Fifth in 2012

Form:

After making the step up from the European Cup in 2000, Italy have struggled to compete. However, they are no longer the whipping boys they once were, so do not expect to see any 50-point annihilations this time around.

Last year the Italians beat Scotland to avoid the wooden spoon, and there is no reason why this should not be repeated.

Squad:

Italy are nothing if not experienced, with captain Sergio Parisse and Gonzalo Canale onto their eighth tournament, while front-row pairing Andrea Lo Cicero and Martin Castrogiovanni will represent the Azzurri for the tenth year running.

Fly half Luciano Orquera can kick the points, Andrea Masi and Giovanbattista Venditti will run in the tries, while Alessandro Zanni and Robert Barbieri provide defensive muscle.

This group of players have been through hell and emerged stronger on the other side. Furthermore, Jacques Brunel has had two years at the helm and should be able to get the best from his team by now.

Prediction:

Despite their strengths, Italy are unlikely to cause too many problems for the stronger teams, and last year’s 42-10 loss to Ireland showed that they can lose concentration after the first couple of tries are conceded. Despite this, the Azzurri ought to beat Scotland into fifth.

Ireland – Championship wins: 11 (Two Grand Slams)

Third in 2012

Form:

Ireland completed a memorable Grand Slam in 2009, but otherwise the men in green have been a mid-table side for two decades. Last year was no exception to this, with a record of two wins, two losses and a draw.

Squad:

They suffered a huge injury blow when Tommy Bowe, the best finisher in 2012 with five tries, was not passed fit for the tournament.

Bowe-d out | Tommy Bowe, the leading try scorer last year, has been ruled out with a knee ligament injury. (Image | The Guardian)

Bowe-d out | Winger Tommy Bowe, the leading try scorer last year, has been ruled out with a knee ligament injury. (Image | The Guardian)

Giant flanker Stephen Ferris, whose defensive efforts played a major role in the success of 2009, will also be missed.

Despite the “golden generation” never reaching their full potential, coach Declan Kidney has still called on the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Donncha O’Callaghan one more time, suggesting a lack of depth at provincial level.

Salvation may come in the form of Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo, two astonishingly athletic backs who shattered the traditional mould of slow and steady Irish rugby in their Autumn International debuts.

Indeed, the side is packed with uncapped players, implying that this is a transition phase for the Emerald Isle.

Prediction:

Given the inexperienced squad, it is unlikely that Ireland will emerge as champions this year. With their first game to be played away against Wales, they could end up fighting to get back into contention after only one round.

Scotland – Championship wins: 14 (Three Grand Slams)

Sixth in 2012

Form:

Not the best. Scotland last won in 1999, and have just 16 victories from 65 matches since Italy joined the fray. Many considered 2012 to be one of the worst years in their history, with dismal defeats to New Zealand, South Africa and Tonga.

Squad:

Kelly Brown steps up as captain, and should at least steady the ship in his sixth 6 Nations campaign.

New talents such as Henry Pyrgos, Tim Visser and Dave Denton could indicate a new dawn for Scottish rugby, and Kiwi coach Scott Johnson has announced his intention to play a more attacking style than the players are used to.

Grieg Laidlaw should take up kicking duties after an assured showing last year, and will sink a few points, but ultimately this is a side that has had numerous opportunities to succeed in the past and not taken them.

The simple problem is that Scotland do not score tries – top finisher Sean Lamont has a mere five in 31 tournament appearances.

Prediction:

Scotland at least have home advantage for their probable wooden spoon decider against Italy, but they will most likely be coming off a defeat to England at Twickenham.

Given recent performances, it seems almost certain that they will finish last for the second year running.

Wales – Championship wins: 25 (11 Grand Slams)

First in 2012

Form:

Worryingly for Wales, after running out Grand Slam winners in 2008 and 2012, they suffered forgettable summer and autumn periods not only in these years but also during 2009, all of which brought with them humiliating defeats.

Squad:

Only France have the same depth of quality this year, but the Welsh must gel as a team if they wish to make full use of the talent available.

The back line of George North, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, and Alex Cuthbert is literally the biggest in world rugby, but also one of the fastest and most skilful.

Either James Hook or Dan Biggar will step up at fly half, and both should prove more reliable than Rhys Priestland was last year.

An injury to 2012 man of the tournament Dan Lydiate is not the end of the world, with Aaron Shingler and Justin Tipuric waiting in the wings at blindside flanker.

Young winger Eli Walker has been touted as the next Shane Williams, and will certainly make the most of any playing opportunity here.

Prediction:

The trouble is that Wales had all this at their disposal in November and comprehensively underperformed.

Possibly the first side in history to suffer from an injury to their head coach – Warren Gatland broke his ankle and returned to New Zealand to recover – Wales are also at a disadvantage here due to their schedule, which sees them play three away games in a row in the middle of the tournament.

When the Welsh face England in Cardiff in the final round, the trophy may already be out of sight for the reigning champions.

Championship prediction

  1. France (Grand Slam)
  2. England (Triple Crown)
  3. Wales
  4. Ireland
  5. Italy
  6. Scotland

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