Team-by-team preview of Six Nations Rugby Championship
RUGBY: LONDON, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Team-by-team preview of the Six
Nations championship which kicks off on Feb. 4:
FRANCE (last season's position: first - grand slam).
As ever, France go into the tournament capable of sweeping all before
them but with huge question marks about their mentality after a series
Having secured a Six Nations grand slam, France were brought crashing
back to earth with heavy summer defeats by Argentina and South Africa
and ended the year on a real low after suffering a record 59-16 home
thrashing at the hands of Australia.
For coach Marc Lievremont, who came under fire for using almost 60
players during his first 18 months in charge, it was just another crazy
year for the craziest team in the sport.
Even the Australia defeat was not straightforward as it was 13-13 at
halftime before the Wallabies ran in six tries in a home collapse that
Lievremont described as "inexplicable".
The defeats forced him to look closely at his coaching set up and the
former flanker decided to get more involved in the work of his backline,
coached by assistant Emile Ntamack.
He said he has learnt a huge amount about the job since taking over
from Bernard Laporte after the 2007 World Cup and is thinking only
"I'm not interested in the talk of quitting or sackings," he said.
"I'm happy the players are behind what we are trying to do and I can see
that they are working hard to implement the ideas."
With the flyhalf position continuing to cause problems, the key to
France's backline is scrumhalf Morgan Parra, a player Lievremont
describes as his "maestro".
The pack remains strong and if the back row of Thierry Dusautoir,
Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy reproduce their form from the
2010 Six Nations then France will be in with a strong shout for their
sixth title in 10 years.
They will expect to get off to a winning start having lost at home to
Scotland only twice in more than 40 years but their tournament will be
defined by back-to-back away games against England and Ireland.
"They are tough matches but we won't travel there in fear,"
Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll says his hunger for the Six Nations
is greater than ever as he realizes he is coming towards the end of his
Ireland followed their grand slam of 2009 with a disappointing show
last year as defeats by France and Scotland left them off the pace.
However, a reasonable autumn series and a Six Nations fixture list that
gives them home games against England and France means they should be in
"I'm really looking forward to it, I love the competition, if
anything I probably have more of a longing for it now because I don't
have many more years of it left so I will thoroughly enjoy every
moment," said O'Driscoll, who played his first Six Nations match 11
"We had a reasonable November series - we won two and lost two.
Plenty of other sides did better than us but we're quietly confident
that if we get our game together we'll be in the hunt in some capacity
and I'm looking forward to getting the old Lansdowne Road roar up and
Coach Declan Kidney has a few injury worries for the opening trip to
Italy with Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy all
missing and he will hope that Heaslip and Bowe in particular are back in
time to face France.
"We've tried to build a squad over the last few years and this will
be the test of that," said Kidney.
When Martin Johnson lifted the Six Nations trophy after a dominant
grand slam in 2003 few would have guessed that eight years later England
would not have had another sniff of the title.
Two second places since then is a paltry return for the game's
richest and most populous union but, in a wide open tournament, 2011
could be the time to end the drought.
Johnson has finally established a settled-looking team and though he
too has had some injury setbacks, not least the loss of captain Lewis
Moody for their first two matches, for the first time in years the
bookmakers make England favourites.
Johnson, as usual, is reluctant to look beyond the Friday night
tournament opening in Cardiff on Feb. 4.
"The November games are behind us and all our focus is on Wales," he
said. "I think it will be fast and furious to start off with and we'll
need to try to get a bit of control and not be too frenetic early on.
"We want to play with pace and tempo but you also have to play with
control the ball within that."
England came out of their shell for their superb thrashing of
Australia in November but defeats to New Zealand and South Africa either
side of the win ensured nobody was getting carried away. After Cardiff,
England have three home games, against Italy, France and Scotland,
before finishing off in Ireland and though Johnson said he was happy to
take the favourite's role, there was little between the teams.
"Nobody's putting a lot of money on anyone to win it this year," he
said. "All the usual factors come in - injuries, who gets a bit of
momentum, who can win those close games."
After their grand slam in 2008 Wales have finished fourth twice and
go into this year's tournament having won just two of their last 13
With British Lions props Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins and centre Tom
Shanklin out of the tournament with injury and the Welsh media howling
for a victory, coach Warren Gatland is under pressure.
The New Zealander though says he was right to play tough games in
November in a bid to improve his squad.
"We've gone out to play New Zealand, South Africa and Australia and
that's put us under a lot of pressure," he said.
"We could have played lesser teams and put points on the board and
get results but in terms of us improving as a team that wouldn't be
doing our rugby any good."
Wales' win over England in Gatland's first game in charge three years
ago set them on their way to the grand slam. "This competition is about
confidence and momentum," he said. "If you win a couple of games you are
in the mix and by the end of it you are incredibly tough to beat. You
just have to go back to 2008 where we built on that opening success."
Having finished in the bottom two for the last four years Scotland
will hope to find the form that has brought five wins from their last
six games to lift them up the standings. An impressive double in
Argentina in June was followed by November victories over South Africa
and Samoa but the 49-3 thrashing by New Zealand has left coach Andy
Robinson well aware of his team's frailties.
"Those wins have given us confidence but New Zealand was certainly a
reminder," he said. "In last year's Six Nations we played well in
patches but didn't produce the results and obviously that's where we
need to change."
They could not have been handed a tougher start than an away game
against France. Scotland have beaten them only once since Italy joined
the expanded Six Nations in 2000 and have just two wins in Paris since
Scotland have also been appalling starters in recent seasons, winning
only one of their last 11 opening fixtures. "Our performances when we
haven't played for a while have not always been great but playing at the
Stade de France is always a great occasion and I'm sure we will rise to
it," Robinson said. Robinson has selected Alastair Kellock as his new
captain and the Glasgow lock, who led the team in Argentina but missed
the first three months of the season with a knee injury, felt the squad
was beginning to gel.
"We had some good performances in the summer and autumn and we've got
some top-class players returning from injury," Kellock said. "If we play
to the absolute best of our ability then we can get off to a winning
start against France."
Nick Mallett continues to win friends and admirers but, unfortunately
for the South African and for Italian rugby fans, very few matches.
In his three years in charge Italy have won just two Six Nations
games, finishing bottom every time. Eleven years after joining the
tournament they are still battling to establish themselves, having won
more than one match on only one occasion.
The return of inspirational captain and number eight Sergio Parisse,
who missed last year's tournament with a knee injury, is a huge bonus
but flanker Mauro Bergamasco and flyhalf Craig Gower are out.
A lack of depth and an all-too-common inability to compete in the
last quarter of games is likely to leave Italy struggling again, though
Mallett remains upbeat.
"We did show some progress in the November games, there were
positives and I feel we are definitely growing as a team," he said.
"It's hard for us as we are always battling against higher-ranked
teams but we do have quality in the squad."The Italian scrum,
particularly the powerful front row, remains a match for anyone but the
fixture list points to another struggle. They have home games against
Ireland, Wales and France combined with trips to England, and, the one
team they have had good success against, Scotland.