The brutal battle for Northern Hemisphere pre-eminence kicks off with a bang this weekend, defending champions Wales opening up proceedings at Millennium Stadium with aspirations of claiming a third consecutive title. Despite the imposing Welsh dominance in the competition over the last two seasons, it is England that heads in as 9/4 favourites to lift the cup. The relentless unpredictability of Six Nations Rugby means attempting to decipher which side will be crowned King of the North this early in the competition would be nothing more than a futile exercise. Trying to predict which sides will emerge victorious in the first round, however, has the potential to secure a tidy profit. Here’s a quick look at the opening round of this year’s RBS Six Nations.
Wales vs Italy | Saturday 01 February | Millennium Stadium | 14:30
The fiery Italians head into Cardiff this weekend looking to build on their impressive 2013 showing in the Six Nations, that resulted in wins over both France and Ireland.
To Win (80mins)
Wales (-19.5) 1/1
Italy (+18.5) 1/1
A quick glance at the overwhelming talent that lies at Warren Gatland’s disposal this season makes that record-setting third consecutive title victory seem not only achievable, but probable. However, if you throw the unfortunate political instability within the union at the moment into the mix then things start to look less promising. Still, the home side looks set to obliterate their guest this weekend with an explosive backline boasting the likes of Mike Phillips, George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Priestland. Lock Alun-Wyn Jones will captain the side this Saturday as regular skipper Sam Warburton finds himself on the bench for his first match back from injury.
The Italians run out in Cardiff with a powerful forward pack that will undoubtedly create a few headaches for the Welsh. But no matter how influential forwards such as Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse may be, without a dynamic playmaker at ten, the Italians will battle off the back foot for most of the game. Luciano Orquera looks set to start at flyhalf, but youngster Tomaso Allan may be a wiser choice. He would provide the extra flare on attack that the Italians have lacked for some time.
VERDICT: Wales (-19.5) 1/1
Despite their ongoing Region vs Union issues, Wales are running out with arguably the most potent side in the competition this weekend. If Italy have failed to make vast improvements to the inexcusably shoddy defence that cost them so dearly throughout 2013, then Wales won’t have too much of a hassle clearing the 20-point handicap.
France vs England | Saturday 01 February | Stade de France | 17:00
The top two ranking European sides on the IRB standings go head-to-head at Stade de France, in what looks set to be the opening round’s pièce de résistance.
To Win (80mins)
France (-4.5) 1/1
England (+4.5) 17/20
Les Bleus must be the lucky packet team of rugby union; you never quite know what you are going to get with them. Their performance ranges from phenomenal to abysmal, often over the space of a week. There is, however, one certainty when it comes to playing the French, and that is that if you have the misfortune of running out against them on a day when they happen to be firing on all cylinders, the only option is to institute damage control to help minimise the extent of the massacre. France had a forgettable 2013 to say the least. They collected the wooden spoon in last year’s Six Nations, and from there went on to lose all but one of their next six test matches. The talent is there, so if Philippe Saint-Andre can find a way to ensure the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud, Remi Tales, Jean-Marc Doussain, Wesley Fofana and Louis Picamoles live up to their potential in front of their home crowd this week, England are in for a great deal of pain in Saint-Denis.
Stuart Lancaster’s men will surely be looking to make amends for the humiliating 30-3 battering they received from Wales in the final round of last year’s tournament, especially since that unexpected defeat cost them the coveted Grand Slam. England will hold their own up front with the likes of Billy Vunipola, Dane Coles and Courtney Lawes beefing up the forwards, but their backline is looking slightly unsettled at the moment. Speedster Chris Ashton has been dropped after failing to impress during the Autumn International Series, with Stuart Lancaster opting to go with Jonny May and uncapped wingers Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson for this weekend’s clash. With the explosive Manu Tuilagi still sidelined with injury, England are battling to find an effective midfield combination at the moment. Fullback Mike Brown offers some exciting attacking options from the back, but the slightly conservative Owen Farrell at flyhalf may prevent Brown from being utilised as effectively as he could be.
VERDICT: France (-4.5) 1/1
The French are hungry for that winning feeling, and they know a victory here will set them up nicely for the rest of the competition. The memory of last year’s wooden spoon winning antics should be more than enough to light the fire in their bellies. They should manage the five point handicap to pick up a decent 1/1.
Ireland vs Scotland | Sunday 02 February | Lansdowne Road | 15:00
A colossal Celtic clash takes place at Lansdowne Road this Sunday, in the final game of the opening round.
To Win (80mins)
Ireland (-12.5) 9/10
Scotland (+12.5) 9/10
If Heineken Cup performances are anything to go by, then Ireland could be the side to beat this year, with three of their sides having secured spots in the knock-out stages of this season’s competition. New coach Joe Schmidt seems to have settled in quite quickly, with just his third game in charge nearly claiming that elusive All Black scalp. With rugby demi-god Brian O’Driscoll entering his final Six Nations campaign, he will undoubtedly be looking to cause a bit of carnage out in front of his home crowd this week. Clinical backline commander Johnny Sexton will be aiming to exploit Scotland’s lack of options at number ten. Ireland will be without the influential Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe, but against an unsettled Scottish side, I can’t see this having too much of an impact on the outcome.
Some odd decision making by the powers that be have left Scotland in a peculiar coaching transition phase, with interim coach Scott Johnson continuing in his temporary position at the helm until Vern Cotter takes over in a few months. This leaves the entire current squad in an uncomfortable limbo period where their futures in the national setup remain tentative for the remainder of the season. It is hard to imagine Scotland producing much in the way of inspirational performances with such uncertainty in the camp. And while the likes of Dave Denton, Kelly Brown, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg have already established themselves as world-class players, they will not be able to compensate for the obtrusive lack of depth and experience in several key positions, especially at flyhalf.
VERDICT: Ireland (-12.5) 9/10
That bittersweet loss to the All Blacks at the end of last year would have done wonders for the confidence of the Irish side. They are by far the better team on paper, with a much more settled team setup, so I’m expecting them to pull off a convincing victory in front of a home crowd. Ireland by fifteen.