The international season is officially over for test nations, yet in two months the cream of Europe will assemble to contest the 12th Six Nations, and the 119th edition of the championship that has seen previous guises of the Home and Five Nations.
With no Southern tours scheduled in a World Cup year, the Six Nations will be the last major opportunity for the contenders north of the equator to finalise preparations.
There are World Cup warm-up matches scheduled prior to the 2011 tournament, but history has proven that these ‘friendlies’ provide little pointer as often they are devalued as coaches rest top players.
Kicking off on Feb. 4 and concluding on March 19, the 2011 Six Nations will then have a six-month gap between the oldest international championship and the World Cup, so in theory presents the nations with a significant disadvantage compared with the top three teams in the world – represented by the SANZAR fraternity.
The 2011 Tri Nations will be played just before the World Cup, with the final match between Australia and New Zealand in Brisbane just two weeks before the seventh global tournament’s opening ceremony.
Already the opening verbal salvos have been fired by the various Six Nations coaches, although interestingly there is no positive talk coming from the camp of the reigning Grand Slam champions.
Les Bleus capped off a year where they again showed why they are the great chameleon of world rugby.
Their first five matches saw them record a dominant Grand Slam, even if their final match against England in Paris saw them retreat into their shell against a Red Rose that has shown the highest level of evolution from any team in Europe.
Yet the second half of their season saw them concede 16 tries in five tests with heavy losses to the Springboks, Pumas and Wallabies – with the latter being the heaviest defeat suffered by the Tricolours on French soil.
It is difficult to recall such a dramatic turnaround in form in the professional era.
Their biggest weakness on the field seems to be that heads drop too easily, with Les Bleus “departing the contest” as captain Thierry Dusautoir has said, when opposition teams run out to strong leads.
Off the field, selection and match tactics are debilitating the French, which reflects poorly on coach Marc Lievremont.
The former flanker has utilised over 80 players since taking over from Bernard Laporte, and it was no coincidence that consistent selection during the Six Nations enabled the team to record a Slam. Players are being selected based on their opponents – selecting a heavyweight backline for the Wallabies – and France are not fielding players based around strategies the Tricolours wish to impose.
That leads to their second weakness, with Lievremont abandoning his early policy of flamboyant rugby and reverting back to the pragmatism utilised by France in recent years. There is uncertainty in how Les Bleus perform on the field, and until a settled game plan is implemented, they will surely continue to struggle.
England will march into the 2011 tournament deserved favourites.
They were overpowered by the Springboks, but as former centre Will Greenwood pointed out “when you have your head shoved up your own ass by the South Africans, you tend to remember it”.
The Red Rose has a pedigree of being dominant physically as well, and they will do well to heed the lesson that despite their willingness to embrace the open manner in which rugby can be played, the game is still a contact sport.
They showed a real development with their skills, showing great comfort in playing ball in hand rugby. Most pleasing for coach Martin Johnson is not only has plenty of improvement been seen this year, but there is still clearly scope for this England team to become at the very least the dominant power in the North.
Players such as Courtney Lawes and Ben Youngs are long term test players. They are bolstered by Europe’s best back three in Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Mark Cueto, while the pack is blessed with balance in the loose forwards and typical ‘white orcs on steroids’ up front.
If they do not serious challenge in New Zealand, they will be well placed to mount an assault on the 2015 World Cup, which they will host.
Ireland and Wales, nations that have been in their prime in the last five years, will have to arrest an alarming drop off in form.
The Red Dragons, with a winning record only one test win better than Italy this year, will take basic comfort from the fact that their forward pack is doing the business, matching all of the Southern Hemisphere teams.
Their glaring weakness seems to be in their backline, where even with front foot ball they seemed unable to show enough creativity or cohesion to attack – when they were expected in the autumn to be the team best suited to the new law interpretations.
Coach Warren Gatland, surprisingly confirmed as Wales’ boss until 2015 despite no recent results, surely will face a serious inquisition unless he turns things around. In his favour he does have the cattle, but needs to get his squad to produce.
Ireland seem to be struggling with an aging squad, with Jonathan Sexton the only young player challenging a in a team that is on the wrong side of 30 years.
Still, despite losses they have shown plenty of mettle.
Despite being smashed by the All Blacks in New Zealand, they ran four tries past the best team in world rugby with a man down. They finished within a try to the Wallabies in Australia despite being horrendously off colour, and came within two points of overhauling the Springboks of late.
It is hard to assess what is exactly wrong with Ireland, for while they have no glaring weaknesses, they have no abundant strengths.
A challenging year awaits for canny coach Declan Kidney.
The dark horse of Europe is Scotland, whose development continued with a win over the Springboks, meaning that the Thistles have now lost only once in their last seven tests. The 49-3 defeat to the All Blacks was an aberration, as New Zealand reserved their best performance on tour against a Scotland team that was playing their first match in nearly six months.
Up front Scotland looks the real deal, with a strong scrum, competent lineout and a loose forward trio that could well be the best north of the equator.
However, while coach Andy Robinson has infused his team with a basic but sturdy strategy and real confidence, there is still the unanswered question of sting in their backline.
They are the least threatening tier one team in world rugby in terms of scoring tries, and while they can kick goals, perform at first phase and defend like Highlanders – no team in world rugby will ever be considered world class without a menacing attack.
Italy, who as always wields a grizzled pack and powerful scrum, will unfortunately make up the numbers again, showing a singular dimension in their play that is hurting them in their quest to become a top team.
Every test match they show promise, but are unable to match opponents if they lift their game, and cannot chase a test if they fall behind on the scoreboard.
Their growth will continue after a full season of having representation in the Magner’s League, but while Nick Mallet’s pedigree cannot be doubted, one wonders if he is the man to transform the Italians.
Six Nations Fixture Schedule 2011
Friday 4th February - Wales v England - 7.45pm
Saturday 5th February - Italy v Ireland - 2.30pm
Saturday 5th February - France v Scotland - 5pm
Saturday 12th February - England v Italy - 2.30pm
Saturday 12th February - Scotland v Wales - 5pm
Sunday 13th February - Ireland v France - 3pm
Saturday 26th February - Italy v Wales - 2.30pm
Saturday 26th February - England v France - 5pm
Sunday 27th February - Scotland v Ireland - 3pm
Saturday 12th March - Italy v France - 2.30pm
Saturday 12th March - Wales v Ireland - 5pm
Sunday 13th March - England v Scotland - 3pm
Saturday 19th March - Scotland v Italy - 2.30pm
Saturday 19th March - Ireland v England - 5pm
Saturday 19th March - France v Wales - 7.45pm