Assessing the Six Nations Teams Challenge for the 2011 Rugby World Cup
With the squads for the 2011 Rugby World Cup now announced, the tournament is nearly upon us.
As with most of the previous World Cups, New Zealand is the clear favorite to claim the William Webb Ellis trophy. Their Tri-Nations rivals South Africa and Australia follow behind.
What of the Northern Hemisphere team’s chances? Given their record against the Tri-Nations teams in recent internationals, you’d be hard pressed to make a case for any of them to win the tournament.
However past World Cups have shown us that upsets are possible and the Six Nations sides have plenty of quality players who can, on their day, perform with the best in the world.
Let’s have a look at their players and their chances.
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Positives: The Six Nations Champions will be looking to go one better than in 2007 when they made an unexpected run to the final. As ever, England boasts a strong front row with Andrew Sheridan and Dan Cole besting most of their Six Nations opponents.
Equally strong is England’s lineout both offensive and defensive, well marshaled by Louis Deacon, the much improved Tom Palmer and the dynamic Courtney Lawes. Athletic Tom Croft will provide options in the line-up and the loose while a fully fit Lewis Moody will provide a proper option at seven.
Ben Youngs provides a running option at scrum half and combines well with Leicester teammate Toby Flood with Jonny Wilkinson a reliable option off the bench. The main strength in the backs is Northampton duo Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. Foden is an outstanding counter-attacking full back while Ashton’s ability to pick running lines in the opposition defence lead him to be the leading try scorer in this year’s Six Nations.
Negatives: The stand out problems for England is the lack of creativity best shown in the centers. Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall may be solid defensively but lack any imagination going forward. It is all very well having Foden and Ashton but if they never get the ball, there is almost no point having them there.
England have a problem in the back row, Nick Easter is strong but lacks the dynamism of a Jamie Heaslip or Sergio Parisse. If Moody is injured, England doesn't have an proper blind side flanker in the mould of David Pocock or Richie McCaw and while James Haskell has his merits, he was badly exposed by a proper seven in David Wallace in Dublin.
There is currently a general lack of dynamism in the English game. You can’t honestly see England beating New Zealand or South Africa with their limited game plan at the moment.
Chances: England should progress from their pool although Scotland and Argentina could beat them on their day. Not unlike 2007, England will relish going into potential games against France and Australia as underdogs and have upset both in the past. In all likelihood though, England lack the quality to go all the way
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Positives: If you were judging a side by just ability alone, France would be the strongest of the Six Nations teams at the World Cup. All French sides come in with strong forwards and a reputation for scrimmaging and this one is no different. Fabien Barcella and Nicolas Mas will provide plenty of power in the scrums while William Servat is strong in the loose and throwing into the line out.
The French back row of tackling machine Theirry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire and the powerful Imanol Harinordoquy is as good as any and has quality back up in the likes Fulgence Ouedraogo and Louis Picamoles.
The backs have a mix of power and finesse. Morgan Parra provides a reliable kicking option while Francois Trinh Duc is a fly half with a wonderful all-around game. Aurelien Rougerie has transformed himself into a powerful outside centre while pace of back three Vincent Clerc, Cedric Heymans and especially Maxime Medard will scare any team.
Negatives: The trouble with the French is you have no idea which side is going to turn up! Is it the team who beat New Zealand in New Zealand or is it the team lost to Italy and lost by 50 points at home to Australia? This is not helped by Coach Marc Lievremont’s tendency to rotate the team for no clear reason and his bizarre public attacks on his players.
On the pitch, the loss of Thomas Domingo is huge. Domingo is probably as good as any Loosehead Prop in the Northern Hemisphere and while Barcella is a good replacement, his own injury issues could well cause the French problems.
Defensively the French have conceded a few too many tries especially around their fringe defence.
Chances: A Quarter Final matchup with England seems likely, providing the French don’t upset New Zealand again and could go either way. The thing with France is you genuinely have no idea what they are going to do. They could potentially win it all but most likely will fail to perform when it matters.
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Positives: If you want to know how good the Irish potentially are then all you need to do is watch their Six Nations Championship victory over the English. In that game the Irish showed forward power through props Cian Healy and Mike Ross that destroyed their English counterparts.
Paul O’Connell has shown a return to form while Ireland boast a fine back row containing the powerful Jamie Heaslip, wily David Wallace and Sean O’Brien, the standout player of the Six Nations for Ireland. Add in the returning Stephen Ferris and the Irish have plenty of options in the back row.
In the backs, Eoin Reddan will provide quick service; Jonathan Sexton will bring a big game mentality that saw him guide Leinster to Heineken Cup glory this year while Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll will bring experience and class to the centres. Tommy Bowe will be out to show the kind of form he showed in the 2009 Grand Slam while Rob Kearney’s return is a huge boost.
Negatives: On their day, the Irish are sublime. The problem is they rarely play to their potential. Their main problem appears to be the frustratingly high amount of penalties to give away killing their momentum and letting the opposition back into games they have dominated.
The Irish have a tendency to ’go missing’ in games which was shown best in their defeat by France last Saturday when they started strongly but allowed the French to get back into game and dominate.
Front row depth is also a problem, should Healy and Ross get injured, you wonder who would fill in.
Chances: Ireland will fancy their chances of upsetting Australia as they nearly managed eight years ago but you would think Australia would probably win that game. Italy will be a threat, they nearly beat Ireland in Rome this year and if the Irish are complacent, they could find themselves on the end of an upset.
Ireland could face South Africa in the Quarter Finals and could upset them too but again, you’d have to favour the Southern Hemisphere side.
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Positives: Wales’ hopes rest on their backline. An in-form Mike Phillips is a threat to any back line while Jamie Roberts will hope to match his performances of the 2009 Lions tour. Shane Williams’ pace and trickery will cause problems as will George North who has impressed in his brief international career.
The most important member of the backline is James Hook’s whose passing, kicking and ability to spot a gap will be necessary in order to progress.
The return of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones will stabilise the Welsh scrum while the outstanding Sam Warburton will lead the side and Ryan Jones’ return to form is timely.
Wales have been very impressive defensively. Shaun Edwards’ well drilled rush defence has only conceded two tries in their three warm up games and kept out the English very impressively.
Negatives: Off the field, the Welsh players have had a number of distracting run-ins with the law, Andy Powell, Jonathan Davies, Bradley Davies and Phillips being the guilty men. The loss of Morgan Stoddard and Gavin Henson is a massive blow particularly Henson despite his lack of playing time and off the field problems.
Wales have struggled in their set piece play and if Jones or Jenkins is injured, they may struggle in the scrum while the lineout has been a shambles.
Chances: Wales are unlucky to have been drawn in the hardest group. Samoa and Fiji have beaten them in the past and both are stronger than they have ever been. Should the Welsh get through, they would be massive underdogs against Australia.
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Positives: Scotland has improved vastly under the leadership of Andy Robinson. The Scots main strength lies in the defence led by their back row and their lineout thanks to their stand out player Richie Gray.
Scotland’s back play has also improved helped by three quality scrum halves Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson. Ruaridh Jackson has impressed at fly half while Joe Ansbro, Sean Lamont and Max Evans provide a greater cutting edge behind the scrum.
Chris Paterson continues to convert penalty opportunities as at a very high rate.
Negatives: Scotland still has problems scoring tries. They look more threatening than in previous years but the lack of a creative inside centre still continues to hurt them. Far too much of their back play is too lateral.
With Euan Murray’s decline through injury, the Scottish scrum has not functioned as well as it used to and Ross Ford can be inconsistent when throwing into the line out.
Chances: Scotland was unlucky to be drawn with England and Argentina though they beat the latter in Argentina last year and ran England pretty close at Twickenham in this year’s Six Nations. It would not be a huge surprise if they made through the group stages. However a probable meeting with New Zealand would almost certainly end in heavy defeat.
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Positives: As ever, Italy’s game will be based around an extremely experienced pack. Salvatore Perugini and Martin Castrogiovanni will provide a challenge for any pack while Alessandro Zanni will look to build on an outstanding Six Nations. The undoubted star is still Sergio Parisse, a number eight good enough to start in practically any team in the world.
The Italian backs have improved and Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Canale will hope to build on their impressive Six Nations performances. A major boost will be the return of highly rated scrum half Edoardo Gori who was injured right at the start of the Ireland game.
Negatives: Italy has never found a true replacement for Diego Dominguez at fly half and they continue to struggle there. They have tried a number of options and have settled on the distinctly average Luciano Orquera. Italy lack a goal kicker, Mirco Bergamasco’s erratic kicking cost them victory against Wales and is unreliable.
While the scrum is good, the line out is very poor, Leonardo Ghiraldini struggled badly in the Six Nations and any team that gets parity with Italy in the forwards is likely to beat them due to their lack of creativity.
Chances: The Italians will focus on beating Ireland and they have a chance having nearly beaten them in Rome earlier this year. Win that and they should advance to the Quarter Finals; anything beyond that is a bonus.