Beginning officially in 1883—the oldest international championship—the prestigious tournament will take special significance this year.
Of course, not only do the individual nations wish for success, but for the four home unions the lure of an illustrious British Lions cap will ensure that the players of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland will perform with gusto. Scotsman Ian McGeehan will be using the championship essentially as the trial games.
For the last five years the title has been exchanged between Wales and France—with the Red Dragons being the current champions, achieving both Triple Crowns and Grand Slam triumphs (a TC is victory over all home unions, GS over all teams). Wales were also winners in 2005, while France won back to back titles in 2006 and 2007; and themselves achieved a Grand Slam in 2004.
Warren Gatland’s Welsh deservedly enter as favorites, not only as current holders but for their form in the autumn internationals, where they were the only Northern team to register victory; against the Wallabies, and effectively matched the All Blacks for one half.
With fullback Lee Byrne and Number Eight Andy Powell confirming their status as world class players in 2008, and the return of injury of Gavin Henson—all probable Lions —Shane William’s injury cloud is the only negative for the Dragons.
England, confoundedly joint betting favorites with Wales, will be under much pressure after a poor back half to 2008. Jonny Wilkinson is still not guaranteed to be back for the championship, and no longer is Twickenham the fortress of English rugby after record defeats to the Springboks and All Blacks. With three of their five games at home, they have a slight edge, but realistically England is in complete disarray.
Steve Borthwick has been confirmed as their skipper for the campaign—but there is little to fall back on, with even England’s traditional forward strength embarrassed in the autumn matches, especially against the Wallabies. Ideally, Johnson and his men need to completely rethink their approach, but a miracle turnaround is unlikely.
Les Bleus are the most successful team in the modern era of the championship—winning 22 titles since their first in 1954. No doubt Marc Lievremont’s men will enter as dark horses, being somewhat of an unknown quantity of all the sides—failing to significantly impress against either Argentina or Australia late last year. Still, there are some impressive markers, with the French scrum looking very impressive and the Tri colors having an embarrassment of riches in the back row.
As their defense has improved, their attack has stuttered, with the French backs losing the potency shown in 2008’s Six Nations as the year drew on. The best thing for French rugby may occur after the championship, with Les Bleus looking to send a full strength team to tour the South mid-year.
Ireland, now without a title since 1985, will hope for greater things after being the perennial bridesmaids of the championship in recent years. Two years ago Ireland was hailed as being the strongest they had ever been, but it appears that still an identity crisis holds grip on Gallic rugby.
Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara and past their prime, and while players such as Luke Fitzgerald and Stephen Ferris look promising, Ireland looks remiss of any X factor. Despite being humiliated by the All Blacks though, Ireland did grind down Argentina, and mood within the team is positive. It will take more to break a 24 year drought however.
The Italians enter without a championship, but are improving dramatically year after year playing top level consistently. Unlucky not to beat the Wallabies in November, and led by brilliant No. 8 Sergio Parisse and a powerful pack. Nick Mallet is clearly working well with his side, with 49 players in a pre-Christmas training camp late 2008.
Concerns over player depth abound, as well as quality behind the scrum with the exception of Mirco Bergamasco. Strong forwards help, but do not win matches—has the improvement reached a plateau for the Azzuri? They will hope to catch England with their “pants down” in the first game of the championship in Twickenham, before having three home games.
We will await an intriguing championship, but while a Grand Slam may not await, it will be likely that the Welsh will win their third championship in five years.
Six Nations Fixtures (times are UK – home team first)
Saturday 7th February:
England v Italy (3.00pm)
Ireland v France (5.00pm)
Sunday 8th February:
Scotland v Wales (3.00pm)
Saturday 14th February:
France v Scotland (3.00pm)
Wales v England (5.30pm)
Sunday 15th February:
Italy v Ireland (2.30pm)
Friday 27th February:
France v Wales (8.00pm)
Saturday 28th February:
Scotland v Italy (3.00pm)
Ireland v England (5.30pm)
Saturday 14th March:
Italy v Wales (3.00pm)
Scotland v Ireland (5.00pm)
Sunday 15th March:
England v France (3.00pm)
Saturday 21st March:
Italy v France (1.15pm)
England v Scotland (3.30pm)
Wales v Ireland (5.30pm)