Six Nations Championship ready for lift-off

Mark Smith's Six Nations preview assesses the runners and riders ahead of the closest championship in years

Adam Davy/PA Wire The Six Nations skippers pose ahead of this year's competition
The Six Nations skippers pose ahead of this year's competition

European club rugby may be eating its own arms at the moment, but the international version has no such inner torment as the Six Nations Championship clicks into gear this weekend.

Defending champions Wales kick-off the competition at home to Italy on Saturday with a certain bounce to their stride following the leading roles of their stars in the victorious British and Irish Lions tour to Australia.

With Lions kingpin Warren Gatland now fully restored to his day job (new contract and all), skipper Sam Warburton and back-line battering ram George North will again find the weight of a nation upon them.

However, it is not all beer and skittles in the pincipality, Wales losing half of their autumn internationals and finding their domestic game in turmoil.

As the four professional regions threaten a breakaway to the English Premiership, Cardiff Blues points machine Leigh Halfpenny has already signalled his intention to skip across the Channel for the sunshine and riches of the French Riviera.

Line-out totem Ian Evans misses the entire Six Nations after stamping on the head of Ireland lock Mike McCarthy on Heineken Cup duty, but still the Welsh go into the Six Nations as joint tournament favourites with most of the betting offices.

That is an honour they share with England, who are in the third year of Stuart Lancaster’s under-stated reign and with a concerted emphasis on youth.

A home World Cup next year has accounted largely for that, but the affable Cumbrian is building solidly after an autumn in which they defeated Australia and Argentina, even emerging with credit in defeat to world champions New Zealand.

Toby Flood’s anticipated move to France, Manu Tuilagi’s torn pectoral and Tom Croft’s knee ligament injury have denied the red-rose boss the services of three of his most creative weapons and consecutive away games in France and Scotland give them little scope to build gradually into the tournament.

Chris Robshaw’s services may have been deemed surplus to requirements by the Lions and, even if uncertainties persist over his suitability as a specialist open-side, the Harlequins scrapper runs a tight ship as captain of the squad.

Brad Barritt’s timely return to fitness should help shore up a midfield which remains the side’s glaring weakness, while Owen Farrell’s boot ensures opponents think twice before conceding penalties inside their own half.

Saturday sees them in at the deep end with an evening kick-off against a France side who are also unergoing a makeover.

Scrum-half Morgan Parra is among the established names to have been omitted by head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who has seen an influx of foreign players significantly reducing his domestic player pool. “We know the honeymoon is over for us as coaches, the apprenticeship for the players has come to an end and that we must all deliver,” said the former Gloucester winger, who has finally secured greater preparation time with his players thanks to an expensive deal with the clubs.

He explained: “It was like the other Six Nations countries were running a 100-metre race while we had to do the 110-metre hurdles.

“Now we are level but we have to get results.”

For Italy expectations are lower down the scale, much of the Azzurri’s attention focused on the visit of Scotland to Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on February 22. Sergio Parisse, as he has done for much of his decade-long career, carries the weight.

Veteran winger Mirco Bergamasco is one familiar name returning after overcoming a broken knee-cap, London Wasps full-back Andrea Masi out injured as the Italians again rely on the scrummaging power of Martin Castrogiovanni.

They remain odds-on with the bookies to ‘win’ the Wooden Spoon, the Scots their most realistic targets as the Murrayfield mob await the arrival of new coach Vern Cotter.

The Kiwi is currently wrapping up club commitments with Clermont, leaving Scott Johnson holding the baby for one last time. Lack of player depth and the state of their Edinburgh pitch are again limiting factors.

However, there is nothing like a home Calcutta Cup to put fire in the belly as they entertain England in week two.

Injured ex-Newcastle Falcons wing Tim Visser remains a miss, fellow Kingston Park old-boy Euan Murray another absentee after reportedly damaging his thumb chopping wood at a team-building barbecue.

Occupying the middle ground in the pre-tournament prediction scramble are Ireland, so spectacularly losing out in the game of the year against New Zealand last autumn when the world champions required an injury-time try to sneak a Dublin classic.

Under Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt the shackles are offand last week’s news that back-row pair Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip are remaining in the country has added to the momentum.

Jonny Sexton’s indifferent assimilation into French club rugby puts at least one question mark over their ability to challenge at the very top level, as do away dates with England and France.

However, with three of their five games falling at home, the men in green cannot be discounted from the contenders in what is shaping up to be a fascinating Championship.

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