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Six Nations Preview 2011

It's that time of the year again!

We've slogged our way through January and as a reward we've got the Six Nations Championship to enjoy. Some punters might regard it as of lesser importance in a World Cup year but that's just nonsense. A Grand Slam for Ireland this year will mean just as much as it did in 2009 and it will still mean a hell of a lot more than losing in a semi-final in the World Cup. The Six Nations will always stand alone as a worthy achievement in it's own right.

True, the standard of rugby in last year's championship wasn't exactly stellar and you do wonder how long the Six Nations committee will stubbornly refuse to join with the rest of the rugby world and introduce a bonus point system. However, you still sense there is more proper test match substance in the Six Nations than in last summer's Tri-Nations where some of the games were like glorified tag matches.

This year, it's a very open championship with no stand-out favourites so Ireland have a chance, although a freak spate of injuries in the last three weeks has undoubtedly hurt their chances. England and Wales have their injury problems too though. France still have a madman coaching them and Scotland could be dark horses if they find a way to score tries. As for Italy, well God love 'em! So let's take a look at each individual country, their key men, players to watch out for, the form of their clubs in Europe, their general prospects and championship odds.

Ireland

Coach: Declan Kidney - The glow of the 2009 Grand Slam has faded among a run of five defeats in the last seven internationals, and that's not counting the Barbarians and Maori defeats. His conservative team selections are drawing increasing criticism and if he has another poor campaign, he might find himself under pressure.

Captain: Brian O'Driscoll - Ireland's finest ever player, he has had a couple of annoying injuries this season, but there were signs in Leinster's last few matches that he's approaching his best form in both attack and defence. Signed a two-year contract extension this week so is obviously very happy with his game and is in good nick physically.

Form of Clubs: Good overall, with their by now normal quota of two qualifiers to the quarter-finals. This time though Ulster took Munster's place as a qualifier, with the Northerners qualifying for the first time in twelve years. Munster's great run of consecutive quarter-finals came to an end though. Leinster topped a very tough pool while playing some fantastic rugby and provide a lot of the feel-good factor in Irish rugby at the moment.

Positives: They seem to have finally found a proper tighthead prop in Mike Ross and more importantly, are actually finally prepared to pick him. With Paul O'Connell back, the lineout should also improve and with that solid platform they should be able to bring their dangerous backs into play.

Negatives: Injuries, lots of them, mostly to back row and back three players. They have strength in depth in these areas but it will be tested to the limit. The coaches claim they want to play an attacking, possession-based game but will they pick the players to do it? Early signs aren't entirely positive.

Key man: Jonny Sexton: The form out-half in the group stages of the Heineken Cup. If he can transport his A game to the international stage, he'll be hard to stop. Much will depend on the scrum-half he is paired with though.

Player to watch out for: Sean O'Brien - He is the form backrow in Europe this season but was largely ignored during the Autumn internationals. Injuries have forced Kidney to pick him. A fantastic ball carrier, this season he's added a layer of subtlety to his game with great offloads and perceptive lines of attack. Just wind him up and watch him go!

Prospects: With no team standing out, they should be well fancied but a combination of injuries and poor selection could well scupper their chances. They should have enough to get by Italy but the key match will be France the following Sunday. Win and people will start dreaming of another Slam, lose and mid-table mediocrity beckons.

Betting odds: 11/4 at Paddy Power

England

Coach: Martin Johnson - Took his time learning the job. Was initially ridiculously conservative, sticking with a lot of players he'd played with like the journeyman captain Steve Borthwick. Finally seemed to learn last year though when he dumped Borthwick and started picking younger players like Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Ben Youngs. Showed a lack of maturity by sneering at his critics after they won in Australia, even though he'd only done what they'd been calling for in bringing in young talent.

Captain: Lewis Moody/Mike Tindall - Moody is an inspirational leader but as so often in his career, he is injured and will miss at least two or three games. Perhaps surprisingly, Mike Tindall has been chosen ahead of Nick Easter to stand in, given there's a debate as to whether he should be in the team at all. Seems a popular bloke but never really struck anyone as captaincy material.

Form of Clubs: Only fair. Only the two stalwart clubs Leicester and Northampton made the last eight of the Heineken Cup but others like Saracens and London Irish flopped badly.

Positives: Even with their injuries they'll still put out a strong pack and with Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Andrew Sheridan, their scrum will be very dangerous. They have some really exciting young talent in the back three in Ashton and Foden and the Leicester pair of Youngs and Toby Flood make up a potentially very good half back pairing.

Negatives: Have their own injury problems with Moody, Lawes and Tom Croft out for most or all of the championship. Their second rows are undistinguished and their backrow looks a little unbalanced with James Haskell at openside. Their centres look slow and ponderous and their options weren't helped by their resident lippy half-wit Delon Armitage getting himself suspended in such a stupid way it could only have been him. .

Key man: Ben Youngs - Only 21, there's a lot of pressure on his shoulders but he's shown he has the maturity to handle it. Has an excellent all-round scrum-half game and most importantly, he has the precious knack of making the right decisions at the right time. If he plays up to form, he could be the player of the championship.

Player to watch out for: Dan Cole - Brought in during last season's Six Nations, the young prop's reputation has grown steadily through the summer and autumn tests. Though still only 23, he's an old-school nuggety prop who thrives in the scrums.

Prospects: Started to believe their own hype after beating Australia in Twickenham and then flopped against South Africa. They've improved as a team certainly and if they win in Wales on Friday, it could set them up for a good campaign with three home games to follow. However they're still not as good as they think they are and they could still come a cropper against France or Ireland.

Betting odds: 15/8 Favourites at Paddy Power

France

Coach: Mark Lievremont - After winning last season's championship the "tinker-man" appeared to have finally gained some common sense, but within eight months he was back to his old tricks and it nearly got him the sack after being humiliated at home to Australia. He's picking most of his best players again in the pack anyway but still some strange decisions in the backs such as leaving Yannick Jauzion out and picking centre Damien Traille (who moves as swiftly as Frankenstein's monster) at full-back.

Captain: Thierry Dusautoir - If they had to design a tackling machine, they'd use this man as a blueprint as he's a phenomenal athlete and a relentless competitor. His leadership has lost some of it's sheen with recent results though and it's widely believed he's at odds with the coach.

Form of Clubs: Tres bien! They have continued last season's domination of Europe and provide four of the last eight in both competitions. Clermont were perhaps their biggest disappointment, but they were unfortunate to run into a Leinster team on top of their game.

Positives: On their day their superb pack can still dominate and they have their first choice half-back pairing of Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc back. Aurelien Rougerie in midfield is a serious weapon if used correctly and even with an ever-changing backline they can still be very dangerous if the mood grabs them.

Negatives: Do the players believe in their coach? He's got his top pack back but with Jauzion gone and the lumbering Traille bizarrely preferred at fullback to Clement Poitrenaud, there are some weaknesses to target in the backline. Defensively they don't look half as strong without Mathieu Bastareaud, who's been jettisoned due to problems with his weight.

Key man: Imanol Harinorduquay - Has yet to find his best form this season, though being switched from number eight to flanker by his club Biarritz hasn't helped him. On his day though he's a talisman, a great runner, a skilful passer and a master in the lineout.

Player to watch out for: Maxime Medard - Though a prolific try-scorer for Toulouse, Lievremont hasn't really trusted him too much in the past. He played no part in last season's grand slam but this year he could be a sensation with a wonderful counter-attacking style and a real eye for the try-line.

Prospects: There are more questions about them than last season, for sure, but if they put out their best team they should have enough to win another championship, but probably not another Grand Slam. Second game against Ireland will be crucial, if they lose the whole operation could fall apart in bitter recrimination.

Betting odds: 9/4 at Paddy Power

Wales

Coach: Warren Gatland - Was somewhat surprisingly given a contract extension in the Autumn, given his record has been less than stellar since the 2008 Grand Slam and he hasn't won in his last seven games. Still prone to odd media outbursts, as his recent spat with England's Dylan Hartley shows. If he has another poor campaign, the never less than hysterical Welsh media could turn on him big-time.

Captain: Matthew Rees - The Scarlets and Test Lions hooker can have his bad days with this throwing, but he's an excellent scrummager and a constant threat in the loose. Took over earlier in the season from Ryan Jones, whose disintegration as a top player has been painful to watch.

Form of Clubs: In a word, Brutal! The Ospreys and the Blues flopped again and though the Scarlets fought bravely in a tough group, not one of the four Welsh clubs made the last eight of either European Competition.

Positives: They still have quality players who, on their day, can change games like Shane Williams, James Hook, Mike Philips and Jamie Roberts. Need to rediscover the ability to close out games and the defensive meanness that they had in Gatland's first season.

Negatives: A lot of their top men and getting on in years and they're another team to have injury problems with their excellent props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones out for the championship. Their pack looks like it's there for the taking with a lot of unproven new faces like Dan Lydiate, Craig Mitchell and Sam Warburton. They've even gone back to selecting the one-trick pony that is Andy Powell.

Key man: Jamie Roberts - Only recently back from injury, but if he gets up to speed quickly there's few more destructive midfield carriers in the championship.

Player to watch out for: Jonathan Davies - The 22 year-old Scarlets centre has been in fine form for his club and could make up a powerful combination with Roberts. He's quick, direct and has a handy knack of scoring tries.

Prospects: The 2008 Grand Slam seems a long time ago and after a poor autumn they badly need to get the feel good factor back in Welsh rugby. The opening match against England will be key. If they can win that, it could spur them on to great things. However, you get the feeling it could be another poor season for Wales.

Betting odds: 7/1 at Paddy Power

Scotland

Coach: Andy Robinson - Has done a very solid job so far, but will be under pressure to bring Scotland up to another level with more consistency. Had a great summer with two wins over Argentina and the heavy defeat to New Zealand in the autumn was offset by beating South Africa the following week. Has the fundamentals of a very good team but needs to get them scoring tries to progress.

Captain: Alastair Kellock - Newly appointed after the failed experiment to share the captaincy among the various scrum-halves. A very dependable lineout jumper, the Glasgow lock should present solid if unspectacular leadership.

Form of Clubs: Not great! Not qualifying for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals is nothing new for Glasgow and Edinburgh, but both their campaigns were pretty much dead before they even got started. Glasgow did earn some kudos for a spirited win over Wasps, which effectively put the English side out.

Positives: They have a very good scrum (when it's not Sunday and Euan Murray will actually play), an excellent lineout with Richie Gray a potential star, very good backrow and scrum-half options. In Chris Paterson and Dan Parks they have two excellent place-kickers. Have some quality outside backs in Max Evans and the Lamont brothers.

Negatives: Still haven't settled on a number ten. Parks is steady but doesn't move a backline, Phil Godman can move a backline but can be flakey. Ruaridh Jackson looks talented but not dependable either. All this affects their potency out wide where they simply don't score enough tries.

Key man: John Barclay - Excellent open-side who will be dying for International action after a depressing season with Glasgow so far. A fine ball carrier who's immense at the breakdown, he's part of the 'Killer Bs" backrow that were so good last year.

Player to watch out for: Joe Ansbro - Northampton centre who made his debut during the Autumn Internationals. Big and quick, he could be the spark that gives them more attacking options.

Prospects: Provided injuries are kind to them, they could get two to three wins. It's hard to see them winning either of their away games in France or England though. Success of their season will probably depend of whether they beat Ireland or not.

Betting odds: 14/1 at Paddy Power

Italy

Coach: Nick Mallet - In his fourth season in the job the South African is yet another coach under pressure, with his job already linked to Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel post World Cup. Has done okay in his tenure but needs a couple of big results badly.

Captain: Sergio Parisse - Lost most of last season to suspension and injury, but he's back now and, on his day, is the best number eight in the world. A massively powerful athlete with wonderful handling skills, only drawback is he sometimes tries too hard to make things happen.

Form of Clubs: Being in the Magners League has definitely improved Treviso but although they gave Leicester a fright in their first match, ultimately they lost all their Heineken Cup pool matches. As a newly formed club, Aironi have had it tougher so far but did get a famous win over Biarritz, their first and (so far) only competitive win.

Positives: The Italians always have a good pack, with a strong scrum and a reasonable lineout. They're big and physical and generally defend well. They also have some fine outside backs in the likes of Luke McLean, Andrea Masi, Gonzalo Canale and Mirco Bergamasco.

Negatives: They still desperately need to find a decent pair of half-backs. Craig Gower is injured so another Australian import Kris Burton is being given a chance at ten alongside young Treviso reserve scrum-half Edoardo Gori. They need these guys to link up the good work of the pack with the dangerous backs as they rarely threaten the try-line at the moment. Also their discipline needs to improve as they're still the most likely team to top the yellow card table.

Key man: Martin Castrogiovanni - One of the best tightheads in the world, a fearsome scrummager who's also a fine ball carrier. He's almost ridiculously aggressive too, endlessly taunting opponents. Can get too involved at times though and can concede a lot of penalties.

Young Player to watch out for: Tommaso Benvenuti - Before he was injured, he scored five tries in three games for Treviso in the Heineken Cup. The 20 year-old is big, quick and versatile enough to play wing, centre and fullback. In time, he could be a new pin-up boy for Italian rugby.

Prospects: A good campaign would be two wins and not finishing with a wooden spoon again. With three games at home they'll fancy their chances, especially with an injury-hit Ireland up first. A lot will depend on how their new half-back combination of Burton and Gori get on. Hard to see them not finishing last again though.

Betting odds: 250/1 at Paddy Power

Fixtures

Friday, 04 February 2011

Wales v England, 19:45

Saturday, 05 February 2011

Italy v Ireland, 14:30

France v Scotland, 17:00

Saturday, 12 February 2011

England v Italy, 14:30

Scotland v Wales, 17:00

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Ireland v France, 15:00

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Italy v Wales, 14:30

England v France, 17:00

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Scotland v Ireland, 15:00

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Italy v France, 14:30

Wales v Ireland, 17:00

Sunday, 13 March 2011

England v Scotland, 15:00

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Scotland v Italy, 14:30

Ireland v England, 17:00

France v Wales, 19:45

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-08-29

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