Beth says: England
I’d rather not jump on the Wales bandwagon like most people’s predictions have done in the past few weeks, so I’ll stick to my patriotic roots and say England. Mind you, I said England last year and what a disaster that turned out to be. But I don’t buy into the post Lions tour fatigue nonsense, there has been a considerable amount of time between the end of the tour and the start of the Six Nations. It also favours England that the majority of their key players barely saw a game on that tour, and there’s a wealth of exciting new talent emerging in the squad as well. Owen Farrell will be key to England’s chances, if he has a good tournament then so will England. Equally, England made the right call to drop Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs, both were in poor form and have been well below the standards set by Lancaster and his team in the build up to the tournament. Danny Care will be a more than adequate replacement for Youngs, he’s been in electrifying form for Harlequins this season and could be the creative burst that England so desperately need at the back. As far as England’s pack goes, I think they proved in the Autumn internationals that they can compete against the world’s best; they are one of the best packs in the world right now and they’ll prove that in the Six Nations.
George says: Ireland
Ok, I’m going to be incredibly bold here. I know most people will disagree with me, but I really think this could be Ireland’s year. Whilst the majority of people are predicting a third straight Welsh title or another post-Lions tour triumph for France, I think Ireland have a real chance to shade it – just. Wales will be hurt by the new scrummaging laws, as the majority of their points last year came through Halfpenny penalties off infringements at the scrum, whilst France have had next to no continuity in selection (an ever present theme in modern French rugby). Both sides still lack a decent fly-half as well. Ireland by contrast have had more or less the same team for some time, and whilst they are really quite old now, this is the last realistic chance that the modern Dad’s Army of O’Driscoll and co have to win the title. They pushed the All Blacks to the limit in the Autumn, albeit crumbling under the pressure, but come the Six Nations they will have been hotting up nicely. The fixtures list has been relatively kind to them with their toughest tests probably being England at Twickenham mid-way through the tournament and France in Paris at the end. In just over two weeks, Ireland take on Wales at home in what will be one of the most exciting fixtures of recent years thanks to the whole O’Driscoll/Warren Gatland saga this summer. They need Sexton to boss the show, but if he can do that, then Wales will struggle.
Player of the Tournament
George says: Toby Faletau
This lad has been fantastic for the last few years, and this year I think he will be on fire. At 23 he is still very young, but Faletau is nearing world-class. He is a rock at the base of the scrum and is a fantastic link between the forwards and backs. He can also carry the ball like a beast and will be a threat to all defences.
Beth says: Brian O’Driscoll
Call me an old romantic but it would sensational if O’Driscoll could bow out as the best player in the Six Nations. He’s gunning for a grand slam to cap off his glittering career but I think that’s beyond Ireland’s capabilities at the moment. O’Driscoll is as brilliant as he ever was, he didn’t quite get the Lions ending he wanted so it would be fitting for him to finish his career on a high. He’s won the player of the tournament award three times previously in 2006, 2007 and 2009, it could very well be his year again. It would be a suitable ending.
Beth says: Italy
Last year I chose Italy to surpass expectations and finish higher than fifth in the Six Nations. They finished fourth and picked up unexpected victories against Ireland and France and they very nearly beat England. The signs were promising, and despite their opening match being against tournament holders Wales they have a good chance of raising a few eyebrows. Italy have an injury plagued squad but their main men is gearing up to lead them out at the Millenium stadium. Sergio Parisse will be hoping his team can rally to take on the Welsh, Parisse is easily one of the best players in the world but he’s been playing in a mediocre team for years. Mauro Bergamasco and Martin Castrogiovanni will be essential to Italy’s hopes for the tournament. If they both remain fit, Italy could cause some upsets again.
George says: Scotland
The team that seems to be forever seeking consistency, but under Scott Johnson, Scotland are starting to find something that they have lacked in the past – belief. Some think that last year’s third place finish was a fluke, but Scotland have a very mobile pack and a back three that can compete at a very highly. I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed third place again. Of course, a lot needs to work in their favour, particularly a bit of luck in their away matches, but they are traditionally strong against England at Murrayfield and could sneak into the top three under everyone’s radars.
George says: England
Oh yes, these bold predictions just got a whole lot bolder. I am at pains to say it, but I really think fourth place or worse could be on the cards for England this year. If you look at the list of injuries that England have amassed, this may not be such a ridiculous proposition. Don’t get me wrong – I am a big Stuart Lancaster fan. I just think that the fact that they have three away fixtures this year, including an opener against France tomorrow, will count against them. Manu Tuilagi, Christian Wade and Marlande Yarde, three of their most exciting backs, are out, and they still can’t really score tries. Added to that, they have a few too many debutants coming in this year and their lack of experience will cost them dear. Please prove me wrong boys.
Beth says: Wales
My colleague may think he’s being bold choosing England, but I’ll go one step further – I think Wales aren’t strong enough to retain their title. Enigmatic Lions captain Sam Warburton is starting on the bench which, for me, speaks volumes about the state their team is in. Wales have included no less than eight injured players in their squad, Jonathan Davies, Gethin Jenkins, Ken Owens, Andrew Coombs, Ryan Jones, Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Liam Williams are all on the casualty list. In particular Jonathan Davies inclusion is hopeful at best, it’s likely he’ll miss the first three matches, if not more. The squad selection is a little too safe for my liking, Gatland has gone for solid experience but failed to select any uncapped players. Arguably, this Wales side is predictable, Gatland may have shot himself in the foot by failing to choose any new players. But then, they do have George North…and we all know what he can do. But for me, they won’t win, and that’s enough to make them the biggest losers.