The World Cup has come and gone, levelling every side’s ambition, bringing their planning back to square one. It is in that context that this year’s Six Nations tournament begins this weekend, pitting the northern hemisphere’s top rugby nations against one another. And, given the fall-out from the World Cup, given the reassessments and recriminations and subsequent recharted courses, this year’s throwdown looms as being particularly unpredictable. Indeed, BBC pundit and former British and Irish Lions stalwart Keith Wood is hoping the tournament will be memorable for the break-out efforts of new stars.
“I’m looking forward to some positive refereeing and seeing some young guys emerge. It’s the start of a new four-year cycle, so it’s a great time to see what the key elements are going to be going forward,” he says. “Maybe there will be some young guys who didn’t quite get to the World Cup or who didn’t play much and now they’re given an opportunity and just deliver. I’m really looking forward to seeing how George North goes on the wing for Wales or Conor Murray at No 9 for Ireland.”
As for a prediction, Wood, after running the rule over all six sides, nominates France, led by inspirational skipper Thierry Dusautoir (main image), as favourites, provided they come to play, while also giving Ireland a vote of confidence.
“You look at the teams that have been relatively stable and I think that France, if they can get their act together, are favourites,” he says. “Ireland, though, still have a strong core of experienced players that went well at the World Cup and have performed well since in the Heineken Cup.”
England were left more battered and bruised by the World Cup than any other side. They played horrible rugby throughout, unravelled off-field and were eliminated by the first decent side they played. Wood, unsurprisingly, doesn’t give them a prayer. “They performed badly in the World Cup and have had a radical overhaul since,” he says. “They’ll struggle – I haven’t seen a lot of great performances from English players recently. They need to make changes, but it becomes very hard if you chop everyone – it’s hard to bring new guys through because young guys need time.”
Marc Lièvremont has been replaced as coach by Phillipe Saint-Andre, and although a new coach would normally diminish expectations, France have enough raw talent to take it in their stride. In fact, Wood believes the change will bring rewards. “Hopefully they get back to playing with some flair, with that dose of pragmatism – they could be phenomenal,” he says. “I was bewildered through the tenure of Marc Lièvremont – his selections and the decisions he made and the way he made them play. To see them come so close to winning a World Cup, losing by just one point, shook my foundations in rugby.”
Ireland promised plenty at the World Cup before coming up disappointingly short against Wales. Wood, though, has been encouraged by the performances of the Irish sides in the Heineken Cup and believes the men in green have the game plan and hardness to bounce back. “I think they know how to play and how to win games. A lot of players were dropped after the World Cup but I think a lot of them have come back and played well for their provinces,” Wood says. “The fact that the two biggest games, against England and France, are played away will make it tougher.”
The perennial cellar-dwellers – they’ve won eight of 60 games played in this tournament – are undoubtedly improving, and Wood believes upset victories will become increasingly regular, starting, perhaps, with England this year. “I think they will be a really tricky game for England, over there on the second weekend, and you can bet they will be targeting that fixture,” he says. “There’s no point writing Italy off forever because, at some point, they’ll start to beat these teams. They beat France last year and their wins tend to be at home. I think Mick Mallett has done a really good job as coach – they’ve become quite professional.”
Most years, Scotland manage to bloody someone’s nose by playing a dour, tight-fisted style of rugby, but they’ve never managed to truly propel themselves into the hunt. Wood expects the pattern to continue, insisting Scotland’s lack of variety and polish limits their ambition. “They’re a side that has improved but they’re not going to set the world alight,” he says. “They’ve got some handling issues that let them down. If they decide to throw it around, they make mistakes and come undone pretty quickly, but if they play a certain way, grinding it out, then they can maybe cause an upset.”
The Welsh were the feel-good story of the World Cup, overcoming a dire run of injuries to make the semi-final, where they were desperately unfortunate to be beaten by France. Wood, although admiring Wales’ achievement, isn’t sure their momentum will carry through, given their history of running hot and cold. “They’ll be a Grand Slam winner one year and then struggle the next,” he says. ”You just don’t know which Wales will show up.”
The BBC will televise every match live, beginning on Saturday, with France v Italy from 2.30pm, followed by Scotland v England at 5pm, before Ireland v Wales on Sunday at 2.30pm