Our rugby writers talk you through the hopes and troubles of Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy
Twelfth in the IRB rankings after losing to Tonga, things can only get better, eh? Do you want to bet!
There must be some good news out there? Scotland will field a big, athletic pack of forwards who shouldn’t end up with too much sand in their faces and the back three can all finish.
But on the flip side… Well, pretty much everything else. The team’s confidence is low, some key figures are struggling for form, there appears to be a lack of leadership and if Ryan Grant gets kyboshed the Scots scrum will struggle.
So we can expect a thrashing at Twickenham? Oddly enough the opening match will probably be very close. The average winning margin over the last six meetings between Scotland and England is just six points. And Scott Johnson offers a new voice if not a new direction. The Aussie has no time to do anything except hammer home a few basics, which may not be a bad thing.
How will the players respond to him? You have to hope it will be better than they did for Andy Robinson in Rome and Aberdeen.
Anyone from left field? Well, Sean Maitland will probably start on the right wing if that counts?
The Kiwi… …who scored 54 Super Rugby tries for the Crusaders and who will trouble any defence if Scotland’s inside backs can carve out some space for him.
They were all super tries? No, they were Super tries.
Is he the real deal? If he was the real deal he’d be an All Black by now but he’s related to “Smokin’ Joe” Stanley and he’ll do just fine for Scotland.
Anyone else? The second coming of Ruaridh Jackson, who should start at stand-off against England.
Is he the real deal? I’ll let you know around 6pm on Saturday.
England thrashed the All Blacks 38-21 in their last game, which presumably means that they’re now the best in the world.
If England were actually playing the world’s greatest team at their peak, then the result was beyond impressive. But the All Blacks are reported to have been sick all week and they certainly played like it.
You don’t believe all that conspiracy rubbish do you? Actually I do. One well-known rugby pundit won a fortune on the match because he had been tipped off about how ill they were and reportedly slapped a monkey on England to win at silly odds. Besides, you’ve only got to look at England’s results.
What do you mean? They’ve been going like a steam train since Stuart Lancaster took over...
Sorry, that’s fiction. They were beaten at Twickenham by a poor Aussie side, defeated at home by the Springboks and failed to win any of their three summer Tests in South Africa. In fact, save for winning four of their matches in last year’s Six Nations and thrashing Fiji, they’ve been underwhelming. If it wasn’t for that New Zealand win...
OK, but they did win four of last year’s Six Nations matches and have had a full year to develop.
True. It was a curious Six Nations, though. They came within a whisker of losing in Edinburgh and Rome then edged it in Paris and absolutely destroyed the Irish pack at Twickenham in their final game.
So they’re gaining momentum and, if you were a bookie, you’d have them down as favourites?
Actually the bookies prefer France and you can see why. France are revitalised under Philippe Saint-Andre and were the only Northern Hemisphere nation to emerge from the past nine months with any credit.
You don’t think England are up to much, do you?
On the contrary, England are developing well and look ominously strong up front. They’ve got a great scrum, with Dan Cole leading the way, and a decent second row. If there’s a weakness up front it’s that they don’t have a genuine openside, which could hurt them.
What about behind the scrum?
Of the 16 tries they’ve scored since the last Six Nations, all but one were by the backs. Still, there are question marks over whether their star centre Manu Tuilagi is injured.
C’mon, then, get off the fence and make a call.
OK, this isn’t a vintage England side, but Stuart Lancaster has done a fantastic job of building confidence and morale, which shows in the way they never give up. They’re developing quickly and in a pretty equal Six Nations only a fool would say that there’s no chance of them squeaking home.
How’s Brian O’Driscoll these days? Hurting, just like all the Leinster boys. Back-to-back Heineken Cups but out in the pool stage this year. He’s not happy.
And he’s lost the Ireland captaincy as well... Yep. 120 caps and 83 of them as captain. Jamie Heaslip has the gig now.
Different characters, Drico and Jamie?
Put it this way, Heaslip has a dog called Jay-Z, after the US singer, below. In a previous life, Ireland’s new captain could have been a black rapper. He got the job in the autumn when O’Driscoll was injured and he’s kept it.
What’s the O’Driscoll mindset, then? Could be a very healthy one, actually. He’s over his injury woes and doesn’t have to worry about the captaincy any more. He’s free to just go and play and is acutely aware that, at 34, he doesn’t very long left in the game. The message, basically, is “Watch out...”
But Ireland have Wales first up. In Wales, too. They never beat Wales... They’ve lost the last three against them. It doesn’t augur well. And there’s no Tommy Bowe, no Paul O’Connell and no Stephen Ferris either. All injured.
Ouch. Three of their main go-to men... Yeah, but they got two others coming back in. Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney were missing the last time Ireland played.
And that was against? Argentina. Spanked ’em.
Argentina spanked Ireland? No, Ireland put 46 points and seven tries on them, so they’ve still got some heavy weaponry. Jonathan Sexton scored two tries that day. Best stand-off in the competition. Donnacha Ryan might not be O’Connell, but he’s a belligerent sod and a mightily good lock.
Ah, quality... O’Brien and Kearney, the European player of the year last season, weren’t fit for that game against the Pumas, but they’re back now.
O’Brien is a beast and Kearney is class... And there’s some new kids. Craig Gilroy, the Ulster wing, made his debut against the Pumas. He was excellent. Simon Zebo, right, just scored a hat-trick to take Munster into the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. Plenty of try power in there still.
OK, so Wales first. Who have they got second? England in Dublin. England humiliated them physically in last year’s Six Nations. This one will be even edgier than normal. I predict some stoush.
And England will be sore having lost to Scotland in week one... Or buoyed by a 50-point win.
Hmm, maybe. Scotland versus Ireland in round three.... That’s a gimme. Ireland haven’t lost a championship match in Edinburgh since 2001. After then it’s at home to France with the Grand Slam being sealed in Rome the week after.
Grand Slam? Steady! If they can beat Wales, you never know. If.
So, Grand Slam champions for the third time in eight years. Gonna be a breeze again, non… Er, mais non. The bookies have Wales down as fourth favourites, a country mile behind les Francais.
Crivens! Why? Something to do with their clubs’ rubbish form in the Heineken Cup, a casualty ward in Cardiff stacked full of Wales’ best players, and a run of form that would disgrace even the Scotland football team.
But didn’t they win all five games in last year’s tournament? Ah, the good old days! Since then they’ve lost seven matches in a row and have turned snatching defeat from the jaws of victory into an art form.
Losing seven in a row – that’s unprecedented, surely? Think again. Back in 2002/03 they lost ten on the spin, so there could be plenty more hurt in that locker. Things got so bad that they quickly scheduled a match against the mighty Romanians in Wrexham.
Any chance of a game against the Mighty Oaks in midweek then? Sadly not. Romania is apparently washing its hair this week.
Suppose the Welshies will just have to beat the Irish then. Still, it shouldn’t be too hard – they’ve beaten them in their last three games. Steady on fella, before this mini-run Wales had only beaten Ireland six times in 24 attempts and it’s unlikely to be easy, even in Cardiff. After all, Wales have gone down in flames in their last four home games. And remember, Wales were six points down with five minutes to go in Dublin last year and needed some truly bizarre refereeing decisions, especially for Leigh Halfpenny’s last-minute winning penalty, to seize the day.
Ah, Leigh Halfpenny. He’s been pretty good though. Yep, he has. Even when Wales have been on the wrong side of close result after close result he’s looked like a lone thoroughbred among donkeys.
Donkeys, that’s a bit harsh. Not if you’ve seen the Wales back division this year. Jamie Roberts has been double-teamed at every turn, and players such as Mike Phillips and George North appear to have mislaid their mojo. And it’s been a case of donkeys led by donkeys.
Don’t you mean lions led by donkeys? No, I mean donkeys led by donkeys. And whatever you do don’t mention lions.
Why not? Look, if Wales have been toothless, it’s partly because of their stupid coach. First Fat Gat goes and falls off a ladder and can’t lead the boys any more, and then he takes the Lions job and becomes semi-detached in a nano-second. Do you remember when Graham Henry got handed a Lions blazer and the whole of Wales spontaneously combusted? Well, history’s repeating itself.
Cheery soul, aren’t you. What’s the upside then? That the half-dozen key players such as Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones and Jonathan Davies get fit pronto, that the half dozen of the uninspired find inspiration, and that the rush of hwyl, sound of Bread of Heaven and sight of Warren Gatland looking like a bulldog chewing a wasp in the stand at Cardiff are enough to drive them to victory.
Do you really think that’s likely?
Er, no, I was just being kind.
So how are France fixed going into the Six Nations? Pas mal, après une victoire superbe 33-6 contre l’Australie en Novembre.
Are we going to conduct the entire interview in Franglais. Non… I mean, no.
Philippe Saint-André fielded two openside flankers, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Yannick Nyanga, against Australia. But only because Thierry Dusautoir was injured.
And now he’s back he’ll reclaim his usual shirt? Yes, but not the captaincy which stays with the giant Stade Francaise lock Pascal Papé.
Pourquoi? Beats me? Saint-André mind games?
Who’s going to light the blue touch paper this season? Take your pick but the Toulouse centre Gaël Fickou earned rave reviews when scoring against Leicester on his Heineken debut back in October.
He might make a decent midfield pairing with Wesley Fofana one day. Just not next week or the week after since Fickou suffered an ankle injury against Treviso in the Heineken.
Anyone else? At 5ft 9in Castres full-back Brice Dulin, above, is tiny by modern standards but brilliant under the high ball. He also has pace, daring and dancing feet. While at the other end of the scale Mathieu Bastareaud, above, is back and at 115kg he looks like he could eat Dulin for breakfast. No, he looks like he has eaten Dulin for breakfast.
So, Freddie Michalak or François Trinh-Duc at stand-off? Michalak has been playing scrum-half for Toulon recently but the versatile half-back looks as if he will be picked at 10 for France.
France for the Grand Chelem? England will have other ideas since they host les Bleus at Twickenham.
So how are Italy fixed going into the competition? Hey, they beat Tonga in November which is all you Jocks need to know.
No need to be offensive. Was that a one-off? Err, technically yes, but the Azzurri will be taking the three-point loss to the Wallabies as a moral victory.
But Scotland beat the Wallabies and that was in Australia. It was also in a monsoon. Italy don’t need help from the weather to beat the big boys.
Challenge the big boys, you mean? Technically yes, challenge the big boys if you want to split hairs.
What are Italy’s prospects in the Six Nations? Remind us, where do we play Scotland?
Er, Murrayfield. Not so good, even if Italy are above Scotland in the IRB rankings for the first time.
But you fellas beat France two years ago? Yes, but Philippe Saint-Andre, right, is not Marc Lievremont, more’s the pity.
Anyone we should know about coming through the ranks? The new boy Francesco Minto, pictured top, offers some oomph at lock but the old warrior Mauro Bergamasco has been left out for the first time in a decade.
You mean the worst scrum-half the championship has ever seen? We prefer to remember him as the outstanding flanker of his generation.
And the coach? Jacques Brunel is doing a good job. He has the respect of the players and he is trying to move Italy away from their forward-dominated game.
Wasn’t he bassist with the Stranglers? That was Jean-Jacques Burnel.
Maybe a brother? Maybe not.