Ray North’s Six Nations Preview 2014

by Ray_North on January 29, 2014

Unknown-4It doesn’t seem like yesterday that I was privileged to watch one of the greatest performances by a Northern Hemisphere team, as Wales hammered England 30-3 in last year’s Championship decider in Cardiff – but, yes, it’s back, the best rugby competition in the world – the competition that pits the fiery Italians, the inconsistently Gallic French, the mad Irish, the drunk Welsh, the posh Scots and even posher English (is that enough meaningless national stereotypes for you?). It is a competition I love, because it is one of the few times when I can be unapologetically rampantly nationalist and vent all my fury on the English bastards. Because for us Welsh, rugby, rightly or wrongly (ok wrongly), for this few weeks of the year becomes the very essence of our national pride, of our masculinity of our culture of our very right to be. For us losing (and especially losing to the upper middle-class, public school oppressors from the other side of Offa’s Dyke) provokes national mourning.

And, in the last ten years, Wales have become quite good at the six nations – winning it and the Grand Slam on three occasions, and taking the championship in each of the last two years.

But, who will prevail this year?

Well, let’s take a look.

And let’s start with Italy. Italy are the perennial underdogs, they usually finish last, though last year they beat France for the first time and then Ireland and finished fourth. The problem Italy have is that though they may produce the odd world class player – in the past Dominguez and of the current crop Parisse is one of the best forwards in the world – and their tight five is always strong, but, sadly, there just aren’t enough international class players in every position. As for this year, I hope that Italy do well, and I have a sneaking suspicion that they’ll really test Wales in Cardiff this weekend and they may well prove too strong for the Scots when they visit in February. Their pack is incredibly experienced and the back row of Zanni, Parisse (yes him again and pictured below) and the returning Mauro Birgamasco, may be a bit old, but, they certainly know their way around the park. Sadly, though, they’re weak at half-back and they don’t quite have the firepower out wide of the other teams. I’m going to stick my head out and say that Italy will not come last, they’ll come fifth. Unknown-1

Italian Players To Watch: Fly half Tommaso Allan, is well thought of in Biarritz; whilst flanker, Josh Fumo, may edge out Birgamasco and prove a real handful in the loose.

So, how about Scotland – hmm, I hate to say it, and I know that Charlie East-West might not agree- but, after tipping them to do well last year (they didn’t) this year I’m tipping them to struggle. They are not assisted by the fact that they will have to go away to Ireland, Wales and Italy, all tricky fixtures and will then have to face England and France at home. Although they have good players in Richie Grey (mysteriously dropped for their opening game), Weir and the wonderful Hogg, I fear that their back row will continue to come second best, whilst their backs just don’t have the consistency or the class to cause too many problems. Sorry Charlie -I see the wooden spoon coming your way.

Scottish Players To Watch: Douglas Hogg is excellent, whilst Matt Scott looks a real talent.

So, how about Ireland? Ireland are a bit of an enigma – last season they started fantastically, for forty minutes they absolutely pulverised Wales in Cardiff, then, after that, they were, at best, middling for the rest of the season. Their regions are in great shape, dominating the Heineken Cup, but, somehow, as a national team, they look a bit brittle – the wonderful O’Gara, O’Driscoll and D’Arcy are all a bit past their best, whilst O’Connell has similarly been suffering from injuries of late – they have the players coming through, but it may take a few seasons before they are able to emulate this generation. Luckily for Ireland they have three home games, including Italy and Scotland who they’ll hope to beat, and Wales, who they’ll hope to fight – France and England away will be tricky. I predict that Ireland will come fourth.

Irish Players To Watch:Connor Murray will have benefitted from his successful Lions tour, whilst Luke Marshall is a bag of tricks in the centre.

Which brings me to England – if the Championship was determined by how many players each nation has to select from, then England would win easily every year and for a decade or so, between the late 80s and the early 00′s, England looked invincible as the likes of Underwood, Guscott (a player I really liked), Wilkinson and Dawson, dominated – but, since the retirement of the 2003 team, England have seemed like a team that expects to win, but doesn’t really know how to do it consistently. I often think that their rugby is quite arrogant, in that they feel so superior that they don’t bother to actually work out the subtleties necessary to win an international game of rugby. Nevertheless (and I apologise for being more critical of England than anyone else), England are always strong – and last year, came within a game of a Grand Slam. I don’t see a great improvement from last year, and think that England still lack guile in the centre, whilst their half-backs are slow, but, I predict that England will come second. Unknown-2

English Players To Watch:Billy Vunipola looks a beast at Number 8; whilst Courtney Lawes is now starting to fulfil the potential he undoubtedly possesses.

Wales – can Wales complete a hatrick of championship wins? My heart and my head says they can, but there’s no way I’m making that prediction. Wales’ biggest problem is up front – for years, they have been dependent upon the wonderful Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, but both are now pretty ancient and pretty injured – Jenkins is missing from the starting line-up against Italy and Adam Jones may struggle after being injured for most of the winter. Saying that, Wales have a great back row and in the like of Cuthbert, North, Halfpenny and Roberts, they have far and away the best back line in the championship. I have a feeling that they will struggle against Italy (not sure why) and may find England and Ireland away difficult as well – which is why, I’m predicting third.

Welsh Players To Watch: Scott Williams is a terrific centre, whilst justin Tipuric will enjoy a run at open side flanker before captain Warburton regains his fitness.

So, by process of deduction, you will have realised that I’m tipping France for the Championship. There are two reasons for this, first, for some reason, France always seem to do well when there has been a Lions tour in the summer preceding the Six Nations; second they play three of their matches at home; and third, they have some of the greatest players in the game in Wesley Fofanna and Dusatoir, whilst their front row is now at the age when they are experienced enough and gnarled enough to take on anyone (as they did the All Blacks in the Autumn).Unknown-3

French Players To Watch: Fofanna (of course, this kid is magic), Tomas Domingo, who, on his day, is the most destructive prop in the business.

So my predictions for the final table:

1. France
2. England
3. Wales
4. Ireland
5. Italy
6. Scotland

I hope I’m wrong.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

David Blythin January 30, 2014 at 1:15 am

As you know, I love you to bits G..uuh..Ray..however…the Italians are coming to Cardiff and Adam Jones is starting this weekend. As usual around this time of year, I am almost too excited to offer an opinion….and I hate predictions. However…..we have 3 home games, against the blues as per. We start against the “weakest” team , but Italy are not weak. Wales are slow starters…both within a game, and within a competition. This is my trouser soiling fear about this weekend……5 minutes to go and we are behind. However, should we defeat the increasingly impressive Italians…as I think we will…I predict that we will make history. The Dublin game will be a stonker, replete with BOD being lovely about Warren, and 9th March in Twickenham an opportunity for the Sais….sans Ashton (so sensible)…..to avenge last year’s humiliation and scupper our progress. Why will we make history? Because we have a (more than) competitive scrum and, as usual, the best backs….simple. With love, David x PS How on Earth we do so well, when we haven’t mastered the new fangled art of the line out is beyond me…..but when we do…..

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Ray_North January 30, 2014 at 8:27 am

Dafydd – I love you too! And where normally, I won’t let facts get in the way of a good story – on this occasion, I’ve made the amendments as putting Wales in the wrong country this weekend is a bit fundamental even for me! I’m grateful my friend.

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George_East January 30, 2014 at 8:09 am

Facts have never been Ray’s strong point.

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Charlie_East_West February 3, 2014 at 10:26 am

1. Wales
2. France
3. Ireland
4. England
5. Italy
6. Scotland

The key games are Ireland v Wales, England v Wales, England v Ireland. All three matches are 50:50.

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Geoff Elliott February 3, 2014 at 11:00 am

Uncannily accurate prediction of Wales having a tougher time of it against Italy than was widely expected. At half time I was expecting us to add another 20 – 25 points in the second half. It didn’t materialise and credit to the Italians, they gave it a go.

France – England was a cracking see-saw of a game. Lancaster has said from day one to judge him after the 2015 WC and he’s not afraid to try new players. Credit to him, much as I enjoy seeing England beaten.

Didn’t see Ireland – Scotland, at least not yet, I’m aiming to watch it tonight, but no real surprises.

Any one of 4 nations can win it this year.

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