Sunday, 5 February 2012

Six Nations Preview

Published in Gair Rhydd on 30/01/2012.

After a World Cup of mixed fortunes in New Zealand, Europe's top rugby nations are preparing for the northern hemisphere's premier tournament. With three of the nations having appointed new management since the World Cup, the Six Nations marks the beginning of a transitional period, the success of which will ultimately be judged at the 2015 tournament in England.

Having secured the services of coaches Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley until after the next World Cup, Wales will be looking to build on an impressive campaign in New Zealand. Warren Gatland's provisional squad have travelled to Poland for a similar training camp to the one that was so effective in 2011, again using cryotherapy chambers to aid physical recovery from intense training sessions. Gavin Henson resumes his international rugby career after meandering into reality television, whilst six uncapped players have the opportunity to force their way into Gatland's final squad. Ospreys pair Ashley Webb and Rhys Beck are joined by young Blues winger Harry Robinson and Scarlets trio Liam Williams, Rhodri Jones and Lou Reed at the Cetniewo camp. Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris are ruled out through injury, whilst key figures Gethin Jenkins, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts are ongoing injury concerns as Wales look to start life without Shane Williams in positive fashion.

Ireland will be Wales' opponents on the opening weekend, with Declan Kidney's men looking to gain revenge for their quarter-final defeat to Wales in October. The Irish squad has a familiar look to it, with no uncapped players named by the former Munster coach. However, one significant loss is that of captain Brian O'Driscoll who misses out with a shoulder injury. In his absence, Paul O'Connell will captain the side. David Wallace, Jerry Flannery and Denis Leamy are all unavailable, whilst Geordan Murphy has not been selected. Following a third place finish last year and victory over Australia in the World Cup, Ireland will be hopeful of a successful campaign.

England return to action following the disappointment of New Zealand with a new coach in Stuart Lancaster and a new-look playing squad. Despite the omission of Danny Care following a drink-drive charge and continued uncertainty about the fitness of Manu Tuilagi, there is a sense of optimism surrounding the youthful England side. Nine uncapped players have been selected, with the impressive Owen Farrell looking to replace Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half. He is joined by Brad Barritt, Jordan Turner-Hall, Lee Dickson, Phil Dowson, Calum Clark, Joe Marler, Rob Webber and Scarlets forward Ben Morgan in the provisional squad. More so than any other nation in the tournament, the Six Nations marks a fresh start for England.

Andy Robinson will look to dent the his former employer's rebirth when his Scotland side face England at Murrayfield. After a frustrating World Cup, Chris Paterson has retired leaving a large void in the Scottish backs. Fly-halves Greig Laidlaw and Duncan Weir will be looking to claim a starting berth, whilst Lee Jones, Robert Harley, Stuart Hogg and Fraser McKenzie receive their first call-ups. Steven Shingler has been denied his opportunity after the IRB ruled that the London Irish back must represent Wales after an appearance for the U20 side last season. However, with Edinburgh impressing in the Heineken Cup, Scotland will be confident of building on the good feeling engulfing rugby north of the border.

World Cup runners-up France have a new coach in the form of Philippe St André and name two uncapped players as Les Bleus look to regain their Six Nations crown. Playes from Heineken Cup pool winners Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne dominate, with Wesley Fofana and Yoann Maestri joining the squad for the first time. Despite impressing for his club side, Florian Fritz remains absent from a French side boasting a wealth of talented players.

Perennial underdogs Italy begin life after Nick Mallett with a tough clash in Paris as the French look to gain revenge for defeat in Rome last season. Jacques Brunel has named four uncapped players with Aironi pair Alberto de Marchi and Giovanbattista Venditti joined by Luca Morisi and Angelo Esposito in an ever-willing Azzurri side.

As with all post-World Cup Six Nations tournaments, this year's competition looks likely to be unpredictable. With new managers, styles and players adding to a a plethora of top class players, weekends in February and March should be kept free.

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