France have Six appeal
The 2012 renewal of the Six Nations Championship was always going to suit some sides more than others coming as it did so soon on the back of a World Cup. Whilst some teams - such as Grand Slam winners Wales - could keep the momentum going with largely the same set of players, the likes of France decided to make wholesale changes despite going very close to lifting the Webb-Ellis trophy only months before.
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Unsurprisingly, a lot has changed over the past twelve months and certain nations have grown more than others. This year's tournament has the added carrot of coming in a Lions' year and the cream of the home nations will be looking to impress the selectors before the squad is announced in late April.
There is still the chance for the odd Scottish player to make a strong case for themselves but the majority of the squad is likely to come from England, Ireland and Wales. However, all of the above may have to play second fiddle to a French side who look cherry ripe despite an unfavourable set of fixtures.
Although England just shade favouritism with the bookies, we reckon France are the team to be on in this year's tournament. Les Bleus looked like they needed another year under the tutelage of Philippe Saint-Andre during last year's competition and the autumn internationals showed that they've come a long way in a short space of time. They have to take on England and Ireland away from the Stade de France and the set-up of their domestic league means they don't have much time to prepare as the others but they are showing all the hallmarks of a side on the up. Their opener against Italy should negate the fact that they've not had a lot of time to prepare and whilst they will be acutely aware of the danger of playing the Azzurri (as they found out back in 2011), this match should provide the perfect stepping stone. I wouldn't expect fireworks in the first game as Les Bleus tend to start slowly - they barely got out of second gear last year at all - but it'd be a surprise if they got to their game against England without winning both games. Many see that particular fixture as a potential title-decider but this is the sort of game that the French love and 'Le Crunch' will be a must-watch. There isn't a pack in the northern hemisphere that can touch Saint-Andre's and if he manages to get his backline playing some fluent rugby, they could easily win the Grand Slam. The attacking line is a worry though and Saint-Andre does like picking players out of their normal position - though an incredible return to form from Freddy Michalak has seen him cement his place at number 10. However, PSA did the same during his time at Sale and turned the likes of Ben Foden from a promising scrum-half into an international-class full-back. In fact, there are a few parallels between this fledgling French side and Saint-Andre's title-winning Sale outfit and it was his second year in charge when the Sharks really gained their bite. There is a similar expectation in France this year. If the cards had been kinder in terms of fixtures, France would be clear favourites for this competition but a couple of tricky games mean that they are at a very backable price. I don't think there will be a Grand Slam winner this year but if there is, France look the likeliest contenders.
After their record-breaking victory against New Zealand in November, England expects. However, I just wonder how the bookies would have priced England up had they not beaten the World Cup holders. Although it's difficult to describe England's results in the autumn internationals as anything other than a mixed bag, the performances told a different story and this is very much an England side building with one eye on the 2015 World Cup. I'm a huge admirer of Stuart Lancaster and the RFU made a surprisingly enlightened decision when they named him coach. I'm also a big fan of his selection policy which seems to reward those players in form rather than pack the squad with established names. England players will now have to work for the right to pull on the jersey and if they do lose it - through loss of form or injury - Lancaster expects them to work very hard to win it back. He's also not afraid to blood youngsters if he thinks they are good enough and although Billy Twelvetrees will have the eyes of the nation on him on Saturday, he won't lack for support from his coach. England have a lot going for them and it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see them win the tournament. However, there are a couple of niggling doubts which makes their price of 2/1 seem a little skinny. Firstly, there has to be a question mark over the validity of their victory over the All Blacks. It's difficult to crab the style of victory but the All Blacks weren't at their best following an outbreak of 'flu in the camp and the youngsters they blooded that day seemed to freeze in the spotlight. Secondly, some of the decision-making by Chris Robshaw and his men during the autumn internationals was questionable at best and if this rears its ugly head again, then they will lose crucial matches. England have to finish in the top two if they are to maintain their progress and I've got a feeling they will be even stronger twelve months down the line. As it is, they may just come a cropper once in the competition - if not against France, then Ireland could prove to be their downfall.
It's very difficult to gauge Ireland's chances in this year's Six Nations. On one hand, I think they could be genuine title contenders but part of me also believes that both England and France would have to underperform for Declan Kidney's men to lift the trophy. I don't think that'll happen so Ireland will probably be on the fringes and claim at least one big victory en route to a top three finish. They play both England and France at the Aviva Stadium so it's not beyond the realms of possibility that they beat at least one of the big guns. However, it'll probably be the same old story with Ireland in that injuries in key positions could cost them dear. Tommy Bowe was the tournament's top scorer last year but he'll miss the entire competition with a knee injury. They will miss their flying winger and his presence could cost them - especially as they crossed the try line more than any other nation in last year's Six Nations. Kidney will be expecting leadership from Brian O'Driscoll in midfield despite the centre no longer captaining the side whilst plenty will be riding on the shoulders of Cian Healy up front. Plenty has been expected too from Jonathan Sexton for a while and this could be the tournament in which he delivers. I fully expect them to beat a Welsh side on the slide in the first game but I'd be surprised if they didn't come a cropper against England or France. If they do manage to get through those three games unbeaten, then they will be disappointed if they don't end up as Grand Slam winners, let alone Six Nations champions.
No side has ever won back-to-back Grand Slams since France managed it in the old Five Nations back in 1998 whilst Wales haven't achieved that feat since the turn of the 20th century. The odds are surely stacked against them repeating the dose though as they have racked up a total of seven defeats since lifting last year's trophy. That's not to say they can be totally written off but whilst their displays in the autumn internationals weren't without promise, they did suggest there was an awful lot of work to do if they are to figure this time around. This competition can bring the best out of the Welsh and they were sublime last year. However, although they still possess the talent throughout the squad, they did look like a side on the slide during the autumn internationals and their heads can go down if they don't get off to the best possible start in the Six Nations. Given that Ireland pose a very tough test in the opener at the Millennium Stadium, you do get the distinct feeling that Wales' tournament could live or die by Sunday's result. The absence of Warren Gatland (who is busy with Lions' duty) could hurt them as well and whilst I've not doubt that Rob Howley could make a good coach in time, his inexperience will surely tell. Given that several of their Six Nations matches are likely to be tight, the boot of Leigh Halfpenny will be priceless once again whilst the battle for the number ten shirt between James Hook and Dan Biggar will be a fascinating tussle in its own right. However, a great start is crucial for Wales' chances as they tend to be a side that grow in confidence with every game. Given their recent record, they need a confidence-boosting win - but I don't think they'll get it against Ireland. Throw in a tricky trip to Paris in the second round of games and Wales could be staring at two straight defeats in a row. They won't be pushovers but it's difficult to see them lifting the trophy again.
The perennial dark horses, Italy come into this year's competition favourites for the wooden spoon once more. Whilst that might not be a surprise, their price of 4/9 certainly is. Every year, the Azzurri give the impression that they are a couple of players short of being a very good side but they are constantly under-rated by the layers. I'm convinced they will finish in the top three at some point over the next few years and whilst they have beaten the likes of Wales, France and Scotland in the past, they need to do this twice during the tournament in order to make giant strides. Italy's problem - as summed up by captain Sergio Parisse this week - is that they are always the plucky losers. This happened once again against Australia in the autumn and was in evidence when they played England in Rome last year. Their efforts will be centred around the pack once more but there was a genuine sign that Jacques Brunel was trying to evolve their backline last year. The problem - as ever - lies in the goal-kicking. Time after time, the Azzurri are gifted penalties in Six Nations matches that - if they had converted - would have won them matches. As it is, they struggle for a natural goal-kicker and that will probably be the case again. All eyes will be on fly-half Luciano Orquera to bring back the glory days of Diego Dominguez but if you're an Italian fan, don't hold your breath as many have tried and failed before. However, they cannot be underestimated which is why I think a price of 4/9 for them to finish bottom is an outright insult. As punters though, if a price is too short on one side then there is value to be had elsewhere. And that's certainly the case with the wooden spoon market.
Although Scotland finished bottom last year, they suffered from the same sort of problem that Italy faced in that they contested several tight games but their failure to do the simple things cost them dear. Their opening match against England last year was a case in point. They had plenty of ball, plenty of territorial advantage but their inability to cross the try line cost them dear - and that's not even taking Charlie Hodgson's charge-down try into account. However, this all inevitably comes down to the fact that they lack bite in the backline and a distinct lack of imagination in their attack. When it all comes together, Scotland are more than capable of causing an upset but those days are few and far between. Interim coach Scott Johnson will certainly stoke his players up more than Andy Robinson did and it would be a surprise if there isn't some anti-English fervour whipped up in the dressing room before Saturday's match. Former coach Jim Telfer has also been resorting to mind games in the run-up to that game which suggests that he too knows it's going to be a long hard road for his country during this competition. The positives for Johnson is that no-one is really expecting anything from his side but the negatives is that he probably won't get a lot in terms of results. Scotland's defeat at the hands of Tonga spelled the end of Robinson's tenure and whilst some Scots will be pleased to see the back of their English coach, he didn't really do too much wrong with what is, in essence, a weak pool of players to choose from. They should never be discounted against the 'auld enemy' and a Scottish victory against England would never come as a surprise. However, if they do pull this off, they are more than likely to lose the rest of their matches as their effort peters out. Victory against one of the home nations is a possibility but it's difficult to see them win more than two and their campaign probably revolves around the match against Italy at Murrayfield - which they are not nailed on to win.
Prediction: Wooden Spoon