Slam is the Grand plan
George Primarolo previews the 2014 Six Nations Championship, and includes his best bets for the opening weekend.
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The dreaded word 'momentum' is bandied about in sport all the time without any real idea of how to quantify it. However, it is impossible to get away from the fact that a victory in the first round can be crucial to whether a side can land the Six Nations or not.
True, Wales managed to buck this trend last year after their narrow defeat against Ireland on the opening weekend but save for an inexplicably bad performance in the first half in Dublin, Warren Gatland's men would have cantered to a Grand Slam success and they were easily the best side last year. They are the best side again on paper this time around but it remains to be seen how they get on with injuries and just how much the recent Lions tour took out of their superstars.
This is a real make or break year for England. They have occupied the runner-up berth for the past two years since Stuart Lancaster took over as head coach and they will be hoping that it can be third time lucky. They've got a very strong pack and a great draw which should definitely see them finish the tournament in the top two. However, with a home World Cup year looming, Lancaster will secretly know that only a Six Nations victory will suffice if they are to have any hope of emulating the class of 2003. A lot will depend on how the rookies in the backs perform and if they get past France in Paris this weekend, then a Grand Slam could well be on the cards.
As ever, gauging the chances of France proves to be as elusive as finding wholesale support for their beleaguered president. Last year's wooden spoon was their first of the six nation era and only their second in 44 years so for coach Philippe Saint-Andre, the only way is surely up. However, there are encouraging signs for PSA and their chances should not be underestimated. As with England, they have a very good draw and they have an extra week in order to prepare for the tournament which proved to be their undoing against Italy last year. As with Wales though, injuries have severely hampered their preparations and the loss of colossus Thierry Dusautoir is immense. If they win 'Le Crunch', then I have a sneaking feeling that they could go from wooden-spoon 'winners' to Grand Slam champions in the space of a year. If they don't, then it's not inconceivable to see them limp out of contention as the tournament progresses. A lot rests on the shoulders of the uncapped stand-off Jules Plisson and recalled nine Jean-Marc Doussain. The half-back pairing was a massive headache for PSA last year but if these two gel immediately, then France could easily be a force again this time around.
If Ireland perform like they did against New Zealand in the autumn, then they are an obvious threat but I just can't see them putting several performances like this together. Their fifth-place finish last year was poor and, while they will undoubtedly improve on this, it's a big ask for them to be pushing for the title and England, Wales and possible France look stronger contenders.
The battle for the wooden spoon should come down to a straight fight between Scotland and Italy which could be decided when the two sides face each other at the Stadio Olimpico in round three. The former could easily struggle to match last year's third place and their pack (especially in the front row) doesn't look a match for either France or England (whom they face at home). The Azzurri face a tricky campaign and Scotland aside, it's very difficult to see where a victory will come from. Last year's fourth place probably flatters them as they beat a woeful French side at home on the opening weekend and then beat an indifferent Irish side in the last round. As ever, their campaign will centre on a dogged defence, some masterful displays from captain Sergio Parisse and some strange decision-making and kicking from whoever is flavour of the month at fly-half.
The betting rightfully reflects a year in which no side comes into the tournament with an outstanding chance. Wales are understandably favourites but the 2/1 on offer doesn't really get the juices flowing and this will be bigger if they suffer more injuries in key positions.
I don't really have a strong opinion in the outright market but I do think there is a bit of value to be had in the Grand Slam one as the game in Paris on Saturday could hold the key to the entire tournament and whichever side comes out on top could be in a very strong position not only to win the Six Nations, but also to land the Slam itself.
Both England and France can be backed at 7/1 to register five victories and their respective draws suggest that this could be on the cards. Given that England face Wales at home in round four, I would fancy them a little more than France in this market given Les Bleus have to travel to Cardiff in round three but if PSA's men manage to get past England, they should be two from two by the time they face Wales which would put a whole different perspective on the tournament.
Defending champions Wales kick-off their Six Nations campaign when they host Italy at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday afternoon and, on paper at least, they should pick up where they left off last year. Warren Gatland's men have only tasted defeat once in their last 10 Six Nations matches - against Ireland in the opening game of last year's tournament - but they have only won two of their last five games (against Argentina and Tonga during the autumn). The Azzurri have had a tough time of it recently and a tough autumn campaign left them with only one victory to their name (which was a 37-31 win against Fiji in Cremona at the back end of 2013). Italy have never won in Cardiff but came agonisingly close in 2006 when they drew 18-18 but it is surely expecting too much of Jacques Brunel's side to provide another shock victory on the opening weekend as they did 12 months ago when beating France. Alun-Wyn Jones will lead an experienced Wales side and he will line up in the second row with Perpignan's Luke Charteris as Wales look to create history by becoming the first side to win the tournament outright three times in succession. In the front row, Paul James edges nearer the 50-cap mark when he lines up alongside British and Irish Lions duo Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones, while the usual half-back partnership of Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland, who started all Wales' 2012 Grand Slam fixtures, are on the teamsheet again. Lions trio Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and George North are also down to start in a strong-looking Welsh line-up. The Italian fly-half wheel of fortune has landed on Tommaso Allan and he is the latest in a long line of stand-offs who have been handed the task of being the next Diego Dominguez since the diminutive number 10 stood down almost 10 years ago. Italy have lost several key players to injury but while they should be able to rely on the services on captain Sergio Parisse for the entire tournament this year, it is difficult to see them creating enough magic in the backs to trouble Wales. One thing is certain though and that is that Italy will be tough to break down and their dogged defence has been a hallmark of Italian rugby since the inception of the Six Nations in 2000. Their chances of keeping Wales to a respectable score depend on how much possession they get (and keep) and the Azzurri actually averaged more possession than any other side in last year's Six Nations. They don't always use it well but if Allan manages to slot in well to the fly-half role, then Wales could be given something to think about. Italy also managed the most carries, made the most metres and threw the most passes last year so they are clearly no back number. The world and his wife will be expecting a landslide Welsh victory on Saturday but if Italy get the same amount of possession as they did last year (and eke a few more points out via the boot), then Brunel's side can bridge the gap and keep Wales within the handicap of 20.
Verdict: Wales by 15.
As outlined in the outright summary above, I think this match is a pivotal one in determining the outcome of this year's tournament as whichever side comes out on top in Paris on Saturday could easily be lifting the trophy come March. England have been the bridesmaids to Wales in the last two renewals of this tournament and coach Stuart Lancaster knows that this is the time that his players have to step up to the mark with a home World Cup on the horizon. Say what you like about Lancaster but he always picks his side as he sees it and is not afraid to pick on form rather than reputation. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise to see the inclusion of uncapped duo Luther Burrell and Jack Nowell in the starting XV. Of course, Lancaster has had his hand forced by injuries but anyone who has watched either Northampton or Exeter this season cannot have failed to be have been impressed by the way either of these players have gone about their business. They look ready for the step up to the international arena but this is no means a cast-iron guarantee that they will perform. England's strength - as ever - will lie in their pack and the forwards should be able to provide a solid platform for the recalled Danny Care to supply the backs with quick ball. Care's attacking instincts should never be underestimated and it would be no surprise to see him sniff around the tryline should the England pack wrestle their way near the whitewash. France's Six Nations campaign in 2013 was abysmal and they can hardly do any worse having landed the wooden spoon last year. Coach Philippe Saint-Andre struggled with his side last year and the constant chopping and changing of his half-back pairing meant there was no real cohesion and link between his forwards and backs. Jules Plisson and Jean-Marc Doussain have been handed the task this year (for the first 40 minutes at least) and this needs to work almost immediately if France are to have any hope of mounting a challenge this time around. This is a very tough game to call and one that could genuinely go either way. I am surprised to see France as slight favourites as I didn't think they'd be as short as 1/2 but home advantage counts for a lot in any Test match and France will need their supporters to get behind them early on if they are to build up any momentum. It's not a game to get too heavily involved in as it will be close and could go either way in the dying stages but I do think that Care is overpriced at 12/1 to be England's first tryscorer in the game. He likes to attack and his greed sometimes means he has tunnel vision when approaching the tryline. This is not necessarily good for his side but counts for a lot when backing him to score first.
Verdict: France by 3.
There is a sense of anticipation in the air at the Aviva Stadium as Ireland enters this year's Six Nations tournament with fresh optimism following last year's fifth-place finish under Declan Kidney. Their disappointing campaign saw them take out Kidney and it is now all about Joe Schmidt as recent performances suggest the boys in green are ready to rise again. A heart-breaking defeat against New Zealand in Dublin over the autumn may have been disappointing at the time but was hugely encouraging looking back now and if they can replicate this on a consistent basis, then they will surely be contenders. However, it could prove to be beyond them this year as it will undoubtedly be a season of growth and transition but there's no doubting that they could come to the boil nicely for the upcoming World Cup. Ireland need to prove two things this season before they can challenge. The first is that they can cope without Sean O'Brien powering the forwards. The Leinster back-row has been in storming form for both club and country but a recent shoulder injury has ruled him out for the rest of the season. The second is the dip in form of Johnny Sexton. The fly-half has been in poor form for Racing Metro of late and has admitted that it has been a "real struggle" to adapt to playing in France. It could just be that he's homesick and the return to the Irish fold may spark a return to form but this is a moot point and not one to rely heavily on. Also, he will now be playing without the comfort blanket that is Ronan O'Gara and no longer will Ireland be able to rely on his precision kicking late on in the game to gain important territory when it is tight. Sexton will have to step up on this front which is a big ask for any player, let alone one for someone who is struggling with confidence. Having said all this, they should have more than enough for Scotland this Sunday who played out of their skins last season to snatch third in this very competition. Scott Johnson got the best out of his players who undoubtedly did him proud but they need to do it again this time round to prove that this was no fluke. Johnson can take comfort from the fact that his side showed plenty of attacking flair last season and he will be looking to harness that again from the likes of Stuart Hogg, who was a revelation last season. Nevertheless, there is a chance that the wheels could come off for Scotland. Like Saint-Andre for France, Johnson's selection policy can be questionable at times and he still has to prove he's got what it takes to be level-headed at international level. Their form in the autumn internationals was fairly uninspiring, so he will also have to try and reignite the flame that saw his side play so well in this competition last year. All in all, this should be fairly straightforward for the Irish but this is also a view held by the bookmakers, who make Ireland the 12-point favourites for this particular match. There will be better bets to be had as the tournament progresses so keep your powder dry on this particular rubber.
Verdict: Ireland by 12.
- The tournament is being televised live in the UK on the BBC.