Six Nations: Players to watch
Our Sam Pollock picks out a player to watch from each side during the RBS 6 Nations Championship.
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England: Tom Wood
Tom Wood is a considerable lineout presence and a back-row who has bags of pace which makes him one of England’s key players for the up and coming Six Nations.
Having forged an impressive reputation with Worcester and Northampton, Wood made his full international debut against Wales at Cardiff in February in 2011. Playing in all five games, he helped England clinch the Six Nations title, and later that year he was named the Aviva Premiership’s Player of the Year.
Wood failed to hold down his place during England’s dismal World Cup campaign in New Zealand but was still seen by many as the key option for an England pack lacking speed. Arguably the saving grace for Wood was the appointment of Stuart Lancaster, under which English rugby embarked on a new era.
He was touted by many as a possible captain candidate but injury ruled him out of a summer tour to South Africa.
Battling back to form, Wood not only helped England to beat the All Blacks by a record 38-21 at Twickenham in December of last year but also propelled Northampton to the Premier League final.
Wood started all of the 2013 RBS 6 Nations Championship games, the initial game against Scotland as a No.6 before switching to the middle of the back row. He was the leading ball winner in the line out from either side when England beat Italy 18-11 at Twickenham that March.
Back England at 12/5 to win the Six Nations
Wales: George North
George North is one of the most talented wingers in the modern game and already has an impressive record for such a young man. At 6 foot 4 inches and almost 17 stone, he has all the energy and running you’d expect to cause a real difference.
At just the tender age of 21, North already has two Six nation titles to his name.
On debut against South Africa, North scored two tries and set up another in a narrow defeat and his reputation has grown from there. After a few eye catching displays at the World Cup in New Zealand, he carried his exceptional in to the New Year.
He was instrumental in Wales’ 2012 Grand Slam winning side, having formed a strong partnership with Alex Cuthbert on the flank.
North staked his place for the Lions squad with another impressive Six Nations campaign in 2013 and went on to have breakthrough tour.
Scoring one of the most memorable solo tries in Lions history in the first Test, North was instrumental in a first series win since 1997 and in particular his duel with Wallaby winger Israel Folau was one of the highlights of the series.
George North is a real handful of a winger. If the midfield can get him good ball in the right areas of the field, expect the youngster to make a real difference and rack up a fair old points tally.
Back Wales at 15/8 to win the Six Nations
France: Wesley Fofana
Wesley Fofana is an extremely powerful centre who is making a big name for himself in the Top 14 for Clermont. It is argued that Forfana is still to reach his full potential but having played alongside the likes of Regan King and Aurelien Rougerie week in week out; he can’t be far off reaching his peak.
In 2012, Fofana was rewarded for his string of impressive performances with a call up to the France squad for the Six Nations. He started the tournament opener alongside fellow Clermont back Aurelien Rougerie and marked his international debut with a try.
Fofana managed to keep this run of scoring a try in game he had played for his country until they played Wales, but by then he had already written his name in the history books. His run of four tries in four matches certainly raised a few eyebrows and shows the potential threat he carries.
With so much power and ability,
Fofana will be a key part of the France squad that will be aiming to a much better Six Nations than a year ago, where they claimed the wooden spoon, after only managing one win and one draw out of their five games.
Expectations won’t drop from the Stade de France faithful so the pressure is on Fofana to produce the goods to drive his country to the success they experienced in 2010.
Back France at 5/2 to win the Six Nations
Ireland: Brian O’Driscoll
One of the most iconic figures in world rugby, Brian O’Driscoll has been a consistent performer for Ireland for over a decade now. Now the all-time Irish record try scorer, he has also led his country more times than any other player and has brilliant defensive qualities as well as dazzling attacking skills which makes him a threat all over the field.
Becoming captain of his country in 2002, he led Ireland by example and with success, three Triple Crowns in four years between 2004 and 2007, and in the last of those years he broke Wood's captaincy record of 36 Tests. In 2009 he captained his country to a long-awaited Grand Slam - only their second clean sweep and first for 61 years.
During this period of success, O’Driscoll had been named as the Player of the Six Nations in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
In 2013 he was overlooked as the captain of Ireland and his international season, and possibly career, could have ended on a sour note when he was sin-binned in a defeat to Italy.
However he was still picked for a fourth Lions tour but was controversially dropped from the series decider. Many thought O’Driscoll was destined to play but the Lions ultimately won the series without him by defeating the Wallabies in the final test in Sydney and, despite watching from the stands; O'Driscoll finally added a victorious Lions test to his long list of accolades.
Back Ireland at 11/2 to win the Six Nations
Scotland: Stuart Hogg
Stuart Hogg is a talented back who is among the brightest prospects in the British game.
His electric Heineken Cup displays in the 2011/12 season saw him quickly progress from a Scottish Rugby Elite Development deal to a long-term professional contract.
Hogg earned a call up to the Scotland squad for the 2012 Six Nations following a series of impressive performances for Glasgow.
His early international appearances varied in quality and it was not until the 2013 Six Nations that he really made an impact. Behind an improved Scottish pack and a more creative backline, Hogg scored two tries in the tournament and impressed all-round to catapult himself into the British & Irish Lions squad to tour Australia.
Hogg didn’t feature in the three Tests against the Wallabies but he was an important squad member as the Lions claimed a first Test series triumph in 16 years. The highlight of his tour was a Man of the Match performance against the Combined Country XV, in which he scored a try from the unfamiliar position of fly-half.
Back Scotland at 33/1 to win the Six Nations
Italy: Sergio Parisse
A No.8 of great ability, his positional sense in the line-out and the flair he shows for getting across the gain line are just some of the reasons why people have marked him out as an outstanding player both for club and country.
Parisse has been the leading light of Italian rugby for years now and remains the one Italian player who could pretty much walk into any of the teams competing in the Six Nations.
Having opted to stay in France despite offers from abroad, he is widely perceived to be one of Europe's premier No.8's and has started all of Italy's games during the 2011 Six Nations and managed to score a try against Wales.
He featured prominently for Italy during the 2011 World Cup and the following Six Nations but Italy failed to live up to expectation narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon in the northern hemisphere tournament. Come the 2012/13 season, Parisse's stock as one of the world's premier No.8s continued to rise and he was a key player in Italy's memorable win over France in the opening match of the 2013 Six Nations.
In recent years he’s seen the highs and lows of international rugby with a nomination for the IRB Players of the Year Award quickly followed by a serious injury. At the World Cup he looked to be back to his imperious best, so you can expect him to be the Azzurri’s main man once again at the 2014 Six Nations.
Back Italy at 100/1 to win the Six Nations
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