So, come on then, where’s your money for the 2013 RBS 6 Nations? Are Wales going to make it back-to-back Grand Slams, will England build on their win over the world champion All Blacks, can Scotland win their first title since 1999 or will it be Brian O’Driscoll’s crowning glory?
Nothing stirs the blood like the 6 Nations in the northern hemisphere and don’t forget the resurgent French, under new coach Philippe Saint Andre, are being tipped as the dark horses for another title and the much improved Italians will once again be looking to push on.
And just to add some extra spice to proceedings over the next seven weeks, the players from the four Home Nations will be using the championship as an audition for the 2013 Lions tour to Australia. It won’t just be the eyes of a nation on the players in white, blue, green and red, but Warren Gatland’s as well!
With three Grand Slams in the past eight years, Wales have punched well above their weight in the championship and, despite a long list of injuries and a seven-match losing streak, will go into this weekend’s opening game against Ireland knowing they can deliver on the big occasions in this great tournament.
The Millennium Stadium will be full to its near 75,000 capacity and new Irish skipper Jamie Heaslip has already revealed his side have been practising at shouting commands to each other to overcome the Welsh signing. Will it be ‘Hymns and Arias’ or the ‘Fields of Athenry’ that rings out loudest and longest in this one?
Wales have won their last three games against the Irish, including a big win in the World Cup quarter-final in 2011, but without their guiding light at No10, Rhys Priestland, the 2012 Player of the Championship, Dan Lydiate, in the back row and top lock pairing Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris, they could be short-handed. The Irish, too, are missing a few of their top guns – the Lions trio of Tommy Bowe, Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris – but shaped up much better than Wales in November and safely delivered two provinces into the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and a third into the last eight of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Ireland versus Wales was a thrilling encounter at the Aviva Stadium in the last 6 Nations
Picking a winner from this one is virtually impossible, although one thing is certain, whoever loses could be on a slippery slope. After opening their campaign at home, Sam Warburton’s Welsh side have to play away in their next three fixtures – in France, Scotland and Italy. That was the pattern in 2005 when they won their first Grand Slam in 27 years but, with England at home in their last game, it is the toughest schedule they could have asked for this year.
As for Heaslip’s Irish side, if they fall in Cardiff then they have to go back to Dublin to prepare for a physical onslaught from Chris Robshaw’s England. Their Twickenham demolition of the All Blacks put them on a high in the autumn and if they can carry that form into the championship they will surely start as the favourites.
First up for England are the Scots, who travel to Twickenham seeking their first win at the home of English rugby since 1983. If you are looking for omens, then Scotland had a No8 called John Beattie in that 22-12 win and will have another, his son Johnnie, wearing the same shirt 30 years on. Beattie junior has forced his way back into the Scottish side after some breathtaking performances for Heineken Cup quarter-finalists Montpellier this season and will be part of an uncompromising back row unit that also features skipper Kelly Brown and ex-cage fighter Alasdair Strokosch. They are bound to cause England problems, but the big question is can the men just ahead of them cope with the firepower of the English front five?
You’ll get long odds on a Scottish win in Round 1, especially after their home defeat to Tonga in the autumn, but interim coach Scott Johnson has spiced up his side with seven changes, one positional, and will send them into battle with nothing to lose.
The loss of Manu Tuilagi in the centre will be a big blow to England’s hopes of scoring tries behind the scrum – although Billy Twelvetrees offers more creativity – but they have enough speed and punch beyond him to cause any team trouble if they get quick, clean ball. Then they have the dead-eyed goalkicking skills of Owen Farrell and later Toby Flood to call on to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Scotland against England proved hugely physical in Edinburgh last time around
There is little doubt that England and France, who meet Italy in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on Sunday, will start the championship as the form teams and the bookies favourites. However, results from Round 1 will give everyone a better insight into who the likely lads will be for the title come March 16.
The great Lions debate will pick up pace throughout the 6 Nations and there will be a number of classic head-to-head battles to look out for in the first round of action in Cardiff and London. So, as well as supporting your team, let us know on facebook and twitter who you think is shaping up for the ultimate selection and pay special attention to the following individual match ups:
Wales v Ireland
Sam Warburton v Jamie Heaslip for the captaincy
Toby Faletau v Jamie Heaslip for the No8 spot
Leigh Halfpenny v Rob Kearney at full back
Jonathan Davies v Brian O’Driscoll at outside centre
Mike Phillips v Conor Murray at scrum half
Adam Jones v Cian Healy in the front row
England v Scotland
Alex Goode v Stuart Hogg at full back
Chris Ashton v Tim Visser on the wing
Joe Launchbury v Richie Gray in the second row
Chris Robshaw v Kelly Brown for the captaincy and No7 jersey
Dan Cole v Euan Murray at tight head prop