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Rugby: Six Nations Preview

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Hold on tight, here come the stats... The first one is obvious. Tries win games, it's a well-versed fact. It's also proven that 70 percent of all tries at International level are scored from either an attacking line-out or a turnover in open play. In addition, each side has an average of seven opportunities to score a try in every game, that's a potential 35 points every time. If you believe statistics to be the answer then this year's Six Nations will come down to which team executes its set-piece the best, has the most effective back-row and the most potent finishers. For my money (purely using that criteria and on paper only) that would put Ireland or Wales on the podium as potential winners. The reality is though, that it will be France or maybe just England that will be holding the title come the 16 March. Here's why:

France
A few seasons back the FIR invested somewhere in the region of €200,000 in a state-of-the-art scrum machine. We're talking hydraulics, instant computerised statistical analysis, uneven push-back, the whole shebang. After watching the French destroy the Australian pack as though they weren't there in the Autumn Tests it's safe to say it is working for them. The truly frightening thing is that in addition to a dominant pack their strike runners in the backs are amongst the best in world rugby just now. Saint-Andre seems to be eradicating their inconsistencies too and turning them into a disciplined, patient side who execute when required in an accurate and devastating way. Michalak is the one potential banana-skin for them as he's either playing a blinder or completely anonymous but even with that I expect France to win this year, possibly by way of a Grand Slam.

England
Right, let's get the All Blacks result out the way first. It was a great win and an impressive second-half but the reality is that barrelling over the top of an exhausted New Zealand side masked a number of frailties that were exposed during the Autumn Tests. Leadership is still an issue, creativity is often very limited and once you take away a handful of key players (Tuilagi, Foden, Parling, Farrell, etc) there is not much strength in depth behind them and their props look shady. That said, England continue to progress slowly in the right direction, blooding youngsters and allowing their players to make decisions for themselves (even if they are wrong ...step forward Mr Robshaw). Their coaching team is a strong one too with Andy Farrell in particular being key but you feel this current squad may be found wanting when the going gets especially tough.

Ireland
Under Declan Kidney Ireland are currently at a cross roads. A couple of bad results and they immediately look like an uninspired, ageing rabble who are soft up-front and lacking tactical direction. On the flip side, a few wins and some champagne rugby and they suddenly look like genuine contenders. There's no doubt about some of their personnel, guys like Heaslip, Healy (in the loose), Ryan and O'Driscioll are outstanding. Add to that the wrecking ball that is Shaun O'Brien and the bold selections in the back-three and you have all the makings of a very good side. However, something about the psychological make-up of the national team doesn't fill you with confidence about their ability to capitalise on this opportunity. Results in their first two games will set the tone and ultimately decide their fate, as well as Declan Kidney's.

Wales
This could be ugly. The Autumn Tests were a disaster for Wales with only Toby Faletau and Leigh Halfpenny showing any kind of form. The Warren Gatland - Rob Howley - British and Irish Lions loveless triangle isn't working and there are real selection problems in the second-row and at fly-half ahead of their opening game against Ireland in Cardiff. And what a game that will be. I don't think it's overstating the point to say that this is Wales's most important game since that fateful World Cup Semi-Final match. Yes they've won a Grand Slam in that time but it was ultimately a fairly underwhelming clean-sweep (in the illustrious history of Grand Slams) and the subsequent collapse of both their regions and their International form has since eclipsed that achievement. Winning against the Irish will avert total disaster and may just kick-start life in what remains a very talented squad.

Scotland
Scotland, Scotland, Scotland...What can we do to solve a problem like Scotland? Well, if you are the SRU you can sack Andy Robinson after an awful loss to Tonga then install Scott Johnston, Steve Scott and Dean Ryan on short term contracts to re-arrange the deckchairs during this year's Six Nations. It may just work. The Scots are not short of grit, have a decent pack and they certainly do the hard work well, particularly in defence but when it comes to finishing or taking opportunities they are at times woeful. If the 'interim-coaching set-up' can inspire them, fix the line-out and get their runners such as Hogg, Maitland and the impressive Visser in the places they need to be then we could have a dark horse on our hands. The most likely outcome however is a few plucky performances and a fifth placed finish, as per the norm.

Italy
Having France up first will not please the Italians. Even at home that is a huge ask but without a decent goal kicker it looks nigh on impossible. They're set to gamble on Luciano Orquera to solve their obvious fly-half problems and should that work then you could see them getting results at Murrayfield and potentially at home to Wales too, depending on how wobbly the Welsh are by then. We know that Italy have the pack and the sheer fact that neither Bergamasco brother is in the squad (for the first time in 13 years) points to some new blood coming through. Parisse and Castrogiovanni remain the lynchpins but how the rest of the squad, particularly the backs, perform will decide their position in the table at the end of the tournament.