Once into the month of February, thoughts move quickly to the 6 Nations Rugby Tournament and the renewal of rivalry on the field, and friendships off the field, in the bars and restaurants of Rome, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Paris, Dublin and London. The rugby will be intense and demanding and no doubt with some spectacular tries and immense performances.
Probably the most popular annual rugby event, the 2012 Tournament is probably as open as any over the last 10 or so years.
There are no clear favourites for this years Tournament as each Nation has had a number of challenges to face during the build up to this event which kicks off with France and Italy in Paris, followed by the Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England in Edinburgh on Saturday, with the final match of this weekend, Ireland v Wales, on Sunday 5th February.
In the World Cup event in the Autumn, where they reached the final, losing narrowly to New Zealand, France delivered a strange and inconsistent performance, but with a new coach and coaching team, they will be very difficult firstly to predict and secondly to beat! Which French team turns up at 3.00 on Saturday in the Stade de France, and how they then play, will set the standard for the rest of the matches in the competition. Italy similarly has a new coaching team and a raft of new players now being produced by the professional club set up within Italy, and this might well be an occasion when Italy, the Tournament joint underdogs ( with Scotland!), might well cause a real surprise and take the game to France and record their first away win! Key to this match will be how Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parise perform in the forwards, against a vastly experienced and talented French pack which when on form, can dominate any international match.
The second match of this weekend is Scotland v England, for the Calcutta Cup, at Murrayfield. This trophy, is the oldest rugby competition in the world, and as holders, England, with a new coaching staff and many new faces, including a new Captain in Chris Robshaw, will have a huge challenge on their hands, as a fired up Scotland team will need no motivation in front of a sell-out and wound up capacity crowd!
How the much changed England squad respond to the intensity of a white hot Murrayfield on a bitterly cold evening will be interesting and one to observe with a dram or two! Scotland rarely need motivating to perform in this fixture and a key aspect of their game plan will be how the half backs Cusiter and Parks control the pace and field positions. The experience of the Scottish team however, with only 1 new cap in Lee Jones, and a strong and tested bench, makes Scotland favourites to win what will be a tough and closely contested match with relatively few try scoring opportunities for either side.
Scotland, like Italy, have limited playing resources, fewer professional teams to select players from, and need to build on spirit, organisation and structure during the matches, while relying on individual skill and flair and determination to succeed.
The underdogs could have a great start to the season, if both Scotland and Italy can catch their bigger and better resourced opponents cold, on what is likely to be particularly wintry day in both Paris and Edinburgh.
The Wales-Ireland match could well be the match of this years’ 6 Nations, as both teams have young, talented and experienced players, and both tend to adopt a very aggressive and attack minded game plan. This match is likely to be a high scoring affair with home advantage giving a win to Ireland, who of all the 6 Nations teams, have had the least traumatic build up to the competition. With either Sexton and O’Gara at stand off, and O’Connell and O’Callaghan in the pack, it will take an immense performance from the young Welsh team to upset the Irish at home in the Aviva Stadium in Sunday. Wales proved in the World Cup that they can beat any team, and with a world class captain in Sam Warburton, a powerhouse centre in Jamie Roberts, consistent selection and an established coaching team and style, they will prove a real handful for Ireland.
Bob Cunningham, former Scottish Rugby Internationalist