Can the Six Nation armies rule the world?

After the stunning climax to this year’s competition, Chris Hewett assesses where the northern hemisphere powers stand and predicts English achievement, a surprise from France but gloom for Wales in this autumn’s global gathering

There was something of the Lord Mayor’s Show about events at Twickenham on Saturday as the Six Nations reached its try-laden climax, but the union game’s major production of the year is still almost six months away: the eighth staging of the World Cup, to be played in England – with a little help from Wales. What are the main European contenders’ prospects as the dust settles on a remarkable championship campaign?

England

Looking fit and strong – but with a glass jaw

Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, is adamant: England have the capacity to reclaim the world title on home soil. He believes his players will be as fit and well prepared as any team in the competition – a reasonable claim, given the side’s well-established habit of finishing matches like a train and the fact that they will spend almost three months together in the build-up to hostilities – and is as sure as he can be that the big names who missed the Six Nations, from Manu Tuilagi and Owen Farrell in the backs to Joe Launchbury and Ben Morgan in the pack, will all be available.

Many of the indicators are good: England are scoring heavily, their set-piece foundations are solid and their driving maul is something to behold. But they are vulnerable to sucker-punch tries, and in a World Cup campaign, one of those is often one too many.

Reasons to be cheerful

High fitness levels; the Twickenham factor

Reason to be glum

The midfield remains a conundrum

World Cup chances

Semi-finalists at a push

France

Some magic left in the old Gallic flair

There are plenty of people out there who believe Les Bleus are riding for a fall: that the voracious demands of the elite club game on the far side of the Channel, allied to the size-obsessed selection policy of Philippe Saint-André, have left the Test side in a time warp. But events at Twickenham last weekend proved that the French instinct for attacking rugby has not been entirely exhausted, and with some high-class personnel returning to the mix – Hugo Bonneval, François Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra and Louis Picamoles can all play a bit – is anyone really happy to write them off as a team without a prayer? 

Reason to be cheerful

World Cups suit them

Reason to be glum

Saint-André’s conservative streak

World Cup chances

Better than you think. Last four?

Noa-Nakaitaci.jpg
Winger Noa Nakaitaci

Ireland

Champions must avoid All Blacks in last eight

In many ways, the Six Nations champions are the most intriguing side in world rugby right now. It is possible to argue that the half-back partnership of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton has risen to the very top of the global list, and this is no mean feat: the last time such a claim could be made on behalf of a European pairing, Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett were ruling the roost down in Wales, almost 40 years ago. It is also fair to say that Joe Schmidt, the head coach, is sharper than a ferret’s incisor when it comes to plotting against the opposition, and that the back-row unit of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip ticks most of the boxes, if not all of them.

What is more, they will not find themselves trying to live with the tempo of a southern hemisphere superpower at any point in the pool phase, much to the relief of the veteran go-to man Paul O’Connell. But there is a feeling that up front where it matters, they can be exposed – and that they may not have the weaponry out wide to hurt teams who keep pace with them with the boot.

Certainly, the French will feel confident of hurting them on neutral territory. And if that happens, it will be the All Blacks in the last eight. Oh well.

Reasons to be cheerful

Schmidt’s tactical nous; terrific half-backs

Reason to be glum

Dublin is out of the equation

World Cup chances

Last eight, thanks to France

oconnell.jpg
Paul O'Connell lifts the trophy

Italy

Testing times ahead for the ailing Azzurri

More and more, it becomes obvious that the decision of the Azzurri hierarchy to rip the guts out of their domestic competition and throw two teams into the Celtic-dominated Pro 12 tournament was an act of masochistic vandalism. Treviso, for so long the hub of the game in Italy, are now the seven-stone weaklings of European club rugby; Zebre, a more recent concoction, are every bit as frail. As a result, the national coach Jacques Brunel is wholly dependent on three or four genuine Test-class players, to the extent that the absence of any of them virtually guarantees defeat.

To find a way out of their pool this autumn, they must beat either Ireland or France. On current evidence, victories over Canada and Romania are far from done deals.

Reason to be cheerful

Luca Morisi, a genuine midfield discovery

Reasons to be glum

Hard to know where to start

World Cup chances

Back home in early October

Italy.jpg
The Italian team

Scotland

Signs of promise need to be developed

Many of Italy’s problems are shared by the Scots, although there are encouraging signs of attacking green shoots in a nation long stuck in rugby’s equivalent of a nuclear winter. The problem is that two proven international-standard acts – the scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and the full-back Stuart Hogg – together with a couple of creative midfield spirits in Finn Russell and Mark Bennett, find themselves living off crumbs from the big boys’ table, thanks to the fundamental inability of their own forwards to provide for the team.

The hoisting of the white flag against Ireland at Murrayfield ensures they will head into the World Cup with an inferiority complex where their collective spirit should be. If they beat Samoa and make the knockout stage, it will be an achievement. 

Reasons to be cheerful

Russell’s invention; Hogg’s swagger

Reasons to be glum

Powder-puff pack; no selection options

World Cup chances

Last eight if they’re very lucky

hoobustrting.jpg
Scotland full back Stuart Hogg

Wales

Prop problems can be costly in pool showdowns

When Warren Gatland, the head coach, wonders why, in the name of all that is holy, the World Cup organisers made the draw for this tournament so soon after the last one, you can see his point. The global game is not sufficiently strong to cram three of the top six sides on the planet into a “pool of death” while creating two “pools of easy living” from which New Zealand, Argentina, Ireland and France should qualify without needing to drag themselves out of bed.

Wales are patently too good not to qualify for the knockout phase. Unfortunately, the same argument can be made, with even more vehemence, for both England and Australia. The fact that the Red Dragons are struggling so badly at prop does not bode well, especially as the decisive game against the host nation will be won and lost up front. And there is no obvious point in them clinging to the belief that the Wallabies might be there for the taking. For one thing, the men in green and gold could well be good enough to win the whole thing; for another, Wales never beat them anyway.

Wales.jpg
Wales have a been drawn in the 'pool of death'

Reasons to be cheerful

Deep-rooted familiarity; sublime goal-kicking

Reasons to be glum

Horrible draw; front-row poverty

World Cup chances

Three into two won’t go.  Pool exit

Comments