Six Nations: the Celtic resurgence

Wales, Ireland and Scotland have shattered the Six Nations dominance of England and France, and could finish as the top three this year, says Chris Hewett

It seems amazing to us now that certain very important people can fool themselves into thinking that the word "bust" is not the logical and inevitable consequence of the word "boom". We are not, in this instance, referring to the Prime Minister, although he appears to have been one of those who failed to recognise that if something cannot go on forever, it doesn't. Instead, we are talking of those rugby grandees – many of them attached to Twickenham, others to the BBC – who, during the early years of this decade, seriously suggested that the final game of a Six Nations Championship should always be between England and France, on account of the fact that nobody else mattered.

Oh dear. England have not won the title – or even come close – since their annus mirabilis in 2003, and are hardly in the optimum position to end their barren run in the 2009 tournament, which begins its seven-week run with fixtures in London and Dublin on Saturday. France, equally convinced that superiority in perpetuity was achievable but much more reluctant to spout about it in public, also find themselves in a grim place, although their last success in the competition – in 2007 – is still reasonably fresh in the memory.

This, happily for those who consider variety to be the spice of life, is the age of the Celtic renaissance – certainly in the Six Nations, if not on the broader international stage – and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Ireland, Scotland and Wales will fill the top three positions in the table come the middle of next month, although probably not in that order. If they manage it, good luck to them. In the first decade of professional rugby, eight of the 10 titles were shared by England and France. If the second decade turns out to be more interesting, only the wilfully myopic will shed tears.

Wales are the popular favourites, and with good reason: some of their rugby of late has been excellent, not least that played by Gethin Jenkins and Alun Wyn Jones at the sharp end, Martyn Williams and Andy Powell in the back row and the two strike runners out wide, Shane Williams and Lee Byrne. Williams and Byrne must be very close to Lions Test selection already: even Lawrence Dallaglio, as John-Bull-English as any man with an Italian father could ever be, has picked them in his side for the first run-in with the Springboks in June (together with no fewer than seven Wasps, which, regardless of the great man's profound love for the club he now helps to run, is milking it just a bit).

Ireland should also be in good shape. Brian O'Driscoll, who made his name running rings around the French, has another crack at Les Bleus this weekend, and at Croke Park too, which helps. The captain considers this to be the strongest Irish squad he has known and you can see his point, for they have genuine options in positions they struggled to fill once over in the none-too-distant past.

"Everyone is replaceable now, which is where we need to be as a team," said O'Driscoll, who, along with the lock Paul O'Connell and the flanker David Wallace, is the very last person any selector would want to be replacing any time soon. There are still issues up front, but if their front row performs at the set-piece – and the two props, Marcus Horan and John Hayes, never seem to be found out as often as their critics expect – there is every chance Ireland will travel to Cardiff for the last round of matches with title ambitions alive.

Yet it is Scotland, who 10 years ago ended the Five Nations era on top of the table, who have an opportunity to make life awkward for everyone else as the first decade of Six Nations rugby nears its conclusion. It might be argued that they have the weakest professional structure of all the competing nations – even the Italians can, in a good season, outnumber them in terms of Heineken Cup entrants – and their coach, Frank Hadden, frequently finds himself begging the International Rugby Board to grant him more training time with his international players, generally to no avail. But Hadden has been unusually chipper just lately, and with reason.

"The move to professionalism made it hard for countries with limited resources and we've had to fight tooth and nail to hang in there," he said when asked to assess Scotland's chances of taking a significant stride forward after years of shuffling to and fro like an old man in carpet slippers.

"Now, we have a better crop of players than for some considerable time. It may be just a cyclical thing, but they're definitely there. We still don't have as many front-line personnel as the bigger nations and it wasn't too much of a challenge for me to pick 33 for the Six Nations squad. However, it will very definitely be a challenge to decide on my starting XV because, like the Irish, we have options in most positions.

"Taken together with the fact that we've been able to change the profile of the team – our scrum is much more stable now; our contact skills have improved with the emergence of strong and aggressive men; our half-backs no longer complain about having to work from an untidy platform – it's a big improvement on where we were even this time last year. What we now need is to offer something tangible to our long-suffering supporters. There is nothing like winning to confirm people in their view that we're making progress."

Scotland will play both of their Celtic rivals on home soil: Wales this weekend, Ireland in the penultimate round next month. It means they must travel to Twickenham, where they have not won since 1983, but they will not leave Edinburgh entirely without hope. Having slipped a whoopee cushion beneath each of the last two England coaches – Andy Robinson's side lost at Murrayfield in 2006, Brian Ashton's side suffered similarly last year – they would find it highly amusing if they could do something similar to Martin Johnson, regardless of the venue.

Best of the six? Chris Hewett runs rule over the teams

ENGLAND
Manager Martin Johnson
Captain Steve Borthwick

The most lavishly resourced of all rugby nations, England have not won the championship they once considered to be beneath them since 2003 – the last year they landed a major title of any description. They say they are a work in progress, but the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids faster than this. There are three games at Twickenham this time round, which should be an advantage, but the trips to Cardiff and Dublin are unlikely to be much fun. Johnson must be praying that when the French turn up in London, they leave the best of themselves in Paris.

Best guess: Back in the pack.

FRANCE
Coach Marc Lièvremont
Captain Lionel Nallet

Les Bleus should be better than last year, which isn't saying much. Lièvremont has a wonderful back division at his disposal – although he is putting an awful lot of faith in the goal-kicking of Lionel Beauxis – and some loose forwards to die for: Thierry Dusautoir is an absolute gem. But there are still question marks over the front row, once such a dependable part of the French game, and a lack of experience at scrum-half might easily be exposed. The coach says his selectorial experiments will be less radical this time, but the 2011 World Cup is still foremost in his mind.

Best guess: As per England.

IRELAND
Coach Declan Kidney
Captain Brian O'Driscoll

The brilliant O'Driscoll had reached the grand old age of six when Ireland last won the title – at that stage, Ireland had never played Italy in a friendly, let alone a championship game – so the look of longing in his eyes at the tournament launch last week was understandable. "Every year is meant to be our year," he said, wryly. This year could be theirs, though. They have France and England at home, the hard men of Munster have played some terrific stuff in Europe and the new generation of backs – Robert Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls – are the dog's unmentionables. A big opportunity.

Best guess: Top two potential.

ITALY
Coach Nick Mallett
Captain Sergio Parisse

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the single most accomplished player in Europe right now is the Italian skipper – a world-class forward in anyone's lingo. The Azzurri also have the best scrum, as the Argentines – no slouches in this department – discovered before Christmas. In addition, there are three games in Rome this year, albeit against the three teams Mallett's side cannot find a way to beat, Ireland, Wales and France. Unfortunately, the experimental laws have undermined most of the things the Italians do well. They will have to defend for their lives and hope for the best.

Best guess: Another wooden spoon.

SCOTLAND
Coach Frank Hadden
Captain Mike Blair

Hadden has pieced together a formidable ball-winning pack, although he could have done without the injury concerns surrounding Euan Murray, the early favourite for the Lions' tight-head prop berth in South Africa this summer. It might also be argued that Scotland have the best scrum-half in Blair, the most dependable marksman in Chris Paterson and, if they can keep people fit, some pace on the wings. Midfield is the issue here. If they square the arguments at 10, 12 and 13, they could really upset the applecart – and not just the English applecart, either.

Best guess: Fourth. Maybe better.

WALES
Coach Warren Gatland
Captain Ryan Jones

Wales have not defended the title successfully since the 1970s, which, as those living west of the Severn never tire of pointing out, was quite a decade for the Red Dragonhood. They have a way to go before they can start talking of a new golden age, but two Grand Slams in their last four attempts is a decent start. Well coached by people armed with a command of strategy and a priceless ability to instil confidence, the Welsh are playing the most attractive rugby as well as the best. If they can prevail in Edinburgh this weekend, they should win the Triple Crown at least.

Best guess: Champions once more.

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