NICK MALLETT’S Italy remain a work in progress, and will have their work cut out again to not collect the wooden spoon, as they have done for the past three years.
But there are some positives, and the Azzurri are becoming more competitive, thanks in part to domestic powerhouses Benetton Treviso and Aironi Rugby’s inclusion in the Magners League this season.
With the youth system now firing on all cylinders, it is surely only a matter of time before the fruits of Mallett’s labours will be blooming. Centre Tommaso Benvenuti and his Treviso scrum-half Edoardo Gori, both 20, are just two players of promise starting to emerge - there are 22,000 more youngsters playing the game in football-mad Italy than when Mallett took over in 2007. But this year it still may be too soon to expect a vast improvement.
Twelfth in the IRB rankings, the lowest of the RBS 6 Nations teams, it continues to raise eyebrows when Italy win.
They achieved a best ever result against South Africa in the summer, losing only 29-13, in a scoreline that flattered the Springboks – Mallett kept his promise to shave his head if his team kept to within 20 points of the world champions. And in late November they beat a competitive Fiji side 24-16 in Modena.
In last season’s RBS 6 Nations their only win came against Scotland at Stadio Flaminio in Rome, though they only lost to England by five points.
Though Mallett has the brilliant Sergio Parisse back, he will be without the 84-cap flanker Mauro Bergamasco and talented Australia-born fly-half Craig Gower.
With trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff scheduled Mallett’s side will be favourites again for bottom place and, come 19 March, their lack of strength in depth looks likely to be exposed.
NICK MALLETT: The Oxford University-educated former Springbok No8 has thrown himself into nurturing Italy since he took on the role in late 2007. It has been frustratingly slow-paced at times, but the wheels are beginning to move. The 54-year-old will step down after the World Cup and is aiming for a last-eight finish in New Zealand.
Tommaso Benvenuti, Mirco Bergamasco, Kristopher Burton, Gonzalo Canale, Pablo Canavosio, Gonzalo Garcia, Edoardo Gori, Andrea Masi, Luke McLean, Luciano Orquera, Matteo Pratichetti, Alberto Sgarbi
Robert Barbieri, Valerio Bernabo, Martin Castrogiovanni, Carlo Del Fava, Santiago Dellape, Quintin Geldenhuys, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Andrea Lo Cicero, Fabio Ongaro, Sergio Parisse, Salvatore Perugini, Ignacio Rouyet, Josh Sole, Alessandro Zanni
Star man: Sergio Parisse
The totemic skipper, 27, missed the whole of the last RBS 6 Nations because of a knee injury and was sorely missed. The Stade Francais No8 is Italy’s ace in the pack, and would likely walk into most international teams. Married to reigning Miss Europe, Alexandra Rosenfeld, he was nominated for IRB Player of the year in 2008.
REIGNING champions France achieved the grand slam last year with some flowing, champagne rugby. However, true to their mercurial nature, they head into this championship having lost most of the fizz of last spring, after a woeful summer and autumn.
In June a 42-17 defeat in Cape Town to South Africa was followed by a miserable 41-13 hiding at the hands of a strong, but one-dimensional Argentina side in Buenos Aires. Then in the autumn they limped past the Pumas, winning 15-9 on home soil and in late November the Australians, a fortnight after being mauled by England at Twickenham, crossed seven times in a 59-16 win at Stade de France to leave coach Marc Lievremont red-faced with plenty to ponder over Yuletide.
Lievremont was ridiculed for his chopping and changing when he took charge of his first RBS 6 Nations championship three years ago – he used 56 players in all – but he was vindicated last March, when his tinkering ceased and he appeared to have a settled core of star performers.
Central to last year’s success was the form of No8 Imanol Harinordoquy and Stade Francais’ young but troubled 19st centre Mathieu Bastareaud whose battering ram style gave France a dynamic new point of attack. However Lievremont has unceremoniously dropped the 22-year-old, deeming him overweight – and it could be a decision he will ultimately regret.
With only two games in Paris this term – against Scotland first and Wales in the championship finale under lights on March 19 – it’s a tough ask for France to retain their crown. Much will depend on the form and fitness of Harinordoquy and fellow back-rower and captain Thierry Dusautoir, and the young half-backs Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc. But, having won five of the past eight RBS 6 Nations, they can never be written off – 2011 could be another fine vintage.
MARC LIEVREMONT: Last year the 42-year-old, who as a gnarled flanker won 25 caps for Les Bleus, became only the fourth man to play in and coach a grand slam side. A surprise successor to Bernard Laporte in 2007, he finally won over the French public last spring, but the pressure to deliver his country’s first World Cup weighs heavily.
Morgan Parra, Dimitri Yachvili, Francois Trinh-Duc, David Skrela, Damien Traille, Yannick Jauzion, Maxime Mermoz, David Marty, Aurelien Rougerie, Vincent Clerc, Maxime Medard, Alexis Palisson, Clement Poitrenaud, Yoann Huget
Thomas Domingo, Sylvain Marconnet, Guilhem Guirado, William Servat, Luc Ducalcon, Nicolas Mas, Lionel Nallet, Jerome Thion, Pascal Pape, Julien Pierre, Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir, Alexandre Lapandry, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Sebastien Chabal, Imanol Harinordoquy
Star man: Morgan Parra
The spiky Clermont Auvergne scrum-half is only 22, but a key player in Lievremont’s team. He shows nerves of steel as front-line kicker, and his partnership with 24-year-old Francois Trinh-Duc, who now appears to have secured the No10 jersey, will be paramount to Les Bleus’ success.
SCOTLAND LAST won the championship back in 1999, the year before Italy joined, but some top pundits believe this their best chance in 12 years to taste glory once more.
Having won five of their last six Test matches – the solitary defeat coming at the hands of New Zealand – Andy Robinson’s team are the form country going into this year’s RBS 6 Nations.
A maturing, disciplined pack provides a firm foundation on which the Scots can build. John Barclay, 24, is a master of the game’s dark arts at openside flanker, and he is ably supported by in-form No6 Nathan Hines and a strong front five that includes the monstrous 6ft 8in Richie Gray.
The 21-year-old Glasgow Warriors lock packs down next to club-mate and captain Alastair Kellock, who is equally hulking.
On the summer tour Scotland team defeated Argentina twice – amazingly it was their first Test series victory on foreign soil.
In the 24-16 and 13-9 successes fly-half Dan Parks laced 32 of Scotland’s 37 points. And in the autumn the Australian-born Parks kicked all the points in a 21-17 win over
While his tactical kicking will doubtless be important, if Parks can release the try-shy men outside him then sides really will fear playing the Scots. In the 13 games Robinson has taken charge of, they have crossed only seven times highlighting a lack of cutting edge.
Last season, after a feeble start, Scotland finished the RBS 6 Nations in encouraging fashon, with a nail-biting 15-all draw against England followed by a last-gasp 23-20 success over Ireland at Croke Park – their first win on Dublin soil since 1998.
With three games at Murrayfield this campaign – Wales, Ireland and Italy – much will depend on how the Scots cope in their opening game, against France in Paris.
ANDY ROBINSON: The former England flanker had a torrid time as Red Rose head coach in a two-year spell that ended in 2006, with only nine wins in 22 games. But the 46-year-old has learned from his mistakes and, in his two years at the Scottish helm, has built a team with real promise and one which will take some beating.
Joe Ansbro, Mike Blair, Jack Cuthbert, Simon Danielli, Nick De Luca, Max Evans, Alex Grove, Ruaridh Jackson, Greig Laidlaw, Rory Lamont, Sean Lamont, Rory Lawson, Dan Parks, Chris Paterson, Hugo Southwell, Nikki Walker
John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie, Kelly Brown, Geoff Cross, Ross Ford, Richie Gray, Dougie Hall, Robert Harley, Nathan Hines, Allan Jacobsen, Alastair Kellock, Scott Lawson, Moray Low, Scott MacLeod, Euan Murray, Ross Rennie, Richie Vernon, Jon Welsh
Star man: Dan Parks
The Magners League’s record points scorer appears to have found a new lease of life since moving to Cardiff Blues last summer. The 32-year-old, who qualifies to represent Scotland through his Ayrshire-born grandfather, has 56 caps to his name, and has amassed 207 points, having wrestled kicking duty from former favourite, the ever-reliable Chris Paterson.
IRELAND secured their first RBS 6 Nations grand slam in 61 years two campaigns ago, but France and Scotland beat them last term and some questioned whether the golden generation including captain Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara – all the wrong side of 30 – had lost their sheen.
Fly-half O’Gara, who became the first person to score 500 championship points last term, is now 34, and faces strong competition for the No10 jersey from Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton, 25.
However, he showed his worth in the autumn, replacing Sexton with 15 minutes to play and 23-9 down at the Aviva Stadium, inspiring a green fightback – if his last-minute conversion hadn’t hit a post, they would have drawn against South Africa.
Martin Johnson has warned that Ireland “have slipped under the radar”, which will suit Declan Kidney and his quietly confident team. They had a steady last six months of 2010, losing by only a try against Australia in Brisbane before that two-point loss to South Africa on home soil. A win against Samoa came before a respectable 38-18 defeat to the All Blacks and a 29-9 victory over Argentina.
Kidney has his injury concerns, however, with winger Andrew Trimble likely to be out of the tournament with a hand problem, and Lions star Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris both doubtful with knee issues. Similarly No8 Jamie Heaslip is touch and go, having not played a game since suffering an ankle injury before Christmas.
The gleaming new Aviva Stadium plays host to only a couple of matches in this RBS 6 Nations this spring. Significantly Ireland welcome the two strongest teams on paper, England and France, and with 51,000 roaring on Ireland in the £350m venue, it will be the perfect opportunity for O’Driscoll and Co to sparkle once more.
DECLAN KIDNEY: The 51-year-old was named IRB Coach of the Year in 2009 after the RBS 6 Nations glory, and the Cork-born Kidney is known for his no-nonsense approach having earlier established a frighteningly efficient Munster side who won the Heineken Cup in 2006 and 2008, after which he took the Ireland reins.
Tommy Bowe, Gordon D’Arcy, Gavin Duffy, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Horgan, Ronan O’ Gara, Brian O’Driscoll, Eoin Reddan, Jonathan Sexton,
Tomas O'Leary, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace
Rory Best, Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Leo Cullen, Stephen Ferris,
Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings,
Denis Leamy, Kevin McLaughlin , Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien, Mick O’Driscoll, Michael Ross, Rhys Ruddock, David Wallace
Star man: Brian O’Driscoll
This will be the talismanic Leinster centre’s 11th RBS 6 Nations campaign, but with the World Cup providing the perfect stage for the 32-year-old to bow out, this could be his last championship. He goes into the tournament needing only two more tries to equal Scotland winger Ian Smith’s record of 24.
WARREN GATLAND steered Wales to RBS 6 Nations grand slam glory in his first season in charge three years ago. But after a disappointing fourth place finish last term things do not look rosy for the New Zealander’s team.
Their last victory was back in March – a 33-10 win over the Azzurri – and seven Tests have passed between then and now.
A squad low on confidence has been further hampered by a raft of long-term injuries to key players, including two Lions in the front row: props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones. Without a solid scrum the Welsh, skippered by hooker Matthew Rees, could be on the end of a large penalty count.
Centre Tom Shanklin, scrum-half Richie Rees and 18-year-old winger George North, dubbed “the new Jonah Lomu”, are also casualties. With a full-strength squad the Welsh would provide a tough test for any nation, and their lack of depth up front is balanced by dangerous counter-attacking backs.
One key decision Gatland will have to make is where to fit in Perpignan-bound James Hook. The lavishly talented 25-year-old has 47 caps, having been played at fly-half or centre – positions where he looks most dangerous – as well as full-back. But with Gatland unwilling to break up the 10-12 axis of Stephen Jones and Jamie Roberts, Hook may start the campaign at No15, as Lee Byrne is only just back from injury.
Whoever orchestrates the attack, of key importance will be to give evergreen winger Shane Williams the ball in space as many times as possible.
The opening game against a resurgent England in Cardiff on Friday night will set the tone, but lose that – and with three away games in Edinburgh, Rome and Paris – the Welsh could face the ignominy of becoming an embarrassment to their rugby-mad country in the lead up to the World Cup and end up withthe wooden spoon.
WARREN GATLAND: The former hooker, nicknamed the Gatfather, is known for his forthright opinions, but he will need to use more than psychological warfare to lift Wales to rugby’s top table again. The 47-year-old signed a new four-year deal in October, but failure this spring and at the World Cup could cause WRU daggers to be sharpened.
Mike Phillips, Dwayne Peel, Tavis Knoyle, Stephen Jones, Rhys Priestland, James Hook, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Shane Williams, Morgan Stoddart, Leigh Halfpenny, Lee Byrne
Paul James, John Yapp, Craig Mitchell, Ryan Bevington, Scott Andrews, Matthew Rees, Richard Hibbard, Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Ryan Jones, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Thomas, Andy Powell, Josh Turnbull, Rob McCusker, Dan Lydiate
Star man: Shane Williams
The 2008 IRB Player of the Year will turn 34 when his team play in Rome on 26 February, but the winger, a veteran of two Lions tours, who has scored a Welsh record 51 tries in his 75 appearances, looks as dangerous as ever. The 5ft 7in Ospreys star, who started his career as a scrum-half, will be desperate for success in the twilight of his career.