The Mancunion

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Dominant England are Six Nations favourites

Wounded French may yet prove England’s biggest test

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Playing in the world’s oldest rugby tournament means that the rivalries between the nations are some of the fiercest in the sport. Whatever the preconceptions about whether the best of Europe can match it with the giants of the southern hemisphere, these seven weeks have more passion, vibrance and nail-biting finales than can be found anywhere in the world of rugby; this, ladies and gents, is the Six Nations.

Form going into the tournament was mixed for the competitors. Wales, grand slam champions of last years competition, entered on a roll of seven consecutive defeats, but  Irish green had begun to bloom in the autumn with a hammering of Argentina. Scotland were under a new coach following three losses in the autumn, while Italy have enjoyed mixed fortunes of late but with encouraging performances at home.

France appeared strongest in Europe with three wins in November, including a crushing of Australia, and  England fell narrowly to South Africa and Australia before turning out “their best  performance of the professional era” to not only defeat, but blow away world champions New Zealand. All of this set up one of the most exciting Six Nations in living memory, with opinion divided everywhere on who would win and who would fall.

The hype was lived up to in emphatic style on the opening weekend as sixteen tries were scored between the three games. Ireland gave a performance of breathtaking efficiency and skill to take the game away from Wales by the 42nd minute as Irish talisman Brian O’Driscoll burrowed over to seal his comeback game with his 46th try for his country. They almost paid the price for complacency, however, as Wales fired up to win the second half 19-7, the 30-22 final score flattering them somewhat.

England, meanwhile, dominated every facet of the game and did not waver when Scotland grabbed an early counterattacking try to win comfortably at Twickenham, 38-18. But the story of the weekend was in Rome, where the Italians, heavily favoured to pick up the wooden spoon, lay siege to an inexplicably toothless France with titanic performances from captain Sergio Parisse and flyhalf Luciano Orquera to steal a historic 23-18 win- only their third ever over the french.

But their heroics couldn’t be replicated in Edinburgh, as Scotland opted to soak up Italian pressure and capatalise on counter-attacking opportunities. It worked only too well as the Italians were sunk 34-10. Meanwhile, in Paris, Wales were determined to get their campaign back on track, but as the match unfolded it seemed both teams were too afraid of failure to go for the win. The match was tied at 6-6 right up until the 71st minute when a delicate chip from Dan Biggar found George North who crashed through the challenge of Francois Trinh-Duc to score in the corner. Leigh Halfpenny added a penalty to make it 16-6 at the final whistle.

This meant that England and Ireland reached their clash in Dublin as the only undefeated teams of the tournament. The weather dictated that running rugby was not the order of the day, and England triumphed in an arm-wrestle in the rain to clinch their first victory in Dublin in the competition for ten years, 12-6.

The media hype surrounding an English grand slam will invariably follow but I doubt it will  affect this grounded unit with Stuart Lancaster the master revolutionary at the helm. This pundits verdict? France will beat Scotland and throw everything at England but ultimately be outmuscled. It is also down to them whether Ireland stays in the race; the Irish seem to have a mental block when it comes to France, but a win over them in Dublin, after another likely victory in Rome, would see them right back in contention.

How many horses are in the race at that stage will depend on Wales. Yes, Wales, the team that went from Grand Slam Champions to a run of eight successive losses have the potential to be king makers, if not kings themselves. You would fancy them to beat Scotland and Italy away, but Italy becomes twice the team with a home crowd behind them, as we saw against Australia and France, meaning a return to mediocrity for Wales could spell the Italians most memorable tournament yet.

If not, much could be made of England being the only one of the three to host Italy this year, who for their grit at home have a history of shipping points on the road- a points margin that might hand England their second title in three years if the red dragon awakens in Cardiff. Given France’s ability to pull startling form out of nowhere it’s a very hard call but I’m going for England to win (Grand Slam or not), followed by Ireland, Wales, France, Scotland and Italy. Ask me again next week, I’ll have changed my mind by then. After all, no tournament is quite so colourful, fiercely fought or unpredictable as the Six Nations!

Callum Millar gives weekly commentary and analysis on the Six Nations as part of the Sunday news show for FuseFM (1-3PM) along with pundits Jack Carmichael and Lizzie Rule.