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The 6 Nations Championship 2009
by Craig Houston
2009-02-22 09:04:19
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Once again we have reached that time of the year, when all the Christmas debts are virtually paid off and the holiday period is but a blurred memory of turkey and unwanted socks. However, for rugby fans all over Europe, that means only one thing: The start of the Six Nations.

The most prestigious tournament on the continent got underway on February 7th, as the elite of European rugby once again lined up in direct opposition. The usual questions were tossed about beforehand; Could Martin Johnson coax a decent tournament out of his underachieving England team?; Would Ireland's most talented squad in generations finally rise to the challenge and rack up a Grand Slam?; And could Scotland recover from a woeful decade and finally compete in the upper echelons of the league?

The first weekend threw up few shocks, with only Ireland's victory over perennial underachievers France offering any real surprise. The Irish were in inspired form as they truimphed over Marc Lievremont's new look side, impressing pundits and fans alike with a blend of hard hitting in the pack and sublime skill out wide. Led by the rejuvenated Brian O'Driscoll, they outplayed their visitors for vast periods of the game, although their inability to finish off opponents nearly came back to haunt them, as the French fought back late on.

Earlier, England and Italy had opened the competition at Twickenham, with the hosts labouring to a 36-11 victory. Whilst by no means a vintaage performance, the English would have been happy to secure the win against an Italian side that is beginning to show signs of improvement. However, once again, the English press slaughtered the display, thus ensuring that this young team's growth will be stunted further.

Scotland and Wales completed the opening set of fixtures the next day, with the visitors running out easy 26-13 winners over a hugely disappointing Scottish outfit. Time must now be running out for coach Frank Hadden, who once again got his tactics and personnel choices horribly wrong. However, not all the blame can be portioned to the beleaguered head coach, as the players he sent out were woefully inept. Basic errors allowed a competent Welsh outfit to rip their defence apart, while they were toothless and ineffecitve going forward. Having won just twice at Murrayfield in their previous eleven visits, the Welsh took full advantage and would have been stunned by just how easy their victory was.

Round two saw Wales underline their title credentials in Cardiff, as they squeezed out England 23-15 in an enthralling encouter at the Millenium Stadium. The home side threatened to run riot early on, as they continually burst through an incompetent English defence. However, the 2007 World Cup runners up were a different team in the second half, as they pinned their hosts back in their own 22 for long periods. In the end, a late penalty from Stephen Jones was enough to see Wales home, as they notched up their 10th successive championship win and they now travel to France as favourites for not only the match in Paris, but for the entire tournament.

Scotland put in a vastly improved performance in Paris, but once again, poor decision making and a lack of handling skills saw them slide to defeat, againt an uninspired French side. The hosts were jeered by their own support for the opening half hour, as they struggled to gain any momentum. They managed to open up a 6-3 half time lead, but dogged Scots defence meant that the game was still wide open at the interval. After the break the French pulled away and the visitors ensured they would take nothing from the game by constantly giving away penalties within kicking range, as the hosts ran out 22-13 winners.

Italy and Ireland lined up in the Sunday game, with the Irish finally running out 38-9 victors, although the Italains put in a performance full of guts and passion. However, their lack of experience told against a powerful Irish pack which once again was unrelentless with ball in hand. This win propelled Ireland to the top of the Six Nations table on points difference and, depsite making a number of unforced errors, they will be extremely difficult to dislodge on this form.

So, what information can be gleaned from this opening set of results? Wales and Ireland are now the only teams that can complete the Grand Slam this season, with the Welsh still the clear favourites. Warren Gatland has got his side well drilled and the tactics he employs are perfectly suited to the players at his disposal and few would now bet against them securing back-to-back championship wins. The Irish are their main rivals and they are once agin back on top form. New coach Declan Kidney has added some exciting new faces to the squad and the first XV now boasts an intriguing blend of youth and experience.

Frank Hadden remains the bookies favourite to be the first coach sacked this year, although the improved display in Paris will have granted him a brief stay of execution. They will have to beat Italy this season and will also hope to secure a first win against the 'Auld Enemy' at Twickenham since 1985. France have a young coach and a very new side, which has so far failed to gel this year. However,  they will be reasonably pleased with a mid table finish this time round, as they move throught this transitional phase. England are in the same boat as their neighbours across the channel, but the media and public will not settle for anything less than three wins in the remaining games. Martin Johnson will not be afforded the same leniancy as Lievremont and he could well be back in the dole queue come the end of March. And finally, the Italians. They are starting to justify their inclusion in the competition, although it will be a long time before they can expect to challenge on a regular basis. Once again, their season revolves around facing Scotland and they will consider it a decent campaign if they can leave Edinburgh with a win.   

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HungryHippo2009-02-22 17:00:16
It seems the six nations is becoming rather predictable, true surprises are rare. There should be more competition between the traditional six and other rugby nations.

bad-dog2009-02-22 18:01:10
The six nations is still a worthy and necessary tournament, although as you say it could benefit from a wildcard team or two each year! Am looking forward to more solid performances from scotland!
Great article!

ferretbob2009-02-22 18:05:23
Some exciting rugby still to go in this years 6 nations! Strong contenders for Lions places!
Enjoyed the article, keep them coming!

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