Tuesday 6 December 2016

Brendan Fanning's state of the nations

Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00

Ireland

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Italy first up at home is the perfect start for a team high on confidence from the autumn and backboned by players most of whom are still involved in the Heineken Cup.

Then it gets tricky. Declan Kidney's memories of Paris as a young fella were the Adidas Wallaby ball they used, and the din that came out of the telly when the waves of blue shirts started crashing over the men in green.

That was in the Parc rather then the Stade but you get the picture. Ireland's scrum has been hanging on for too long and if France reproduce even a passing impression of their form against South Africa in November, then it will be too much.

The week off after that will be vital. The team has developed a tremendous knack of surviving crises in games but it won't be enough for a clean sweep. Enough to see off the rest of the opposition though.

Odds: Grand Slam 5/1, Triple Crown 13/8, Championship 9/4

Prediction: 2nd

England

If you looked at the England squad when it was announced and reckoned that from this bunch Martin Johnson should be able to put a decent team in the field, then you were not alone. The problem is that there is a high quotient of ordinary Joes in the background. And with a few injuries they'll have to come out to play.

Statistically, England haven't been as bad as you might think, with top-three finishes (3/5 wins each season) in the last three campaigns. Problem is that taking the next step looks well beyond them.

It's hard to conceive of them losing in Rome in round two but if they lose first up to Wales in Twickenham, then such will be the fall-out that anything is possible. Never before have they needed a good start like they do now. And aside from Jonny kicking his goals, it's hard to see who will provide them with the fuel to take off first time.

Odds: Grand Slam 12/1, Triple Crown 7/2, Championship 4/1

Prediction: 4th

Scotland

The prospect of France first up you'd think would be enough to subdue most Scots' hopes, for they've only beaten them once in Edinburgh since the competition went to six nations. But like us in the old days they can find reasons to be optimistic about their rugby despite what the facts are telling them.

This time the stats say Scotland have no qualifiers for the knock-out stages of Europe and they haven't been out of the bottom two in the Championship in the last four seasons. And in the November series they upended a truckload of goodwill within a week of it being delivered -- ie losing to Argentina the week after nailing Australia's plans of an unbeaten tour.

Still, Andy Robinson, starting his first Championship with the team, seems happy. "When I look at the players I've left out of the squad, it shows the quality I now have," he said when it was announced. Not enough quality Andy.

Odds: Grand Slam 80/1, Triple Crown 25/1, Championship 20/1

Prediction: 5th

Wales

The spin west to Twickenham was one the Welsh used to love in the old days until England got good in the '90s and gave them some terrible hidings (over a ton of points between the '98 and 2000 games alone). Now Wales fancy a day out again.

The issue for Warren Gatland is whether his ordinary lineout can do better, and who to play at scrumhalf in the absence for some, if not all, of the tournament of Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel.

The good news for them is that Lee Byrne is coming back and that their scrum should have nothing to fear in Twickenham, or anywhere else aside from Cardiff in the last round against Italy. By then, the Italians will be coming off the back of Stade de France and Wales will still be in the hunt for the title. They'll come up short.

Odds: Grand Slam 10/1, Triple Crown 6/1, Championship 4/1

Prediction: 3rd

France

Andy Robinson will be telling his players that France first up in Murrayfield is a great way to start the competition but the Scots have only one Six Nations win there against this opposition.

And at times during those four defeats France were more brittle than they are now. They are well capable of subduing the Scottish pack with grunt (you'd wonder how they left out Perpignan prop Guilhem Guirado) but they demand a bit of style as well. And if that goes to plan, well it's none other than the Grand Slam champions coming to Paris the following week.

We reckon they'll be two from two when the week off arrives, and their next trip, to Wales, will be a meeting of two unbeaten teams. So much depends on the form of Francois Trinh-Duc and his partner Morgan Parra, yet another of France's goal-kicking scrumhalves, but one who doesn't get enough practice at Clermont. They'll cope. This is France's year

Odds: Grand Slam 4/1, Championship 13/8

Prediction: 1st

Italy

Is there anything about Italy that suggests this will be a different season for them, that they might manage what would be their first win in the competition since 2008 and only their seventh since they came on board in 2000?

Well, that depends a lot on how their home ties are reffed. If we needed reminding of the power of the Italy scrum, then we got it in the autumn when they gave the All Blacks a torrid time, which referee Stuart Dickinson somehow interpreted as something different.

Over two Tests between June and December, Italy only conceded 47 points to New Zealand, which is highly creditable.

But their weaknesses continue in key positions behind the scrum. Makes you wonder how over all these years they couldn't have filled nine and 10 with a couple of Argentines who could play a bit.

Odds: Championship 250/1

Prediction: 6th

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