Grand Slam unlikely as margins tighten
AFTER a decade dominated by Grand Slams, the era of points difference appears upon us.
It was almost universally accepted at last week's Six Nations launch by the participants that a clean sweep was unlikely to be achieved over the coming weeks due to the tight margins between all of the teams.
In the last two seasons, points difference has been the deciding factor at the top of the table, with Wales' huge win over England in Cardiff earning them a 40-point advantage over Stuart Lancaster's side in 2013, and Joe Schmidt's Ireland claiming the title by 10 points last season with England again losing out.
Wales won the last Grand Slam under Warren Gatland in 2012, while England's sole title since 2003 was won in 2011 when they lost out on the Slam in Dublin but finished ahead of everyone else on points difference.
This season, Ireland look best placed to go the distance given their schedule but while beating France and England at home would set them up nicely, their March 14 trip to the Millennium Stadium looms large as a banana skin. Playing Italy first and away from home is a serious disadvantage if it comes down to points difference, with the English capable of racking up big scores when the Italians and Scots come to town.
Similarly, Wales will face an Italian side in Rome likely to be already out of the running and will have a fair idea of what the need to do meaning that if it comes down to points difference, they'll have the edge.
Ruaidhri O'Connor's Six Nations prediction: 1. Wales; 2. England; 3. Ireland; 4. France; 5. Scotland; 6. Italy
How does the Six Nations work as a World Cup predictor?
The England team of 2003 are held up as the perfect example of timing your run, claiming a Grand Slam in Dublin before beating Australia on home soil to claim the Webb Ellis trophy, but how well have the European champions performed at the big event?
Before the first World Cup in 1987, France claimed the Grand Slam and duly went on to reach the final in New Zealand where they were beaten by the All Blacks. Four years later, England did the same, winning the Slam before battling their way to the final, when they lost to Australia.
Their Slam did them little favours in 1995 when they lost to New Zealand in the semi-final.
Scotland's 1999 Championship winners were beaten by New Zealand in the last eight, while France could only finish fourth on home soil as England, who finished below France and Ireland, reached the final.
England claimed the Six Nations four years ago under Martin Johnson but went on to have an ignominious World Cup, losing to a French side who lost the final.
Six Nations fixtures
Friday: Wales v England, Millennium Stadium, 8.05;
Saturday: Italy v Ireland, Stadio Olimpico, 2.30; France v Scotland, Stade de France, 5.00;
Saturday, February 14: England v Italy, Twickenham, 2.30; Ireland v France, Aviva Stadium, 5.00;
Sunday, February 15: Scotland v Wales, Murrayfield, 3.00;
Saturday, February 28: Scotland v Italy, Murrayfield, 2.30; France v Wales, Stade de France, 5.00;
Sunday, March 1: Ireland v England, Aviva Stadium, 3.00;
Saturday, March 14: Wales v Ireland, Millennium Stadium, 2.30; England v Scotland, Twickenham, 5.00;
Sunday, March 15: Italy France, Stadio Olimpico, 3.00;
Saturday, March 23: Italy v Wales, Stadio Olimpico, 12.30; Scotland v Ireland, Murrayfield, 2.30; England v France, Twickenham, 5.00