The time has come for the talking to end and rivalries to commence, as this weekend rugby fans can rejoice in the start of the 2014 6 Nations.
Here at Lovell Rugby, before each round of matches we will be casting our expert eye over the games ahead, making scoreline predictions and picking out who we think will be the player to look out for in each match.
Will the Azzurri do an Italian Job on the pre-tournament favourites? Who will emerge victorious from the clash in Stade de France and can Ireland get off to another winning start against their Celtic rivals?
Wales v Italy (Saturday 1st Feb, 14:30 GMT)
Wales XV – Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Scott Williams, Jamie Roberts, George North, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips, Paul James, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau.
Italy XV – Luke McLean, Angelo Esposito, Michele Campagnaro, Alberto Sgarbi, Leonardo Sarto, Tommaso Allan, Edoardo Gori, Sergio Parisse, Mauro Bergamasco, Alessandro Zanni, Marco Bortolami, Quintin Geldenhuys, Martin Castrogiovanni, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Michele Rizzo.
With Wales the reigning 6 Nations champions and chasing a historic hat-trick of titles, few would give Italy any chance when facing the intense atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium. Any dreams of a Grand Slam will mean the hosts putting in a convincing opening performance, something which they failed to do last year with a surprise first round defeat at home to Ireland.
Buoyed by a line-up full of Test winning British & Irish Lions, Wales will be looking to the leadership of Alun Wyn Jones in the absence of Sam Warburton and the laser precision kicking of Leigh Halfpenny but let’s not also forget about the threat on the wings from George North and Alex Cuthbert. For the Italians, their main threat looks likely to come from a crop of young talent but it is hard to look beyond the influence of captain of Sergio Parisse and old guard Martin Castrogiovanni. It will certainly be a baptism of fire for Treviso’s Angelo Esposito, who is handed a debut at number fourteen on the wing.
Wales will certainly be looking to get back to winning ways against their Northern Hemisphere opponents after failing to break their hoodoo against their southern counterparts during the autumn internationals. In similar fashion, Italy come off the back of several heavy defeats but will be reminded of their impressive victories against Ireland and France last year.
2013 Result: Italy 9 – Wales 26
LR prediction: Wales 33 – 12 Italy
Look out for: George North – having been in great form at club level for Northampton recently, the Wales and Lions wing will once again be looking to terrorise any opponents standing in his way. The youngest player ever to score a try in his debut for Wales, just ask Australia’s Israel Folau how much of a machine the 21 year old is!
France v England (Saturday 1st Feb, 17:00 GMT)
France XV – Brice Dulin, Yoann Huget, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Maxime Medard, Jules Plisson, Jean-Marc Doussain, Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Nicolas Mas, Alexandre Flanquart, Pascal Pape, Yannick Nyanga, Bernard Le Roux, Louis Picamoles.
England XV – Mike Brown, Jack Nowell, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees, Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Danny Care, Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola.
Going on last year’s performance, things can only get better for France in the 6 Nations and they will certainly not be wanting to retain the unwelcome wooden spoon. A visit from England always brings a packed house and is the highlight of any rugby calendar, with both sides looking to simply chalk up a win in this opening encounter.
The hosts are still in transition and a shadow of the side which reached the 2011 RWC final. Coach Philippe Saint-André has already stated that 2014 will be the year of revival and after just one win last year then a string of further bad results for Les Bleus could see management heads on the guillotine. With the absence of Thierry Dusautoir, this means Pascal Papé’s leadership will be the focus of attention but eyes will also be diverted towards Louis Picamoles who was missing from the November fixtures and Wesley (Le Guépard – The Cheetah) Fofana who could well provide the biggest threat to England if he can repeat his form at club level for Clermont.
England have been hit by a spate of injuries over the past months and will certainly miss the huge impact of Manu Tuilagi. That said, expect plenty of fresh faces to stake their claim and this is certainly an exciting time for the youngsters to gain big game experience. With England continuing their policy of not selecting foreign based players, an exciting new second-row partnership of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes will play a pivotal role although the wings are still an area of concern and much debate. In an ideal world Christian Wade and Marland Yarde would be on the wings and forcing Chris Ashton to up his game but Lancaster has opted to bring fresh talent to the wings with Jonny May and Jack Nowell receiving the nod and Ashton completely omitted from the squad. In addition to Nowell, another new face is that of Saints Luther Burrell with a selection seen by many as brave but a vote of confidence for the new generation to step up on the big stage in France.
Expect a close scoreline, which could well be decided by whichever side is more successful from the boot. Sometimes to get a result you have to play ugly and neither side will want a defeat to start their campaign. Interestingly enough, history shows that France tend to win the 6 Nations the year following a Lions tour so maybe this is the sort of revival PSA was talking about.
2013 Result: England 23 – 13 France
LR Prediction: France 15 – 18 England
Look out for: Jack Nowell – making his debut for England, the Exeter Chiefs wing is a regular in the club side and won the LV Breakthrough Player Award for the 2012/13 season. Nowell certainly won’t be lacking in confidence having played for England in the 2013 IRB Junior World Cup and scoring in the final.
Ireland v Scotland (Sunday 2nd Feb, 15:00 GMT)
Ireland XV – Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Dave Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell, Devin Toner, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Cian Healy
Scotland XV – Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Alex Dunbar, Duncan Taylor, Sean Lamont, Duncan Weir, Greig Laidlaw, Ryan Grant, Ross Ford, Moray Low, Tim Swinson, Jim Hamilton, Ryan Wilson, Kelly Brown, David Denton.
In what can be best described as a victory against all odds in this fixture last year, Scotland recorded their first back-to-back 6 Nations victories for 12 years. The story is even more amazing considering they conceded more than 70% territory and possession.
Fast forward a year though and the safe money is on Ireland putting down a performance in front of a packed Aviva Stadium. The home side will certainly take plenty of confidence from their last outing, when they came agonisingly close to defeating the mighty All Blacks for the first time. With this year being O’Driscoll’s final 6 Nations campaign before retirement, all eyes will be on O’Connell, Heaslip, Sexton and Murray who already have the big game experience to build under the guidance of coach Joe Schmidt.
Having last year recorded their most successful 6 Nations since 2006 with a third place finish, Scotland finished the year with a mixed bag of performances during the autumn internationals. With one eye clearly on the RWC next year year, coach Scott Johnson looks set to consolidate and create a steady starting XV from which Stuart Hogg and Matt Scott will bring the most attacking options. Captain Kelly Brown will certainly need to lead by example and eradicate the number of errors which of recent have become a feature of Scotland matches. As ever, expect a spirited performance but passion and pride can only take the tartan army so far.
2013 Result: Scotland 12 – 8 Ireland
LR prediction: Ireland 35 – 17 Scotland
Look out for: Brian O’Driscoll – the legend that is BOD will be looking to make a huge impact during his last 6 Nations competition. The tournament’s all-time leading try scorer will be hoping for a fairy tale ending and a repeat of Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam triumph so expect plenty of emotion and passion in front of the Irish faithful.
Whether you think we are right or wrong in our match forecasts, join the debate throughout the competition and share your comments with us.
Throughout the 6 Nations, Lovell Rugby will be keeping you up to date with all the action along with lots of exiting competitions. Don’t forget that you have until 12 noon on Saturday 1st February to enter our Facebook and Twitter competitions for the chance to win some great prizes, including a top pair of rugby boots and 6 Nations rugby shirt.