Using very little imagination (and on occasion just the 1 eye) I thought I’d explore the possibility that the deciding factor in the 2014 6 Nations could be the on field leadership of each nation.
Wales’ skipper Sam Warburton has just been unveiled as the first player to sign a “central contract” with the WRU just 1 week before the 6 Nations campaign begins in against Italy in Cardiff. Whether or not a settled future will affect Warburton remains to be seen, George North certainly returned to his best, devastating form once his protracted move to Northampton Saints was concluded, but Warburton has shown no signs that off field factors have impacted his performance.
The Wales and Lions captain has won 11 of his 15 6 Nations games and is yet to lose to Italy in his young career, while he has not always played at his best for Wales he appears have the uncanny knack of galvanising his team for the most important games and with the penultimate game of this campaign being vital, not just for a potential record breaking 3rd 6 Nations title in a row, but also in the build up for the next Rugby World Cup (it will be the last competitive fixture Wales play at Twickenham before the Pool A clash on the 26th of September 2015) the 2014 championship looks like the sort of vigorous test Warburton relishes. Warburton’s experience allied with the fact that he and understudy Justin Tipuric kept his English counterpart Chris Robshaw out of the Lions touring party must make Wales solid favourites to claim a 3rd title in 3 years. The one question mark over Warburton is his fitness, he missed the decisive Lions Test with a hamstring injury and the first 2 games of the Australia tour with a knee injury, and with 1 week before the tournament kicks off he hasn’t played since suffering a shoulder injury in November. Fortunately for Wales they have a readymade replacement in Alun Wyn Jones, the man who led the Lions to victory on July’s 3rd Test.
England’s leader Chris Robshaw is the proud owner of an impressive 80% win record in 6 Nations rugby, but the 27 year old has played just 10 6 Nations games and the last one in the Millennium Stadium must still irk him. His team seemingly had a Grand Slam in their grasp until a Wales team who needed to make a mends for a dismal start to the campaign against Ireland achieved a level of physicality that is rarely seen in Northern Hemisphere rugby.
While the lingering questions over Robshaw’s captaincy that came to light after he opted to kick a penalty with his team 4 points behind with less than 2 minutes to play back against South Africa back in 2012 may have disappeared after he lead his team to a rare victory over New Zealand some to remain to be convinced over Robshaw’s role in the team. Stuart Lancaster’s failure to consistently pick an out and out number 7 would appear one of the main reasons that a potentially dynamic back line so rarely fires on all cylinders, “experts” like Jeremy Guscott may choice to single out winger Chris Ashton as the man who’s at fault for England’s stuttering attack but if Ashton was causing players inside him to become indecisive and ineffectual he wouldn’t be the leading try scorer in this season’s Heineken Cup, would he? Lancaster picked a specialist open side flanker in Matt Kvesic during the summer tour of Argentina and England cantered to 2-0 Test series win scoring 11 tries in the process.
Ireland’s decision to rely on talismanic old stager Paul O’Connell as their leader in the upcoming campaign is a clear indicator that their new crop of youngsters are either not good enough, or haven’t had enough faith shown in them by the previous hierarchy and so have not been afforded an opportunity to prove if they are good enough or not. O’Connell is an icon, not just in Irish rugby but also in British rugby after his heroic effort to complete the first Lions Test despite breaking his arm during the match. He will undoubtedly be everything that’s good about the Irish effort in the 6 Nations, however he will also be symbolic of the weaknesses of the Irish squad too, he will provide physicality and power but he’ll lack the pace and handling which younger tight five forwards from other countries will display.
Pascal Pape, like O’Connell symbolises everything that his French teammates will do well yet also highlights where they are sadly lacking. It’s important to mention Pape is only captaining the French because 2011 IRB World Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir will miss the entire tournament injured, the loss of Dusautoir will almost certainly impact the tempo that France are able to play at but Pape’s abrasive approach should provide the exciting French backs with front foot ball with which to create scoring chances. Pape however is not renowned for his regard for the laws of rugby and the disciplinary system, his own record of 4 yellow cards and a red card in the Top 14 added to another yellow card in the Amlin Challenge already this season appear a fairly ominous sign to a casual bystander and could make it difficult for him to reprimand any teammates for their indiscretions.
Sergio Parisse is probably the exception that proves this (at best sketchy) rule, if the team with the best player as captain were to win the 6 Nations then Italy would have dominated the championship for the last 10 years. Parisse is a phenomenal athlete and almost certainly the most skilful player on show in the 6 Nations, however the other players at Italy’s disposal are nowhere near as capable as him, they will provide Wales with a tough test in the opening game as the Welsh scrum has not quite been the same since the new engagement rule came into being at the start of the season and Italy’s front row could be the strongest in the competition, however the Italian’s ability to score with the ball their forward’s provide them is sadly lacking. Strangely for a country obsessed with football the Italian’s have always struggled to find a consistent place kicker, the selection of 20 Tommaso “Tommy” Allan may have solved that problem, if he can perform to the level he’s capable of then Wales may well find themselves with a sticky start a second successive 6 Nations campaign.
Kelly Brown is, like Parisse, the best player in his national team by a country mile, but as an open side playing alongside a pack that will likely be shunted from pillar to post his effectiveness is seriously hampered by his teammate’s limitations. There are bright spots for Scotland in British & Irish Lion tight head prop Ewan Murray, second row and former captain Alastair Kellock and Dutch born winger Tim Visser but all 3 of these players will miss the tournament with injuries. Several of the Scotland squad, just like the Scottish head coach Scott Johnson look to be just keeping seats warm until the cavalry arrive, although when you’re considered the second best option behind Clermont Auvergne’s least successful coach in recent years there’s an inevitability to a wooden spoon as the old “sitting duck syndrome” permeates from the coaching staff to the players.