The Six Nations Championship is always an event in itself but this year’s edition will also indicate the strength of the European challenge at a World Cup in England just seven months away.
That the shadow cast by the Webb Ellis Trophy is inescapable can be seen from the fact that Friday’s Six Nations opener in Cardiff sees Wales against England, with the old rivals in the same 2015 World Cup pool.
For an injury-hit England, victory at the Millennium Stadium would help ease the pain of a crushing defeat in the Welsh capital two years ago.
It would also establish Stuart Lancaster’s side as serious title contenders, with England not having won the Six Nations since 2011 when Martin Johnson was in charge.
England have finished runners-up three times under Lancaster and the coach said: “We are frustrated that we haven’t nailed down that Championship win — it does burn inside us.”
England’s much-vaunted playing depth is set to be put to the test with No 8 Ben Morgan, lock Joe Launchbury and fly-half Owen Farrell all ruled out of the entire Six Nations, with several other players currently sidelined.
“We still have a lot of strength in depth and we’re still confident we’re still going to have a strong team,” Lancaster said.
– Ireland expects –
Ireland may like to portray themselves as perennial underdogs but the defending Six Nations champions will rightly start the 2015 tournament as favourites.
Under Joe Schmidt, one of three New Zealanders providing 50 percent of the competition’s coaches (Wales’s Warren Gatland and Scotland’s Vern Cotter are the other two), Ireland were the form European side during the November internationals.
Ireland, who have risen to three in the world rankings behind world champions New Zealand and South Africa, defeated the Springboks and Australia in November.
Now they begin their quest for back-to-back titles — something they last achieved in 1949 — away to Italy on Saturday.
Inspirational centre Brian O’Driscoll may have retired and star fly-half Jonathan Sexton be ruled out by concussion protocols, but Ireland still have lock Paul O’Connell leading the way.
“The work ethic and confidence you gain from getting over the line against the likes of South Africa and Australia should put us in good stead for 2015,” said Schmidt.
“The players will have an expectation of themselves now, and to be honest we want that expectation of ourselves.”
Wales have a relatively settled side featuring several British and Irish Lions, with Gatland sufficiently confident of his squad’s quality to warn talented wing George North not to take his place for granted.
Gatland insisted the Six Nations was not just a warm-up for the World Cup, saying: “This tournament is definitely about winning…The expectation in Wales is for us to win.”
However, Gatland said the World Cup could not be ignored completely.
“It’s important you win and get some confidence and the in back of our minds we’re all thinking about the next six months in terms of preparation for the World Cup.”
France have not won the Six Nations since a 2010 Grand Slam but a November win over Australia, in which wing Teddy Thomas demonstrated his potential, gave coach Philippe Saint-Andre some respite.
If not knowing what to expect from France is one of rugby’s enduring truisms, it is one Saint-Andre endorsed when asked about what to expect from his side in the Six Nations.
“You don’t know. To be honest, I don’t know,” he said.
“The confidence is back, we had some good games in November.”
Scotland too reckon they have grounds for optimism under Cotter after a November series which yielded wins over Argentina and Tonga allied to a narrow loss to New Zealand.
“There’s a great buzz, partly off the back of the autumn (November),”said Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw.
“I believe we have some individuals in our team to cause other teams problems.”
And Italy captain Sergio Parisse believes his side can bounce back from losing all five matches last year, having won twice in 2013.
“They’ve written us off, but that’s fine,” said Parisse. “It will be great to surprise everybody.”
Winners of the Six Nations Championship since Italy joined the tournament as the ‘sixth nation’ in 2000 (x denotes Grand Slam):
2002: France (x)
2003: England (x)
2004: France (x)
2005: Wales (x)
2008: Wales (x)
2009: Ireland (x)
2010: France (x)
2012: Wales (x)
– Agence France-Presse