Dragons need to produce real fire
Defending champions Wales are the strong favourites to win the Six Nations, which kicks off today, but the omens for a second consecutive title don't favour them.
In the past 100 years no Welsh side has managed to win back-to-back titles, even when fielding star-studded teams with the likes of scrumhalf Gareth Edwards in the 1970s.
The former back, considered one of the greatest rugby players ever, believes rotation of the fixture list makes it hard for teams to defend their titles, although he is confident Wales have a good chance of making history when the tournament ends on March 21.
"It is going to be tougher for Wales this year because they are going to have to play three games away from home, whereas last year they had three games at home which helped them," said Edwards, who played 53 consecutive Tests for the Dragons.
"Wales are progressing, they not the complete package yet, but they performed well against the Tri-Nations teams last year. They came close against New Zealand and South Africa, and won against Australia so that will put them in a good stead going into the Six Nations.
"There will also be an added incentive for the players to strive for a place in the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa."
However, that incentive will be true for English, Irish and Scottish players as well, which will make it a lot harder for Wales coach Warren Gatland to once again celebrate a Triple Crown. It also means second favourites France will have their work cutout.
Last year, coach Marc Lievremont used the tournament to blood young players, fielding new combinations in every game, yet the French team still ended equal with second-placed England on six points. They finished third due to an inferior points difference, though.
This time around, a more settled French team is expected to take to the field with a promise from team management they will play a greater attacking and creative game with the renowned 'French flair'. Yet, like Wales, the French also play three of their five games away from their Stade de France stadium in Paris.
Edwards, meanwhile, is delighted Wales are once again favourites after a lean patch in the past two decades when it seemed they had exhausted their supply of exciting, young rugby talent. Now, he is looking forward to watching his country emerge as a real power once again.
"For a nation that was once the envy of other nations because we were such a small country, but produced so many good rugby players – we have had a difficult period of late," said the 61 -year old.
"Now we have some very young, talented players coming through and we can only benefit from that in coming years. Wales have a number of players who look like they can charm and that's all you can hope for."
England, who came into last year's tournament with such high expectations after finishing runners-up at the World Cup in 2007, have major concerns this time.
Under new coach Martin Johnson, the team have hardly flourished, winning only once and losing to all three Tri-Nations sides at Twickenham in his first four games in charge. So far, Johnson, who captained England to glory in the 2003 World Cup, has been given room to breathe by the English public and media, but he will know that sentiments only last so long and his team will need to start winning as quickly as possible.
The biggest problem England face is at flyhalf with the injury-prone Jonny Wilkinson missing the campaign. Johnson's other options are Danny Cipriani and Toby Flood, but neither has the experience or the kicking prowess of the World Cup-winning No10.
Scotland finished second-last in 2008, winning one game, and have not played well enough in the end-of-year matches to suggest that 2009 will be any different for them, although Gavin Hastings, one of the country's former greats, disagrees.
"We don't have depth, but that doesn't mean to say we don't have a chance," said the former fullback, who is still Scotland's leading point-scorer with 667 in his 61 Tests. "If Scotland can pick their best team and the best team play well, then they have a chance.
"If we lose two or three players to injury then we may struggle because we don't have enough depth in all positions. In some we're well covered, like the second and backrow and with the centres, but in others we have only got one person good enough," said Hastings.
"But, if we have top players playing and they're fit, then we may surprise a few people."
Ireland too, on their day, can beat anyone, and new coach Declan Kidney has named an experienced team as they go in search of their first title since 1985.
The Irish have great players such as captain Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara, but with many nearing the end of their careers they will be desperate to win a first title before their time runs out.
Meanwhile, all Italy can hope for at best is to cause a few upsets as they strive to improve their rugby set-up under experienced coach Nick Mallet.
In a country were football takes precedence, Mallet has a limited pool of players to select from. However, thus far he has done a good job in making Italy harder to beat.
Six Nations Fixtures
Date Fixture Time (UAE)
Feb 7 England v Italy 7pm
Feb 7 Ireland v France 9pm
Feb 8 Scotland v Wales 7pm
Feb 14 France v Scotland 7pm
Feb 14 Wales v England 9.30pm
Feb 15 Italy v Ireland 7.30pm
Feb 27 France v Wales Midnight
Feb 28 Scotland v Italy 7pm
Feb 28 Ireland v England 9.30pm
Mar 14 Italy v Wales 8pm
Mar 14 Scotland v Ireland 9pm
Mar 15 England v France 7pm
Mar 21 Italy v France 6.15pm
Mar 21 England v Scotland 7.30pm
Mar 21 Wales v Ireland 9.30pm
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