England must beat France in Paris to have any chance of winning this year’s Six Nations. Wales have the easiest early schedule of the leading contenders and the match in Paris will determine which side is most likely to prevent Wales winning the title for three years in succession. England have lost three times in as many seasons but they cannot afford to lose against France.
In the last three years England’s final day defeats to Ireland and Wales cost them their first Grand Slam since 2003 but they did win on their last match in Paris two seasons ago. Their last visit to the French capital was all about getting a result but this time they need a result and a great performance. Some pundits think England under Stuart Lancaster are stronger than they were two years ago.
The 2012 campaign was Lancaster’s first in charge. A number of new players came together for the first time and there was no experience. The side now have a better structure and are more prepared than they were two years ago. England will have to be at their best away to France but a win could set them up for a title-winning season.
Italy first played in the Six Nations in 2000 so this year is the 14th in which six sides have contested the championship. France have won the title five teams, England once less and Wales also have four wins in their record. Only Ireland broke the dominance of these three nations when winning in 2009. Scotland and Italy are yet to win the Six Nations.
France have won the most points from all matches, one more than England. Ireland are the next most points winning side, followed by Wales while Scotland and Italy have won fewest. England have the best match points difference and overall have the best attacking and defensive records of all six sides. Italy are the most inferior side in all points’ categories.
In the latest world rankings England are the highest placed team from the Northern Hemisphere in fourth place. France are next in the standings, one place ahead of Wales. England have been second in the last two Six Nations which suggests an anomaly in the rankings as Wales should be higher placed.
England lost just one match last season but that was the decider against Wales. Stuart Lancaster has not been able top pick a settled squad which has been badly affected by an injury list that has already ruled out at least five of his first choice starting line-up. He has been forced to pick a relatively inexperienced squad and it will be huge ask to go one better than the last two years by winning the Six Nations.
England’s main strength is good set-piece play from a settled pack. They had a good autumn campaign and almost beat New Zealand at Twickenham. Billy Vunipola could be their best player as he looks to build on solid performances in the autumn. He has the attributes to be a great player. The coach, Start Lancaster, can organise the side to be competitive and have some of the unity of the Welsh squad. On the downside the midfield three have not really gelled.
Historically France win a Grand Slam the year after a British Lions tour and it would be no surprise to see them turn last year’s abject form on to its head by playing well. Their clubs are dominant in Europe and they have extraordinary power in their back row. However, the lack of a recognised kicker could cost them but that handicap can be overcome.
Wales are trying to become the first side to win the Six Nations in three successive years. The turmoil in their regional rugby does not change the fact that on paper Wales still have the strongest first choice fifteen in the championships. They are relatively free of injury although captain Sam Warburton’s shoulder is a concern. Wales have every chance of being champions for a third year in a row.
Wales’ players can look at their opponents on the field and recall that in most cases they were selected ahead of them in Australia last year. The other sides now know how Wales play but that does mean to say they have worked out a way to beat them. The kicking of Leigh Halfpenny will be key and his success rate should be more than 90%.
Scotland enjoyed their best Six Nations for several yeas last season. That is hardly saying much for a nation which makes the most of its limited resources. They are always tough and committed but they lack the attacking threat to beat England, France or Wales. Despite losing just once last season lack of a standout back makes them contenders for the wooden spoon.
In the last two year there has a steady decline in Ireland’s performances. A new coach last year almost brought a win against New Zealand but it was just not to be. Brian O’Driscoll wants to retire on a high note but doubts persist about Ireland’s ability to deliver when the pressure is most intense.
On balance Wales have enough in their favour to record a historic third win in the Six Nations in three years with the result of the match between France and England in Paris determining which team finishes second.