Sport | Rugby

The battle for supremacy

England-Wales opener tipped to become the turning point of the Six Nations Championship

  • By Ashley Hammond, Staff Reporter
  • Published: 00:00 February 4, 2011
  • Gulf News

Six Nations rugby captains
  • Image Credit: Rex Features
  • Six Nations rugby captains - Matthew Rees (Wales), Alastair Kellock (Scotland), Thierry Dusautoir (France), Lewis Moody (England), Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland) and Leonardo Ghiraldini (Italy)

Dubai: Since the slaying of a certain dragon, relations between England and Wales have always been delicately balanced somewhere between jest and acrimony — but on the rugby pitch, where both sides meet today, it's undoubtedly sour, more so given the importance of this match.

All those with a vested interest in this opening game have tipped it to become the turning point of the 2011 Six Nations Championship; a title intensified by a looming World Cup in New Zealand come September.

Whichever side wins at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff today could be capable of the Championship and maybe even the Grand Slam, honours that would become a major confidence boost heading in to the Webb Ellis.

Victory for England, favourites based on their autumn performances and strength in depth, would generate confidence heading into three home games. Meanwhile a Welsh win despite injuries and the habit of wasting chances would enable Warren Gatland's boys to realize they can relive the glories of 2008.

The only trouble for Wales is they're plagued with injuries, lacking in morale following a poor autumn and without the majority of Ospreys' players that made up 13 of the starting XV in 2008 — the team's shine, along with Gatland's seemingly magic touch has waned.

Former Wales legend Jonathon Davies told Gulf News, "For some unknown reason Wales squander opportunity after opportunity. At club level you can get away with it but if you don't take your chances at international level they won't come — things had looked promising until we lost Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, it doesn't look as solid a platform to play off now."

Meanwhile England's 2003 World Cup winner Josh Lewsey added, "What impressed me most about England in the autumn was their defence because it created the opportunity for them to attack — attack sells tickets, defence wins championships."

Davies acknowledged of England, "They've settled their half partnership with Youngs and Flood, have pace up front in the form of Foden and Ashton. If they can sort their 10, 12, 13 axis they're a solid side. Youngs is the key to England he provides the tempo."

That said Gavin Hastings of former Scotland fame said the competition is still wide open, "Due to the unique nature of the tournament it depends on where you are in the cycle, home or away, injuries, weather conditions, variables can change hugely."

Lewsey admitted it wasn't a forgone conclusion, "northern hemisphere rugby isn't as dominated by England and France as it once was."

France, the defending champions have been largely overlooked as ‘box of chocolate' entities, "you never know what you're going to get — they could turn up and impress or be mediocre at best. The challenge will be to stick to a regular squad if they did that they'd be hugely dangerous and one feels they are getting their side together," said Lewsey. 2009 champions Ireland were on their last ‘roll of the dice' according to Hastings, "They are on the cusp of being too old. A lot of players will now finish together the greatest challenge will be to replace the greats who have worked wonders over the last ten years."

Davies added, "In a World Cup year ageing Ireland will be looking to change but too much tinkering could have adverse affects."

While of youthful Scotland, Hastings said, "They are on the way up with youthful additions like Richie Gray. They don't deserve to be written up but that doesn't stop them being capable of victories."

The only trouble was Scotland's inability to score, which matched with a strong defence would lead to dog fights, according to Davies.

Of Italy meanwhile, the new additions that have never won a title, Hastings said, "Italy will win against one of the top sides at some stage, they're getting closer and closer every year — England and France will challenge but that doesn't mean everyone else will lie down."

Lawrence Dallalgio concluded, "Every team will think they're capable of winning it. Ireland, France and England look to be favourites on balance but anything is possible."

ONES TO WATCH

Ben Youngs, England
Youngs is to rugby what Gareth Bale is to football. This 21-year-old Leicester Tiger's scrum-half has exploded onto the international scene with some astute performances earning man-of-the-match in only his second home start against Australia 38-18. Youngs is an imaginative integral centre-piece to the squad already recognised as the beating heart to England's tempo, not bad after just seven caps and five points. He'll be looking to this, his first Six Nations to prove the brightest stars don't always burn out the fastest.

Morgan Parra, France
The sweetheart of French rugby following his masterful displays in last year's Grand Slam victory, Parra, aged 22 who plays scrum-half for ASM Clermont Auvergne already has 111 points from 19 appearances for his country. 61 of these points guided France to their ninth Grand Slam in 2010. He got lucky in the selection process in that first team regular Julien Dupuy was sanctioned for an eye-gouging back then, but this time around he's surely the first name on the team sheet.

Jonathan Sexton, Ireland
With most of Ireland's performers getting set to hang up their boots, 25-year-old Sexton at fly-half could be Eire's only future hope of a return to 2009 Grand Slam glory. The Leinster-man has represented his nation on a mere 11 occasions for the return of 102 points. Ireland realised they had a suitable back-up, if not replacement, to Ronan O'Gara when the Dubliner kicked all 15 points in a 15-0 win over World Champions South Africa in 2009, that too with broken fingers.

Robert Barbieri, Italy
Ok so he's Canadian, but if this 26-year-old flanker can help Italy banish the unenviable tag of having never won the Six Nations in 12 years since becoming the most recent joiners, then he'll be a fully fledged member of the Azzurri. Currently struggling with injury it's hoped the Benetton Trevisio player, who has five points from ten internationals can fill in for injured Mauro Bergamasco to continue in the same vein that saw Italy beat Fiji 24-16 in the autumn.

Richie Gray, Scotland
This 21-year-old Glasgow Warriors' lock typifies the entire ethos of the new tartan army, young, upcoming and energetic. It may not mean the Scots are in pole position to win the competition any time soon but when they do Gray will surely be integral to that set-up. He only came on as a substitute against France at last years tournament but enough has been done in his six senior games, without any points scored to herald the dawning of a new era led by this ray of light.

Rhys Priestland, Wales
If there's one thing the Welsh need it's for someone new to stand up and be counted. Injuries have taken the wind plain out of Welsh sails and 2008's Grand Slam is starting to look like a distant memory. So then to 24-year-old Scarlets fly-half Rhys Priestland, who, without a senior cap remains Wales' ace in the hole — and a very deep hole it must be for such a complete unit as they once were to now be calling upon the services of someone who is only really proven at Wales youth level.

Who do you think will win today's match? Do you think either team is capable of winning the the Championship or achieving a Grand Slam? Who is your favourite to win the title? Tell us by posting a comment below.  

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