The Joy of Six Nations
It should be a fascinating Six Nations tournament as any one of the top four teams could realistically win the title. Scotland and Italy can spring surprises but it would be a major shock if either challenged for the championship. Wales, Ireland, England and France, on the other hand, will all harbour hopes of landing the trophy come March 16.
I make France slight favourites given their scintillating form in the autumn and their strength in depth, but it will be interesting to see if England can sustain that magnificent performance against New Zealand which came as such a shock to all of us. As always, much will depend on how the sides start out in the competition so let’s look at Wales’ first three games...
Wales v Ireland, Saturday 2nd February, 1.30pm
(Coach travel available to the Millennium Stadium from Celtic Manor)
This time last year Wales beat Ireland in a tense encounter and went on to win the Grand Slam. On the back of seven straight losses, it’s going to be a huge game for the boys but it’s one I think they can win. We all know Wales are a better team than their results in the autumn and, although there’s been some doom and gloom about the regions going out of the Heineken Cup at the pool stage, some of the individual performances have been very encouraging. With Dan Lydiate and Ryan Jones out, I did think we might see both Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric in the back row, and maybe we still will at some stage during the game. Whatever, it will be an intriguing clash with the strong Irish unit of O'Mahony, Heaslip and O’Brien.
Ireland danger man: Simon Zebo (wing). I’ll ignore the usual suspects and pick Zebo who scored a hat-trick the other week for Munster and gives Ireland an extra dimension with his elusive, dynamic running.
France v Wales, Saturday 9th February, 5.00pm
Paris is a very difficult place to go and win but it’s the old cliché about never quite knowing which French team will turn up. If they struggle in Italy first up and the press and then the crowd get on their case, Wales can spring an upset but France were outstanding in the autumn. When they click, not many sides in the world can live with them. They’ve also got the strength in depth to withstand injuries which is not always the case for us. The second row is already looking a bit thin for Wales with so many already ruled out but we’re looking OK elsewhere with the return of Adam Jones and Jonathan Davies.
France danger man: Louis Picamoles (No 8). Unbelievable ball carrier whose offloads could pick some holes in Wales’ defence, he’s been awesome for Toulouse.
Italy v Wales, Saturday 23rd February, 2.30pm
It’s a no-win game for Wales because unless we put 30-40 points on them, no-one will be satisfied. In reality, Italy is another very tough place to go and I expect to see further improvement from a team who have beaten Scotland and France in the last two seasons. There have also been encouraging performances from their club sides in the Heineken Cup and RaboDirect - Treviso beating Ospreys for one. Their exposure to better standard games can only be good for the national side. I’ve lost and drawn against Italy so, to me, a win’s a win and Wales will know they need to treat this game with respect.
Italy danger man: Sergio Parisse (No 8). Obvious, I know, but he’s a one-man band at times and you know much of the Wales game plan will revolve around nullifying Parisse because he’s such a huge threat.
Martyn Williams is a two-time Grand Slam winner with Wales and a Celtic Manor Resort ambassador
An update with Martyn's thoughts on Wales' final two games will appear on the Suite Talking blog in March