Friday, December 30, 2005
Looking to the North
Who will set the game alight in 2006?
29 Dec 2005
Andrew Baldock, PA Sport Rugby Union Correspondent looks forward to another great year of Rugby
The 2006 rugby union year has a tough act to follow after Wales' exhilarating Six Nations success and the astounding achievements of Graham Henry's All Blacks during the past 12 months. But a sport that rarely disappoints - on the field, as opposed to some interminable squabbles off it - will inevitably produce another heady mix of thrills, spills and controversy. After dusting down the crystal ball, prospective winners and losers in 2006 were readily apparent, yet as Wales proved earlier this year, anything is possible.
RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP Wales lit up a disappointing championship last season with their thrilling brand of all-action rugby - expect France to do likewise in 2006. Coach Bernard Laporte must sometimes struggle to contain himself when he assesses the playing talent at his disposal, and a Grand Slam is well within reach if France don't self-destruct. When you consider France beat Australia and South Africa during the autumn without two of world rugby's finest operators - centre Damien Traille and flanker Serge Betsen -- then they present a daunting challenge, especially for England and Ireland, who must both travel to Paris.
Grand Slam champions Wales could conceivably threaten again, but so much depends on their opening game against England at Twickenham in early February, where the loss of injured quartet Ryan Jones, Tom Shanklin, Kevin Morgan and Brent Cockbain, plus a suspended Gavin Henson, suggests it will be too tough a task. England's heavyweight pack will grunt and grind its way around Europe, decimating much in its path, but on current evidence, the world champions' lack of flair, ambition and creativity behind the scrum suggests a Six Nations title would be as satisfying for the neutral as Germany being crowned soccer World Cup winners on the back of five 1-0 wins.
Ireland will have Lions Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell available following long injury absences, yet the Irish cracked under pressure last season in ``must-win'' games against France and Wales, which doesn't auger well for trips to Paris and Twickenham this time around. While Scotland are displaying small shoots of recovery under new coach Frank Hadden, victory in a wooden spoon decider against Italy in Rome on March 18 could be their solitary success, although the Italians won't be easily subdued on home soil. Finishing order: 1 - France, 2 - England, 3 - Wales, 4 - Ireland, 5 - Scotland, 6 - Italy.
HEINEKEN CUP The popular view suggests Toulouse only need to turn up in five more Heineken Cup games this season, and a record fourth European title will be theirs, but I have doubts whether the tournament will become a French procession. Toulouse and Biarritz should undoubtedly feature heavily at the business end, while Stade Francais could also mount a strong bid, yet the Heineken Cup might ultimately find itself resting in somewhat less exalted surroundings - Edgeley Park, Stockport.
Four English clubs have already lifted the trophy - Bath, Northampton, Leicester and Wasps - and Philippe Saint-Andre's Sale Sharks are good enough to join that illustrious band at the Millennium Stadium next May, as long as they keep believing in themselves. Last eight: Sale Sharks, Cardiff Blues, Stade Francais, Biarritz, Bath, Toulouse, Munster, Perpignan. Winners: Sale Sharks.
GUINNESS PREMIERSHIP English rugby's flagship competition appears to be developing into a two-horse race between Sale and Wasps, despite the ludicrous play-off system that means a team finishing fourth after 22 games can still be crowned champions. Wasps have won all three Twickenham Grand Finals since the controversial concept was introduced, beating Gloucester, Bath and Leicester, and I am backing them to sink the Sharks on May 27, with Sale's Heineken Cup campaign steering them slightly off a successful domestic course.
POWERGEN CUP Wasps should complete the first leg of a league and cup double by being crowned Powergen winners at Twickenham on April 9. Back-to-back semi-finals five weeks earlier in Cardiff see Wasps tackling Leicester, whose away form is so poor they could hardly beat an egg on their travels this season let alone the reigning English champions, with renowned Welsh cup kings Llanelli Scarlets facing Bath. CELTIC LEAGUE Given the abject failure of the Welsh regions to make a mark on this season's competition, Irish representatives Munster, Ulster and Leinster could fill the top three places, with Munster shading the race for top honours. SUMMER TOURS Fear for Ireland on their two-Test mission against New Zealand in June, while the same could be said when Scotland go to South Africa, but England and Wales are both backed to win a Test on respective assignments in Australia and Argentina. TRI-NATIONS Can anyone stop New Zealand from retaining the Tri-Nations crown? No. WHO'S HOT? Charlie Hodgson - Sale Sharks star has finally emerged from Jonny Wilkinson's shadow to become an effective tactical controller for England. The best is yet to come. Yannick Jauzion - the supremely-gifted French star should underline his status as the world's best centre in 2006, spearheading an assault on Six Nations silverware. Dan Carter - the All Blacks fly-half hardly put a foot wrong throughout 2005 as New Zealand smashed Sir Clive Woodward's Lions, won the Tri-Nations and completed a successful Grand Slam tour of Great Britain and Ireland, but he thinks there is room for improvement.
WHO'S NOT? Gavin Henson - a 10-week ban has destroyed his Six Nations hopes. Plenty of time to top up the tan and get a proper haircut, then. Eddie O'Sullivan - the pressure is well and truly on Ireland's coach after a spectacular Six Nations collapse last season and emphatic autumn Test defeats against New Zealand and Australia. International Rugby Board - does anyone know what they actually do?
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