France and England will battle for Six Nations supremacy when Europe’s finest kick-off the international season this weekend.
In the cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world of Test rugby, much can change over the course of 12 months.
No competition better reflects this than the annual northern hemisphere showpiece. Just a few short months ago, Wales looked unbeatable as they roared to a Six Nations Grand Slam.
England finished runners-up while 2011 World Cup finalists France placed fourth following defeats to Wales and England and a 17-all draw with third-placed Ireland.
Fast forward to the present and it’s evident that the landscape has changed considerably up north. Wales are on a seven-match losing skid that includes home losses to Argentina and Samoa, England are fresh off a record-breaking trouncing of the All Blacks at Twickenham and Les Bleus are riding a wave of momentum after an unbeaten end-of-year series that included a hammering of the Wallabies.
The absence of coach Warren Gatland, who will be plotting the Wallabies’ demise as mentor of the Lions, and a host of key personnel through injury compound Wales’ problems and make a successful title defence highly improbable.
Ireland snapped a five-match losing streak in their final Test of 2012 against Argentina but they will be without two of their most influential players in Paul O’Connell and Tommy Bowe.
It also remains to be seen how the Irish click with Jamie Heaslip leading the charge over a fit and returning Brian O’Driscoll.
With Scotland and Italy destined for another basement battle, the race for the title comes down to France and England.
France are arguably the better side but they have two factors crippling their crusade, the first being a more challenging schedule.
Les Bleus will play three away matches as apposed to England’s two and crucially, these two heavyweight sides will go head-to-head at Twickenham, in Round Three, which should give the English a distinct advantage.
The other additional obstacle facing France is finding a way to match the hunger of four of their five opponents, who will be driven by the allure of prized places in the Lions squad for the tour of Australia in June.
The Home Unions will each have an extra arm and a leg this year and negating that added incentive and motivation will be key to France’s championship challenge.
Also set to be instrumental as France hope to regain the silverware they last held in 2010 is mercurial flyhalf Frederic Michalak, whose return to Test rugby and match-winning performances last year were nothing short of remarkable.
Michalak fits coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s more attack-minded gameplan to a tee and his consistency in the No.10 jersey during the end-of-year internationals last year hinted at an extended Test return for the 30-year-old.
England’s greatest challenge will be to live up to the lofty expectations they set in annihilating the All Blacks and to prove that they aren’t one-hit wonders with a consistent campaign.
They will look to lay down a marker against Scotland at Twickenham this weekend and if they are able to follow it up with an away victory over Ireland and a home win over France, they will be in a commanding position.
However, with a tricky final assignment against the defending champions at the Millennium Stadium, France could snatch the title as they conclude their campaign against Scotland at home.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
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