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State of the Nations

by Aidan Elder |  Published: Feb 01, 2008


The Rugby World Cup is the premier international rugby union competition. The event is organised by the sport's governing body, the International Rugby Board (IRB), and is contested by the men's national teams. The inaugural tournament was held in 1987, hosted by both Australia and New Zealand, and is now contested every four years. The winners are awarded the William Webb Ellis Cup, named after the Rugby School pupil credited with the game's invention. The tournament is one of the largest international sporting competitions in the world. South Africa is the current world champion, having won the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final in France with its victory over England, the 2003 world champion and current runner-up.

Year zero. Back to square one. Let the process begin all over again. With one World Cup having just exited stage left, the Six Nations heralds a new era of regeneration that will theoretically reach a crescendo in 2011 when the show moves on to New Zealand.

Since Jonny Wilkinson's drop kick sailed between the posts to hand England the Webb Ellis trophy in 2003, teams were eyeing up their assault on the 2007 renewal. Years of trial and plentiful errors were designed to culminate with a squad of players who could seriously challenge for the biggest prize in rugby.

So, we find ourselves at the beginning once more. As absurd as it may sound, we can almost ignore what we learned at the World Cup. After some impressive, disappointing, and downright surprising performances in France, the Six Nations is effectively a clean slate. New coaches are at the helm, the old reliables are now deemed too old to be reliable, and the process of blooding the youngsters begins in earnest with one eye on challenges further down the road.

For all the perceived uncertainty, history tells us that the Six Nations following a World Cup throws up little in the way of surprises. With the exception of France and Wales sharing the Five Nations title of 1988, the prize has been dominated by teams that can generally be relied upon to be at the very least competitive - namely, England in 1992, '96, and '00, along with France in 2004.

Strike Force France
When looking at potential winners, that leaves us unimaginatively at the doors of France. The consensus was that the rigid style of play imposed by Bernard Laporte shackled the normally unpredictable and vibrant play of the French. This rankled with the home fans at the World Cup, who almost value a thrilling spectacle as much as victory. Laporte has since moved on to take a position in government as Minister for Sport, and into the breach steps Marc Lievremont.

A former international flanker for Les Bleus, his track record is praiseworthy if somewhat brief. He has been involved at the underage level with French teams, including coaching the under-21s, and only last season he got a lowly Dax team promoted to the top table of French domestic rugby. But his appointment as coach of the national side wasn't universally welcomed. The President of the French Rugby Union Bernard Lapasset supported Lievremont, whilst in the other corner, the still influential Serge Blanco expressed concerns. This split is somewhat representative of the French public, who acknowledge that there are more experienced coaches out there, but also see a need to give a young coach his chance, with a view to landing that elusive World Cup in 2011.

The uncertainty concerning the coach is almost the only reason to oppose France to retain their Six Nations Championship title. We know that they have the quality and depth within their ranks despite the aging process taking its toll on one or two of the stalwarts. Equally, the fact that their most likely rivals for the Championship, England and Ireland, must visit Paris puts the reigning champions in the pole position. Collecting maximum points in Rome should be a formality, and victories in Cardiff and Edinburgh should be hard-fought, but predictable. It should be enough to see them retain their title even though the odds are prohibitively short.

If the fixture list may favour them in the 2008 edition of the Championship, do not be tempted into trying to maximise profit by backing France to do the Grand Slam. Winning all of their matches may seem like the obvious route to France's glory, but the marginal improvement in returns does not fully compensate for the added peril. As it did last year, France may well land the title despite having a blemish on its record.

It faces Scotland first up, and based on his desire to emerge from the formidable shadow of the Laporte era and win over dissenters not entirely pleased with his appointment, Leivremont may be overly ambitious with a team that is fundamentally in transition. A lack of talent hasn't been a barrier to the Scots giving teams of supposedly much greater quality a torrid time in Murrayfield. France is undoubtedly the favourite to prevail in Scotland and Wales, but if it is overly elaborate, it could get a shock, making the Grand Slam bet unappealing.

Another pitfall may come in the shape of Lievremont's association with the younger players in France. In his time with the underage teams, he will have formed favourable opinions about the abilities of younger players. In an attempt to make his mark on the team, there is a chance that he may give them a chance on the full international team that perhaps these players aren't ready for. It's by no means a crime, but for the punter dealing with skinny odds, it's something to be cognisant of.

Gatland Guns
One of the more interesting plots of this year's tournament will be the progress of Wales. Gareth Jenkins paid the price for the shock defeat to Fiji and subsequent elimination from the World Cup, but the appointment of Warren Gatland will bring progress. Gatland is one of the best coaches in the business, as he proved by winning a Heineken Cup and three Premiership titles with the London Wasps, and a recent Air New Zealand Cup with Waikato. He did some good work with the Irish national side prior to this, and boardroom politics may have had more to do with his departure than performances on the pitch.

With Gatland at the helm, we can expect improvement from Wales. In James Hook, it has one of the most exciting talents in Northern Hemisphere rugby, and he has the potential to be the focal point of an electrifying attack. Augmented by the dazzling feet of Shane Williams, the resurgent Gavin Henson, and the always reliable Tom Shanklin, they will pose problems for any defence, but it's in the forwards that the Welsh have been struggling. The good news is that Gatland is renowned for improving sides in this area of the game. Wales has talent in this department, and the task of molding them into a more competitive unit is well within the compass of the New Zealander.

For the punter, the real question is a matter of turning this prediction into profit. With the Dragons making the trips to Twickenham and Croke Park in this season's fixtures, the Triple Crown looks like poor value, even at odds of 8/1. Likewise, the odds of 15/2 to win the Championship outright should be avoided, because two defeats in the aforementioned trips would almost certainly see their hopes evaporate, and equally, the odds of 20/1 to repeat their 2005 Grand Slam should probably be doubled before being even remotely considered.

Wales' progress may well be less tangible to the naked eye than a sudden glut of silverware. Warren Gatland's pedigree is beyond doubt, and we can expect his Wales team to gradually get closer to its main rivals over time. It may be asking a bit much of them to overcome England in the opening game in London, but there may be some value in the handicap betting. A pre-World Cup thumping at the hands of the Sweet Chariot and an overestimation of England's performances in France will result in Wales receiving more points than is probably accurate.

History tells us that there is little to separate these two sides. Of the 116 meetings between the teams, Wales has won 44 percent of the time to England's 46 percent, with 10 percent of the meetings finishing in a draw. The motivation of playing their oldest rivals should mean there will be little more than a handful of points between the two teams after 80 minutes. With exception of the ties against Italy and Scotland, Wales should offer value in match and handicap betting as the underdog.

Ireland's Call?
Repercussions regarding Ireland's dismal World Cup still abound, although failing to come out of the so-called "group of death" that ultimately contained the third- and fourth-best teams in the competition wasn't a humiliation. However, the sight of an Irish side that had destroyed England only months earlier and come within a handful of points of winning the Six Nations, clinging on desperately at the death against Georgia, was a stunning drop off in performance. Allied to the lacklustre opening display against Namibia and toothless showings against Les Bleus and the Pumas, punters will be left scratching their heads as to what to expect from Eddie O'Sullivan's team.

Ignore the speculation regarding what caused Ireland's implosion in France. For betting purposes, we have to deal in facts. What we know is: Eddie O'Sullivan is a conservative, but talented coach; Ireland still has a lot of brilliant players at its disposal; these players have generally been impressing for their clubs in the Heineken Cup, and a few of them are simply desperate to atone for events in France. With Italy visiting Dublin first up, Ireland has the perfect chance to begin the rebuilding process with a confidence-boosting win. It may be asking a bit much for the team to gain swift revenge on France, but the back-to-back home matches against Scotland and Wales should leave Ireland in a strong position for a potentially crucial showdown with England at Twickenham.

In 120 meetings between the two teams, England has won almost 58 percent of the time, Ireland 36 percent, and the draw has occurred on almost 7 percent of occasions. But since the Six Nations era began in 2000, the statistics tell a rather different story. Ireland is the dominant force, winning 62.5 percent of the time to England's 37.5 percent. Combined with this is the fact that they are no strangers to winning at Twickenham and the 10/3 for yet another Triple Crown begins to look tempting; certainly more so than the 4/1 for them to win the Championship outright, which will almost certainly rely on other teams doing them a favour. Whatever the reason for the World Cup failure, we know that Ireland is a capable side, and with so many uncertainties, there is appeal in siding with the devil you know rather than the devil you don't.

Brave Hearts
Returning to the idea of being at the beginning of a cycle, it is difficult to be confident in England. After the World Cup win of 2003, the idea was to spend the next four years adding strength to the core squad. After experiments that led to some frankly humiliating results, it was a return to the old reliables that catapulted England to its surprise final appearance. When Mike Catt, George Chuter, an ever more injury-prone Jonny Wilkinson, and the retiring Jason Robinson are amongst the cornerstones of your success, you know it's a short-term solution. The good news for England is that there is plenty of young talent available to them. David Strettle has already made the breakthrough to the senior team, and we can expect more gifted youngsters like Toby Flood, Matthew Tait, Shane Geraghty, Tom Rees, Ryan Lamb, Danny Cipriani, and Nick Abendanon to become key figures on the team in the next few seasons as the march toward New Zealand 2011 begins.

Tait caught the eye with an excellent display in the World Cup final, and although the talent of the other young players is not to be doubted, if they weren't deemed good enough to make the trip to France, it's hard to know if they will be ready for Six Nations action a matter of four months later.

Scotland surpassed expectations at the World Cup, but possibly only because those expectations were so low. Frank Hadden's side is always tricky to beat at Murrayfield, but there is a dearth of top-class talent in the Scottish game, and it may struggle to avoid another "wooden spoon." Italy starts the tournament with a new coach in the shape of Nick Mallett. The Azzuri made some real progress under the tenure of Pierre Berbizier, and that will not be compromised with the South African's appointment. He guided Stade Francais to two top-14 titles during his time there, and prior to that was in charge of the Springboks as they went on an impressive 17-match unbeaten run. Italy won't get its hands on silverware, but its continued improvement always makes it a tempting prospect on the handicap.