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Rugby Union
Alex Cuthbert scoring a try for Wales in the Six Nations
Welsh winger Alex Cuthbert scored the only try as Wales beat France last year to win the Six Nations

The 2013 RBS 6 Nations Rugby Championships - February 13 – March 13, 2013

With a massive fan following, the RBS 6 Nations is always keenly anticipated. This year’s competition between England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales, promises some high-octane performances. 

The fourteenth edition of the RBS 6 Nations could well turn out to be the most exciting in its history. While such a comment, made on the eve of this championship, might sound trite, those in the know will be well aware of the tasty ingredients that should provide a recipe for a vintage tournament.

For the first time in a decade there are signs that the northern hemisphere nations are catching their antipodean rivals. With coach Philippe Saint-André’s new-look France walloping Australia and Stuart Lancaster’s English tyros chalking up a record-breaking win over the world champion All Blacks in the autumn of 2012, those two sides will enter the competition as favourites.

As the red rose host three matches at Twickenham Les Bleus’ coach, Philippe Saint-André, believes that they will prove the most prickly opponents, saying: ‘Against New Zealand they showed they can beat—and therefore be—the best team in the world.’

Read More: The Greatest Rivalry in Rugby World Cup History

Elsewhere defending champions Wales, who last season secured their third grand since 2005, but have lost all seven games since then, are now looking for a big response. Similarly Scotland are in disarray and Andy Robinson stepped down  as head coach following a year in which his side failed to record a home win. They have the makings of a good side, though, and attack-minded interim coach Scott Johnson will not be afraid to release his lightening-quick back three.

Ireland could be about to wave goodbye to their coach, too. Declan Kidney steered his country to grand slam glory in 2009 but, after a poor 2012, will be  hoping to convince his paymasters he deserves an extension to his current contract, which expires this March, and will be more than keen  to have his golden generation fit and firing.

Italy are also looking to add finesse to their thump, and under Frenchman Jacques Brunel, in his second RBS 6 Nations in charge, they are showing signs of improvement. And then there is a British and Irish Lions tour to Australia looming, so all players will be keen to impress. All the elements and subplots should make this edition one to remember.

England expects

Expectations for England skyrocketed following the best-ever victory over the world champions New Zealand in December, 2012, to conclude the autumn series, though head coach Stuart Lancaster has been careful to manage these expectations, insisting that his main goal remains winning the World Cup on home soil in 2015.

The 38-21 win brought to a close the All Black’s 20-game unbeaten run, and vindicated the game plan employed by Lancaster. ‘It’s brilliant to get this result but we’re long-term planning and we have got to make sure that we back it up,’ he said at Twickenham after the game, adding, ‘The win is the reward for the players’ efforts and it gives them belief they are on the right journey.’

After a second-placed finish in last season’s RBS 6 Nations, he was  granted permanent charge of England, and following the nadir reached at the World Cup at the end of 2011 he has now completely overhauled the playing culture, introducing young players to the mix and re-energized the whole operation

But will this win over the All Blacks herald nothing but another false dawn? With three games at HQ this campaign, including France, Lancaster’s side have a good chance of winning England’s first RBS 6 Nations since 2003—and we all remember what that team went on to achieve.

Read More: British and Irish Lions Tour Preview 2013

KEY PLAYER: Chris Robshaw

The red rose captain endured a tough autumn, and his decision making at key moments was criticised, but he kept his cool impressively. The 26-year-old backrower has proved he is a good leader, but this tournament provides an opportunity to silence those who insist he is not a top-drawer No7.

ONE TO WATCH: Joe Launchbury

The find of the autumn series, the London Wasps lock, 21, has been earmarked as a player in the mould of Martin Johnson who could have as much impact as England’s World Cup-winning skipper.

France, unpredictable

Even the French themselves were amazed that they managed to advance to the final of the World Cup in New Zealand in October 2011, such was the discordance, disrespect and mutual loathing between the team and the coach Marc Lièvremont. That they came within a solitary point of winning that final against the All Blacks shows the talent available for Les Bleus.

As always with France it’s a question of consistency, oscillating from gilded genius to enfant terrible. And that, as well a respect for the ethos of playing or the national side, is what new coach Philippe Saint-André has focused on improving since he took charge after the World Cup.

The last RBS 6 Nations, when he afforded his veterans one last trundle, was a disaster; they finished fourth following defeats to Wales and—in Paris, increasing the ignominy— England. Last summer Saint-André blooded many new players and brought back into the fold a handful of stars discarded by Lièvremont, including fly-half Frédéric Michalak.

A clean sweep in the autumn, including a 33-6 trouncing of Australia, has led to many backing France to win the 2013 championship. With five titles in 13 tournaments France are the most feted performers in the competition, but whether they are still dogged by inconsistency or insouciance remains to be seen.

KEY PLAYER: Morgan Parra

The Clement Auvergne star is only 24, but with 36 caps is one of the most experienced in the new-look side, and the team’s kicker. Most crucially he is a fine scrum-half, and in all the best French teams a decent, vocal No.9 has been the cohesive element.

ONE TO WATCH: Wesley Forfana

France have an embarrassment of riches in the backs, but the winger or centre, known as Le Guépard (The Cheetah), burst on to the scene in last year’s RBS 6 Nations, scoring four tries in an many games. Expect more from the 25-year-old this term.

Ireland, new talents

Time is short  for head coach Declan Kidney to prove to the powers that be at the Irish Rugby Football Union that he is the right man to take charge of the team for the 2015 World Cup. In 2009 he steered Ireland to their first grand slam in 61 years, but at the end of this campaign his contract expires, and Kidney will be relying on the fitness and form of his golden generation to see him through the spring.

In 2011 the side notched up one impressive win against Australia, at the World Cup, and in the last match of the autumn internationals, when pressure on the head coach was really mounting, the side romped to a seven-try win over Argentina. Fly-half Jonny Sexton and winger Tommy Bowe both crossed twice in the 46-24 victory, and with a number of absent injured veterans he was forced to employ younger, greener talents. Encouragingly they did not let him down, and wing Craig Gilroy—scorer of a hat-trick the week before against Fiji in his non-Test bow—dotted down on his full debut.

The talismanic Brian O’Driscoll should be back for his 14th RBS 6 Nations—the Leinster centre missed the autumn series—but the 2009 British & Irish Lions captain and lock Paul O’Connell will not return from the physio room in time for this campaign. SOME THING HERE ABOUT THEIR NEW CAPTAIN??  With Wales in Cardiff up first, Kidney will be hoping for a momentum-gaining result to help extend his tenure.

KEY PLAYER: Jonny Sexton

This is the tournament that the 27-year-old Leinster fly-half can truly step out of the long shadow that Ronan O’Gara has cast on Irish rugby. If Kidney shows Sexton the faith he has showed in the elder statesman then Ireland will be richly rewarded.

ONE TO WATCH: Craig Gilroy

The Ulster winger turns 22 in March and he announced himself last season, most notably scoring a wonder try against Irish rivals Munster at Thomond Park from half way in the Heineken Cup quarter-final. Looks a finisher with real determination, and could be a Lions flyer.

Italy, seeking finesse

The Azzurri made the rugby world sit up when they defeated then-reigning Five Nations champions Scotland 34-20 when they joined the party in 2000. And their addition was roundly lauded. However, since that victory they have progressed very little, sadly.

Indeed, they have only once won more than one game in a RBS 6 Nations campaign, and that was back in 2007. And, by way of illustrating the scale of their challenge, their -53 point difference from that tournament remains their best in the competition.

There have been a handful of notable victories since Italy joined rugby’s top table— including the scalp of France in 2011—but stringing good performances, and results, together has proved the main issue.

While the Italians have traditionally enjoyed the forward thrust of a sizable pack, most recently led by No.8 and captain Sergio Parisse who would not look out of place in a southern hemisphere backrow Test side, there has been a lack of guile and finesse to accompany the power.

There are signs, though, that under Frenchman Jacques Brunel things are beginning to improve. Attracting crowds of 80,000 to the San Siro, as the Azzurri did when the All Blacks visited, will only help turn on potential stars to the sport—in a country where the round ball rules—and widen the talent pool. Brunel is quietly confident that 22-year-olds Edoardo Gori and Tomasso Benvenuti, for example, can be backs of real menace. France at home in their opener would be a good time to prove they have finally arrived.

KEY PLAYER: Sergio Parisse

The Stade Français backrower, now 29, still remains the pivotal cog in the Azzurri machine. Without him they lack leadership and nous.

ONE TO WATCH: Francesco Minto

Tall and at home in either the second row or back row, Minto made his international bow against the All Blacks and did not cede an inch. He was named man of the match for his work, and—turning 22 in February—could be a mainstay for Italy for the next decade.

Scotland, opportunities

Last year was the first in 14 that the Scots failed to win a home game, and it was an unwanted record that proved too much for Andy Robinson to take. The former England head coach resigned  after his side’s 21-15 loss to  Tonga in Pittodrie, near Aberdeen, in their final autumn international.

The frustrating thing for Scottish fans is that much of what Robinson did——was encouraging. He blooded new talents and now, for instance, the Scots can boast one of the most exciting finishers in international rugby in Dutch-born winger Tim Visser, a player who won his first cap last summer on a highly successful tour.

On that trip they claimed the prize scalps of Australia—their first success Down Under in 30 years—Fiji and Samoa, too, and the team entered the autumn in optimistic mood. But now Robinson has gone, and with a trip to Twickenham first in this RBS 6 Nations campaign, few would expect interim coach Scott Johnson, bolstered by assistant coach Dean Ryanto romp home to a grand slam just yet.

That game against England will set the tone for the remainder of the tournament, but then with three games at Murrayfield Johnson’s team will have the chance to build up some steam. It could be a tricky campaign, but it will also provide the perfect opportunity for leaders to stand up and be counted.

KEY PLAYER: David Denton

At 6ft.5 the Zimbabwe-born and bred No.8 is an imposing figure, and the Edinburgh backrower is fast becoming irreplaceable for Scotland, a team he qualifies for as his mother came from Glasgow. Only 23 in February, a good spring season should see him handed a Lions place.

ONE TO WATCH: Tim Visser

The 25-year-old is the first-ever Dutch professional rugby player and since qualifying for Scotland he has been a revelation, scoring four tries in his first five Tests—including a brace against the mighty All Blacks.

Wales, dynamic

After securing their third grand slam since 2005 last year many were quick to compare this Welsh team with the all-conquering side of the 1970s. But after seven straight defeats following their crowning in Cardiff, following a 16-9 win against France, things are not looking so rosy now.

It’s hard to put a finger on why this young, dynamic side—the darlings of the 2011 World Cup—are not firing, though some pundits believe that their gameplan has been sussed out by most top-eight sides and evolution is drastically needed. Others point to the domestic regional system which is in a mess.

Warren Gatland, their New Zealand-born coach, has been absent for most of their games since the last RBS 6 Nations following an accident, but his assistant Rob Howley has been around long enough to know the drill. Following a three-Test whitewash by Australia on the summer tour there were also losses on home soil against Argentina, Samoa, the All Blacks and the Wallabies once more.