The 2009 edition of the Six Nations rugby tournament, which kicks off on February 7, is expected to be wide open. Title-holders Wales, the only side to defeat a southern hemisphere opponent in the November tests, remain the team to beat.
AFP - Wales may be the overwhelming favourites to retain their Six Nations title but one of the few predictable factors about this competition is its unpredictability.
It wouldn't be the Six Nations without an upset or two along the way between the 2009 edition's February 7 start and the tournament finale in March.
Recent form, which saw Wales beat Australia for the lone win by a northern hemisphere side over a Tri-Nations team during November's Test matches in Europe, suggests last year's grand slam winners remain the team to beat.
Warren Gatland, the title-holders' coach, has challenged his men to do it again. But not even their great teams of the 1970s managed back-to-back slams, a feat Wales have only achieved once - one hundred years ago.
England, whose 2008 Six Nations never fully recovered from their surrender of a half-time lead against Wales in their opening match, were well beaten by the Tri-Nations trio in November and appear to have significant problem areas in both the backs and forwards.
Martin Johnson has so far been given an easy ride by the English rugby public but stumbles against lesser opponents will lead to fresh questions about the wisdom of appointing someone who, while a great player, had no backroom experience before becoming England manager last year.
Scotland, buoyed by Edinburgh and Glasgow's form in Europe this season, could well throw a spanner in the works of one of their better-resourced opponents but their greatest challenge will be be whether they can turn possession into tries, having managed just three in last year's tournament.
It may be a cliche to talk of 'French flair' but should 'Les Bleus' get it right then everyone else needs to look out, even if their pack doesn't inspire the same sense of dread as French forwards of yesteryear.
Coach Marc Lievremont, with an eye on the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, used his first season in charge last year to experiment with a bewildering array of combinations.
He should have a clearer idea now but, if Lievremont opts for more of the same, the consolation for France is they are one of the few sides in the world capable of dealing with such a laissez-faire approach.
Ireland haven't won this tournament since 1985 when it was still restricted to the Five Nations and a feeling persists their 'golden generation' of the early part of this decade may have missed its chance.
However, Brian O'Driscoll remains at the helm and with some young emerging backs on the rise, plus a clutch of Munster stars who know all about beating the best in Europe at club level, Ireland remain dangerous.
But, even more than most teams, much will depend upon their opener against France - a team they've lost to seven times in a row.
Italy will again be many people's tip to finish bottom of the table as they did in 2008.
The Azzurri, under the guidance of their South African coach Nick Mallett, beat Scotland and gave both England and Ireland a scare last year.
However, they remain worryingly prone to the kind of collective meltdown that saw them thrashed 47-8 in Cardiff and, in an era where place-kicks often decide the outcome of matches, they badly need to find a reliable goalkicker from somewhere.
In Mallett, Italy do have a coach with the innovative qualities to go some way to countering the country's lack of top-class players and Ireland, Wales and France will be right to be wary ahead of their matches in Rome.
Date created : 2009-01-30