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GARETH THOMAS EXCLUSIVE: Heart says Wales, but the head says England may edge the 6 Nations

Gareth Thomas is all excited by the 6 Nations. Four teams can with it and with little to choose between them, he's not totally confident about picking a winner. We totally understand where he's coming from. But we still made him pick a winner. Here's his 6 Nations preview

by Gareth Thomas | January 31, 2014

There’s something about the Six Nations that makes it special. If you’re talking purely technical standard of rugby, then yeah, the southern hemisphere’s Championship is probably better, but there is no tournament in the word that matches the 6 Nations for passion and drama. I absolutely love it and the way things are so delicately poised this year makes it even more mouth-watering.

This year, there’s four teams who could all finish top. You could throw a blanket over them it’s so tight. With so little to choose between the top teams, this could be one of the great 6 Nations tournaments. It’s always entertaining, but this could be another level altogether. There’s a lot of games that are going to be incredibly tough to call, but I favour England to do it narrowly. I could even see it coming down to points difference when it’s all said and done.

My 2014 6 Nations finishing order

#1 England

#2 Wales

#3 France

#4 Ireland

#5 Scotland

#6 Italy

Alfie’s bets

  • The teams to finish in the exact order listed above – 33/1 DESKTOP | MOBILE
  • England to win the 6 Nations on points difference – 6/1 DESKTOP | MOBILE
  • England to win the 6 Nations and Italy to finish last – 5/1 DESKTOP | MOBILE
  • No Grand Slam winner, England to win & Italy to finish last – 8/1 DESKTOP | MOBILE

Sam Warburton with Warren Gatland 22/1/2014

Wales – 9/4

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Best case scenario
Wales are aiming to become the first team in history to win three championships outright on their own and it’s not just national pride behind me saying it’s possible. The world rankings disagree, but they’re the best team in Europe for me and it’s hard to argue against any team that are two time defending champions. It’s the age profile of the team that makes me think they’ve still got room to get even better. Most of the backs are in their early to mid-20s and the pack is full of experience without many of them being near the end of their careers.

Individually they’re building experience and becoming better players but also collectively they’re developing of better understanding of how to play together. Warren Gatland has been around a while and knows exactly what he needs to do – it’s all looking good. As a group, they’ve already set a high bar and the conditions look suited to getting even better. A Grand Slam is probably unlikely given the way the fixtures fall, but they’re more than capable of winning the championship.

Worst case scenario
There’s a lot of turmoil in Welsh rugby at the moment with the central contracts dispute and it’s the politics of Welsh rugby that worries me. The politics have been around since the first Welshman picked up a rugby ball, but I’m concerned this has the potential to disrupt the team’s focus. I doubt if it will bother the players too much, but when you play in the Six Nations, you realise it’s about more than the players in the squad – it’s about the nation. What the nations feels has a big impact on players’ confidence and if they sense some unhappiness from the crowd on the day about how the union have handled things, they will notice it.

I don’t mind what sort of a contract a player has as long as we have the best players available lining out for Wales. If I was still playing, all I would care about is letting each and everyone of my team-mates that I’ve got their back, no matter who pays them or how much money they’re on. That’s what’s important. Not everyone feels that way and there is even a tiny chance of animosity, it could cause problems. On the pitch, they’ve got some tough away games and as good as I think they are, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them lose in Dublin or London. As a proud Welshman, I’d hate if we went to Twickenham with a chance of winning the championship and lost.

Wales have a bit of adapting to do because of the number of key players who are now playing in France. I’m not worried. When I was playing for Toulouse and coming back for the Six Nations, I was just so excited to be home and see my family and friends, I couldn’t wait to play. Plus, you bring back little bits and pieces you may have picked up from the Top 14. As a top class rugby player, you need to be able to flick a switch from ‘club mode’ to ‘Wales mode’. Changing styles and gelling with different team-mates – that’s all excuses if you’re not performing well.

Chris Robshaw with Stuart Lancaster 22/1/2014

England – 5/2

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Best case scenario
It pains me to say it, but England are more than capable of winning the tournament and they probably will. A Grand Slam is asking a bit too much, but they’ll be right in the mix for the championship. They’ve got a tough opener against France in Paris, but after that, the way the fixtures fall suits them nicely with Wales and Ireland coming to Twickenham and away to Scotland and Italy – which are potential banana skins, but games you fully expect to win. Stuart Lancaster is doing a great job with them and it goes a bit unnoticed sometimes because he’s not really a man for the limelight. As a coach, he’s more of a workhorse than a show pony. He gets his teams to just do enough and that builds confidence. I can see them winning it, but not by blowing teams out of the water, winning by a few points here and there and grinding it out.

Worst case scenario
The first match is crucial and will set the tone. You never know what to expect from France and if they were to lose badly in Paris, that would undermine the progress England have been making and dent the confidence Lancaster has instilled. England go into it with a few injuries. They’ll miss Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft, but their style of play is quite structured rather than relying on any individuals and they can cope. They don’t offer a great deal of surprise and it that sense, opposition teams can work them out. You know what you’re going to get – a big bruising pack who will wear you down. In midfield, 10, 12 and 13, they’re not the strongest and if it starts badly, all the other games will suddenly look that little be more difficult.

Philippe Saint-Andre 22/1/2014

France – 3/1

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Best case scenario
France got the wooden spoon in 2013 and nearly a year later, that’s still mind-blowing. There’s little chance of a repeat and they’re definitely capable of winning the Six Nations. In theory the fixtures are slightly in their favour with England and Ireland coming to Paris. They go to Cardiff in week four, but with the French, you just never know – they’ve got the unpredictability that can unlock the Welsh defence. They’ve got a great selection of players to choose from in the Top 14 and if Phillipe Saint-Andre gets the right group of them out on the field, they’ll be contenders. In midfield they’re strong – Wesley Fofana is a joy to watch – they’ve got brilliance all over the pitch, if it clicks, they’ll it. I’m just not convinced it will click.

Worst case scenario
I’m not convinced that Saint-Andre’s style suits the French players and if he’s lost the dressing room, they could have a tough tournament. I’ve heard stories about the players being against him, not listening to him and doing their own thing, but that’s just called ‘being French’. They’ve had more time off from the Top 14 and been able to spend more time in camp. While that sounds like a great idea to the other five nations, you’d wonder if it’s the best thing for France. Sometimes you’d be tempted to give them a ball and a pair of boots and say ‘there you go lads, fire away’ rather than enforce a structure they’re not comfortable with. Until I see them play, I wouldn’t commit too strongly either way. I can guarantee one thing – they’ll always be an enigma.

Brian O'Driscoll tackles Julian Savea 24/11/2013

Ireland – 5/1

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Best case scenario
Looking at the odds, Ireland are the most tempting of the lot. It’ll be close between the top four teams, but that’s a price that looks tempting.

I sometimes worry that southern hemisphere coaches who come into the Six Nations don’t understand just what a religion it is for the nations involved, but he’s been around Irish rugby for a few years now, so it shouldn’t be an issue.  We saw what they can do for 79 minutes against the All Blacks and if he gets the team playing at that level consistently throughout the tournament, they’ll win it.

Plus, it’s Brian O’Driscoll’s Six Nations swansong. He’s still the best option Ireland have in that position and regardless of what stage he’s at in his career or what’s coming down the line, you have to play your best team in the Six Nations. There’s going to be such a desire to send him out on a high from the players and the nation as a whole, you could see that carrying them to a Championship. They won’t get a Grand Slam, but they’re genuine contenders for the tournament.

Worst case scenario
The intensity of the Six Nations is like nothing else and it places huge demands on not only the players, but the coaching staff. They games come thick and fast and if you’re not used to it, it can get on top of you. Schmidt and his coaches will need to learn how to change things very quickly if it’s not going Ireland’s way and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles that.

I’d also worry a little bit about the O’Driscoll/Gatland subplot in week two getting to much attention. Everyone is expecting them to sweep past Scotland and already people are looking ahead to the Wales game and all the drama that comes with it. It’s easy to get caught up in it and forget about the job at hand. The Six Nations can be passionate enough without any added incentive and Schmidt will need to make sure the players don’t get ahead of themselves and slip up.

Stuart Hogg tackled by Freddy Michalak 16/3/2013

Scotland – 50/1

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Best case scenario
The best Scotland can hope for is beating Italy and maybe – if everything goes perfectly – upsetting either England or France at Murrayfield. Other than that, it’s hard to see them winning in Dublin or in Cardiff and avoiding the wooden spoon should be about the height of their ambition.

They’ve got some good players – Stuart Hogg, Richie Gray, Kelly Brown and some of the other lads in the pack – but there’s a definite separation between Scotland and the top four teams in the Six Nations. They’ll give England hell in the Calcutta Cup as they always do – even when they’re on course for a disappointing tournament, but they don’t have enough quality around the pitch to be in the same bracket as the top four.

They finished third last year, but I don’t see them being able to repeat it this year. Knowing Scott Johnson as a good, attack-minded coach and a good friend, I know he can do something inventive so maybe we’ll all yet be surprised.

Worst case scenario
Another wooden spoon to add to the collection is a possibility, without doubt. If they lose badly to Ireland and England in the first couple of weeks, all of a sudden they go into the game against Italy on a real downer and it becomes a shit-fight, which will suit the Italians perfectly. If they go to Rome like a team trying to avoid finishing last, then they’ll perform like a team trying to avoid a wooden spoon.

Italy – 200/1

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Best case scenario
The fixture list never looks great when you’re a minnow, but this year’s schedule is especially tough on Italy. They’re in Cardiff, then Paris before they have the home game against Scotland and beating Scotland and hopefully avoiding the wooden spoon is about as good as Italy can hope for. After that, it’s away to Ireland and home to England – they’ve been making slow progress in the last few years, but it’s hard to see them winning more than one game.

Worst case scenario
They lose to Scotland and get thumped by everyone else. Very possible.

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Six Nations Week One Matches

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It’s fairly straightforward. Wales and Ireland will win, but they’ve big handicaps to cover. I’d take Italy +20 points and Scotland +12 in those games. France could be anything this year, but I’ve got a feeling they can beat England in the match betting.

Alfie’s week one treble

France, Italy +20 points and Scotland +12 points all to win – 6/1 – DESKTOP | MOBILE

Six Nations Double Odds

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