The 2008 tournament sees the launch of The Rugby Blog 6 Nations Betting League so here are some hints from Stuart Peel on where he will be putting his money in light of recent events in the European Cup.
So another exhilarating Heineken Cup is put to bed for a few months and attention returns to the international game, namely the Six Nations. Inevitably the question arises of what predictions can be made for Europe’s leading international competition based upon the events of the leading club variety.
First of all there will be a huge number of high profile individuals who feel they have a point to prove. Due to the quite extraordinary seeding system which is the only significant Achilles heel of the Heineken Cup, many of Europe’s bigger clubs, and by definition biggest players, are currently contemplating a few weeks on the sidelines when the tournament resumes. You would have got pretty big odds on none of Stade Francais, Biarritz, Clermont Auvergne, Leinster, Wasps and Leicester making it through the pool stages and the tournament is poorer for it. Taking nothing away from those who have qualified, the quarter final line-up would probably look stronger if these big beasts were present.
For many players then, the Six Nations represents something of a shot at redemption, being their only chance of success this season beyond the domestic. This should add to the competitive edge as a huge amount of personal pride will come into play. Hopefully we will see a championship with rather more intensity than those served up immediately after previous World Cups.
Secondly, the more competitive pools in the Heineken Cup demonstrated clearly the prevalence of home advantage in the modern game. In Group 5, Wasps, Munster and Clermont Auvergne all won their home games against each other. It was Munster who showed above all the importance of fighting for every minute in the Heineken Cup, winning 3 crucial bonus points in their games against their closest rivals. Wasps by contrast squandered 3 very achievable bonus points and gave away two to their opponents. This resulted in Munster winning a pool in which, in terms of pure quality, they were probably the third best team.
Group 6 was just as competitive with Toulouse sealing it by virtue of being the only team to win away from home, burgling a narrow victory at Edinburgh who managed to turn over both Leinster and Leicester at Murrayfield. Indeed no team managed a 100% record in the tournament with only 5 out of 24 teams managing more than 1 away win, all of which were in fairly easy pools, and there was not a single away win which could be described in any way as a surprise.
All this points to a tight championship with no Grand Slam being won this year. Ireland must travel to Paris and London and, while they have shown over recent years that Twickenham holds no fears for them, they appear to have something of a hang up against the French. England must travel to Paris to face a France team hell bent on revenge for being ejected from their own World Cup by the old enemy. Both teams will have a different look and feel about them but the hostility will remain. France have both Ireland and England at home and the championship should be their’s to lose.
With Ireland and Wales both coming to Twickenham, I believe England have as good a chance as France of winning the championship. However, both France and England must travel to Murrayfield and the Scottish clubs in the Heineken Cup turned in impressive performances. Not only that, but Scotland defeated both of them two years ago and I back them to take at least one victory from their two home games. Ireland should dispose of Wales, Scotland and Italy at home and will feel that they have a huge point to prove this year as possibly their strongest side in years crashed and burned in France.
Wales will have to win their home games against Scotland and Italy to salvage anything from the tournament while the Italians will have their eye firmly on the Scotland game as their chance of getting points on the board. The Italian clubs generally produced an improved showing this year in Europe but they still remain some way short of being challengers. If any team manages more than one away win then they will be in pretty good shape to take the title.
Beyond the Heineken Cup, the close proximity of the tournament to the World Cup will make it fascinating to all rugby fans. Those expecting an injection of young blood and an expansion of playing styles could be disappointed but there will be an abundance of talent on show. France will be seeking redemption and the signs are that they will turn their backs on some of their established stars. Both Ireland and Wales endured miserable World Cups but on the evidence of recent weeks they have no better options than the players who underperformed so spectacularly in France. I expect to see them try to rediscover the winning habit with their existing players and then to introduce new players over the course of the next 2 years.
The World Cup came a couple of years too early for Scotland but they are improving and are likely to stick with the current formula, perhaps with a little more audacity grafted on top. They looked more dangerous in the last few minutes against Argentina when they threw caution to the wind than they have done for some time.
England can draw a line under the past 4 years and start introducing young blood alongside the more established names. There is a huge amount of talent around at the moment and I believe they have the right man at the helm to harness it. England should be targeting victory in all their home games and a win at Murrayfield at the very least, with a view to winning the Grand Slam in 2009. I see no reason why they should not be able to achieve this with the ability they have at their disposal.
This tournament has all the makings of a cracker but rugby supporters should be patient. No team will gel or click immediately and the odd ropey performance should not lead to heads being demanded on platters. Anyone who has been looking on with a mixture of bemusement and amusement at the goings-on at Newcastle United and Liverpool will appreciate the value of stability and the coaches should be given time to put their plans into place. I make an exception for Eddie O’Sullivan here as he must surely be sipping last orders in the last chance saloon after Ireland’s disastrous World Cup.
Only one thing is certain – all rugby fans in all the European capitals will have a bloody good time.
By Stuart Peel