The Big SIX
If you're a rugby fan you're probably on your way to the RBS Six Nations with Ryanair right now. So here’s our pick of the six players who could make all the difference this year and, in case you haven’t got a ticket, the best bars to watch them in – from Paris to Edinburgh. Sam Peters reports
No other tournament in world rugby has the history, the passion or the travelling support that goes hand in hand with the Six Nations. Exceptional quality on the field is matched only by the colour and vibrancy of the fans. With the Six Nations come six cities, six stadiums and six teams, all desperate to write their names into their country’s rugby history books by claiming the crown. Here are six star players to watch out for in this year’s tournament.
France Freddie Michalak This year could be a defining one in the career of French rugby’s number-one pin-up boy (pictured, left). Michalak has talent in abundance but has struggled to impose himself consistently in international rugby. He endured a difficult World Cup, inspiring France to victory in the quarter-final after coming on in the second half against the All Blacks, before proving ineffective against England in the semi-final.
He has moved to South African Super 14 side Natal Sharks in an attempt to reinvigorate his career, and former team-mate Thomas Castaignède insists that, at 25, the fly-half still has time on his side. “Freddie will have been massively disappointed with his World Cup, but he is now lighting up the Super 14 and playing with his old confidence,” Castaignède said.
Michalak could be helped by the appointment of Marc Lievremont as France head coach, in place of the more conservativeminded Bernard Laporte.
Wales James Hook The way Hook cut England to ribbons in the final game of last year’s championship marked out a youngster with a very special talent indeed. One year on, and Hook has still not fully established himself in the Welsh team, after some fitful World Cup displays caused some to question his readiness.
With pace to burn and a powerful kicking game, if the 22-year-old fly-half can click with Gavin Henson at inside-centre then Wales will have a midfield capable of taking on the very best. If they don’t, the team could struggle.
The pressure is on, but the Ospreys star has shown enough during his 13 Wales caps to suggest he can handle it. Jonny Wilkinson has singled him out as one of the most talented young players in world rugby. Hook said: “I don’t think about the pressure to be honest. Number 10 is a big position in Wales but it’s something I enjoy. It’s not a burden to me in any way.”
Scotland Ali Hogg Scotland made the last eight of the World Cup, and could surprise a few people this year. If they do then Ali Hogg will almost certainly play a pivotal role in any success that comes their way. The rangy forward can play any position in the back row, although he specialises at open-side, where he has formed a powerful unit alongside Jason White and Simon Taylor.
Hogg will be 25 by the time Scotland open their Six Nations account at home to France on 3 February, and there is a strong suspicion he is approaching his prime – a scary thought for opponents who have already seen at first hand how destructive he can be.
He has thrived under the tutelage of Scotland coach Frank Hadden, who signed a contract extension in December. Hogg said: “All the boys in the squad are pleased to see that he is staying in charge. With that continuity, we can carry on building to the RBS Six Nations and also the summer tour. I believe we are heading in the right direction with a young, developing side.”