Six Nations Preview: How the sides shape up

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sixnCASTRES, FRANCE – The most open Six Nations for many a year kicks off on Saturday, with four sides in with a pretty decent shout of the title.

Wales and Ireland will start as favourites, but France and England offer reasonable outside bets. Scotland could end up as kingmakers, while Italy look set for a difficult tournament.

Here, we look at the prospect for the six sides.

France

Jules Plisson starts for France against England in the Six Nations

Jules Plisson starts for France against England in the Six Nations

Injuries have done their best to gang-agley the best-laid plans of Philippe Saint-Andre for this Six Nations. Even a week of R&R from the rigours of domestic rugby for Les Bleus’ players before Le Crunch on Saturday – while Italy captain Sergio Parisse and Ireland’s Jonny Sexton were among the band of foreigners obliged to play Top 14 rugby – can’t hide the fact that there’s no Thierry Dusautoir, no Sofiane Guitoune, no Remi Tales, no Florian Fritz, no Camille Lopez, no Jonathan Pelissie.

But the absence of Tales has, at least reopened the door for Stade Francais young gun Jules Plisson to stake his claim for a decent run in the number 10 shirt. He makes his France debut as part of a very inexperienced halfback pairing with Jean-Marc Doussain.

But no side should take this apparently seriously wounded beast lightly. Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Basteraud are the fast and the furious midfield of a lightning-quick France backline. Yuann Huget, Maxime Medard and Brice Dulin can cut through defences like hot ballbearing through runny butter, and the pack – with or without Dusautoir – is a monster, ready to dish out some serious, serious pain.

That said, let’s not forget, that Les Bleus had a poor Six Nations last year, a lousy summer against New Zealand and a lacklustre autumn, and ended 2013 with wins against only Scotland and Tonga. That’s a lot to recover from. Probably too much.

England
Head coach Stuart Lancaster surprised one or two pundits before the opening game against France in Paris by doing just what coaches claim they do. He’s only gone picked his squad on form.

That means there’s no place for either Ben Youngs or Chris Ashton, who had been on borrowed time, anyway, and would probably have slipped down the pecking order earlier if Marland Yarde had not succumbed to injury.

England's Six Nations new boy Luther Burrell

England’s Six Nations new boy Luther Burrell

Quins’ Danny Care starts at scrum half, while Ashton’s right wing slot goes to the uncapped son of a trawlerman Jack Nowell. Luther Burrell and George Ford are also set make their senior England debuts in the seething Stade de France.

The backline boasts just 91 caps between them – and 42 of those go to Care. Next most-experienced is fullback Mike Brown, who has half that number.

It looks like a big gamble – especially for an opener like Le Crunch – but Lancaster is not a man who makes such decisions lightly. He has a gameplan, and he has picked the players – on form – he believes are best equipped to deliver it.

If he thinks his young charges are ready for the challenge, it’s a pretty safe bet that they are. If they win Saturday’s opener, they could be a worthy outside bet for the whole thing.

Wales
The defending champions open their bid for a third Six Nations title in a row at home to Italy, and Warren Gatland has decided not to risk skipper Sam Warburton’s shoulder by making him play a full game.

Instead, the flanker, whose shiny new WRU contract has caused a greater stir than it probably should, will be warming the bench as Justin Tipuric takes his starting place at open side.

Alun Wyn Jones

Alun Wyn Jones

Alun Wyn Jones, whose shiny new Ospreys’ contract met with rather more approval than Warburton’s WRU one, skippers the side for the first game against Italy at the Millennium Stadium.

It would appear the Welsh have everything. A pack as strong as any in the Six Nations, a dynamic trio at the back of the scrum, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies (will return from injury later in the tournament) making mincemeat of opponents in midfield – and a truly terrifying back three in George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert.

But questions remain over player fatigue. The Welsh made up the bulk of the summer’s Lions’ party, and there hasn’t been much time to rest since. So, the success or otherwise of this Six Nations campaign will depend as much on the prowess of the medical team as it will on the players.

Expect, then, to see opponents putting plenty of width on the ball…

Ireland

It's Brian O'Driscoll's last Six Nations

It’s Brian O’Driscoll’s last Six Nations

For better or worse, this Six Nations will probably be remembered as Brian O’Driscoll’s final fling. Which is more than a little unfair, as it also heralds the arrival of a new kid on the block – namely head coach Joe Schmidt.

So it’s probably fitting, then, that his first task will be to orchestrate the swansong of a rugby talisman. O’Driscoll, of all people, will not want to go quietly into the night. A winners’ medal would make an appropriate retirement present for a player who has rarely been less than outstanding since his debut 14 years ago.

O’Driscoll is likely to be central to Ireland’s hopes of success, but both he and Schmidt know that an injury to the icon will stretch Ireland’s resources. Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw is the most likely stand-in, though Ulster’s Darren Cave would also come into contention after a fine season to date.

Paul O’Connell, who has taken over as Ireland captain, is another who has to prove that time has not diminished his influence at the heart of the side. Given his recent towering performances in the Heineken Cup for Munster, it’s probably safe to argue that it hasn’t.

Scotland
Scott Johnson’s northern warriors are as honest as the day is long. They will graft at rugby’s equivalent of the coalface from dawn till dusk – or at least from kick off till final whistle. But they lack that spark of rugby genius.

November’s game against Australia proved it. While Quade Cooper and Israel Folau came of age for the Wallabies, no Scot had a particularly memorable game.

Stuart Hogg

Stuart Hogg

Admittedly, they were without Stuart Hogg and Richie Gray, but the point remains. Scotland are just a little bit ‘meh’ these days.

Make no mistake, Scotland will not be ground into dust. Far from it. And they will deliver their fair share of scares, but fifth is probably the best they can hope for.

It will be interesting to see what Clermont coach Vern Cotter can do when he takes the reins at Murrayfield in the summer.

Italy
What can you say about a side whose performances can range from inspired to insipid – sometimes during the course of a match?

Let’s start with a fact: of the five other teams in the Six Nations, only England have yet to fall victim to a Italian mugging.

Sergio Parisse

Sergio Parisse

Italy will rely, as always, on their ever-combative pack. Toulon’s Martin Castrogiovanni brings the bulk to the front row, while gladiatorial skipper Sergio Parisse and the underrated Alessandro Zanni add a touch of brute force and a mountain of sheer class at the back of the scrum.

So, they’ll keep it close, spoil and harry their opponents. What remains to be seen is whether they can make the most of what ball they can get their hands on. And whether Tommaso Allan – if and when he finally finds himself on the pitch – can really fill the boots of the great Diego Dominguez, as many, including Junoir Blaber and the RRMC are predicting he will.

All told, it looks like this Six Nations will be a tough one for the Azurri. Once their joyous national anthem is finished, they’re in for a rough ride.

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James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"

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