Country-by-country guide to the Six Nations
Published 26/01/2014 | 02:30
Ireland: What was looking like a bleak landscape on the injury front has taken on a bit of colour since Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Simon Zebo all made successful returns from injury – the first two well ahead of schedule, the third interestingly left to cool his heels a while by Joe Schmidt.
This run of fixtures is, historically, forbidding: It's 1972 since we managed to beat France and England away, only for Wales and Scotland to weasel their way out of travelling to us because of the situation in Norn Iron. Two home games to start is not so bad though, and at least when they go to Paris for the last round they should still be in the shake-up. Unlike last year, Wales in round two will make or break the campaign. England, in round three, will be having their first home game, which will be an earth-moving experience if they are 2/2 by then.
Key Man: Johnny Sexton
Last five in 6N: 5th, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd
The World Cup rumble needs to start now and what better way for England to roll it out than a win in Paris. They are the only team in the competition to have remained in the top three over the last five seasons, so now is the time for Stuart Lancaster to lead them to what would be a second title in four seasons – the one in 2011 was on Martin Johnson's watch, and fell well short of a Grand Slam in Dublin. England have won eight from 10 Championship games under Lancaster, and with a developing side and a manageable injury count, they are well placed to finish top. Those injuries include Christian Wade and Tom Croft but Manu Tuilagi should be back for the last two rounds, and Lancaster is holding out for seeing Alex Corbisiero, Ben Foden and Marland Yarde at some stage. His best news was the quick recovery of Danny Care. Now he needs to pick him.
Key Man: Billy Vunipola
Last five in 6N: 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 3rd, 2nd
November Form: Beat Australia and Argentina, lost to New Zealand
Desperately short on cover in the front row, you'd wonder who will be on duty there by the time they are running out in Cardiff in Round 5. And come to think of it, who will be steering the ship at that point. The Scots are beginning to look a little like Italy when it comes to filling the number 10 shirt. Ruaidhri Jackson has an unfortunate habit of committing howlers, so if they have a fella by the name of Greg Tonks – a South African born in England – there by Championship's end then don't be too surprised. They have England at home the week after opening against Ireland and it would be a turn-up if they had anything on the board when those eight days are over. Watch for Johnny Gray – younger brother of Richie – when he's fit, which may be halfway through the programme. He's an awesome prospect. Unlike Scotland.
Key Man: Greig Laidlaw
Last five in 6N: 3rd, 6th, 5th, 5th, 5th
November Form: Beat Japan, lost to South Africa and Australia
Two years running they have been outside the top three, and a whopping 13 players with no Championship experience – just over a year and half out from the World Cup – is odd. Or just French. Of that 13, five are uncapped and the rest have been thrown in at the deep end of a difficult year. Of 11 Tests they won just two: Scotland and Tonga. For this gig at least they have secured club release for their top players this weekend, giving Philippe Saint-André time to prepare rather than have to patch them up for the arrival of England. No rehab will bring Thierry Dusatoir back in time, however, so Pascal Pape takes over as leader. More worryingly for them, the near certainty that Freddie Michalak is not the answer at 10 is compounded by the lack of confidence in either Remi Tales, who started against New Zealand and South Africa in November, or Camille Lopez.
Key Man: Wesley Fofana
Last five in 6N: 6th, 4th, 2nd, 1st (Grand Slam), 3rd
November Form: Lost to New Zealand, beat Tonga, lost to South Africa
They will miss Ryan Jones for his personality as well as his versatility, and Ian Evans for his scrummaging. His lucky charm factor – Wales have only lost once in Evans' 14 Championship games – ended with his 13-week ban. So while it's all very well having four Lions covering your three back-row positions, and decent options in the front row despite ongoing injury worries for Gethin Jenkins, if the second row don't show up then it's hard to party. It looks like one of those Lion back-rowers, captain Sam Warburton, will miss the opener, at home to Italy, which of course is the best one to miss. They'll be full of ambition coming to Lansdowne, fixed on the prospect of a unique third title in a row. Winning in Dublin two years ago with a crippling injury list, and then going on to a Grand Slam, is still a rallying point. It won't happen this time.
Key Man: Toby Faletau
Last five 6N: 1st, 1st (Grand Slam), 4th, 4th, 4th
November Form: Lost to South Africa, beat Argentina and Tonga, lost to Australia
Their first two out of three games are away from home – in Cardiff and Paris – and it will probably leave Italy carrying an unbearably heavy load by the time they host their favourite team, Scotland. Their tries conceded last season was a very respectable eight over the five games, with none in the last two against Ireland and England (in Twickenham) giving them a fourth-place finish for only the second time in 14 years. Then they fell off the edge of the earth in the second half of the year with 25 concessions in the next five games. So they have issues in defence, where Jacques Brunel says it's a matter of will and determination, a fairly serious situation if it's Test rugby and not the under 12s you're talking about, and a few crocked big names in Andrea Masi and Gio Venditti, with Luca Morisi and Simone Favaro struggling currently as well. Don't look like they can hang on to fourth spot this time round.
Key Man: Sergio Parisse
Last five 6N: 4th, 5th, 6th, 6th, 6th
November Form: Lost to Australia, beat Fiji, lost to Argentina