Ian McGeechan: Stuart McCloskey is a player Ireland must look at closely
Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30
The state of the home nations sees Scotland ready to improve while Ireland must rebuild
Eddie Jones's new year resolution must be to find a midfield. It has been a problem for so long and it is complicated again by injuries to Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi. That could easily have been the centre combination, and I was really looking forward to seeing Slade at inside centre.
As it is, Jones has some tricky decisions to make. Does he pick Owen Farrell at centre alongside George Ford at outhalf? I would not do that because I think Farrell is playing so well that he deserves the No 10 shirt himself.
I would go with Wasps' Elliot Daly at outside centre ahead of Bath's Jonathan Joseph simply on form. Daly's performance at Bath recently was the best I have seen from him and I really like the left-footed kicking option that he brings. To have that second option in the wide channels is a huge asset to any team.
At inside centre, especially as England's first game, on February 6, is at Murrayfield against Scotland and because the new defence coach, Paul Gustard, is from Saracens, I would go with Brad Barritt.
It will be so interesting to see what Jones does from the start. I suspect there will be a new captain, even if I would still go with Chris Robshaw in the team at six.
If he goes for Dylan Hartley, as is rumoured and as I suggested some time ago, then I think England will be a much more abrasive team, and therefore a much tougher proposition.
Six Nations prediction: With Wales and Ireland at home, I think that England have the best fixture list but I cannot see them winning the tournament.
They may have to settle for second yet again, but it could be much worse than that if they lose to Scotland on that first weekend.
They are in transition, and I think that Joe Schmidt really needs to have a rethink. The calamitous World Cup quarter-final defeat by Argentina was, notwithstanding the injuries they suffered, one of those moments after which a coach sits down and realises that things must change and that his side must play differently. Ireland's narrow game was found out at the World Cup and I think they must now redefine themselves.
The loss of Paul O'Connell will be sorely felt, and with prop Mike Ross struggling to be fit in time, it looks as if Ireland's front five might not be as formidable as they have been. And it does not help Schmidt's job that at the moment the Irish provinces are not exactly tearing up trees.
A lot of responsibility will fall on the likes of Rob Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip, but, with Jared Payne still injured, there will be an interesting debate as to who should play alongside Robbie Henshaw at centre, with Leinster's Garry Ringrose having his advocates.
But the one player I would look at closely there is Ulster's Stuart McCloskey. He looks to me like a big, powerful man with good hands, and Ulster look the best of the provinces, so I would be looking at them first.
Six Nations prediction: I cannot see it being their title again this year. If they do not win their first match against Wales in Dublin, you could easily see them finishing fourth, because they have to go to Twickenham as well.
Their resolution is simple. They must aim to beat England at home on the opening weekend. It is not just a case of beating the auld enemy - although that is always nice, of course - but rather of making a real statement in the Six Nations and starting 2016 in the best possible fashion.
Win on February 6 and they can be a handful for the rest of the tournament. It would give them so much confidence.
I think it is fair to say that they came out of the World Cup the best of the home nations in terms of the confidence they took from it, and the obvious improvement they showed. The rugby they played was great to see. It was more attacking than the other home nations, which was disappointing after the way the Six Nations ended, because I expected teams to take that mindset forward.
Scotland do make fewer unforced errors now, even if they still concede too many tries for my liking.
Up front, flanker John Hardie has definitely lived up to his name and given them a harder edge and flyhalf Finn Russell will be very important, but it could be that scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw is their most important player. He really came on at the World Cup, operating at a level at which a lot of observers thought he could not, and, as well as being a match-winner, he has become an inspirational leader.
Six Nations prediction: Beat England and anything is possible. In the past 10 years Scotland have finished fifth or sixth in the table eight times, being third in 2006 and 2013. Maybe this is the year to better that.
Warren Gatland must move Wales' game on in an attacking sense. It is not that he doesn't have the runners who can cause damage in the outside channels, it is more a question of how quickly the ball can be transferred to them. I think they will look to use two passes to get into those outside channels and then use their big forwards, who are comfortable out there, in a slightly different way.
Management of injuries will be critical, though, because they still have some problems in that regard, with fullback being a particular problem.
Leigh Halfpenny is definitely out and there are concerns over Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe. I would not be surprised if Rhys Priestland comes into the equation here, with it appearing that he is going to reconsider his position about being available for Wales now he has moved to Bath. His experience could be very important.
Another worry is the form of the wingers Alex Cuthbert and George North. Cuthbert has begun to show some signs of improvement with Cardiff Blues but North still looks way off his game for Northampton. He just does not seem able to have the same influence upon matches as he used to.
But it is a bonus that centre Jonathan Davies is back playing and flyhalf Dan Biggar will also be crucial, as he was at the World Cup, although in the continued absence of Rhys Webb it is interesting that Gareth Davies, who was excellent at scrum-half at the World Cup, does not appear to be first choice at the Scarlets with Aled Davies playing so well.
Six Nations prediction: Wales begin on February 6 in Dublin, where they struggled so badly two years ago, but, if they win there, I think they could well win the tournament. They also have to go to Twickenham, on March 12, but they certainly have the experience - of beating England there already this season, and in general - to win that and triumph overall. They won Grand Slams immediately after the two World Cups before this one, after all.