Monday 18 December 2017

Six Nations, one goal: Team-by-team guide to the contenders

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

IRELAND: The defeat by Wales clearly wasn't too good for World Cup business but currently it is providing real focus for Ireland's start next Sunday.

The problem is the trip to Paris the following weekend where France will have their tails up and Ireland traditionally have their backsides kicked. So there may not be a Grand Slam to compensate for missing out on our best ever opportunity at a World Cup.

Still, Declan Kidney should be glad that the loss of Brian O'Driscoll isn't the setback now that it would have been three years ago, and that elsewhere his injury sheet is clear, bar Leo Cullen, who might have got a start in the third round against Italy.

If Mike Ross stays fit for the campaign, then Ireland can challenge for runners-up spot behind France, providing the new load on the shoulders of Les Kiss and Mark Tainton is one they can carry successfully.

Casualties: Brian O'Driscoll, Leo Cullen

Star Turn: Jonny Sexton

Championship Odds: 4/1


The last six days of their campaign involve a quick turnaround from Paris to Twickenham, where Declan Kidney's crew provide the final opposition -- an interesting wind-up, that.

There is so much uncertainty about the England squad, from how they will approach the tournament, to who will lead them, to whether their coach has any chance of making it to the summer, that it's hard to see them doing what their fans want them to do: defend their Championship title.

Edinburgh and Rome (a shift to Stadio Olimpico) will both be heaving so if they come up short there it will be carnage thereafter. Despite all the unknowns there is huge pressure on Stuart Lancaster to deliver good results immediately.

In which case dumping Nick Easter overboard seems hard to fathom from this vantage point. You wonder who is going to steady the ship in his absence. And it looks like it will need steadying.

Casualties: Danny Care, Toby Flood, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Manu Tuilagi

Star Turn: Ben Foden

Championship Odds: 4/1


A Scotland international from the not so distant past last week described his lot as: "Big and mostly quite good forwards with a crap set of backs ready to stuff it up behind."

We think the second half of that sentence meant that the backs would not make much of their chances, rather than putting the ball where only a cavity search could find it.

The position of Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and Glasgow in fourth spot in the Pro12 suggests there is life after the World Cup, which ended with the Scots distraught after losing to England.

The opportunity for revenge comes quickly in the Calcutta Cup match in the first round in Murrayfield.

The absence of Kelly Brown and Ruaridh Jackson -- especially the latter -- will mean a change of game plan from their coach. If they go to Rome again looking to avoid the wooden spoon, Andy Robinson will beat himself up with it.

Casualties: Kelly Brown,

Ruaridh Jackson, Moray Low, Simon Danielli

Star Turn: Dave Denton

Championship Odds: 25/1


A year ago, Wales were wondering if their coach would survive to the autumn as they went into the Championship with two wins from their 12. Then they won -- somehow, with no set-piece -- against England first up, and by the end of the year they were wailing about missing out on a World Cup final and burning effigies of Alain Rolland. Their current position, statistically, is a bit healthier (50 per cent from last eight) but defeat in Dublin would make it four losses in a row and a change in mood. Nowhere in the rugby world does your credit run out faster than Wales.

Their challenge is to cope without an engine room of Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones, who set phenomenal standards for work-rates in the World Cup.

If Warren Gatland has to factor Rhys Priestland and Dan Lydiate out from Dublin, then his team will have changed shape for the worse. A losing start in store.

Casualties: Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones, Gethin Jenkins

Star Turn: Toby Faletau

Championship Odds: 3/1


The first thing Phillipe Saint-Andre needs to do is organise discontent in the camp so the French can feel right at home and get off to a winning start -- that would take them through two rounds before they have a break to get their heads right/wrong for Edinburgh. Or perhaps not. The new man saw much he admired in the way captain Thierry Dusautoir took a lead in the World Cup crisis, supported by Imanol Harinordoquy and Julien Bonnaire.

Unlike when his predecessor Marc Lievremont took over from Bernard Laporte, Saint-Andre won't want to tear up everything and start again. So the World Cup runners look now as they did in October except at 10 where Lionel Beauxis is the likely starter, thanks to improved form since his move to Toulouse. As for his partner, he can't go far wrong between Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvilli. Perfect run of fixtures opens the door for Saint-Andre.

Casualties: Luc Ducalcon, Romain Millo-Chluski, Yann David

Star Turn: Thierry Dusautoir

Championship Odds: 6/4


New coach Jacques Brunel has pointed to the summer tour to Argentina and North America as the first real chance to put his mark on things -- for the moment he is still trading with Nick Mallet's leftovers, on and off the field. Whatever about changes in the background team, Brunel is limited with what he can do on the pitch, but it hasn't stopped him scouring the country looking for new faces, which wasn't the Mallet way -- the South African relied on a hard core in return for loyalty, which he got. But there were too many players with no competition for their places.

Brunel is aiming extraordinarily high, with Italy being contenders inside two seasons. And his captain Sergio Parisse, while acknowledging the turbo boost that came from beating France last season, says they need five competitive games more than one big result and four hammerings. They moved past that point last season but need new blood.

Casualties: None too serious

Star Turn: Sergio Parisse

Championship Odds: 150/1

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