Let battle commence
February 2, 2012
Will France follow up their Rugby World Cup Final appearance with the Six Nations silverware? © Getty Images
Logic says we should be looking forward to a Wales v France showdown for the Grand Slam on March 17 in Cardiff but this is the Six Nations so the form book often goes out of the window and five wins out of five is always more difficult than it appears.
It is hard to believe it is three months since the World Cup final but that is now consigned to history as the annual ritual for bragging rights in Europe, the jewel in the northern hemisphere season, by far the oldest and still the best international tournament in many ways, takes centre stage - a new year and, for England at least, a new era.
England's new coach Stuart Lancaster would have happily accepted a home fixture against Scotland, amazingly, Scotland have not won at Twickenham since 1983 but he has to take his new look England side to Murrayfield, where they have not won since 2004. That is how much home advantage means in this Championship.
It is all very well to point to the victory in New Zealand when England won even though they did not play very well but this will be a totally different sort of match. Scotland did not have a good World Cup either but playing the auld enemy on home soil fires them up like nothing else.
Coach Andy Robinson was disappointed with the lack of passion and commitment at the RWC but he knows that is the one thing he can take for granted on Saturday. His problem is to give it the proper focus.
Everybody agrees Robinson has done a good job in difficult circumstances with a very small pool of players to choose from. The forwards are coming together nicely - Richie Gray was certainly best newcomer and a contender for player of the tournament last year - but there is a lack of real class in the backs.
The lack of penetrative runners has been a real problem in recent seasons and once again Robinson has gone for the conservative option with Dan Parks at No.10 so it looks as if he will be playing a territorial game, hoping to dominate up front, pin England back and force errors. Robinson needs a couple of three-quarters with the X factor but, sadly, there is little chance of any of them making the sort of game changing break he craves.
England have more firepower but injury has deprived them of Manu Tuilagi and we just do not know whether this new look England, one of the most inexperienced teams they have fielded in the modern era in terms of numbers of caps, will come out with confidence or will be cowed by the Scottish crowd. Lancaster has talked well now it is time to see whether there is any substance.
The test for Wales is whether they can pick-up where they left-off in the World Cup. It was not just that they were the surprise package of the tournament it was the way they played that had the Principality buzzing.
With their best XV on the field they really do look a match for anyone but there are still worries about the back-up players in the squad and Wales will be without some key players for the early matches at least. The first choice second-row, Alun-Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris, who was outstanding in New Zealand, are out for the whole tournament whilst the influential Gethin Jenkins and now Matthew Rees both have leg injuries.
Jamie Roberts is also likely to be missing but that is not quite so serious. Wales have a really talented clutch of young backs and Ireland are without Brian O'Driscoll. I fancy Ireland's is the greater loss.
Wales comprehensively outplayed Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final but, again, you cannot under estimate the Dublin factor. It is a tough place to start and Wales will need to be at their best to see off the Irish challenge but their confidence is high and I think they will edge it.
France, in contrast, have the perfect start. New coach Philippe Saint-Andre might have been a dashing wing in his playing days but there is a hard pragmatic edge to his coaching philosophy.
He has gone back to the traditional French mix - a powerful pack with a hard, even nasty, edge to it and a set of backs who can take full advantage when they are playing on the front foot. He also knows the value of team building, unlike his predecessor, and there will be no question of a cabal of senior players undermining him or the way he wants to play.
He has already had a one to one discussion with every player to tell them what he expects and he has left them in no doubt that he is not a believer in French 'flair' carrying the day. That comes naturally but we can expect a much more disciplined French side this year.
Italy at home will allow them to bed in. They also have a new coach, another Frenchman, Jacques Brunel, who has vowed to bring in some new blood whilst insisting he believes in evolution not revolution. That will not be good enough against France this time round.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh