There are few arenas more intimidating or spectacular than Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium on a wintery Friday night, but such a colosseum of noise, passion and hostility is what awaits an injury-stricken England in the 2015 Six Nations opener.
Stuart Lancasters men return to the scene of their greatest humiliation in the 2013 Grand Slam decider with no fewer than 11 potential started injured. They are fully aware that victory is more an expectation than an ambition, especially if they wish to maintain aspirations of a home World Cup victory in only 8 months time.
England came through a thoroughly tough autumn to finish convincingly against Samoa and Australia and should begin this tournament in high spirits knowing that a depleted squad competed valiantly against the worlds best. Wales, meanwhile, will undoubtedly have renewed belief having finally ended their 22 match wait for a win against a southern hemisphere side.
Many will argue over Adam Jones’ omission, but tight-head prop aside, Wales potentially field their strongest line up in years; a privilege not extended to Stuart Lancaster, who will have to hope George Ford and company can replicate the power and precision of that Australia win back in November. With this in mind, anything less than a Welsh victory seems not impossible, but at least improbable.
Defending champions Ireland begin their defence with a tough looking visit to Rome, the first time they do so in the recent era without talisman and all time tournament top try scorer, Brian O’Driscoll. The visitors will also have to cope without fly half Jonny Sexton and prop Cian Healy, who were both instrumental in autumn victories over Australia and South Africa.
The consistently strong Italian pack, heroically lead by skipper Sergio Parisse, will have to be as resolute as ever to compete well in this opener, but without the magic of Sexton and BOD, the Italians may fancy their chances of keeping Ireland quiet in Rome.
Vern Cotter’s new expansive brand of rugby seems to have caught on and brought a renewed optimism and adventure to what not long ago seemed to appear a lacklustre era for Scottish rugby. Their trip to Paris on Saturday is about as unpredictable as it’s possible to imagine. Given the resources and players at the disposal of Phillip Saint-Andre, his ability to create cocktails of underperforming, out of position or unheard of team sheets is genuinely remarkable.
Abject, spineless, ruthless and dazzling are all reasonable adjectives to describe what we can expect from the France v Scotland encounter, and as impolite as it would be to discount Scotland’s contribution, the result will probably be determined by which of these adjectives best sums up France’s performance.
The next two months of Rugby will give a fascinating insight into what we can expect in the World Cup, as well as bringing the usual drama and exhilaration the Six Nations never fails to deliver.
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