6 Nations picture could be clear in opening round
Updated: February 02, 2012, 11:12
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LONDON(AP) Just one weekend of Six Nations action could demonstrate which of Ireland and Wales is best placed to challenge for the title, if France is stronger now the players are talking to their coach, and whether the promise of an inexperienced England squad can yield instant results.
Ireland and Wales go head-to-head in Dublin on Sunday in a repeat of their Rugby World Cup quarterfinal meeting four months ago, with the home side in a strong position to take advantage of Wales' injury problems and get some payback for a 22-10 defeat in Wellington.
Philippe Saint-Andre makes his debut as France coach with a home game against perennial struggler Italy on Saturday, when a callow England side heads to the cauldron of Murrayfield to face old rival Scotland.
For so long among the title favorites, England is arguably the biggest unknown head of this weekend's opening round.
Saint-Andre's lineup for Sunday's match at Stade de France contains 10 players from the side that lost October's Rugby World Cup final, Ireland's settled team shows only three changes from that which was knocked out of the World Cup quarterfinals, and Scotland and Italy are largely known quantities.
England, seeking to put a dismal World Cup campaign and a series of PR disasters behind it, has overhauled its entire set-up and the starting lineup that takes on Scotland shows nine changes to that beaten by France in its last game.
"We have got 40 games between now and the next World Cup, and we need to put experience into that group of players so that they have got an opportunity to grow and develop on the international stage,'' interim England coach Stuart Lancaster said. "But equally we go to Murrayfield for the first time and experience it and that is part of that journey.
"We also know that the result is paramount at the weekend, so we need to keep an eye on that.''
Given that England has not won at Murrayfield since 2004, defeat to the Scots would be no disgrace to a lineup boasting fewer than half the caps won by Scotland's starting lineup.
Lancaster picked Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt in England's first uncapped center partnership in a decade and handed a debut to 30-year-old No. 8 Phil Dowson.
David Strettle is recalled to the wing and Charlie Hodgson restored to flyhalf for his 37th appearance, making the most experienced player on the team.
Knowing that Saturday's result could set the tone for his team's entire campaign, Scotland coach Andy Robinson picked a new halfback partnership by recalling Chris Cusiter at scrumhalf and Dan Parks as replacement for injured flyhalf Ruaridh Jackson.
Winger Lee Jones is the only new face.
"It is not by accident that these games are referred to as test matches - because that is what they are, the ultimate in physical and mental challenge,'' Robinson said. "We have experienced players in our team and they must make that knowledge count.''
France will rely on the backbone of the team that was edged 8-7 by New Zealand in the World Cup final, but the match most on the players' minds will be the embarrassing 22-21 loss to Italy in Rome last season - their first defeat to the Azzurri in the Six Nations.
"We shouldn't believe that the match against Italy will be easy,'' Saint-Andre said. "We will play with a lot of humility and desire. We will try to do anything to start well in this competition.''
Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu and Vincent Debaty are the only players named in France's starting lineup who did not make its World Cup squad. All three play for Clermont Auvergne, which is second in the French league and has qualified for the quarterfinals of the Heineken Cup.
Fofana will make his test debut, replacing Perpignan's Maxime Mermoz at center.
Italy's new coach, Jacques Brunel, changed nearly half of the team for his Six Nations debut but captain Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni still appear to be the Azzurri's most potent weapons.
Ireland will rely upon Keith Earls to fill the gap at outside center left by injury to Brian O'Driscoll, and the team is bent on revenge for what the players and coaching staff acknowledge was a below-par performance against Wales at the World Cup.
"It's not going to be a slow start,'' stand-in captain Paul O'Connell said. "We lost to them in the quarterfinal because we didn't play to our potential. We played well against Australia, we played well against Italy, we just didn't play to our potential against Wales.
"It was a big disappointment but hopefully we can put it right at the weekend.''
With flyhalf Rhys Priestland and prop Gethin Jenkins ruled out because of injury, Wales coach Warren Gatland is holding off naming his team until Friday, giving the likes of Jamie Roberts as long as possible to recover from fitness concerns.
Veteran flyhalf Stephen Jones has been drafted into the squad as cover but is only likely to make the reserves, with James Hook the leading contender to replace the heads-up playmaking of Priestland.