England will begin their campaign for a third successive Six Nations title with what should be a comfortable win over Italy on Sunday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Italy vs England
Wily England coach Eddie Jones has attempted to deflect pressure off his team by suggesting that Ireland will head into this season as title favourites, but the fact remains that all eyes will be on the defending champions.
England will in fact be attempting to become the first team to win three straight titles outright in the 135-year history of the competition.
The English have been hit by injuries – with more than 15 possible Test players currently unavailable – but they have been boosted by the availability of Chris Robshaw, Maro Itoje and Mike Brown for this season-opening encounter.
The simple fact is that England are well-placed in second spot on the world rankings, while Italy dwindle down in 14th spot (with nearly 20 ranking points between the two sides). An England victory by that margin or more should be expected on Sunday.
Italy – TBC
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Ben Te’o, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngster, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Chris Robshaw, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Harry Williams, 19 George Kruis, 20 Sam Underhill, 21 Danny Care, 22 Johnathan Joseph, 23 Jack Nowell.
France vs Ireland
It won’t be forgotten that Ireland overcame England in their final Six Nations Test last year to deny their rivals the outright tier-one Test record of 19 successive wins. Ireland also went on to secure three Test wins in November, which included a record 38-3 win over the Boks, while they’ve risen steadily to third in the world rankings.
Ireland are sure to come into this year’s competition high on confidence, while they appear to have a healthy blend of youth and experience in a squad that sees highly-regarded New Zealand-born centre Bundee Aki now entrenched in the midfield.
Meanwhile, former Italy boss Jacques Brunel has taken over the leadership reins as France coach, and so it will be interesting to see if the embattled Les Bleus are able to produce a competitive showing.
Brunel has already put his stamp on the team with the selection of 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert at flyhalf, while Geoffrey Palis is set to make his Test debut at fullback.
This should be an enthralling encounter, but one that Ireland are firm favourites to win.
France – 15 Geoffrey Palis, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Maxine Machenaud, 8 Kevin Gourdon, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Adrien Pelissié, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Marco Tauleigne, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Benjamin Fall.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Ian Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Dan Leavy, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joe Carbery, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Wales vs Scotland
Wales were extremely disappointing in last year’s Six Nations campaign that saw them manage just two victories on the way to finishing second-from-last on the log standings.
Warren Gatland’s men will be determined to produce a far more competitive performance this season, but they are another side that has been struck by injuries to key players.
It means flyhalf Rhys Patchell has been fast-tracked into a starting spot at flyhalf in the absence of Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, while the likes of Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Webb are all unavailable.
It also can’t be overlooked that Scotland are quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in world rugby, and nearly caused a massive upset over the All Blacks last year.
Look out for former Kings loose forward Cornell du Preez, at No 8 for Scotland, who may well be regarded as marginal favourites for this encounter.
Wales – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Josh Adams, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Josh Navidi, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Cory Hill, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
Subs: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Bradley Davies, 20 Justin Tupiric, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Owen Watkin.
Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Chris Harris, 12 Huw Jones, 11 Byron McGuigan, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price, 8 Cornell du Preez, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 John Barclay (c), 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Ben Toolis, 3 Jon Welsh, 2 Stuart McInally, 1 Gordon Reid.
Subs: 16 Scott Lawson, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Murray McCallum, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Pete Horne, 23 Sean Maitland.
Photo: EPA/Will Oliver