By Justin Palmer
WITH little over seven months to the World Cup, Europe’s hopes of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup next October will take root in a Six Nations Championship which starts with a Friday night blockbuster and should provide more fireworks along the way.
England coach Stuart Lancaster has a pile of injuries to contend with but will have a clearer idea of where the World Cup co-hosts stand after his side face Wales in the Millennium Stadium amphitheatre tonight (10.05pm).
Emerge with victory and not only will the men in white have exorcised the demons from a humiliating loss in the Welsh capital two years ago but, with home games against Italy, Scotland and France to come, would be well-placed to win a first Six Nations title since 2011.
Form and rankings dictate that Six Nations holders Ireland, who have risen to three in the world rankings behind world champions New Zealand and South Africa, should naturally be favourites but it is an unwanted tag for coach Joe Schmidt.
Ireland begin their quest for a second consecutive title – something they have not achieved since 1949 – by taking on Italy in Rome on Saturday.
Talisman Brian O’Driscoll has retired but Schmidt’s side, who welcome France and England to Dublin, signalled that they could be best of the northern hemisphere bunch at the World Cup by securing November wins over South Africa and Australia.
Ireland can still call on the leadership qualities of evergreen lock Paul O’Connell who is set to win his 100th international cap during the tournament and should welcome back influential flyhalf Johnny Sexton at some point.
Sexton has been stood down from Ireland’s opener after a series of concussions but Schmidt gave an upbeat bulletin on the Racing Metro stand-off this week.
Ireland’s injury list is nothing like the one Lancaster is contending with.
Lock Joe Launchbury, number eight Ben Morgan and flyhalf Owen Farrell have been ruled out of the tournament, second rower Courtney Lawes is set to miss most of it while Brad Barritt and Geoff Parling are among several walking wounded.
“We still have a lot of strength in depth and we’re still confident we’re still going to have a strong team,” Lancaster said.
Wales and France will also want to make statements of intent.
Warren Gatland’s Wales boast a relatively settled side with a backline made up of British and Irish Lions players capable of tearing a defence to shreds.
Such is the array of talent at Gatland’s disposal that talk emanating from the valleys of South Wales is that talented winger George North’s place may even be in doubt with Liam Williams pushing for a regular start.
France have not won a Six Nations title since their 2010 grand slam and three successive poor campaigns have left a question mark over coach Philippe Saint Andre.
A November win over Australia in which powerful winger Teddy Thomas again underlined his huge potential has at least given Les Bleus cause for optimism.
Scotland, too, believe they are on the right track under New Zealander Vern Cotter with an impressive Autumn campaign, which brought high-scoring wins over Argentina and Tonga and a narrow defeat by New Zealand, leading to predictions that the Murrayfield men will be no pushovers.
Italy could not build on their two wins in the 2013 tournament and lost all five matches last year. Coach Jacques Brunel will need his team to show greater attacking flair to match their renowned defensive intensity.