In Depth

Six Nations round one preview: will brute force be enough to crush Les Bleus?

England will look to dominate the battle at the breakdown against France in Paris

A Six Nations immediately after a Rugby World Cup is always a tough tournament for players and the public. 

With the excitement of the sport’s showpiece competition still fresh in the memory it’s hard to whip up the same enthusiasm for what seems a more parochial affair.

But this year there is a sense of regeneration. Wales, Ireland, France and Italy have new head coaches in place, leaving only Scotland and England with a sense of backroom stability.

Defending champions Wales have lost Warren Gatland after a decade of outstanding service, as well as their highly respected defence coach, Shaun Edwards, now dishing out advice to France. 

Wayne Pivac, another Kiwi, replaces Gatland and is probably thankful that his first test doesn’t get any easier in Six Nations terms - a home game against Italy on Saturday in Cardiff.

Awful Azzurri

It’s been five years since the Italians last won a Six Nations game, a record 22-match losing streak, and should they end this season without a win the calls for them to be replaced by Georgia will grow. 

Their new coach is South African Franco Smith but he’s unlikely to make much difference given the paucity of talent in Italian rugby. 

Their talismanic captain and No.8 Sergio Parisse is on his last legs and without their one world-class talent this season looks grim for Italy.

Talisman Taulupe

In contrast, Wales welcome back their own talisman at No.8, Taulupe Faletau, sidelined for almost two years with injury. George North wins his 92nd cap, albeit at centre instead of out wide, alongside Hadleigh Parkes with Johnny McNicholl making his debut on the wing.

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Celts seek lift

Ireland begin their campaign with Andy Farrell at the helm after the departure of Joe Schmidt and the former England rugby league star will need to lift his squad after their disappointing World Cup.

Beaten by Japan in the group stage, the Irish were thrashed 46-14 by New Zealand in the quarter-final and in Scotland they will face another side that under-performed in the World Cup. 

Head coach Gregor Townsend is under pressure as a result and a poor Six Nations campaign will probably cost him his job. Despite that, Townsend made a bold call last week in axing one of his few world-class players, fly-half Finn Russell, for breaking squad rules by going drinking during a training camp. 

Scotland haven’t won in Dublin since 2010, and given that they were beaten 27-3 by the Irish in their World Cup pool match in October the chances of a Scotland victory on Saturday seem slim.

Paris showdown

On paper France’s chances of beating England are similarly thin. The French have been way off the pace for years - it’s ten years since they last won the Six Nations - and disorganisation and infighting on and off the field have turned them into a second tier rugby nation. 

But in new coach Fabien Galthie they have a charismatic figure who could, possibly, restore the pride in Les Bleus. Willing to cut some slack to mercurial talents such as Teddy Thomas and Damian Penaud, Galthie has also gambled on appointing the brilliant but injury-prone Charles Ollivon as his new captain.

Brute force

France have a young generation of thrilling backs - their half-backs of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack could become greats of the game - but up front is their weakness.

England will look to dominate the set-piece and win the battle at the breakdown with their more dynamic back-row. 

“It’s a young French team that’s won the Under-20s and is building towards the World Cup in 2023,” said England head coach Eddie Jones. 

“We don’t know but it is going to test those young players because they will have never have played against a brutal physicality and intensity that we are going to play with on Sunday. It is not domestic rugby. You don’t get that in domestic rugby. That is why you call it Test rugby.”

Jones has shuffled his backline as a result of Anthony Watson’s withdrawal with Elliot Daly moving from full-back to left wing to accommodate George Furbank, the 23-year-old uncapped Northampton No.15.

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Wales vs. Italy 

  • When: Saturday 1 February  
  • Where: Principality Stadium, Cardiff 
  • Start time: 2.15pm GMT 
  • TV channel: live on BBC and S4C
Wales team  
  • Starting XV: 15. Leigh Halfpenny, 14. Johnny McNicholl, 13. George North, 12. Hadleigh Parkes, 11. Josh Adams, 10. Dan Biggar, 9. Tomos Williams; 1. Wyn Jones, 2. Ken Owens, 3. Dillon Lewis, 4. Jake Ball, 5. Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 6. Aaron Wainwright, 7. Justin Tipuric, 8. Taulupe Faletau 
  • Replacements: 16. Ryan Elias, 17. Rob Evans, 18. Leon Brown, 19. Cory Hill, 20. Ross Moriarty, 21. Rhys Webb, 22. Jarrod Evans, 23. Nick Tompkins
Italy team
  • Starting XV: 15. Matteo Minozzi, 14. Leonardo Sarto, 13. Luca Morisi, 12. Carlo Canna, 11. Mattia Bellini, 10. Tommaso Allan, 9. Callum Braley; 1. Giosuè Zilocchi, 2. Luca Bigi (captain), 3. Andrea Lovotti, 4. Alessandro Zanni, 5. Niccolò Cannone, 6. Sebastian Negri, 7. Jake Polledri, 8. Abraham Steyn  
  • Replacements: 16. Federico Zani, 17. Danilo Fischetti, 18. Marco Riccioni, 19. Marco Lazzaroni, 20. Dean Budd, 21. Giovanni Licata, 22. Guglielmo Palazzani, 23. Jayden Hayward

Ireland vs. Scotland 

  • When: Saturday 1 February  
  • Where: Aviva Stadium in Dublin 
  • Start time: 4.45pm GMT 
  • TV channel: live on ITV 
Ireland team
  • Starting XV: 15. Jordan Larmour, 14. Andrew Conway, 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Bundee Aki, 11. Jacob Stockdale, 10. Jonathan Sexton (captain), 9. Conor Murray; 1. Cian Healy, 2. Rob Herring, 3. Tadhg Furlong, 4. Iain Henderson, 5. James Ryan, 6. CJ Stander, 7. Josh van der Flier, 8. Caelan Doris 
  • Replacements: 16. Ronan Kelleher, 17. Dave Kilcoyne, 18. Andrew Porter, 19. Devin Toner, 20. Peter O’Mahony, 21. John Cooney, 22. Ross Byrne, 23. Robbie Henshaw
Scotland team 
  • Starting XV: 15. Stuart Hogg (captain), 14. Sean Maitland, 13. Huw Jones, 12. Sam Johnson, 11. Blair Kinghorn, 10. Adam Hastings, 9. Ali Price; 1. Rory Sutherland, 2. Fraser Brown, 3. Zander Fagerson, 4. Scott Cummings, 5. Jonny Gray, 6. Jamie Ritchie, 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Nick Haining 
  • Replacements: 16. Stuart McInally, 17. Allan Dell, 18. Simon Berghan, 19. Ben Toolis, 20. Cornell du Preez, 21. George Horne, 22. Rory Hutchinson, 23. Chris Harris

France vs. England

  • When: Sunday 2 February  
  • Where: Stade de France, Paris 
  • Start time: 3pm GMT 
  • TV channel: live on BBC
France team
  • Starting XV: 15. Anthony Bouthier, 14. Teddy Thomas, 13. Virimi Vakatawa, 12. Gaël Fickou, 11. Damian Penaud, 10. Romain Ntamack, 9. Antoine Dupont; 1. Cyril Baille, 2. Julien Marchand, 3. Mohamed Haouas, 4. Bernard Le Roux, 5. Paul Willemse, 6. François Cros, 7. Charles Ollivon (captain), 8. Grégory Alldritt
  • Replacements: 16. Peato Mauvaka, 17. Jefferson Poirot, 18. Demba Bamba, 19. Boris Palu, 20. Cameron Woki, 21. Baptiste Serin, 22. Matthieu Jalibert, 23. Vincent Rattez
England team 
  • Starting XV: 15. George Furbank, 14. Jonny May, 13. Manu Tuilagi, 12. Owen Farrell (captain), 11. Elliot Daly, 10. George Ford, 9. Ben Youngs; 1. Joe Marler, 2. Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4. Maro Itoje, 5. Charlie Ewels, 6. Courtney Lawes, 7. Sam Underhill, 8. Tom Curry
  • Replacements: 16. Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17. Ellis Genge, 18. Will Stuart, 19. George Kruis, 20. Lewis Ludlam, 21. Willi Heinz, 22. Ollie Devoto, 23. Jonathan Joseph 

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