London - Injuries during the Six Nations are one thing, but
the fact they are a major talking point even before this season's edition kicks
off highlights the increasingly brutal nature of professional rugby union.
Europe's elite international competition gets underway this
weekend, with England looking to become the first side to win three successive
outright titles in the long history of the Championship.
Yet they could be missing more than 16 players against Italy
in Rome on Sunday, with wing Elliot Daly and star No 8 Billy Vunipola already
ruled out of the entire tournament.
Scotland, fresh from a hugely encouraging November that
included a 53-24 win over Australia and a narrow defeat by world champions New
Zealand, are missing six front-row forwards.
Meanwhile Wales, the Scots' opening opponents in Cardiff on
Saturday, are without several British and Irish Lions in Taulupe Faletau, Sam
Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar.
But if any team can deal with a raft of injuries, it ought
to be a well-resourced England.
Eddie Jones, the title-holders' Australian coach, said the
Lions' gruelling drawn series in New Zealand last year partly explained the
"You just have these runs," he insisted. "For
the Lions players you can understand that the injury risk is high because of
the lack of a proper pre-season that they have, but obviously they're not all
Jones has tried to play down England's chances, even though
he can still call upon the likes of fly-half Owen Farrell, by installing
Ireland, who inflicted the only defeat so far on his Red Rose record when
denying them a second straight Grand Slam in Dublin last March, as Six Nations
Ireland's provincial sides have impressed in Europe's
Champions Cup club competition and Jones said: "I think the expectation on
Ireland is high, and it's how they handle it now, isn't it? It's different
going into the tournament as favourites, rather than being the underdog."
But with their concluding game of the tournament at
Twickenham - where England have not lost a home Test under Jones - Ireland
coach Joe Schmidt said: "Bookies don't make money by being wrong. You've
got a team (England) there that's won 22 out of 23 Test matches over the last
Ireland too have injury problems, with the experienced Sean
O'Brien and Jared Payne both sidelined at the moment.
Meanwhile France have turned to a new coach in Jacques
Brunel, the former Italy boss, in a bid to lift them out of a prolonged slump.
Rugby Union is not so strong at Test level that it can
afford a sustained decline among its traditionally major nations and a French
revival would be a welcome boost to the global game a year out from the 2019
World Cup in Japan.
Brunel could entrust the key position of flyhalf to a
19-year-old in Matthieu Jalibert, having coached the teenager at Bordeaux.
"He's come on in leaps and bounds since the start of
the season," insisted Brunel, whose side face Ireland in Paris on
For Italy, under Irish coach Conor O'Shea, the goal remains
one of self-respect and the need to improve on a desperate run of just one win
in their last 20 Six Nations fixtures.
Last season, excluding matches in Italy, the only away win
in the tournament was achieved by England against Wales in Cardiff.
By contrast Scotland, for all the attacking threat of Stuart
Hogg and Finn Russell, have not won in the Welsh capital since 2002 - one
reason why Saturday's clash could have such a huge bearing on their