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Peter Bills: Six Nations, but many questions

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French captain Thierry Dusautoir and new coach Philippe Saint-Andre. Photo / Getty Images
French captain Thierry Dusautoir and new coach Philippe Saint-Andre. Photo / Getty Images

Barely 100 days have passed since the 2011 Rugby World Cup was completed in Auckland. But in the context of the northern hemisphere's 2012 Six Nations Championship which begins this weekend, it already seems light years away.

France, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy resume international battles with each other amid a plethora of questions. Can France, under new coach Philippe Saint-Andre, put World Cup final disappointment behind them and now play some quality, consistent rugby?

Can Wales, in the coming four years before the next World Cup, fulfil the rich promise seen at the World Cup in New Zealand? Can Ireland find a higher gear? Can England bury their joke tag and become a proper rugby team once again? Can Scotland score any tries at last? Can Italy win any matches without real quality at half-back or first five eighth?

At least some of the answers will be delivered starting this weekend in Edinburgh, where Scotland meets England, in Dublin where Ireland take on Wales and in Paris where the new-look French should slaughter Italy.

FRANCE

Pity games aren't won on paper. Philippe Saint-Andre's first selection as French national coach looks tremendous, with pace and verve behind the scrum and solidity up front. The in-form Clermont club dominates the back line with exciting Wesley Fofana one to watch in midfield beside mazy wing Julien Malzeu and penetrative Aurelien Rougerie.

France has always had quality players. It was just that Marc Lievremont was such a bizarre coach no-one understood his philosophy. Saint Andre is far simpler to comprehend and pragmatic to boot. Expect this French team to deliver if the speed down the back line is utilised.

WALES

Dogged by injuries at present with hooker Matthew Rees, prop Gethin Jenkins plus locks Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones all ruled out of the early games in the tournament. Others, too, may miss the game in Dublin on Sunday.

The question is, can Wales still build on the feel good factor from the World Cup? Wing Shane Williams has retired but Welsh rugby has plenty of candidates for the international side. George North is a strong, young, thrusting wing and Jamie Roberts remains the most penetrative midfield player in northern hemisphere rugby.

If the injured return soon, anything is possible.

IRELAND

Had an ultimately disappointing World Cup and must now play this entire 6 Nations without injured captain Brian O'Driscoll. His ability to marshal the defence may be the factor Ireland will miss most.

Keith Earls takes his place in an otherwise settled back line where the Ulster-born wings Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble are both consistent scorers. Up front, expect much from a potentially tremendous back row inspired by Sean O'Brien's heroics.

Paul O'Connell is captain in O'Driscoll's absence so motivation won't be a problem. But they have to play France in Paris and England at Twickenham, both tough hurdles to climb.

SCOTLAND

Coach Andy Robinson called England "arrogant" at the World Cup so who better to meet in Edinburgh this Saturday than the widely loved English?

Lee Jones, a wing, and David Denton, his Edinburgh team mate and No. 8, are given first caps after missing the World Cup. Chris Patterson has retired but the Scots have had to go back to Dan Parks and Chris Cusiter as their first choices at 9 and 10.

The forwards should be solid but essentially, it will be the sight of English jerseys on Murrayfield that will be key to this first game.

ENGLAND

Shock, horror, breaking news - no England player has chucked a dwarf around or jumped in a harbour for, well, ages. No wonder. Under tough new coach Stuart Lancaster, the bad boys - Tindall,Tuilagi etc - are nowhere to be seen and even more recent transgressors, like Danny Care and Delon Armitage, have been chucked out as if they were dwarves.

Lancaster's team for Murrayfield is full of fresh faces and some youthful promise. Question is, do England have the hard nosed senior men to help the youngsters in times of strife?

Edinburgh on a freezing winter's day is a tough first test.

ITALY

Having jettisoned coach Nick Mallett after three years in which some real progress (like the win over France last season) was discernible, Italy are now confronting another whitewash.

The players wanted Mallett to stay which could make his replacement, ex-Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel's task, much harder.

As before, winning possession won't be a great problem but scoring tries will be. There isn't any obvious quality in the key half-back and first five eight roles which means added pressure wider out.

The admirable Sergio Parisse remains No. 8 and captain, the one undisputed world class player.

- NZ Herald

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