Six Nations Championship - England Training | PAUL CHILDS

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It is easy to see why France are the bookies’ favourites for the Six Nations championship, which starts tomorrow. Their young team walloped the All Blacks in the autumn, seem to have no obvious weaknesses and in scrum-half Antoine Dupont they have the best player in the world (though he is just back after a long injury and a spell of Covid).

It is also easy to see why Ireland are rated joint second. Andy Farrell’s team beat the All Blacks convincingly and, like France, they have a settled team among both forwards and backs.

With Tadgh Furlong, James Ryan, Ian Henderson and Jack Conan among the forwards and Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki in the centre, with Hugo Keenan at the back and, above all, their iconic captain Johnny Sexton at fly-half, they can beat any team in the world on their day and will surely see off a severely weakened Wales tomorrow.

What I find hard to understand is why England are placed joint second with Ireland, who beat them comfortably in Dublin last year, and ahead of Wales, the Six Nations champions, while Eddie Jones’s squad were fifth, losing to Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

It is true that they had a good autumn series, beating the Springboks, their nemesis at the last Rugby World Cup, but they have now lost four first-choice players to injury for tomorrow’s opener against Scotland at Murrayfield - captain Owen Farrell, Johnny May, Courtney Lawes and Jonny Hill, three of them British Lions and all key figures in the side.

In losing both Farrell and Lawes, Jones found himself with no captain. In settling on Tom Curry, who will be the second youngest England leader since Will Carling (23 years against 22), he set aside the claims of two club captains, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie, and those of his best player (and second only to Dupont in the world rankings) Maro Itoje.

I would have gone for Itoje, but Jones regards him as too self-centred. Curry can be inspirational and sets an example by driving himself to the limit.

Beating a Scottish team skilfully coached by Gregor Townsend that is bursting with confidence at a wild and windy Murrayfield will be no easy task. Scotland won their last encounter at Twickenham. Several of England’s younger players have never even played at Murrayfield before.

Scotland have a tough and mobile pack of forwards, including Lions Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson, and the trickiest of fly-halves in Finn Russell, partnered by his fellow Lion, Ali Price, with two more Lions behind them in Stuart Hogg at full-back and the beefy Duhan van der Merwe on the wing.

The Scots must surely start as favourites tomorrow. But of course the one thing we know for certain about the Six Nations is that the apparently inevitable often doesn’t happen, which is one reason why it is such a great tournament.

What may have encouraged the bookies to have faith in England, despite their woeful performances last year, is that Jones appears to have given up their sterile kicking game and, under their new attack coach, Martin Gleeson, adopted a more positive style, looking constantly for scoring chances with the ball in hand – a style admirably suited to their mercurial new fly-half, Marcus Smith.

What puzzles me is why Jones had no stand-by solution for Farrell being unavailable. In the perpetual absence of Manu Tuilagi and the ineffectiveness of Ollie Lawrence, he has had no regular inside centre familiar with his squad training methods.

He seems to have been completely thrown by Farrell’s absence (which will be for the whole of the Six Nations), despite the fact that the England captain has many critics among commentators and fans (yours truly included).

Having Ford and Farrell together suited Jones perfectly, because Farrell could move to number 10 if Ford went off in the second half. When Smith came on the scene, he got rid of Ford, but has been forced to bring him back into the squad because he needed a reserve for Smith in Farrell’s absence, and the Leicester man has been on fire for his club and brings the reassuring experience of 77 caps.

Eddie has taken a gamble on Elliott Daly at outside centre, where he hasn’t played for England since 2018 and then only twice, moving Henry Slade to inside centre. I would have played the burly Mark Atkinson in the number 12 shirt, leaving Slade in his best position at outside centre. I would have put Daly on the left wing and Jack Nowell on the right, rather than the chosen wings, Max Malins and Joe Marchant, who is just back from Covid.

The loss of Jonny Hill revealed a lack of international-class second row forwards to partner Itoje, now that George Kruis and Joe Launchbury are unavailable. I’m pleased that he didn’t stick with Charlie Ewells, who has never looked the part at this level and has gone back instead to the Saracens giant Nick Isiekwe, who is a strong lineout jumper and has played often with Itoje before.

In the back row one cannot quarrel with the choice of Lewis Ludlam to play alongside Curry on the flank. He has been in great form for Northampton. It must have been a close call between Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt at number eight; I would have preferred the Harlequin.

Wales, last year’s surprise champions (probably even to themselves) have lost their great leader, Alan Wyn Jones, and have an even longer injury list than England, including George North, Ken Owens, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tuperic, Leigh Halfpenny and Josh Navidi. But they still have the Lions fly-half, Dan Biggar, and in Louis Rees-Zamit the fastest winger in the championship.

France will see off Italy in some style on Sunday: last year they beat them 50-10 and this year they are playing in Paris, so it could be a cricket score. The likes of Romain Ntamack, Damian Penaud and Gael Fichou should stack up plenty of points. Dupont may be captain in the absence of the injured flanker Charles Ollivon.

Italy are now an embarrassment in the Six Nations. They haven’t won a match since 2015 and the time has come to see if another second tier nation, such as Georgia or Romania, could make a better job of it, even if they can’t offer such a delightful weekend as Rome for visiting fans.

To avoid looking cowardly, I will make an unconfident prediction (more heart than head) that England will beat Scotland tomorrow and that the bookies will be proved right about Fabien Galthie’s France winning the championship.