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England hopes resting on new faces in RBS Six Nations

With no World Cup or Lions tour to distract the attention, the RBS Six Nations is rugby’s biggest draw for 2012.

England captain Chris Robshaw passes the ball

AMID all the talk of World Cup debacles, off-field shenanigans and managerial hirings and firings, the fact England are the reigning Six Nations champions is easily forgotten.

Beaten just once during last year's championship, it is an almost unrecognisable collective which carries the mantle into tomorrow’s opening round.

Gone are Martin Johnson, John Wells, Brian Smith, Mike Ford and Dave Alred, with only scrum coach Graham Rowntree remaining in place from the brains trust which attacked the competition last time round.

Wells and Ford have moved on to matters of a different kind at Newcastle Falcons, but still England find themselves searching for the long-term solution as Stuart Lancaster assumes temporary charge.

The Yorkshireman – a Scotland A international in his playing days – has been fighting the good fight on the PR front, moving quickly to drop Danny Care after his drink-driving conviction and banishing Delon Armitage from the Saxons following an alleged night-club skirmish.

This was all part of January’s phoney war with no meaningful rugby to speak of, but it played well with Joe Public in the battle for hearts and minds.

More significant, however, remains the seismic change ushered in by the new broom and his fresh faces.

Gone are the veteran cart-horses with Mike Tindall, Shontayne Hape, Lewis Moody, Louis Deacon, Mark Cueto, Jonny Wilkinson, Steve Thompson and Andrew Sheridan all put out to pasture through a mixture of injury, retirement and straight selection omission.

There is a new captain – well, two in fact.

Tom Wood, handed the leadership role, will be sat in the Murrayfield stands nursing a dodgy toe as Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw leads the team into Calcutta Cup battle with the Auld Enemy.

Technically not a debutant after his only appearance for a scratch England side against Argentina three years ago, he captains a spring-heeled XV lacking nothing in dynamism but short on the hard-edged nous only gathered by years at the international coal-face.

Again North East interest is thin at best, with a clutch of former Falcons in the frame as Phil Dowson readies for his England debut, joined by Lee Dickson and Geoff Parling on the bench and with Toby Flood preparing to return during the later rounds.

The only active Falcon to receive a call is again prop-forward Euan Murray, who anchors the Scotland scrum.

True to type, coach Andy Robinson’s charges look big on work-rate and physicality but low on the X-factor required to prise open the highly-organised defensive walls of the international arena. Hampered by a wafer-thin playing pool with just two professional teams inside the nation’s borders, it is steady and unspectacular stuff with the boot of Dan Parks expected to pick off chunks of territory.

Edinburgh wing Lee Jones provides a dash of the unknown in his debut appearance and memories of recent Calcutta Cup triumphs will stoke the fires in the Murrayfield boiler room.

It is France and Italy who get the show on the road tomorrow with a 2.30pm kick-off in Paris - both sides striving to find their feet following changes at the top.

Mad-cap French coach Marc Lievremont (pictured right) is no more despite leading Les Bleus to the World Cup final three months ago, with Philippe Saint-Andre assuming control from big-spending Toulon.

Opting for continuity rather than the wholesale change employed by England, only Clermont pair Vincent Debaty and Wesley Fofana have been parachuted into an otherwise experienced outfit.

That, and a fixture list which sees them play England, Ireland and Italy at home, has seen them installed as clear favourites for the overall crown, with Itally again tipped as dead-certs for the wooden spoon.

The Azzurri have a fresh hand on the tiller in the form of Jacques Brunel, the veteran Frenchman whose stewardship of Perpignan saw the Mediterranean club’s Stade Aime Giral become the most impregnable of rugby fortresses.

Brunel's penchant for up-the-jumper forward play and dour physicality should chime naturally with Italian tendencies, with a grinding scrum again set to dominate.

Aussie Kristopher Burton provides fresh meat at fly-half but, despite their pack being able to mix it with the best of them, a back-line low on penetration and star quality will almost certainly hinder any ambitions of avoiding bottom spot.

Arguably the tie of the opening weekend comes on Sunday in Dublin, where Wales and Ireland renew a rivalry which saw the men in red convincingly triumphant in the World Cup quarter-final.

Shane Williams' stardust will be sprinkled on the international arena no more following the Welsh winger's retirement.

For all of coach Warren Gatland's continuity, Wales’ prospects look hampered by a raft of injuries in key areas.

Still, they enter the tournament at second-favourite at the betting offices – opponents Ireland tied with England behind them.

The Irish sprung the surprise of the World Cup group phase in turning over Australia, and a storming Heineken Cup has seen Ulster, Munster and reigning champions Leinster surge through to the quarter-finals.

An even-numbered year means away dates with England and France despite the majority of their matches coming on the Emerald Isle, but the absence of Brian O'Driscoll would hamper even the best of teams as Keith Earls comes in to deputise.

It is uncertainty which remains the most endearing quality in most sporting endeavours, and the Six Nations has it by the truck-load.

Can the new-look England get into the groove? Can Wales prove their World Cup charge was no flash in the pan? Can Ireland win away from Dublin and who can stop the fancied French?

One thing is for sure - it will be fun finding out.

 

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