Roger Uttley: Stuart Lancaster's England face tough Six Nations start

Former England captain Roger Uttley says France away on Saturday means England must hit the ground running.

David Rogers/Getty Images England head coach Stuart Lancaster
England head coach Stuart Lancaster

England get their Six Nations Championship under way in Paris on Saturday evening.

Up to this point head coach Stuart Lancaster has done well to cope with all the issues that have been thrown his way during the course of this season.

Now two years into his tenure, he has suffered numerous injuries to key players and just got on without a great fuss.

Even without some of his real key men it went well through the Autumn campaign, but what tougher way to start the campaign than an away tie against a very physical-looking French squad?

No team can afford to be complacent about the strength of France after watching their clubs doing so well in Europe.

With talent like Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga in the back row, they have form players in a critical area for any team.

What they have not got is a settled back line, despite an abundance of pace, size and experience.

They are not a tried-and-tested combination, and with the steadying influence of Brad Barritt likely to be back in the England midfield it is shaping up to be a fascinating contest.

Out wide Chris Ashton has ran out of opportunities to nail down his spot and will finally be left out of the team.

This will rightly ensure the form of the England Saxons squad players like Anthony Watson is recognised.

Ashton has had his chances now, but the squad needs more from a winger than floating around and occasionally looking interested.

Lancaster has done well to deal with all of this, and now is the next big test. France and Scotland, both away, is no easy start, but if his team can negotiate these games then England are in fine shape.

Playing as they do now at the Stade de France makes it a different atmosphere to my own playing days.

Parc des Princes would provide the kind of occasion you would not get at any of the other venues.

Dublin was always the most sociable trip, but Paris was the most interesting because they spoke a different language, you really felt you were abroad and it was invariably one of the best pitches you could ever wish to play on.

It was a fantastic enclosed stadium with the old Adidas Wallaby ball – a lovely piece of kit with two black hemispheres at either end – and they had a fly-half in Jean-Pierre Romeu from Clermont who could kick the thing a country mile.

The cultural differences always made it a fascinating experience with the supporters from the Basque country coming to the capital, the sounds of the Dax band and the cockerels on the field. It is not quite the same feel now at the Stade de France, one of many multi-purpose stadia built to maximise revenue with pop concerts, athletics and the like, but the Six Nations is still a competition of high importance and interest.

The spectator numbers show that it remains the great shop window of northern hemisphere rugby.

The Heineken Cup is a fabulous competition but it occupies the rung below, and there is a natural progression in that you are going up a level from the club game when you line up for Six Nations duty.

The sponsors like it, and the fact it is on terrestrial TV is very important for attracting a wider audience.

These are changing times with all the satellite stations and big-money deals at club level, but drawing maintaining and increasing the support base you have got is much easier when everybody can watch the games on BBC.

Despite all that has been said in the ongoing debate around club and international rugby, I believe the two are inextricably linked and rely upon one another.

Players will bring a greater awareness of their clubs by doing well for their country, and they are referred to by both their name and their club in most of the coverage. In terms of predictions it would be foolish to put all your eggs in any one basket until at least two games have been played.

From the English perspective, if they win the first one in Paris that will be a massive boost to their championship hopes. At this stage it is all on paper and it is too early to make definitive judgements, but obviously I would like England to prosper.

We have seen so many times before though how high expectation is not always matched by results.

All the sides are capable of producing something now. International teams prepare in very much the same manner as one another, and a lot of it comes down to who has the strongest squad availability despite injuries, suspensions and the rest of it.

A rugby ball can do strange things during the course of the game, and the very chaotic nature of rugby means that anything can happen

This is what makes the whole thing such an interesting spectacle, the fact that nobody knows with any degree of certainty what is going to happen.

It is the reason why the public remain so engaged with the Six Nations.


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