England and France: Raging Bull's eyes on the prize

Old heads can give Red Rose brigade first title in five years but it's risky business for Les Bleus
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The Independent Online

Only three of the six coaches are familiar with the nuances of the Six Nations' Championship, and Brian Ashton's knowledge is more intimate than anybody else's. The same goes for his captain, Phil Vickery, and that should give England an old head start in winning a title that has eluded them since 2003.

The 61-year-old Ashton rates experience at Test level above anything else and, in what promises to be one of the more idiosyncratic tournaments, England, by and large, know what they are about even if injuries and illness have a habit of plaguing selection. "We're about to step back into tournament rugby and there's a title to be won," Ashton said. "The side will change, out of necessity as well as preference. This is not a new start.

"We're halfway through a season and looking to add things to our game," the head coach added. "The idea of throwing out some of the older players just because they won't make it to another World Cup never crossed my mind."

This was music to the cauliflower ears of Vickery, whose place at tighthead prop is under threat from Matt Stevens, the baby rhino from Bath. "The pressure is extreme and if I don't deliver, it won't be long before I find I'm not playing," Vickery said. "But I back myself. I've done all right down the years."

He is currently promoting his clothing range, Raging Bull, and the England captaincy is good for business. While he's at it, he could market a natty line in neck braces. Vickery has had four neck injuries – most people would have taken it as a serious health warning – and rarely finishes a Test. He is usually in a tracksuit long before the final whistle although, admittedly, that is sometimes down to the redmist descending.

At the age of 32, why is the Cornish bull still raging? "I can't say exactly what it is that drives me on but I want to keep going. I can't help loving it. They say a player knows when the time is right for retirement. I don't know anything of the sort."

Last weekend, Vickery was a member of the Wasps side beaten in the Heineken Cup by Munster on the foulest of nights in the middle of a building site called Thomond Park. "I was thinking to myself, 'Phil, this is one fabulous experience'." He's beyond help.

Ashton admits he has spoken to Vickery about the "difficult decision I'll have to make" if the captain comes up short. He also admits he didn't have a clue about the make-up of his best team as England went into the World Cup. Wales did them no favours by fielding a ludicrously weak team in a warm-up at Twickenham. It will be very different next Saturday.

Warren Gatland, the second New Zealander to coach Wales after Graham Henry, has already given the country cause for optimism by persuading Martyn Williams to continue his Test career and appointing Ryan Jones, who was a rare hit for the 2005 Lions on the tour of New Zealand, as captain.

Gatland's hand has been strengthened by the recruitment of Shaun Edwards and Robert Howley, bringing a Wasps trium-virate to the Wales coaching team. With a new regime, a new approach. Edwards has told the players that training will be harder than anything they have experienced before.

It will be an intriguing start. On World Cup form, England should be ahead of the game, although they already have problems in the back row with the withdrawal of Joe Worsley and an injury to Nick Easter. At this rate, they will be enticing Lawrence Dall-aglio out of retirement. Paul Sackey has mumps and Simon Shaw an ankle injury.

Whereas Ashton was fairly conservative in his squad selection – picking only four uncapped players, Lesley Vainikolo, Tom Croft, Danny Cipriani and Richard Wigglesworth – his opposite number in France, Marc Lièvremont, announced his arrival by dropping 10 of the players who featured in the World Cup. When Les Bleus play Scotland at Murrayfield next Sunday, some very big names will be missing, including Frédéric Michalak, Imanol Harinordoquy, Clément Poitrenaud and Sébastien Chabal.

Lionel Nallet, the Castres lock, takes over the captaincy from the retired Raphael Ibanez. Nallet was omitted from the World Cup semi-finalagainst England. As for Chabal, Lièvremont says he simply isn't as good as Elvis Vermeulen, the Clermont back-rower.

"We have taken into consideration the players in form and the opposition," Lièvremont said. He added that he was already planning for the 2011 World Cup. Nobody knows how France will go, so there's no change there, but for the Six Nations it is a high-risk strategy.

Last season, Scottish rugby was as visible as the Loch Ness monster. Humiliated at home by Italy, they finished with the Six Nations wooden spoon and saw the disappearance of the Borders. However, they reached the quarters of the World Cup before losing 19-13 to Argentina. "We've got a very good squad with a lot of quality playersand we can compete at the highest level," Frank Hadden, the Scotland coach, said.

Meanwhile, Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, who oversaw a disastrous World Cup campaign shortly after signing a new contract, was talking about "putting the train back on the tracks". First stop will be Munster, en route to getting a winning start against Italy at Croke Park. Anything less and Fast Eddie will be on the fast track to nowhere.

England launch their Six Nations campaign at home to Wales next Saturday at 4.30pm on BBC1

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