Injuries are biggest blow in World Cup rehearsals

Humility and hard work are watchwords for local skirmish that lacks big names
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The Independent Online

England sent a captain hobbling on one good leg to the launch of the Six Nations' Championship, which may be an apt motif for a competition lacking a whole squad's worth of frontline players, injured or suspended.

Better, perhaps, to fix the attention on two other men sashaying around London's swanky Hurlingham Club the other day: Brian O'Driscoll, that peerless centre, giving it the Irish lash for possibly the last time? And France's Thierry Dusautoir, successor to O'Driscoll last year as a Grand Slam-winning captain. A back and a forward of world-class standard. That's not bad for starters.

The Championship's banker sponsors are graciously putting on an "RBS Express" to ferry supporters away from next Friday night's frightfully timed Wales vs England match. Surely it would be better named the "Gravy Train", and anyway you can bet the stadium ticket prices won't be cut to reflect our absent friends.

Ireland and Wales have been hardest hit: 16 players between them out of their opening matches against Italy and England respectively, including Gavin Henson who, lest we forget, got so fed up with injuries that he voluntarily put his feet up a couple of years ago, returning to rugby only recently.

England's autumnal skipper, Lewis Moody, twisted a knee playing for Bath this month. "I know it sounds funny but I don't even consider it a proper injury, as I should be back in two or three weeks," Moody said at the Hurlingham. Two fellow forwards are out for longer: Tom Croft, with a fractured shoulder, and Courtney Lawes, whose knee buckled under the weight of tackling Alesana Tuilagi in a club match.

At least there won't be any Samoan juggernauts to worry about in the Six Nations – oh, unless Alesana's younger brother Manu gets called up by England. The Welsh have a co-opted Tongan, but Toby Faletau is injured too.

The loss of Lawes and Croft has ripped a few pages from England's game-plan. The pair's pace featured prominently in the November win over Australia and the fits of promise against New Zealand. If the England manager, Martin Johnson, mentioned George Skivington's name once at the Hurlingham he did it a thousand times, suggesting the Leicester lock has a shot at a debut in Cardiff.

Trusting to Leicester nous would not be unknown to Johnson: he is surrounded by ex-Tigers coaches and players from the Premiership's top club. At half-back the moon-faced Ben Youngs should continue alongside Toby Flood; the latter keeping Jonny Wilkinson at bay. Who will keep Jonny happy in such a scenario will be one of the year's most intriguing questions.

Another is what bearing, if any, the Six Nations will have on the seventh World Cup, to be staged in New Zealand in September and October. "Everybody wants to give every member of their squad a run in the Six Nations but you still want to win every match," said Declan Kidney, the Ireland coach. "When you're at home and your supporters are spending hard-earned money, as we well know at the moment, you want to give them some satisfaction and something to cheer. If you get a good run in the Six Nations, the World Cup will look after itself."

The only time a European side has won the global event – England in 2003 – they did so as Grand Slam champions. England are marginal favourites for the Six Nations this time, mainly because they play the title-holders France at Twickenham, and the French are coming off a 59-16 thrashing by Australia. But beware that form-line. France lost 52-10 to South Africa in November 1997 and 39-12 to New Zealand in November 2009; for their next trick in both instances they won the Grand Slam.

Johnson played through all but one of the seasons between 1995 and 2003 when England went without a Slam but won three Championships and four Triple Crowns. The current eight-year drought has produced big fat zeroes on both counts. Though the game has shifted towards the big and the brutal – favouring the English, you might think – it is the Welsh, Irish and French who have prospered.

True enough, though; the ferreting, flashy openside flanker has gone out of fashion. "They're turnover specialists now, not continuity men," said Wales's coach, Warren Gatland. "Hyenas, I call them." Dusautoir and Ireland's exciting Sean O'Brien can play across the back row. "A hard worker and very humble," was how O'Driscoll described O'Brien. While Wales pray James Hook's panache can unnerve England from the off, the ultimate winner will be long on humility and hard work. If Dusautoir's France bring those to the party, the Six Nations champagne will be theirs.

What the experts expect

Hopes: The refs relax

I hope the scrummage doesn't ruin the Six Nations. The pressure cannon that is the BBC's "Scrum Clock" needs to go, the referees need to be told to relax a little and the ball just needs to go in and come out again. Then everybody's happy.

Fears: Not enough tries

We all love the huge tackles and we all want to say our midfield is impenetrable, but we still want to see tries. To this end I hope as many of the teams as possible take the field with the appropriate attacking mindset. We want teams striving to win, not to avoid losing.

David Flatman

Hopes: Scots end hoodoo

That the Friday night opener sets the tone with some razzle-dazzle from the likes of Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Shane Williams. And that Scotland win at Twickenham for the first time since 1983; it would be fun watching Andy Robinson trying to contain his smile.

Fears: Scrum carnage

That the opener sets the tone with a scrappy dog-fight. That the old pitbull, Brian Moore, will be spending the next seven weeks getting all snarled up about carnage at scrum-time, instead of waxing lyrically about razzle-dazzle – and about a Scotland win at Twickenham.

Simon Turnbull

Hopes: Style wins the day

Let whoever emerges as champions do so with a style the world recognises as quality rugby. And let BBC viewers be treated to fewer shots of ruddy-faced supporters waving at themselves on the stadium screen and more intelligent analysis of what is happening on the pitch.

Fears: No to pick-and-go

So far this season there have been no finals so the tweak in refereeing that favours the team in possession has not been fully tested. Get ready for critical gnashing of teeth as leads are protected by running down the clock with zillions of pick-and-go rucks.

Hugh Godwin

Hopes: World beaters?

That the Six Nations leaves the home unions with a credible challenger for the World Cup. This is the last tournament they have before the big kick-off in New Zealand and each of the six need a pick-me-up if the northern hemisphere is to make an impact.

Fears: The fear factor

That the championship will be bogged down, that Ireland's set-piece will prove their Achilles heel, that France's Heineken Cup form will not be replicated and that England's inexperience will come home to roost: if (and it's a big "if") England get past Wales, they have a run of three home games.

David Hands

Hopes: More 'Gat' grenades

For Warren Gatland to continue throwing his grenades throughout the tournament. Wales's Kiwi coach introduces some much needed edge with his "mind games". The build-ups would be extremely tedious without his explosions.

Fears: TFI not friday

For some dolt in a blazer to decide that the magnificence of the opening Wales versus England tussle has anything whatsoever to do with the sacriligeous Friday night kick-off time. That piece of scheduling is no more than an abomination which should never be repeated.