Jonathan Davies: Coaches to be main players as World Cup takes its toll

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I'm sure the 2004 Six Nations will be a great tournament but I don't think a Grand Slam is on this time. You can confidently predict some superb rugby and maybe a few surprises but I don't believe it will yield a complete conqueror. This is not a slight on England, without doubt the best team in the world, but an acknowledgment of the difficulties the Six Nations can create. And that's before you stir the after-effects of the World Cup into the mix.

I'm sure the 2004 Six Nations will be a great tournament but I don't think a Grand Slam is on this time. You can confidently predict some superb rugby and maybe a few surprises but I don't believe it will yield a complete conqueror. This is not a slight on England, without doubt the best team in the world, but an acknowledgment of the difficulties the Six Nations can create. And that's before you stir the after-effects of the World Cup into the mix.

It has been 12 weeks since England won the Webb Ellis Cup but don't disregard the impact the World Cup would have had on every team, not just the winners. Even those who came home earlier would have been through a mangle of preparations that stretched back 18 months. I don't think people realise how tough that period was. The mental fatigue would have been even more taxing than the physical effort involved, not only in the matches but the months and months of conditioning and training.

They all came straight back into a domestic scene just reaching a peak of activity. That makes it 21 months of being pulled from pillar to post, having to attune to different game plans, different team-mates and different priorities.

We've seen the physical reaction that England have gone through, with a mass of injuries to their World Cup stars. What we don't see is the mental toll, the hidden cost of all that wear and tear on their thought-processes and motivation.

That's why I think that the skill of the coaches will be more of a contributory factor than usual. Blending the World Cup veterans in with those who didn't get there but are raring to go is going to need careful man management.

This is where the old guard meets the new and judging who is more up for it isn't going to be easy. They'll all face the problem, but Sir Clive Woodward has it hardest because he has lost so many for one reason or another. However, he does have the advantage of so much strength in depth but it still requires careful handling.

Who would start off at No 10 in the absence of Jonny Wilkinson is the first big question that has been plaguing Woodward in the run-up to this weekend's kick-off as his main man has struggled with a shoulder and neck injury. I wouldn't like to have been hunting around for a replacement. Henry Paul has certainly put his hand up for consideration in the centre for this tournament and I look forward to seeing him get a chance although Will Greenwood is the most vital ingredient in England's back-line.

The blow of Martin Johnson's retirement is lessened because England still have the strongest second-row base in the world, but whoever they pick, they are still going to miss Johnson. Lawrence Dallaglio was the obvious choice to replace him as captain and he'll relish having the leadership again.

England are fortunate that they start their campaign off in Italy tomorrow. The Italians are improving and will have taken heart from the World Cup where they suffered a cruel fixture schedule.

Their forwards are showing improvement and with players such as Aaron Persico, Andrea de Rossi and Sergio Parisse in their back-row and Gaston Llanos at lock they can continue that development. It is up to their backs to be creative and direct and I would like to see more from Cristian Stoica than we did in Australia.

Whereas the Italians will give England a good opening test it is going to be nowhere near as demanding a challenge as the others face on this first weekend. France against Ireland and Wales against Scotland are extremely tough starts for each of the four teams and in many ways the results will define the rest of their tournaments.

The French will be their usual unpredictable selves and they could field a few different sides to take part. That's the sort of variation they have at their disposal. One of their main problems is at half-back where their scrum-half and inspirational captain, Fabien Galthié is going to be missed. I would have considered putting Frédéric Michalak - who had a bit of a nightmare in the World Cup semi-final at outside-half - at No 9 and bringing in his Toulouse team-mate Yann Delaigue to partner him. That is an option the France coach, Bernard Laporte, may yet utilise. Another good Toulouse half-back, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, could then give them an any-two-from-three situation.

With players such as Yannick Jauzion, Damien Traille and Brian Liebenberg in the centre and the usual multi-talented back-row, France are bound to be in with a shout but they'll be wary of meeting the Irish first up.

Eddie O'Sullivan's side must build on what they did in the World Cup and try to forget their result against England in the last Six Nations when they were well bashed up. The return of Geordan Murphy will be a big bonus for this championship, but who plays 10 is still the big question. David Humphries and Ronan O'Gara divided up the duties neatly in Australia but surely they will have to go with one or the other at some stage during this tournament. I realise how similar they are but a pecking order is important and at the moment O'Gara seems on a crest of a wave with Munster. Perhaps he'll be the one to emerge in seven weeks time as the established Irish outside-half.

Like England, they will also be missing a talisman in Keith Woods but they have bulging power in the pack. Paul O'Connell is an outstanding second-row and when you have ball-carriers such as Victor Costello you can never harbour many self-doubts. Ireland can beat anyone on their day but Paris is a tough place to go in search of a launch pad.

Wales have been living on the glories of those two fabulous performances in the defeats against New Zealand and England in the World Cup but now they will be required to repeat them as favourites not underdogs. There's a big difference. They had nothing to lose against the big boys but they have everything to lose against Scotland who I believe will be a different proposition to the team that under-achieved in Australia.

The Wales coach, Steve Hansen, says he'll stay with the adventurous style they finally produced in the World Cup and I hope they do because that's the only way they're going to compete on the world stage. Regional performances in European competition have been very good and Llanelli's wonderful win at Northampton two weeks ago will have been a great spur. Open and expansive rugby is the key to Wales' future.

Get the basics right in the set pieces and get over the gain-line regularly and they can beat anyone. If they don't, they'll struggle. If they can win against Scotland today, the season is set up for them to show a vast improvement from the disgrace of last season's tournament. But I expect a good show from Scotland.

They were lucky to qualify from their World Cup group but ran Australia very close in the first half of their quarter-final and will have retained that memory as a confidence-booster. Now, with Edinburgh going so well in Europe, they can build on that and I'm sure their new coach, Matt Williams, can add the right ingredients. He is a thorough and conscientious coach and I'll be very interested to see the difference he's made in a short time.

They've found their long-lost cutting edge with captain Chris Paterson at stand-off and Mike Blair, taking over from Brian Redpath at scrum-half, is another with a bit of pace to spare.

Nevertheless, they'll still be relying heavily on the power of their front five and their titan of the back-row, Simon Taylor, to put in some heroic performances during the next two months. But the Scots do need a good start and with so much at stake all of the Six Nations teams will think they are back in the World Cup.

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