Lewis Moody column: Ireland are my tip for the Six Nations, England just have too many crocks and conundrums

It must be so frustrating for Stuart Lancaster. He has set very high expectations for his side but the big players simply aren't going to be there to deliver

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The Independent Online

Another Six Nations is upon us and both England and Wales will know that their most important game of the tournament will be in Cardiff, under the open roof and the Friday night lights.

Neither team go into the tournament as favourites, and if they want to have any chance of winning it, then Friday night is a game they cannot afford to lose.

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Ultimately, the team they and everyone else must beat is Ireland. Their results in the autumn, defeating South Africa and Australia, came because they gave a new breed of player an opportunity to play, and those victories will give them the confidence to carry on.

In previous years they’d been lacking strength in depth, but look at them now – players like Ian Madigan, Simon Zebo and Luke Fitzgerald. In the second-string match last week, the Irish Wolfhounds versus the England Saxons, half of the Irish XV were full internationals. It is a side that had spent so long with such a nucleus of senior players, like Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer, that the new players coming through now have actually been on the fringes of the set-up for a long time, they have experience. That’s a powerful combination.

If England lose, they’ll almost certainly have to win in Dublin in three weeks’ time, and that will be a lot to ask. Friday will be a tough day at the office for England, and I’m sorry but I don’t see them winning the tournament this year. They will be competitive, and so will Wales, but they are not out in front.

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Ireland celebrates winning the 2014 Six Nations

Again, the injury list they face is crippling, but how long can we go on saying the same thing? Without change to the way the English season is structured, fatigue will continue to dog the players. Look at Ireland’s outgoing heroes, O’Driscoll and O’Gara, and then the legendary All Blacks, Richie McCaw or Keven Mealamu, all have a 100 caps and then some. But these are players who are well looked after by their leagues.

It must be so frustrating for England’s coach, Stuart Lancaster. He has set very high expectations for his side but the big players simply aren’t going to be there to deliver. To be without Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling and Courtney Lawes is an extremely difficult problem to get over.

But, as in the autumn, there are others there who will try to take their chance. It’s great to see Jonathan Joseph get a call-up and I am looking forward to watching him in action. James Haskell, Dan Cole and Dave Attwood; these are all players who will feel this is an opportunity to make the jersey their own.

Taking every game as it comes is the oldest cliché in sport but it will be a true one for England. There are so many conundrums still unsolved, particularly in the midfield, Lancaster will simply be looking to win this match, and move on to the next one.

The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, on the other hand, has almost a fully fit squad to choose from, publicly named his side two days early and has admitted to having half an eye on the World Cup. But before he gets there, there is this tournament, which will be tough to win and packed as always with close, exciting matches.

France might have lost a bit of their traditional Gallic flair, replacing it with more English-style forward dominance, but it hasn’t made them any easier to beat.

Italy will no doubt be scrapping around at the bottom, but they can always take a scalp and usually do – in fact, England are the only team they’ve not yet upset, an ominous sign. You always know they’ll be physically confrontational, but last year they developed more of an attacking game. In times gone by they created all their chances with their forwards. Now they are playing full, 15-man rugby.

And for the first time in a while, I’m actually quite hopeful of Scotland’s chances. The pool of players they traditionally have to call upon is tiny. It amazes me they can even make an attempt at competing with some of the bigger rugby nations. But their New Zealander coach, Vern Cotter, has been around for a while now and his ideas are being expressed with ever more clarity.

The style in which these slightly lesser teams are now trying to play is just another reason why there is so much exciting rugby to look forward to in the coming weeks. It is Ireland’s to lose,  but almost anyone could win.

Six Nations stars: Who to watch

Ireland

If he gets picked, Sean O’Brien. He’s been playing so well, if he can get a start, or just even come off the bench, he will cause problems for any opposition.

England

Anthony Watson. He has a Jeremy Guscott-style of running, even though he plays in a different position. Fluid and graceful, it will be great to see him get the ball in hand. With his Bath team-mate Jonathan Joseph inside him, these combinations in the backs are exciting.

Scotland

Stuart Hogg. I just love watching him play. Such an exciting, attacking option, Scotland haven’t had anything like him for a while.

Wales

There is quite a bit of pressure on George North to deliver. He has been playing well for Northampton and not so well for Wales, but on his day he’s world class. Wingers tend to be either elusive or abrasive. North is both.

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