England, pared to the bone on the midfield front after a season-long spate of injuries, are not the only ones with a new centre alliance to their name. Scotland are at it, too.
England, pared to the bone on the midfield front after a season-long spate of injuries, are not the only ones with a new centre alliance to their name. Scotland are at it, too. Last season's Six Nations wooden-spoonists are nowhere near as lavishly equipped as the world champions when it comes to personnel - even without Mike Tindall, Will Greenwood and Stuart Abbott, the red rose army have infinitely more options than their impoverished rivals - but even by kilted standards, the Hugo Southwell-Andy Craig partnership has come out of the blue.
Southwell moves to inside centre from full-back for tomorrow's opening match with France in Paris, while Craig comes in at outside centre having spent the autumn internationals in a position best described as outside the squad. The fact that they are up against the powerful Tricolore axis of Damien Traille and Brian Liebenberg ensures that Matt Williams, the Scotland coach, will discover the wisdom or otherwise of his latest selectorial gamble at the earliest possible juncture.
"Hugo's performances in Australia last summer and against the Wallabies in the autumn were very, very good, so I have no qualms about playing him anywhere," Williams said. "His courage and the way he tackles is great. He knows he made mistakes against the Springboks in our last match, but you don't stray away from a player on one bad performance. He's forgotten about South Africa and can't wait to get out there at Stade de France. We want him to show the same courage and commitment, especially in defence, he has displayed in the past. We just want him to be himself."
Williams has made a whole stack of changes, some of them positional, to the side that turned up its toes against the Boks in November. Chris Paterson replaces Southwell at full-back, Simon Danielli returns to the wing, Tom Smith is restored to the front row and Ally Hogg is fit to resume at No8, thereby adding some much-needed clout to what Williams feared might be a scratch loose-forward combination. Hogg will shift to the flank if Simon Taylor, a world-class No 8, makes an appearance later in the tournament.
Meanwhile, the Italians have awarded Alessandro Troncon, their most experienced half-back, his first Six Nations start since 2003. The former national captain has fallen out with successive Azzurri managements in recent seasons, but his form in the Heineken Cup made him the obvious replacement for Paul Griffen, who has failed to recover from a muscle strain. Already his country's most decorated player, Troncon will win his 86th cap when he appears against Ireland in Rome on Sunday.
Ludovico Nitoglia, a 21-year-old wing from Calvisano, makes his first appearance in the tournament, having played a prominent role in the 51-6 dismantling of Canada last November. Up front, the big guns are all there, including a dynamic-looking back row of Aaron Perisco, Mauro Bergamasco and the brilliant No 8 Sergio Parisse.
On the club front, the future of the Heineken Cup is secure for another four years following the signing of a new deal between the title sponsors and European Rugby Cup Ltd, the custodians of the tournament. Heineken were in at the birth of the competition in 1995 - indeed, it would not have happened without them - and, after months of rumours to the contrary, have agreed to stay on until 2009.
"There were other interested parties, but a sense of continuity is important to us as we take what is already a wonderfully-successful tournament onwards and upwards," said Derek McGarth, the chief executive of ERC.
* Fans have been told to avoid buying tickets from touts in Cardiff for tomorrow's game between Wales and England after more than 150 were stolen.Reuse content