Jonathan Davies: A world of questions but Clive has the answers

Sunday 25 January 2004 01:00

As the Six Nations tournament approaches there seems to be a general feeling that England will face some tough challenges in their new role as world champions and that injuries and other changes will make them vulnerable.

There's no doubt that everybody, even Italy in the first match in Rome, will be hell-bent on knocking them over but I still make them favourites to take another title. Martin Johnson's retirement and a stack of injuries that include Jonny Wilkinson have left Sir Clive Woodward with plenty of problems but he still has many world-class players at his disposal.

I know from my own experience that one of the dilemmas will be mental and physical fatigue because they've been involved in high-grade and demanding rugby for over 18 months. But that doesn't apply just to England. All the six nations have had similar experiences and most of them haven't the strength in depth to match England's.

That's why it could well come down to a contest between the coaches to get their squads to a peak during what is now a very tight championship with little recovery time between matches.

It'll be strange not seeing Johnson out there in the thick of the action. There's been some debate about whether he has retired too soon but it was a matter between him and Woodward and I'm sure they talked long and hard about it.

It's great for him to be able to bow out as the World Cup winning captain but some say that England would have benefited had he guided them towards another Grand Slam. Neil Back posed the question that if you're still the best player in your position why go? It's a question they could still be asking in a couple of months. Woodward has yet to name a successor but they have such a strong structure they'll still be a force.

Don't forget that the others all face problems in getting their acts together again. After their performances against New Zealand and England in Australia, Wales will be up for it. But I don't expect their opening match against Scotland at home to be a picnic. In the World Cup they were the underdogs with nothing expected of them against the All Blacks and the English.

Against Scotland they'll be carrying massive expectations and that will put great pressure on them. The Scots, on the other hand, have much to make up for and under new coach Matt Williams and with a few key players showing great form for Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup they can't be taken lightly.

Coming off a disappointing World Cup can be a spur. Italy will have done enough to be encouraged but I'm not sure how Ireland will react. They should have beaten Australia but were flat against France.

France themselves left Australia with many difficulties to solve. We know they are capable of bouncing back but we'll need to see it. The clincher will be the final game between them and England in Paris and I believe that any hurdles Woodward encounters on the way will have been scaled by then.

Everything will obviously centre around England but I think it is going to be a fascinating competition with all six countries possessing the ability to show a big improvement.

I spoke to Scott Gibbs last week as he was preparing to announce his retirement from the game. It's sad but he wasn't enjoying his rugby. We all have to face the moment and once you recognise it there is no point in delaying.

He was a great colleague in both codes and a wonderful role model for any young player. Scott wasn't the biggest or the fastest but he had that quality of playing above himself.

Whether in defence or crashing though the gain-line, the one thing that shone out in everything he did was his fierce determination and his mental toughness. These are great qualities and his clubs and his country should be very grateful for the service he gave.

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