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England are streets ahead

By John Birch

This Friday, France and Scotland will kick-off what promises to be one of the most intriguing womens rugby 6 Nations since this annual tournament began 15 years ago.

Following the flood of retirements, coach changes, and squad reorganisations since last summers World Cup there has rarely been a tournament where the outcome was more unpredictable.

Well, other than the identity of the winner, of course. England, champions for the past five seasons, are expected to field a very similar squad to the one that took them to the final of the World Cup.

That stability alone would be a significant advantage, even before the on-field gulf between Gary Streets team and most of the rest of Europe is factored in. Add in the advantage of three fixtures out of five at home (where England are all but untouchable - 32 tournament wins out of 33 since 1996), and its difficult to see anyone seriously competing with them for the title.

However, the gap between the other five nations could not be closer. With the coaching teams of all nations having their eyes firmly locked on the next World Cup, pretty much any player likely to be too old in 2014 has already been shown the door. Though all teams will have a core of experienced players, it is likely that Six Nations rugby will be a new experience for up to a half of the players in some of the first weekends starting line-ups.

France not the most predictable of teams at the best of times could reasonably finish anywhere between 2nd and 6th this year.

As reported a few weeks ago on ScrumQueens, they have discarded most of their forwards (including pretty much their entire front row) replacing them with a group of young, talented - but largely untried players who could revolutionise what was a significant weak point in the French team last summer. Or not. Its a risk but if France are to regain their third place at the next World Cup (or even go better), now is the time to take such risks.

We have already had a taste of how a new-look team can perform with Scotlands visit to Spain at the start of the year. The seven new faces in the Scotland team that day showed how a new team will not always be perfect from day one and it will be interesting to see which coaches will stick to their guns, and which will be panicked into making more changes if teams do not gel perfectly from the start.

That is likely to be particularly acute for some of the new and returning coaches in this years championship. Scotland, Wales and Ireland have not had a reputation for sticking with their womens coaches for very long in recent years. If these teams do not achieve early success there could be pressure to abandon the long-term strategy will they succumb?

Of the three, it is Philip Doyle in Ireland who is probably best placed, at least at the start. A fixture list that begins with a game against Italy, and avoids England until the final round along with the advantage of Fortress Ashbourne, where Ireland have never lost means that there is a real chance to build the team over the tournament to the extent that it is not impossible that he could be leading his team into a championship decider on 18th March.

On the other hand Kris de Scossa in Wales could not have a tougher task. Trying to rebuild a team that disappointed at the World Cup, and finished bottom at last years Six Nations, would be difficult enough without having to throw his young team out against England in round one. With last year's captain unavailable plus a number of other core players, Kriss task can only be described as daunting.

As for the final piece in this fascinating puzzle, it could be the most surprising of them all. Italy have no World Cup wounds to lick their rebuilding began last year following their failure to qualify. For them, 2010 was a successful year, their best ever Six Nations being followed by a European Nations Cup final. With most of the rest of Europe rebuilding, and three games at home, this year could be the one when a relatively stable Italy finally breaks though.

Six Nations 1996-2010

Competing teams:

1996-1998: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales

1999 England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales

2000-2001 England, France, Scotland, Spain, Wales

2000-2001 England, France, Scotland, Spain, Wales

2002-2006 England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Wales

2006- England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales

Best finishes:

England Champions 1996-1997, 1999-2001, 2003, 2006-2010

France Champions 2002, 2004-2005

Ireland Third 2009 and 2010

Italy Fifth 2008 and 2010

Scotland Champions 1998

Wales Second 2006, 2008 and 2009

Biggest wins:

England 86, Spain 3 (Madrid, 2006)

France 48, Scotland 18 (Melun, 1999)

Ireland 35, Italy 17 (Colleferro, 2009)

Italy 31, Scotland 10 (Mira, 2008)

Scotland 48, Spain 7 (Edinburgh, 2004)

Wales 44, Spain 0 (Cardiff, 2003)