Injury-plagued Six Nations Championship most open in years
The Six Nations Championship kicks off this weekend with the winners widely touted to emerge from the realm of 'Last men standing'.
Injuries have wreaked havoc with most squads but some of the favourites are feeling it more keenly than others.
It should make for a more open tournament especially after double defending champions England have had to plug holes left by around a dozen absentees.
The game is increasingly taking its toll on its top practitioners but it is hardly surprising given the relentless‚ and in some cases‚ combined grind of the Top 14‚ the Premiership‚ the Pro 14 and European clubs competitions.
What has compounded matters‚ especially for the teams from the Home Unions‚ is the fact that their top players were engaged in a gruelling tour of New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in the middle of last year.
Ireland are missing 11 players‚ including celebrated stars like Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien.
Scotland are without 10 players‚ including Richie Gray‚ Wales are missing 10‚ including Sam Warburton‚ Toby Faletau‚ Rhys Webb‚ Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar‚ while France are missing nine front line players‚ including the like of Wesley Fofana and Morgan Parra.
Despite having to dig deep into their reserves‚ England will still start as favourites.
The restoration of their reputation over the last two years is a task that coach Eddie Jones has warmed to.
Under his tutelage they will start this campaign with the momentum of consecutive Six Nations' triumphs‚ as well as the wider context of 22 wins from 23 starts.
Along the way they have also successfully incorporated young talent‚ as was evidenced with their two-nil Test series win in Argentina in June last year.
They are expected to beat Italy at a canter in Rome on Sunday. Since the start of last year‚ Italy have won just one of their 11 Tests.
Ireland go into their clash against France in Paris buoyant mood following their successes last November.
They are second favourites‚ and are expected to make a winning start against a French outfit that hasn't won a Test since their last match in last year's Six Nations.
New France coach Jacques Brunel has some exciting youngsters in his squad but the Tricolores too have suffered at the cruel hand of injury.
Scotland improved immeasurably under former coach Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend has kept them on the same path over the last year.
They travel to Cardiff where they'll meet an injury ravaged Wales‚ who are missing several first team regulars.
Scotland‚ dark horses to go on and win the championships‚ beat Wales at Murrayfield last year and don't bet against them winning away from home this time.
This weekend's fixtures:
Saturday‚ 03 February
Wales v Scotland – Cardiff – 4.15pm
France v Ireland – Paris – 6.46pm
Sunday‚ 04 February
Italy v England – Rome – 5.00pm