London: Rarely the case, there is a certain logic to the Six Nations this season. England and France, the two biggest and richest rugby countries in a sport that demands size and cherishes wealth, are in rude health. England’s last game was a seismic victory over the New Zealand All Blacks and France went through the autumn undefeated, with wins over Australia, Argentina and Samoa.
England have the advantage now of three home games, starting against Scotland on Saturday (8pm UAE), while France are on the road for three games. Any notion that the first, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Sunday, does not carry the same menace as trips to the north should be set against the last result, in 2011: Italy 22 France 21. It was the sort of game that will be held under the noses of the French players, like smelling salts.
Perhaps they are already fully alert, having combined invention, especially against Australia, and resilience, particularly against Samoa. On the side of adventure, the France coach Philippe Saint-Andre paired Maxime Mermoz in the centre with Florian Fritz, pushing Wesley Fofana, tipped to become a fixture in midfield, to the wing, and with newcomer Brice Dulin of Castres at full-back.
To prove the case for a no-nonsense approach, second-row Pascal Pap, wonderfully scratchy and blunt during the 2011 World Cup, was given the captain’s armband. Pap and Yoann Maestri form a partnership that harks back to the days of frightening, um, candour in the French second row.
But they do have to travel to Twickenham, for the third weekend. It sounds cosy but this is the dangerous crossing of the championship, the grand centrepiece featuring the pair of favourites. But will it be?
By then, England will have played Scotland at home and Ireland away. Victory in round one should be a routine affair, given the form of the Scots in Europe this season and their recent history at international level, a record so dispiriting that Andy Robinson resigned as coach after defeat in Aberdeen to Tonga. This means that Scotland go to the home of the logically fancied England under Robinson’s former assistant, Scott Johnson, an Australian who has done the rounds without ever winning anything as a head coach.
But it will be harder for England to play well against Scotland than against New Zealand, who, as always, held out an invitation to play. The surprise was that England, by way of acceptance, snatched the invitation from their hand and performed with a healthy disrespect for the world champions.
Nowhere, of course, is more jumbled right now than Wales, proud winners of the grand slam in 2012 and not so proudly coming at 2013 on the back of seven straight defeats.
They open against Ireland on Saturday (5.30pm UAE). But form does not seem particularly relevant when it comes to Wales. They won a grand slam in 2008 from a state of 2007 World Cup mutiny. To go from hapless to all-consuming is a Welsh speciality. But they have lost of late and face three away games in a row: France, Italy and Scotland.
Ireland have England and France at home, which sets them up as the wrecking ball of the championship. Not that the Irish, with Sean O’Brien, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, see themselves as mere dashers of the hopes of others. But it somehow fits into the scheme of taking reasoned argument and shredding it in the Six Nations.
The Six Nations is no place for computation and reason.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd