England struggling with injuries but still the team to beat

Rugby's Six Nations Championship kicks off tomorrow with in-form England seeking to win back-to-back titles for the first time since 2001. Here is a look at how all the leading Northern Hemisphere teams are shaping up for their openers as they attempt to achieve glory come March 18.

England

•2016 record: P13 W13 L0

•Average points per match versus tier one nations: 30.5

•2016 Six Nations: 1st

•Key man: Owen Farrell

 Captains Sergio Parisse of Italy; Rory Best of Ireland; Greig Laidlaw of Scotland; Dylan Hartley of England; Guilhem Guirado of France; and Alun Wyn Jones of Wales with the Six Nations Trophy during the launch of the 2017 tournament at The
From left: Captains Sergio Parisse of Italy; Rory Best of Ireland; Greig Laidlaw of Scotland; Dylan Hartley of England; Guilhem Guirado of France; and Alun Wyn Jones of Wales with the Six Nations Trophy during the launch of the 2017 tournament at The Hurlingham Club in London last month. Holders England have completed an unbeaten year and want consecutive titles. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Eddie Jones followed Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland in winning the Six Nations at the first attempt and England then got better. They were impressive in defence and attack in defeating Australia 3-0 in their series and won their four autumn internationals comfortably to leave them unbeaten last year and second in the world rankings.

Injuries will test them at the start, with the Vunipola brothers out along with Chris Robshaw. James Haskell and Dylan Hartley have played little or no rugby this year, which suggests England may be undercooked against France tomorrow, given that George Kruis has just been ruled out. Without the Vunipolas, England will have to find other means of getting over the gain line: Jones operated without a powerful midfielder last year but has Ben Te'o to call on. The champions are strong in the set piece and look the most flexible of the teams.

France

•2016 record: P10 W4 L6

•Average points v tier one nations: 18.9

•2016 Six Nations: 5th

•Key man: Louis Picamoles

France's final match last year was a five-point defeat by New Zealand. They tightened up defensively in the second half of last year, but they do not score enough points to beat the top sides, reaching 25 only once against a tier one side, in Argentina in the summer.

That makes the loss of the centre Wesley Fofana, their most creative midfielder, more acute. He has been replaced in the squad by Mathieu Bastereaud, although coach Guy Noves has Gael Fickou in reserve.

Noves has used defence as his starting point, wanting a foundation laid before resurrecting French flair. He has a choice to make at scrum-half, where Baptiste Serin is pushing Maxime Machenaud, if not at fly-half, a problem position for France this decade. They have power at forward and the ability to counter-attack and a first top-half finish since 2011 would represent success.

Ireland

•2016 record: P12 W6 D1 L5

•Average points v tier one nations: 24.5

•2016 Six Nations: 3rd

•Key man: Robbie Henshaw

Ireland had a two-tone 2016: a disappointing defence of their Six Nations title was followed by a narrow series defeat by South Africa.

That came after winning the first Test with 14 men and a historic maiden victory over New Zealand. They ended the year by beating Australia, becoming the first European nation to defeat the southern hemisphere's big three since England in 2003.

Ireland have, under Schmidt, generally avoided risk but as 2016 went on they offloaded more in a game plan that was not quite as prescriptive. If they are not going the way of England, where the emphasis is on player responsibility, a slightly looser rein has made them more dangerous but they need Jonathan Sexton, their master of tactical kicking, to overcome the calf problem that rules him out of the opening game.

Italy

•2016 record: P10 W4 L6

•Average points v tier one nations: 16.7

•2016 Six Nations: 6th

•Key man: Sergio Parisse

Since joining the tournament in 2000, they have won 12 matches and lost 72. As ever, much will fall on their No. 8 and captain, Sergio Parisse. As their scoring record shows, they are the team least suited to the faster pace of the international game.

The forecast of showers in Rome on Sunday may increase the number of set pieces against Wales. But coach Conor O'Shea tried a new combination at half-back in the autumn in Carlo Canna and Giorgio Bronzini and there will be a tactical shift in the coming years. Their task is to be competitive for longer than the first round.

Scotland

•2016 record: P10 W6 L4

•Average points vs tier one nations: 21.9

•2016 Six Nations: 4th

•Key man: Finn Russell

Since winning the last Five Nations in 1999, Scotland have had only three top-half finishes and reached no higher than third. There is cautious optimism with visible signs of progress under Vern Cotter last year: more tries and points were scored, another narrow, late loss to Australia was followed by victory over Argentina and there is competition for places - most notably the midfield, second row and back row.

In 2014, Scotland scored 47 points, 38 of them against Italy and France, and had only four tries. The latter total rose to 11 last year, the first time they had reached double figures since Italy's inclusion. The manner in which Glasgow qualified for the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup for the first time has provided a pre-tournament bounce. A relative lack of experience and power make them unlikely title contenders but they have the capacity to shock.

Wales

•2016 record: P13 W6 D1 L6

•Average points v tier one nations: 24.2

•2016 Six Nations: 2nd

•Key man: George North

Wales won three of their four autumn internationals, their best return in the series, but won few plaudits from supporters and pundits. Under interim coach Rob Howley, they are moving away from the formula that won them the title in 2012 and 2013 when their threat was physical and aerial, recognising that victory against a tier one nation is statistically unlikely now without scoring 25-30 points.

Wales got into the 30s only against Italy last year (Japan are tier two) while conceding 30 points or more four times. Howley named seven new caps in his squad and, if he is likely to start with the tried and tested against Italy in Rome, the return of Rhys Webb at scrum-half will add impetus. It is at fly-half where a selection dilemma may come. Dan Biggar, who prefers to lie deeper, is being challenged by Sam Davies, who likes to stand flat and attack the line.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2017, with the headline 'England struggling with injuries but still the team to beat'. Print Edition | Subscribe