Have France finally found their own Ronan O’Gara?

Six things to keep an eye on in this year’s Six Nations

Have France finally found their own Ronan O’Gara?

ENGLAND: For all their protestations to the contrary, England have a thing about Cardiff. The Red Rose is always liable to be vaporised there and when an English team last ran riot at the Millennium Stadium, some years ago, one visiting player claimed a Welsh fan head-butted the team coach — not Clive Woodward, the bus. Current head honcho Stuart Lancaster says they have learnt the lessons of the last time, when they crossed the border on a Grand Slam and ended up victims of a serious mugging. If England are smart they will play a 10-man game in Cardiff this time.

Despite a savage injury toll, England will still have a formidable pack backed by a class act in George Ford. They also still have a running sore in midfield, exaggerated without Manu Tuilagi and his wrecking ball.

Win in Cardiff and England are home for the rest of the tournament save for an awkward trip to Dublin.

Lose in Cardiff and their World Cup date with the Welsh at Twickenham in September will look decidedly ominous.

FRANCE: As a teenager, Camille Lopez used to be so overweight he could have passed for a budding prop. The Fat Boy’s change of shape, among other things, since then suggests France might just have found a match-winning fly half at last. Heaven knows, it has taken them long enough.

Since the advent of the Six Nations, they have tried so many at 10 that the number runs into double figures. A few take some remembering – Thibault Lacroix, Alexandre Peclier, Benjamin Boyet, Julien Peyrelongue and Francois Gelez who appeared briefly against Ireland at Lansdowne Road in 2002.

Others, like Frederic Michalak, David Skrela and Gerald Merceron, lasted a bit longer while Francois Trinh-Duc is only just back in training from a broken leg. What makes Lopez different is not that he possesses a wide range of kicking and passing skills, which he does, but that he has the navigational capacity to steer an often headless team around the field.

France look as though they have found their Ronan O’Gara...

IRELAND: Joe Schmidt will not need to be told getting to the mountain top is one thing, staying there a different matter entirely. Ireland have not managed that since Jim McCarthy’s try against Wales clinched a second successive Five Nations title in 1949.

The schedule (Italy away, France and England at home) may be decidedly Irish-friendly but if the holders are to make the most of it, they must first show they are still capable of winning without Jonny Sexton.

While Schmidt deals with the here-and-now, he cannot let the tournament pass without taking a few squints at the World Cup. If, as they say, it takes 30 players of inter-changeable quality to win the Golden Fleece, then last week’s Wolfhounds’ defeat showed Ireland are short.

Big reinforcements are on the way back, not just the ball-carrying duo of Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien but the prodigious Iain Henderson. For now the tough decisions extend beyond the battle at No 10 to the evergreen Gordon D’Arcy.

Can Ireland really afford to leave him out?

ITALY: Sergio Parisse has been lumbered with enough wooden spoons over the years to justify going into the timber business. The mind boggles at how many more would have been foisted on the Azzurri had it not been for their monumental No. 8.

Scotland have finished bottom three times, Wales and France once. Italy have done so 10 times and if they are to avoid an 11th, Parisse knows they have to revive their capacity for the shock result, like beating Ireland and France.

Now Parisse will demand they repeat their win over the Irish two years ago and make it a highly improbable hat-trick of home wins over the French following those of 2011 (22-11) and 2013 (23-18). Their chances hinge on finding a play-maker at fly half and they haven’t found one since Diego Dominguez retired.

Kelly Haimona, a New Zealander who played for Connacht, can only hope to make a more lasting impression than other converts like Rima Wakarua and Craig Gower. If the Italians do play with the ambition demanded by Parisse, Newcastle lock Josh Furno will be worth watching.

SCOTLAND: For a country long stricken by a chronic habit of failing to score tries, Scotland are running them in from all over the place. There were five against Argentina before Christmas and five more against Tonga with one against the All Blacks in between.

It’s as if Vern Cotter has flicked a switch which his immediate predecessors, Scott Johnson and Andy Robinson, didn’t know existed. The $64m question now is whether the Scots can start against France in Paris tomorrow where they finished off against Tonga.

Cotter, whose dislike of talking about himself suggests he might have arrived via a Trappist monastery rather than Clermont, ought to make the Scots fun to watch. If they are to do wonders for the championship, two players will have major roles to play – Jonny Gray in a fraternal second row alongside his big brother and Blair Cowan in the back row.

WALES: The Welsh purists clamouring for more dash and less bash are dismayed to find the mercurial Liam Williams stuck on the bench while the gigantic Alex Cuthbert carries on as normal despite not scoring a try for the Cardiff Blues since the first day of the season.

Warrenball rules, ok? Wales, equipped with a pair of wings taller and heavier than most second rows of the 70s, will carry on bashing with Jamie Roberts basher-in-chief.

Last year Warren Gatland’s strategy failed miserably during the two matches that mattered most – Ireland in Dublin, England at Twickenham. They ought to make home advantage count against the old enemy tonight but not unless they cure the bad habit of throwing away as many as five lines-out.

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