Key storylines ahead of the Six Nations

Date published: February 10 2017

The Millennium roof, a bit of Scotland trivia and late concerns for Wales and Ireland as well as some Italian sense.

1) That roof…

Eddie Jones hasn't the best memories of the Stadium Formerly Known As The Millennium given it was after losing to Wales there in 2005 that he lost his job as head coach of Australia, and even though his annoyance throughout the week at questions over the roof was mainly playing up to the media, the fact a decision was at last made on Thursday afternoon that it would stay open has thankfully given us our sanity back.

England's last two trips to Cardiff have gone as follows; 2013 (roof closed), hammered 30-3. 2015? A comeback 21-16 win. Does it make a difference?

Only if the heavens will open, which a forecast of a brisk four degrees celsius and no rain means will not be happening. Time then to get on with the game.

2) Scottish consistency

No win in Paris since 1999 but forget that worn-out stat – when was the last time Scotland won back-to-back games in the Six Nations when one of their victims was not Italy? The answer is… well, they haven't.

Not since 1999 (that magical Scottish year) have Scotland won back-to-back games in the Five/Six Nations against two sides with Italy not involved.

A 30-13 victory over Ireland came before that win over France in Paris. Sunday's game therefore could be a knife through the record book, as Scotland cross the channel with Hogg and the Grays and Laidlaw full of confidence.

3) Welsh injuries

Dan Biggar and George North's selections on Thursday were met with a degree of scepticism after their knocks in Rome and while Biggar seems set to make the cut, given Owen Williams has been named on the bench for Leicester Tigers, North's place appears in doubt after his dead leg in Rome.

North's withdrawal will mean a start for Alex Cuthbert, with uncapped Steff Evans having to wait his turn. The fact that last Sunday's try against Italy was North's first since September felt incredibly weird and illustrates how accustomed we have become to the Welsh giant delivering, with his absurd record of 69 Test caps at the age of 24.

Make no mistake, North will be missed, and England will be happier to not be going up against him. Sam Davies seemingly did enough in addition to get a start, but opting for Biggar's experience is understandable.

4) Signs of Italian hope

Sergio Parisse, thankfully fit for the weekend, said this to PA Sport on Friday: "Beating South Africa with the system we have in the country at the moment was a miracle."

The more of that honesty the better, and as rough as the waters might be for Italy this weekend welcoming a scorned Ireland into the capital, Parisse and new head coach Conor O'Shea appear to be cut from the same cloth when it comes to a lack of sugar-coating the slump Italian rugby finds itself in.

Which is why those calls for Six Nations relegation, growing ever louder over the last year, whilst being heard also need to be lowered until O'Shea has had a fair crack at overhauling Italian rugby in a way his predecessor was never able to.

"He has put in place an extremely professional environment with the national team, and we must try to pass this system onto Zebre and Treviso. It's not easy, but that's the point." Hear hear.

5) French finishing

We stressed this point in the fallout of the opening weekend and our analyst broke down where France's attack is beginning to show signs of life even if the execution isn't quite there yet. 

Splutter again though on Sunday and patience will begin to wear thin. Scott Spedding, who played out of his skin last weekend, and the threat posed by Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci provide a back three combination that should frankly have tries to spare in their locker, not forgetting the work of the in-form Rémi Lamerat.

Struggling for tries makes sense if a pack is on the back foot, but that certainly wasn't the case at Twickenham when France turned up the power and their back row, no one more than Louis Picamoles but not forgetting the superb Kévin Gourdon, caused havoc. Combine that energy with an attack that learns to execute and imagine the results. French supporters however are sick of imagining the future and quite rightly want it now.

6) Best concern

Ireland's trip to Rome feels like a march to a bonus-point but one late bit of news on Friday is the news that Rory Best is struggling with a stomach bug, which would not only leave Ireland without their captain (although Jamie Heaslip is fully capable) but a major lack of experience with the uncapped Niall Scannell on the bench (for now) and James Tracy with his one cap against Canada last November.

Scannell it should be stressed has been in brilliant form for Munster, although this is when missing the experience of Sean Cronin could hurt Ireland. That said, not even Best's absence should stop Ireland starting with a bang. They have ground to make up after all.

by Ben Coles

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