Key storylines ahead of the Six Nations

Date published: February 3 2017

Will Johnny Sexton really be missed? And what effect might bonus points have on the tournament? Here are the big talking points ahead of the Six Nations.

1) Elliot Daly’s second chance on the wing

Eddie Jones will be hoping Elliot Daly’s start on the wing for England on Saturday lasts far longer than his most recent outing, which took a whole five minutes before he was red carded against Argentina last November.

Jack Nowell’s missed training time this week for personal reason appeared to be the reason for his absence from England’s starting line-up but Jones stated that Daly has been picked on form, even through the Exeter man’s recent performances warranted a start.

Instead Daly gets another run, and his pace and ability under the high ball are likely to be tested with the forecast at Twickenham not exactly resembling Barbados. Nowell will be patiently waiting.

2) Is Sexton still integral?

The quick answer here is yes; of course Jonathan Sexton, multiple European Cup and Six Nations winner and the British and Irish Lions fly-half in 2013, is still vitally important to Ireland.

But equally it feels as though they have learned to live without him, as was evident in the tight series with South Africa last year.

Paddy Jackson’s form for Ulster in the Champions Cup this season softens the blow of losing Sexton, even though Ian Keatley might not inspire confidence off the bench. Winning comfortably at Murrayfield would certainly heat up the debate about how important Sexton really is.

3) Transferring Glasgow’s form to the Test arena

The way Glasgow Warriors ripped Leicester apart recently in the Champions Cup felt like the way forward for Scotland; a clever offloading game, ruthless set-piece and outstanding talents in Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg at the peak of their powers.

Gray was the best player in Europe in January and a whole host of Glasgow talents will feature against Ireland when Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Alex Dunbar, Finn Russell, Gray, Zander Fagerson and the rest all line up to belt out Flower of Scotland.

If that form transfers from the club stage to the Test rugby, then Scotland will be quite the force.

4) Wales playing it safe

Seven uncapped players in the squad and yet none have made Wales’ 23-man group for Sunday’s trip to Rome, which seems a waste of an opportunity to blood young talent.

Acting head coach Rob Howley stressed the need for experience in the opening game, clearly wary of what would be deemed a disastrous defeat, but if now is the not the time to try out new players then it’s hard to see when the right moment will come over the next two months.

Nicky Smith’s start at loosehead is the closest Wales have edged towards adventure. Rory Thornton and Thomas Young certainly deserve a shot sooner rather than later.

5) The age of Baptiste Serin

Serin started twice for France on the tour to Argentina last year, but that was fundamentally a developmental exercise for Guy Novès and his coaching staff, with Serin relegated back to the bench for France’s three matches last November.

Starting at Twickenham therefore is comfortably the biggest match of his career and the 22-year-old Bordeaux-Bègles number nine seems more than ready to handle the occasion.

Remember that round-the-back pass to set up a try against New Zealand? There is more where that came from. Serin might just be France’s long-term answer at scrum-half. Well, until Antoine Dupont wins his first cap…

6) Too soon for great strides for Italy?

Italy’s coaching staff certainly seems like the right line-up to get the best out of the Azzurri, involving Brendan Venter (defence) and Mike Catt (attack) with Conor O’Shea at the helm, and the win over South Africa felt like a landmark moment last November. as poor as the Springboks were.

Reviving Italian rugby is very much a long-term project but O’Shea’s job for now is purely to make them competitive again, in the process avoiding another wooden spoon.

Two selections for Sunday stick out; the energy Maxime Mata Mbanda offers in the back row, and moving Luke McLean to inside centre rather than starting Michele Campagnaro.

7) Bonus points

The Six Nations Committee resisted them for some time, but Saturday of course will be the first time bonus points have ever featured in the tournament with five points on offer should a team win and score four tries.

The previous system of two points for a win had a charming simplicity about it, but encouraging teams to chase bonus points either for bigger victories or to take something out of a potential defeat could lift what is already widely regarded as the best competition in the sport to another level.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the bonus points are very much on trial. So if it really does unfold into a disaster, the old system will be there ready and waiting with open arms. Making the return seems unlikely.

by Ben Coles

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