With no World Cup or Lions tour to distract the attention, the RBS Six Nations is rugby’s biggest draw for 2012. Mark Smith previews the action ahead of tomorrow's big kick-off
AMID all the talk of World Cup debacles, off-field shenanigans and managerial hirings and firings, the fact England are the reigning Six Nations champions is easily forgotten.
Beaten just once during last year's championship, it is an almost unrecognisable collective which carries the mantle into tomorrow’s opening round.
Gone are Martin Johnson, John Wells, Brian Smith, Mike Ford and Dave Alred, with only scrum coach Graham Rowntree remaining in place from the brains trust which attacked the competition last time round.
Wells and Ford have moved on to matters of a different kind at Newcastle Falcons, but still England find themselves searching for the long-term solution as Stuart Lancaster assumes temporary charge.
The Yorkshireman – a Scotland A international in his playing days – has been fighting the good fight on the PR front, moving quickly to drop Danny Care after his drink-driving conviction and banishing Delon Armitage from the Saxons following an alleged night-club skirmish.
This was all part of January’s phoney war with no meaningful rugby to speak of, but it played well with Joe Public in the battle for hearts and minds.
More significant, however, remains the seismic change ushered in by the new broom and his fresh faces.
Gone are the veteran cart-horses with Mike Tindall, Shontayne Hape, Lewis Moody, Louis Deacon, Mark Cueto, Jonny Wilkinson, Steve Thompson and Andrew Sheridan all put out to pasture through a mixture of injury, retirement and straight selection omission.
There is a new captain – well, two in fact.
Tom Wood, handed the leadership role, will be sat in the Murrayfield stands nursing a dodgy toe as Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw leads the team into Calcutta Cup battle with the Auld Enemy.
Technically not a debutant after his only appearance for a scratch England side against Argentina three years ago, he captains a spring-heeled XV lacking nothing in dynamism but short on the hard-edged nous only gathered by years at the international coal-face.
Again North East interest is thin at best, with a clutch of former Falcons in the frame as Phil Dowson readies for his England debut, joined by Lee Dickson and Geoff Parling on the bench and with Toby Flood preparing to return during the later rounds.
The only active Falcon to receive a call is again prop-forward Euan Murray, who anchors the Scotland scrum.
True to type, coach Andy Robinson’s charges look big on work-rate and physicality but low on the X-factor required to prise open the highly-organised defensive walls of the international arena. Hampered by a wafer-thin playing pool with just two professional teams inside the nation’s borders, it is steady and unspectacular stuff with the boot of Dan Parks expected to pick off chunks of territory.