Injuries take the spotlight ahead of Six Nations
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: Injuries during the Six Nations are one thing, but the fact they are a major talking point even before this season's edition kicks off highlights the increasingly brutal nature of professional Rugby Union.
Europe's elite international competition gets underway this weekend, with England looking to become the first side to win three successive outright titles in the long history of the Championship.
Yet they could be missing more than 16 players against Italy in Rome on Sunday, with wing Elliot Daly and star No.8 Billy Vunipola already ruled out of the entire tournament.
Scotland, fresh from a hugely encouraging November that included a 53-24 win over Australia and a narrow defeat to world champions New Zealand, are missing six front-row forwards.
Meanwhile, Wales, the Scots' opening opponents in Cardiff on Saturday, are without several British and Irish Lions in Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Dan Biggar.
But if any team can deal with a raft of injuries, it ought to be a well-resourced England.
Eddie Jones, the title-holders' Australian coach, said the Lions' gruelling drawn series in New Zealand last year partly explained the injury toll.
"You just have these runs," he insisted. "For the Lions players you can understand that the injury risk is high because of the lack of a proper pre-season that they have, but obviously they're not all Lions players."
Jones has tried to play down England's chances, even though he can still call upon the likes of flyhalf Owen Farrell, by installing Ireland, who inflicted the only defeat so far on his Red Rose record when denying them a second straight Grand Slam in Dublin last March, as Six Nations favourites.
Ireland's provincial sides have impressed in Europe's Champions Cup club competition and Jones said: "I think the expectation on Ireland is high, and it's how they handle it now, isn't it? It's different going into the tournament as favourites, rather than being the underdog."
But with their concluding game of the tournament at Twickenham - where England have not lost a home Test under Jones - Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said: "Bookies don't make money by being wrong. You've got a team [England] there that's won 22 out of 23 Test matches over the last two years."
Ireland too have injury problems, with the experienced Sean O'Brien and Jared Payne both sidelined at the moment.
Meanwhile, France have turned to a new coach in Jacques Brunel, the former Italy boss, in a bid to lift them out of a prolonged slump.
Rugby Union is not so strong at Test level that it can afford a sustained decline among its traditionally major nations and a French revival would be a welcome boost to the global game a year out from the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Brunel could entrust the key position of flyhalf to a 19-year-old in Matthieu Jalibert, having coached the teenager at Bordeaux.
"He's come on in leaps and bounds since the start of the season," insisted Brunel, whose side face Ireland in Paris on Saturday.
For Italy, under Irish coach Conor O'Shea, the goal remains one of self-respect and the need to improve on a desperate run of just one win in their last 20 Six Nations fixtures.
Last season, excluding matches in Italy, the only away win in the tournament was achieved by England against Wales in Cardiff.
By contrast Scotland, for all the attacking threat of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, have not won in the Welsh capital since 2002 - one reason why Saturday's clash could have such a huge bearing on their Championship.