Composite: Guardian design
Coach Steve Borthwick Captain Jamie George Last season Fourth
If it’s all change for everyone this Six Nations, that’s especially the case for England. Like everyone except Italy, they have a new captain – and their absent previous, Owen Farrell, is second in profile to France’s absent captain. They also enter this championship with the qualifying honor of a World Cup bronze medal, a welcome change from the dismal form of previous Six Nations campaigns. More than that, however, they don’t have a large number of players. Injury crisis? No. These guys just chose to play somewhere else. Amid the changing dynamics of modern rugby, playing in the Six Nations for England is no longer the draw it once was. The good news is that George should be a natural as captain. England also theoretically have the easiest opening rounds, against Italy and Wales respectively.
Main role George Ford. With Farrell gone, the stage is set. He has tended to play in the shadow of his old friend, but Ford is one of the great fly halves of English history.
Coach Fabien Galthié Captain Gregory Alldritt Last season Second
If playing club rugby in France trumps playing for England in the Six Nations, playing for France in the Olympics also seems to put the old championship lower on a player’s list of priorities. Antoine Dupont, the former France captain, will not appear this year as he prepares for the Olympic Games in Paris with the French seven-team team. Not only that, but the actual France team has been pushed out of the Stade de France as it also prepares for the event later this year. France will play their home games (three of them) across the country, starting with what seems the obvious decider next Friday evening when Ireland visit Marseille. From smooth sailing to a grand slam for the winner? Perhaps, although France faces a tough second round in Edinburgh. But even without their respective talismans, France and Ireland remain superior to all others. Continue with the World Cup final that never happened…
Main role Jonathan Danty. Damian Penaud is as supremely gifted as his missing captain, but he will find life a lot easier if France can unleash Danty in midfield.
Coach Andy Farrell Captain Peter O’Mahony Last season Grand Slam
At least Ireland has lost its captain and talisman for old-fashioned reasons. Even Johnny Sexton has had to accept that he can’t go on forever. How Ireland respond to his absence will go some way to determining the direction of this year’s championship. Whoever steps in at fly-half (most likely Munster’s Jack Crowley) there will be a huge drop in experience, from a triple-figure cap count to a single. That said, even in Sexton’s absence, Ireland have by far the most experienced squad in the Six Nations and O’Mahony is the man responsible for ensuring there are no dropouts. Can they become the first team of the Six Nations era to win back-to-back grand slams? All eyes on Marseille this Friday evening. A strange time, a strange place, a strange feeling to play without Sexton. If Ireland can make weird mean verse, they have every chance.
Main role Caelan Doris. He may not score goals or orchestrate plays, but if there’s any relative youngster who looks capable of becoming a talisman, it’s this dynamic ballplayer at the base of the Irish scrum.
Coach Gonzalo Quesada Captain Michel Lamaro Last season Wooden spoon
From the most experienced team to, by some distance, the most calm. In any case, Italy benefits like no other from the continuity of a well-known captain, but they have a new coach in the former Puma Quesada. Can we really muster the energy again to speak hopefully about a new era in Italian rugby? That 90-point defeat to the All Blacks was one of the most depressing results in World Cup history – and the 60-point loss to France made us all the more desperate. But the squad is inexperienced because Italy are bleeding a real talent who has captured the scalps of everyone in the junior Six Nations in recent years. And it is a squad based on that of Benetton Rugby (Treviso), who are in second place, behind Leinster no less, in the United Rugby Championship. We can only dream further…
Main role Tommaso Menoncello. The 21-year-old powerhouse in the Italian midfield, who has been ruled out of the World Cup due to an injury, is back. With Paolo Garbisi inside him and Ange Capuozzo outside, maybe something is starting to come together.
Coach Gregor Townsend Co-captains Rory Darge/Finn Russell Last season Third
Scotland have decided to move from one captain to two. Townsend has appointed Darge and Russell as co-captains, allowing their predecessor, Jamie Ritchie, to focus on his game. It should mean that Scotland is not short of leadership, even if they also lack a talisman. This will be the first Six Nations since 2011 not to feature Stuart Hogg. Scotland will be feeling tense at their failure to impress at the World Cup, but theirs was a thankless one indeed. They are looking forward to their opening assignment in Cardiff, after which it is the home games against France and England. It is not entirely impossible that they will go into the final round in Dublin undefeated. But they haven’t won at Lansdowne Road this millennium.
Main role Blair Kinghorn. No Hogg, but this guy has been more than ripe for the taking for a long time. Now counting himself among Toulouse’s rock stars, Scotland could well have a new dimension at the back. He can also run things from fly-half if necessary.
Coach Warren Gatland Captain Dafydd Jenkins Last season Fifth
The blows to Wales’ dignity keep coming. They suffered perhaps the most infuriating absence of all: Louis Rees-Zammit left for the NFL on the day of the team’s announcement. Ouch. This time last year they had ten players in their squad with more than 50 caps, three with more than 100, one with more than 150. Now they have five with more than 50 – and two of them play in the same position. There is very much a sense of reconstruction here. Gatland goes the other way, from co-captain to sole skipper, choosing the man whose anointing has only been a matter of time. Over to Jenkins, the youngest Wales captain since Gareth Edwards. He will find himself leading a team stripped of hundreds of caps of experience as the exodus since the World Cup continues. If Wales avoid the feeling of a long campaign, Jenkins will likely have proven himself worthy of the honour.
Main role Ioan Lloyd. There are gaping holes in the Wales squad where experienced men used to be. Lloyd is a classic Welsh genius of a playmaker who can play in a number of positions – and perhaps he should. It won’t be boring.