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RBS Six Nations – England in Everyone’s Sights.

RBS Six Nations – England in Everyone’s Sights.

England start their defence of the RBS Six
Nations Grand Slam title next Sunday knowing their rivals will be just as interested in knocking them off their perch as actually stopping

England start their defence of the RBS Six
Grand Slam title next Sunday knowing their rivals will be just as interested in knocking them off their perch as actually stopping them winning the world’s
second most prestigious trophy.

Quite apart from it being England – the side that everyone loves
to beat in
any sport – it gives the other teams the chance to measure themselves
the world’s best outfit even if they have lost Martin Johnson to
and talismanic kicker Jonny Wilkinson to injury.

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While Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan holds out hope England will
complacent and under-par without the latter pair, his England
Clive Woodward denies they will be taking anything for granted even
rank outsiders Italy on February 15th.

“This is a tournament we want to win. I’ll be picking a team
to beat Italy,
as simple as that,” said the newly-appointed British and Irish
Lions handler.
“I don’t see that playing Italy is any more difficult than
Australia, especially away from home. They are the most physical team
we will
play in the Six Nations,” added Woodward, who insists against
the evidence
that even without Johnson and Wilkinson England would still have won
the World

However while England’s rivals hope they enter the tournament in
over-confident mood, other sides have their own World Cup
psychological scars
to heal.
Among those are last year’s Six Nations runners-up Ireland and
2002 Grand
Slam champions France.

Ireland are still reeling from their 43-21
thrashing by
the French in the quarter-finals while France have their own revenge
to take
after being outplayed and outfoxed by England in the semi-finals.

Both sides will have to do without the services of some of their
celebrated players with Keith Wood having hung up his boots.

On the
side the inspirational Fabien Galthie and hooker Raphael Ibanez have
called it a day.

“There is losing and losing badly and we left that match with
a sick
feeling at the bad fashion in which we had lost,” said
O’Sullivan, who will
have to contend with a growing injury list which could include
captain Brian
who is fighting to recover from a right hamstring injury.

France coach Bernard Laporte has been rearmed with a new four-year
but realises that a poor tournament could see him lose several of his
staff, who have been placed on probation.

However Laporte, while admitting beating England in the last match
would be
the icing on the cake, acknowledges until the players take some
themselves for their fitness then they will be chasing a lost cause.
“There are three teams in the World better than us but we
will close the
gap eventually.

“However we can do that only if the players take the England
squad example
by being more aware of their fitness regime.

“We should change the way we think but it is not the club who
can do that,
it is the player – they have to be more professional,” the
39-year-old said.

Of the Six Nations skippers only Colin Charvis of Wales survives
from the
World Cup and it is the Welsh, based on their successful campaign –
England to their stiffest examination before the final – who could
well pose
the biggest danger to England.

A successful tournament would give coach Steve Hansen the perfect
as he returns to his native New Zealand for a likely post as
assistant to All
Blacks coach Graham Henry, who was his predecessor in the Welsh job.

Certainly Hansen is bristling with confidence ahead of their
showdown with the Scots but insists the gutsy defeats to England and
the All
Blacks will count for nothing if they don’t reproduce that form again.
“I thought the guys did well at the World Cup and I hope we
can build on
that,” said the 44-year-old former police detective.

“I hope we can build on that and it’s important that we don’t
take any
backward steps in the next few weeks,” added Hansen, who admits
he doesn’t
tire of talking about the 28-17 defeat by England at the World Cup.

Scotland can hardly go into a tournament with lower expectations
but having
shed several of their fading stars – Bryan Repdath, Gregor Townsend
and Kenny
all having retired – and with a new coach in Aussie Matt
place there is fresh hope of a new Scots side.

Italy could win the Grand Slam every year if it was based on
enthusiasm and
the inner belief of their charismatic coach John Kirwan, but he will
for two wins this time round – which would be a first since they were
to the Six Nations in 2000.

Kirwan wants his Italy squad to treat
the Six
Nations matches as if it were their first love affair.
He also is demanding an Italian rugby team goes where none has
gone before
in the Six Nations and win an away match.

“What I tell the players, as Italians understand this sort of
thing, is to treat
the match as like the first time you ever fell in love.

“Obviously don’t go kiss the opposing players but think of the
emotion and
commitment that was involved in the love affair and put that into the

The 39-year-old former All Black great believes the growing
within the squad makes it feasible they will also win two matches for
first time since they were admitted to the tournament in 2000.

“We should win the Grand Slam,” quipped Kirwan, who took
over from
compatriot Brad Johnstone in May 2002.

“Obviously we have to think that way but realistically I am
looking for a
home and an away victory – against England and France of
course!” he added
with a hearty laugh.

Kirwan believes that such a target is attainable, though he admits
there is
still a way to go before his side is the finished article.
“We are retaining the ball for longer periods and dominating
very good
teams for longer … but we have to put that effort up to 80 minutes
and kill
them off,” said Kirwan, who was an integral member of the All
Blacks side that
captured the inaugural World Cup in 1987.

“We have improved a lot and I see our level at 40 percent at
the moment but
we have the potential to improve even more and that is what I want to
see at
the Six Nations.”

Key to this is a continued improvement in their disciplinary
record which
was dire during Johnstone’s regime and again Kirwan sees light on the
“I won’t sanction cheating in any form nor yellow
cards,” he said.
“But we are improving and that was illustrated with our
average penalty
count against us going down from 24 a match to eight at the World Cup.

“We are a tough team physically but I want that constrained
to the right
measures such as tackling, not underhand tactics.”

Kirwan, though, is encouraged in the morale of the squad which he
says has
come on in leaps and bounds since he took over – Johnstone’s tenure
was marked
by rumours of dressing room discord against the genial but tough Kiwi
– and it
is this that can keep them going through the tough times.

“The aura of self-belief is running through the squad and if
we can
maintain our confidence through the bad times in the Six Nations, and
will be some of those, then we will come out of it well,” he