6N: England still favorite despite long injury list
LONDON (AP) — With every bulletin of another player breaking down, England's prospects of an historic third successive Six Nations rugby triumph have been fading away.
Or have they?
Conor O'Shea, whose Italy side will host the English first up next week, laughed off talk that without 15 front-line players England was weak and vulnerable.
At a gathering of coaches and captains on Wednesday, O'Shea reeled off a potential England lineup of Vunipola, Hartley, Cole, Lawes, Launchbury, Itoje, Robshaw, Simmonds, Youngs or Care, Ford, Farrell, Joseph, Watson, May, and Brown. More than half were incumbent British Lions.
"Is that an injury crisis?" he posed.
Not to England coach Eddie Jones, who quipped that he should improve camp security if O'Shea knows the side.
"I can't control injuries," Jones said. "I'm not Donald Trump. I can't build a wall and ringfence our players."
Just this week, Jones had to replace prop Kyle Sinckler and center Henry Slade.
He said all he can do was work with who was fit, an attitude which has led England to 22 wins in 23 matches on his watch.
He remained bullish about his team's chances, citing a wrestling session on Tuesday at their camp in Portugal, in which "you learn who wants to work hard and who doesn't. We have a squad that wants to work hard, and I know the players are prepared to go even further.
"The 15 players we put on the field against Italy in Rome will do England proud."
Just as positive was Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, who said an injury list - his includes Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Jared Payne - "is not as significant as it used to be."
"We have 13 guys that were selectable who may or may not get back during the championship. But every team is building some real depth," he added.
"I looked at the All Blacks-Scotland game in November, and thought, wow, Scotland is missing this guy, this guy, this guy, and they were one score from beating the All Blacks for the first time. That sort of thing is not unusual now. Wales beat South Africa (in December) with guys missing as well."
Schmidt believed he was worse off in 2016 with absentees through injuries or post-Rugby World Cup retirements. The Irish finished third that year.
Neither did Wales coach Warren Gatland believe the rate of injuries was any different. His walking wounded included Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies, Dan Lydiate, and just this week, backs Dan Biggar, Rhys Priestland, and Liam Williams.
"I'm pleased we've got those two fallow weeks (during the championship), they're important," Gatland said. "There's been talk of reducing the Six Nations to six weeks, five weeks, and I don't think the Celtic nations would survive five internationals in a row and be able to put a team out to compete with England and France, who have depth in numbers."
Gatland said the injuries were to be expected because the players run a gauntlet before the Six Nations of club derby matches over the holiday period then European club matches in January.
Scotland, which has spent most of the last two decades trying to avoid the wooden spoon, had its hopes raised by former coach Vern Cotter. Now his replacement Gregor Townsend is trying to turn that hope into wins.
"If you have high expectations of players, you're saying, 'I believe in you,'" Townsend said.
His fortunes are already turning, with the return to fitness of the likes of Stuart Hogg, Greig Laidlaw, Mark Bennett and Richie Gray, who all missed the November tests.
The only way seems to be up for France. Two years of miserable results, capped by a lucky draw with Japan in November, cost coach Guy Noves his job on Dec. 27. Jacques Brunel came in and has taken in stride the lack of preparation time, along with his own lengthening injury list. This week, he had to replace experienced backs Morgan Parra and Brice Dulin.
Brunel has also brushed off the police raids on French rugby headquarters and the home of federation president Bernard Laporte. They have had no influence on the team, he insisted.
The reputation of the French is as a dilemma; talented individuals with questionable fitness.
"I'm OK with that," Brunel said. "If you go along with the stereotype, they were at their worst recently and now they're going to give their best."
O'Shea, who replaced Brunel as Italy coach two years ago, has been busy fixing his team's own similar reputation. Progress has been slow but visible.
"We're not at the level we need to be but we're miles better than where we were," O'Shea said.
"We're not going to win (the championship) yet, but we're the ones who will put a banana skin under somebody."