Six Nations Team-by-Team Guide: In-form Wales can challenge Ireland and England for title
Simon Mail assesses each of the teams in this year's Six Nations and suggests some tournament bets ahead of the opening weekend...
"Wales come into this year's competition with real momentum after their first clean sweep in the autumn internationals and a nine-match winning run."
Ireland are the team to beat
Ireland are the odds-on favourites to win this year's Six Nations and the defending champions are still the team to beat. Joe Schmidt has moulded his team into a winning machine and the Grand Slam last year spearheaded a brilliant run which culminated in a victory over world champions New Zealand in Dublin.
Now ranked second in the world, Ireland are considered genuine World Cup contenders and have won 18 of their last 19 matches. Their only defeat during this run came in Australia last summer but they still won the series 2-1 for their first triumph there for 39 years. The way in which Ireland dominated the All Blacks, in their 16-9 victory in November, only reaffirmed their status as the top side in the northern hemisphere.
Defending champions have few weaknesses
With fly-half Jonny Sexton pulling the strings in the backline and a ferocious forward pack there are no obvious weaknesses in their team. Jacob Stockdale made an outstanding debut campaign in the Six Nations, scoring seven times, with his record standing at 12 tries in 14 Tests. The prolific winger looks a banker to finish as top tryscorer for Ireland again.
Ireland are obviously well-placed to defend their crown but have a tough opener at home to England before tricky trips to Scotland and Wales. The champions look short enough in the outright betting and could miss out narrowly this time. Their attention may be turned towards peaking for Japan in the autumn and Ireland may have to settle for second place. It looks worth backing no Grand Slam winner this year with such a fiercely competitive tournament likely to see every team beaten at some point.
Predicted finish: Second
Some positive signs for England
England could do no wrong under Eddie Jones during his first two years in charge after steering them to back-to-back Six Nations titles. But it all unravelled dramatically last season after defeats to Scotland, France and Ireland saw them finish in a lowly fifth position. A similar outcome will not be accepted this time with Jones needing to ensure his team build momentum heading into the World Cup.
There were some positive signs during the autumn internationals as England were edged out by one point in defeat to New Zealand as well as defeating South Africa and Australia. It was not vintage rugby but several players stood out although the injury to flanker Sam Underhill, which has ruled him out of the competition, is a blow.
Farrell has pivotal role to play
With Dylan Hartley currently injured, Owen Farrell has taken over the captaincy solely and Jones has moved him permanently to fly-half. Farrell's leadership and tenacity will be hugely important to England in this tournament and the World Cup. His accuracy with the boot is second to none and he will look to create openings for potent finishers such as Jonny May.
England still have creative weaknesses which have been exposed over the last year. With a daunting start in Dublin it is difficult to have faith in them reclaiming the championship. Progress can be expected from last season's aberration but England are likely to come up short. Jones has always maintain the goal is on peaking for the World Cup and his team do not look best equipped to finish top of the Six Nations.
Predicted finish: Third
Wales have real momentum
Warren Gatland will take charge of his final Six Nations campaign and the New Zealander may sign off in style with another title triumph. Wales come into this year's competition with real momentum after their first clean sweep in the autumn internationals and a nine-match winning run. This has set them up perfectly for this championship with of course one eye further ahead to the World Cup.
Wales underlined their credentials as dangerous outsiders for Japan by defeating South Africa in November and ending their ten year winless run against Australia. There is no doubt Gatland has re-energised this Wales team and they look strong contenders this year after finishing second 12 months ago.
Home fixtures could aid title bid
Captain Alun Wyn Jones leads by example and the second-row is a hugely influential player in this team. George North has shown signs of getting back to his best form on the wing and the likes of centre Jonathan Davies offer a major attacking threat. To counter this, the injury to Leigh Halfpenny has not helped them but they have the squad depth to cope.
Wales head to France on the opening night and if they can come away with a victory it sets them up ideally for the championship. Gatland's side host both England and Ireland which could hand them the advantage in the title race. Considering Wales' current form and favourable fixtures, the team look worth backing at [6.8] for the title and also 21/10 to win in the betting without Ireland market.
Predicted finish: First
Scotland can cause problems
Scotland have shown an ability to topple the best teams over the last year but also a soft centre which has been exposed away from home. Gregor Townsend's side claimed a memorable scalp last season in the Six Nations, as they finished third, after beating England at Murrayfield. Their home record has been very impressive and there is no doubt their attack will cause problems for any side.
Injuries hit squad hard
Flanker Hamish Watson is the latest player to be ruled out of the start of the tournament with a fractured hand. This leaves Scotland without 20 players for the opening match against Italy. Townsend insists he has greater depth to cope with these absentees but it is difficult to see Scotland mounting a consistent title challenge.
Scotland have still not established a way to translate their home form into success on the road, after heavy defeats in Wales and Ireland last season. There is every chance of Ireland or Wales finding it tough to win at Murrayfield this year but probable defeats in France and England are likely to prevent Scotland from finishing in the top two.
Predicted finish: Fourth
France's away form too poor
France have underachieved for too long but there are signs Les Bleus could be close to a renaissance. The form of Toulouse and Racing 92 in the Champions Cup, with their talented group of players such as scrum-half Antoine Dupont and 23-year-old full-back Thomas Ramos, hint at a brighter future for France.
There are still question marks over the team's consistency though and November's home defeat to Fiji in their last match was a reminder of their fallibility. France, who finished fourth last year, also have a dreadful away record which makes it very hard to see Jacques Brunel's side contending for the championship. France have lost eight of their last ten away games in the Six Nations with their only wins coming in Italy. With only two home matches this season it could be another uninspiring finish for France.
Predicted finish: Fifth
Wooden spoon inevitable for Italy
Italy are overwhelming favourites to finish bottom of the Six Nations and in this increasingly competitive tournament the outsiders are likely to face another tough campaign. Conor O'Shea will focusing on ensuring Italy develop, regardless of their results, but the team have failed to win a match in the last three editions, a run stretching to 17 games, with their last tournament victory coming against Scotland four years ago.
Outsiders looking to claim scalp
Italy will probably look at their final fixture at home to France as their best chance of ending their losing run in the competition. O'Shea is still looking for his first Six Nations victory, having narrowly missed out in the 29-27 defeat to Scotland last year, but the reality is he simply does not have the calibre of players to compete against the other teams. A fourth successive wooden spoon looks inevitable for Italy.
Predicted finish: Sixth
Follow Simon's bets on Twitter @watfordtipster
Back Wales to win the Six Nations at [6.8]
Back Wales to win the Six Nations (betting without Ireland) @ 21/10 (Sportsbook)
Back Jacob Stockdale to be top Ireland tryscorer @ 6/4 (Sportsbook)
Back no Grand Slam winner at [1.78]