Ahead of today's Six Nations opener, we look at the chances of each side gunning for glory this year and the key men that may well provide that extra sparkle along the way.
Head coach: Stuart Lancaster
Captain: Chris Robshaw
The Gloucester wing enjoyed a productive autumn and provides the Red Rose with match-winning ability on the left.
Verdict: A long list of absentees has nothelped Lancaster’s preparations, especially with trips to both Cardiff and Dublin on the horizon. Will still be confident of winning their three home games though, and if they can nick one on their travels will be in the hunt for silverware.
Head coach: Philippe Saint-Andre
Captain: Thierry Dusautoir
Last season: Fourth
Key man: Camille Lopez – France’s hopes could hinge on how their fly-half performs. Scored 16 points as Australia were beaten in November.
One to watch: Romain Taofifenua
Has rediscovered some of his best form following his summer move from Perpignan to Toulon, and has earned a recall after nearly two years to provide Pascal Pape and Yoann Maestri with competition in the second row.
Verdict: It should not be forgotten that France went into the final round of last year’s championship with a chance to win it, and Les Bleus still possess a squad full of quality. That said, trips to Ireland and England this time around make a title challenge difficult.
Head coach: Joe Schmidt
Captain: Paul O’Connell
Last season: Champions
Key man: Jamie Heaslip – Has been back to his best this season with outstanding performances for both Ireland and Leinster. Heaslip’s ball-carrying abilities could prove vital.
One to watch: Robbie Henshaw
Has taken the chance presented to him by Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement with aplomb, starting in the wins over South Africa and Australia and playing with an assuredness beyond his years.
Verdict: Defending champions, ranked third in the world, and entering the tournament on the back of an unbeaten autumn, it is hard to look past Ireland this time around too. With England and France visiting Dublin, they start the tournament as deserved favourites.
Head coach: Jacques Brunel
Captain: Sergio Parisse
Last season: Sixth
Key man: Sergio Parisse – Despite his advancing years Parisse remains both the captain and inspiration for Italy, forming a formidable back-row alongside Alessandro Zanni and Simone Favaro.
One to watch: Simone Ragusi
Able to play across the back-line, Ragusi, who began his career at fly-half but has switched to full-back since moving to Treviso last summer, will give Italy great versatility.
Verdict: Scotland’s resurgence under Vern Cotter has come at the wrong time for Italy, who will do well to avoid another wooden spoon this year. Their pack remains imposing and a match for anyone but they simply do not possess enough quality behind it and look set to lose all five matches.
Head coach: Vern Cotter
Captain: Greig Laidlaw
Last season: Fifth
Key man: Finn Russell – Epitomises the excitement that has engulfed the squad since Cotter’s appointment. Has lost just one of his five Test appearances – against the All Blacks – and gives the side a bit of spark in midfield.
One to watch: Alex Dunbar
Not much good came out of Scotland’s campaign last year, but Dunbar offered a glimmer of hope. His centre partnership with Mark Bennett continues to impress for club and country.
Verdict: What difference a year can make. Just 12 months after coming within a drop goal of the wooden spoon, Scotland head into this year’s championship full of optimism. Cotter’s young side are exciting and their performances in the autumn suggest a shock or two could be in the offing.
Head coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Sam Warburton
Last season: Third
Key man: Jamie Roberts – Alongside George North, he is the main beneficiary of Wales’ direct game plan, and when he is on form often seems unstoppable. Arrives in poor form but also fresh thanks to club side Racing Metro’s riches in midfield.
One to watch: Samson Lee
When Adam Jones describes someone as a “once-in-a-generation tight-head” you know they have to be special.
Verdict: Will want to put a marker down against England in Cardiff with the pair’s World Cup battle just seven months away. If they can recreate the kind of performance that saw them win 30-3 two years ago, then the momentum might just be behind them for another tilt at the title.
The Six Nations is not a tournament that needs any extra billing, but in World Cup year it is impossible not to look for clues of how the teams involved are shaping up.
Ireland enter the tournament as favourites, and rightly so, as they look to defend the championship title outright for the first time since 1949.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 5, 2015
Joe Schmidt has done an outstanding job since taking over from Declan Kidney, leading his side not only to last year’s Six Nations crown but also ensuring the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll was not allowed to derail their progress.
Consequently all three of Ireland’s autumn internationals were won, and as they approach this year’s championship the men in green are ranked third in the world.
But while Schmidt’s side are seen as the team to beat, the tag of favourites is not one that sits entirely comfortably.
Their affable Kiwi coach has labelled it a “distraction”, and while that attitude may surprise some Irish supporters, he has cause to be cautious with the involvement of his star player, Jonathan Sexton, in some doubt.
Sexton, the northern hemisphere’s stand-out fly-half last year, is in the midst of a stand-down period having picked up four concussions in 2014, and will not be eligible until the day before Ireland’s second game, against France.
Ian Madigan has been Schmidt’s preferred back up No10, but has found minutes hard to come by in that position for Leinster and was unable to inspire the Irish Wolfhounds past England Saxons in Cork last Friday.
That game did give Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy and Iain Henderson some vital game-time and fortunately for Schmidt, Ireland can ease themselves into the tournament with a relatively comfortable opening assignment in Rome.
That is not an option for either Wales or England, who kick off the championship with a mouth-watering clash in Cardiff on Friday night.
Mind games are never far away when these two sides meet, and with a World Cup meeting to come, they started earlier than ever this year.
Wales coach Warren Gatland has delighted in fanning the flames, initially goading England over the Millennium Stadium’s roof and then naming his side for the clash a full 48 hours ahead of schedule.
Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff have done their best to brush off the conjecture emanating from over the Severn Bridge, and indeed Gatland’s team held no surprises.
The same cannot be said for England, who have seen their squad decimated by injuries. Some good news has arrived with Dan Cole’s return to fitness, and Lancaster will hope the likes of Chris Robshaw, George Ford and Jonny May can keep his side in contention before they head to Dublin on March 1.
Robshaw, George Ford and Jonny May can keep his side in contention before they head to Dublin on March 1.
France arrive at Twickenham on the final weekend, and it is impossible to rule out the possibility of that clash having a say on the destination of the championship.
For all the talk of a diminishing talent pool, Philippe Saint-Andre has picked a squad packed full of ability, from captain Thierry Dusautoir, to fly-half Camille Lopez and wing Yoann Huget.
Yes, they must travel to England and Ireland but they face Wales and Scotland in Paris.
The Scots, though, are bouncing ahead of their trip to the Stade de France on Saturday and look set to make this a five-way fight.
Vern Cotter has brought excitement back into the camp and the work done by Gregor Townsend with the Glasgow Warriors could be about to bear fruit internationally.
Unfortunately, that would mean Italy facing the possibility of being cut adrift at the bottom.
The Azzurri are not expected to pull up any trees, but with four centurions in their squad hardly represent pushovers either, and will be hoping to catch Ireland off guard on Saturday.
If they did, it would be a fitting start to what promises to be an open six weeks.
Including only nine members of the team which beat Australia in the autumn in the starting XV, England recently revealed their side to face Wales in the opening match of the 2015 Six Nations Championship.