Six Nations Preview: Team by team guide, predicted finishes and ones to watch
CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 16: Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones and team mates celebrate with the Championship trophy after their Grand Slam win after the Guinness Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at Principality Stadium on March 16, 2019 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Wales:

Even though Wales have three home matches this year, traditionally even years are the most difficult campaigns as they have to travel to England and Ireland. Wales will begin the defence of their Grand Slam at home to Italy in the opening game of the tournament. Wayne Pivac has instantly put his stamp on this Welsh squad by including the majority of the World Cup squad, mixed with some eagerly anticipated uncapped players who play over the border.

Wales have injuries going in to this tournament. They’re already without centre Jonathan Davies and prop Tomas Francis for the whole campaign. Full back Liam Williams and centre Owen Watkin are also ruled out of the opening weekend. To overcome this, there has been talk of George North moving in to the centre, having played a few games for the Ospreys there in the past few weeks.  Saracens centre Nick Tompkins could be another option in the centre. The return to fitness of Taulupe Faletau will be greeted with joy by the Welsh fans. The Welsh back-row options will be healthy with any of Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Ross Moriarty and Faletau worthy of a starting place in this side.

One to watch: Louis Rees-Zammit. The 18-year-old Gloucester wing has ripped defences up in the Gallagher Premiership this season with his blistering pace. He’s tipped to make his Wales debut next weekend against Italy.

Predicted finish: 3rd

England:

England will begin their campaign with a tough challenge against a new look France in Paris. If England come through this match with a victory and without any injury concerns, they will go on to win the title this year.

Eddie Jones will look to build on his sides World Cup Final defeat against South Africa last year. With an eye on the future he has included eight uncapped players in his squad. There is also no recognised number 8 in the squad with Billy Vunipola ruled out with a broken arm. Fans are baffled that young Alex Dombrandt hasn’t been included following his recent club performances.  It looks as if uncapped openside Ben Earl and blindside flanker Lewis Ludlam will battle it out for the number 8 shirt to line up alongside Tom Curry and Sam Underhill in the back row. George Furbank could become a surprise name at full back come next Sunday after impressing for Northampton this season. The tournament has come at a good time for the eight Saracens players in the squad after the news of their relegation came out last week. Led by Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje, it is a good idea to expect England to win the Six Nations title this year.

One to watch: Tom Curry. The England blindside came into the setup at last year’s Six Nations and impressed in the World Cup also. Curry will be an influential figure in this England side looking to build on a World Cup heartbreak.

Predicted finish: 1st

Ireland:

Ireland will also begin a new era this February under Andy Farrell. He hasn’t wasted any time making his mark on the squad with the omission of stalwart Rob Kearney alongside the likes of Jordi Murphy and Sean Cronin.

Injury means they could be without new Captain Jonny Sexton for the opener against Scotland. This means there may be a chance for one of either young Ross Byrne or uncapped Billy Burns to start against Scotland. Ulster scrum half John Cooney’s form this season will surely give Farrell a headache whether to pick him over veteran Connor Murray. Cooney is the top scorer in the Pro 14 this season having scored 94 points for his province including 4 tries. Ireland could struggle this year without the likes of Rory Best who’s retired and the injured Tadhg Beirne and John Ryan up front.

One to watch: Jacob Stockdale. The Ulster winger has already scored 16 tries in 25 appearances for his country. He finished as the tournament’s top try scorer in 2018 scoring seven tries but scored just two last year. Class is permanent so expect him to be back at the top of his game and scoring tries again.

Predicted finish: 4th

Scotland:

Scotland will come into this tournament wanting to make amends for their disappointing World Cup campaign. They are the only other team along with England to retain the same Head Coach after the World Cup. Gregor Townsend will look to start building squad depth, with one eye on RWC 2023 in France. Stuart Hogg has been named as the new Captain in a squad which contains six uncapped players.

There are number of surprise omissions from the squad, including forwards Ryan Wilson and Richie Gray, and backs Duncan Taylor, Nick Grigg and Peter Horne.  Scotland fans will be delighted that the form of centre Huw Jones has earned him a recall alongside Matt Scott and Cornell Du Preez. Scotland will travel to Dublin on the opening weekend where a loss will be a big blow to this side’s confidence. There's a lack of quality in this Scottish team, especially now playmaker Finn Russell is not in contention to play the opening game. He could miss the whole campaign after “a breach of team protocol” Scottish Rugby have confirmed. Scotland host England in the Calcutta Cup match on the second weekend, where there will surely be no repeat of last year’s heroic comeback in the 38 – 38 draw between the two sides. Scotland will be in a battle for the Wooden Spoon this year.

One to watch: Hamish Watson. The Flanker has been in impressive form for Edinburgh this season. He’s helped his side reach the Quarter Finals of the European Challenge Cup. Watson is a very physical player who is good at the break down and an aggressive ball carrier, he will be a bright spark in this Scottish team.

Predicted finish: 5th

France:

Fabien Galthie has been named as the new Head Coach of France. He has named a 42-man squad for the tournament, including 19 uncapped players. Galthie has included a number of players who were part of the France Under 20’s side that have won each of the last two World titles, this includes fly-half Louis Carbonel who played in both of those.

He has also brought in 2019 Grand Slam winning coach Shaun Edwards to add some defensive steel and structure to the team.  They welcome England to the Stade de France on the opening weekend, and it will be interesting to see what France side show up. It will either be the France side who’ve played quality Rugby in the past or the side who have been so wasteful in recent years. France could be in with an outside chance of the title this year with so many impressive youngsters alongside the few that impressed at RWC.

One to watch: Romain Ntamack. The talented youngster may not be starting with the 10 jersey on come next week, but he will surely be in the matchday squad. After making his debut in last year’s tournament the playmaker went on to win World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year for 2019. He will surely become a leader in this French side fuelled with youngsters.

Predicted finish: 2nd

Italy:

The Italians have appointed Franco Smith as their new Head Coach to replace Connor O’Shea. He’s named just three uncapped players in his 35-man squad. Smith has said that he’s trying to mix youth with experience in his first tournament in charge.

Legend Sergio Parisse has not been named in the squad but is set to return for at least one of the home games to bid his farewell to the Italian fans. This has come after what would’ve been his final match against New Zealand was cancelled at RWC because of Typhoon Hagibis. Benetton hooker Luca Bigi will lead Italy into the new decade. They will be targeting their home match against Scotland as their only real chance of a win in the tournament. The last time they beat the Scottish was in 2015 at Murrayfield.

One to watch: Matteo Minozzi. The 23-year-old full back scored four tries in the 2018 tournament and earned himself a move to Wasps to play in the Gallagher Premiership. He struggled with injuries last season, but now he’s back fit I expect him to be the standout player for the Italians.

Predicted finish: 6th

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