Despite Wales being the obvious and deserved favourite for the title, the reality is that there is enough potential in all teams to win the oldest championship in world rugby.
A 2009 championship that takes added importance, essentially doubling as the selection period for the British Lions to tour South Africa later this year.
Saturday 7 February: England V Italy
HEAD TO HEAD, England won 14, Italy won 0
Last game played: 10 February, 2008, Stade Flaminio Rome - Italy 19, England 23
The biggest surprise is Andy Goodes recall to the national side after a two year hiatus, after Danny Cipriani was demoted and Toby Flood was ruled out with injury. But the Brive standoff is the top point’s scorer in this year’s Top 14 and regarded as a tactical kicking number ten.
The return of inform World Cup winners Mike Tindall and Mark Cueto bodes well for England’s attack, which stuttered most of last year. It is a powerful pack, with recall of Andrew Sheridan and the retention of the young loose forwards who impressed in New Zealand last year.
Italy will fancy their chances, after pushing the English last year and being unlucky not to beat the Wallabies at the close of 2008. This was courtesy of their rapidly evolving tight five.
Former Springbok maestro Nick Mallet may move flanker Mauro Bergamasco to play scrumhalf as his three first choice number nines are injured. At first five, Andrea Marcato is likely, and much will rest on his shoulders. If he can dictate play with ball from a quality pack, this could be an opening round upset.
England: 15-D Armitage (London Irish); 14-P Sackey (Wasps), 13-M Tindall (Gloucester), 12-R Flutey (Wasps), 11-M Cueto (Sale Sharks); 10-A Goode (Brive),9- D Care (Harlequins); 1-A Sheridan (Sale Sharks),2- L Mears (Bath), 3-P Vickery (Wasps), 4-S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), 5-N Kennedy (London Irish),6- J Haskell (Wasps), 7-S Armitage (London Irish), 8-N Easter (Harlequins).
Saturday 7 February: Ireland V France
Croke Park, Dublin
HEAD TO HEAD, Ireland won 28, France won 51, five draws
Last game played: 9 February, 2008, Stade de France, Paris - France 26, Ireland 21
Lievremont has surprised some by unveiling a very powerful looking line up, forgoing the common experimentation seen last year. In last year’s Six Nations he looked to be perfecting France’s offensive systems, while in the autumn internationals it appeared there was fine tuning of the set piece and forward platforms.
The only question mark was his halves selections—but Stade Francais’s Beauxis and Castre’s Tillous-Borde see the reuniting of the Under 21 French pivots that won them the junior 2006 World Cup.
The big surprise for Ireland is Paddy Wallace being selected at inside centre, rewarded for some magical form for Ulster, with 2008 find Luke Fitzgerald is switched to the wing for what is a quite formidable Irish three quarter division.
Kidney has retained the pack that outmuscled Argentina at the close of 2008. The temptation to switch David Wallace has been resisted, and we shall be treated to the clash of two outstanding defensive back rows.
Outside of this, the Irish will need their home advantage to hold off a French side many think will challenge Wales for the title. The Irish sit on a current seven game losing streak against Les Bleus.
The French will be looking for their fifth Six Nations title in the last eight years.
France: 15-Clement Poitrenaud, 14-Julien Malzieu, 13-Yannick Jauzion, 12-Florian Fritz, 11-Maxime Medard, 10-Lionel Beauxis, 9-Sebastien Tillous-Borde; 8-Imanol Harnordoquy, 7-Fulgence Ouedraogo, 6-Thierry Dusautoir, 5-Lionel Nallet (capitán), 4-Sebastien Chabal, 3-Benoit Lecouls, 2-Dimitri Szarzewski, 1-Lionel Faure.
Ireland: 15-R Kearney (Leinster); 14-T Bowe (Ospreys), 13-B O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), 12-P Wallace (Ulster),11- L Fitzgerald (Leinster); 10-R O'Gara (Munster); 9- T O'Leary (Munster); 1- M Horan (Munster), 2-J Flannery (Munster),3- J Hayes (Munster), 4-D O'Callaghan (Munster), 5-P O'Connell (Munster), 6-S Ferris (Ulster),7- D Wallace (Munster), 8-J Heaslip (Leinster).
Sunday 8 February: Scotland V Wales
HEAD TO HEAD, Scotland won 48, Wales won 62, three draws
Last game played: 9 February, 2008, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff - Wales 30, Scotland 15
The defending champions will open their campaign as deserved favourites, after Grand Slamming last year’s tournament and being the only northern nation to lower the colours of one of the Tri Nations giants. However, a post Grand Slam hangover must be avoided, after the Welsh 2005 Six Nations champions crashed to come fifth when defending their title the following year.
The Red Dragons will likely name a powerful side, with the only real quandary facing Warren Gatland will be the surprising depth available to him, especially in the halves.
Also Ospreys players Gavin Henson and Mike Phillips are fit, and poised to make their international returns. Much interest will be if Leigh Halfpenny will make his six nations debut. They will look to become the first Welsh team since 1909 to win back to back Grand Slams.
For Scotland, tight forwards Euan Murray and Nathan Hines are being given till the last hour to prove their match fitness, but otherwise Frank Hadden has the luxury of motivated in form players.
The results of Scotland’s provincial teams in recent months have been encouraging, and this provides the advantage of having numerous combinations through partnerships from the Glasgow and Edinburgh teams; as is the form of his backline players.
The perennial modern day underachievers of Europe have much to prove, but it is likely that a firing Welsh team will be too much for Mike Blair and his men.
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