Grand Slam champions Wales will kick off the 2013 Six Nations campaign on home soil as they welcome Ireland to the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, but a disappointing few months in the Welsh camp has seen them hit a major rut and they will be hoping that over the next couple of weeks they can recapture the form that saw them romp to victory in Europe's most prestigious International Rugby competition and very nearly make the World Cup Final in 2011.
Wales interim boss, Rob Howley, will be looking to galvanise his squad after they suffered four defeats in the Fall Internationals, with losses to Argentina and Samoa highlighting their sudden dip in form. A few new faces may reignite the Welsh team in Saturday’s lunchtime game and with a vociferous home crowd roaring them on, all concerned will be hoping that Wales will prove a tough nut to crack for an Irish side that were last seen beating Argentina 46-24 in November.
Declan Kidney’s men may go into the clash as outsiders but they ooze experience with the talismanic Brian O’Driscoll likely to spearhead a superb back line. If they can get on the scoresheet in the early exchanges then they could cause some nervousness around Millennium Stadium and with the razor-sharp boot of Jonathan Sexton likely to be kicking penalties with aplomb, Ireland will be sure to put pressure on a wilting Wales outfit.
Later on Saturday, all eyes will be on Twickenham in South West London where England will meet old adversaries Scotland in one of the highlights of every Six Nations tournament. England boss, Stuart Lancaster, will be hoping his side can build on their phenomenal win over World Champions New Zealand at the back end of last year.
Stubbornness in defense twinned with flare in attack saw England tame a flourishing All Blacks outfit in December and if they can show the same skill level on Saturday then they should steamroll a Scotland side who have struggled in recent seasons to land any sort of blow in this competition.
With "battering ram" Manu Tuliagi on the sidelines for the Calcutta Cup match, Lancaster has opted to hand Billy Twelvetrees a centre berth, where he will be hoping to replicate the form he has been showing for his club side, Gloucester, this season. Joe Marler is the only other change from the side that beat New Zealand, as he replaces Alex Corbisiero, who is out of the tournament with injury.
Scotland have made six changes to their starting XV, which lost to Tonga last time out, but their new personnel will face a stiff task at the home of English Rugby and that is why they are huge underdogs to record victory in a game that should be relatively straightforward for Lancaster’s men.
France, who are currently vying for favorites with England for the Six Nations crown, will kick off their 2013 campaign with a trip to Italy on Sunday and are 12 point favorites to get the better of their rivals in Rome, whilst Italy will be looking to build on last year’s fifth place finish in the final standings.
The mercurial side of the French always makes them an intriguing team to watch and they showed, when making the World Cup final 15 months ago, that they have the ability to punish the best in the world, but they will be hoping for greater fortunes this term, as their fourth position in the 2012 table was far from impressive.
A comfortable 30-12 win over Italy last year suggests that this won’t be a "banana skin" for Philippe Saint-Andre’s outfit and they should be able to overpower the Italians all over the pitch and look to use the victory as a stepping stone to tougher assignments later in the competition.
Six Nations Week One Predictions
England to win by more than 16 points
Ireland to beat Wales
France to beat Italy by more than 13 points