Dreams made or broken on opening weekend
January 31, 2014
The captains of the Six Nations © Getty Images
It's that time of the year again; the moment in the calendar when dusty, weathered jerseys are brushed off. There is a palpable feeling of nostalgia in the air; the Six Nations is back with the countries going toe to toe for a trophy with a capacity of 3.75 litres - enough to hold five bottles of champagne.
The weekend's action kicks off with champions Wales hosting Italy with England then travelling to Paris to face Les Bleus. On Sunday Scotland travel to Ireland and ahead of the first round of Six Nations matches, ESPN brings you a rundown of the complete picture.
My fantasy XV
Wales v ItalySaturday, 2.30pm, BBC One
Things are looking bleak for Italian rugby at present. Their clubs endured yet another woeful Heineken Cup campaign and they are unsure over just which competitions they will be playing in next season. While Wales' players are probably enjoying some better form, they too are having to park off-field uncertainty as they continue to be dogged by the unsavoury dispute engulfing the Welsh game.
Wales skipper Sam Warburton is benched for the opening game but there is enough about the Welsh team that makes them overwhelming favourites to win this opener. Italy have a host of injuries and have opted for youth with Tommaso Allen starting at fly-half but if they were to storm the Millennium Stadium, it would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament.
Weather: Looks like rain for Cardiff with a temperature of around 7°C.
Odds: Wales are a huge 1/33 to beat Italy with the Azzurri priced at 18/1 to win.
Key Stat: Italy have a solid set piece and finished with the best lineout (90%) and scrum (91%) last season
Prediction: Wales by 25.
France v EnglandSaturday, 5pm, BBC One
Wales the favourites
With just 20 games between now and the 2015 World Cup for England, Stuart Lancaster has had his second crack at building a team. Debuts have been handed to Luther Burrell and Jack Nowell and while plenty of column inches has been given to talk of England's culture and the work Lancaster has done, that will count for little if the young team crash and burn in Paris.
France endured a woeful 2013 and finished at the foot of last year's championship. The pressure is on Philippe Saint-Andre to stop the rot and he too has rolled the dice of selection opting for the uncapped Jules Plisson at fly-half for Saturday's late kick-off. With Thierry Dusautoir crocked, a lot of pressure rests on the sizeable shoulders of Pascal Pape and openside Bernard le Roux.
Weather: The conditions should be perfect with the sun breaking through with the temperature a cool 8°C.
Odds: France are favourites at 4/7 with England at 6/4. Nowell is 12/1 to score the first try on his debut.
Key Stat: France love to kick and last season they hoofed away more possession than any other country.
Prediction: France by three.
Ireland v ScotlandSunday, 3pm, BBC One
The imperious Brian O'Driscoll © Scrum.com
Ireland are at the start of that path under Joe Schmidt and while they can take some solace from that memorable performance against the All Blacks, they will want victories rather than valiant defeats. While there is an exciting new era breaking out, all the focus will be on one soon-to-be retiring veteran as Brian O'Driscoll begins his final championship for Ireland. His incumbent replacement Robbie Henshaw will be waiting in the wings.
Scotland are an unpredictable bunch. Interim boss Scott Johnson has kept the faith with Kelly Brown at openside despite suggesting previously his place in the side was under threat. The exciting Matt Scott is benched with Duncan Taylor preferred at inside centre.
Weather: It should be a cloudy 7°C in Dublin on Sunday.
Odds: Ireland are clear favourites at 1/8 with a tie - by no means completely out of the question - priced at 33/1.
Key Stat: The Scots only away win in the Six Nations from their last 17 fixtures since 2006 and that was over Ireland in 2010.
Prediction: Ireland by 15.
Who's the most successful captain? © Scrum.com
What the coaches have said
"We need to make sure we get out of the blocks and don't get caught with our pants down."Wales' Warren Gatland
"Plisson is one of, if not the best fly-half in the French league at the moment so why would I be scared to pick a young player? I started in the Six Nations when I was 19 or 20 and I survived."France's Philippe Saint-Andre
"The upside is that they have no fear." England's Stuart Lancaster on his young side
Three match ups to watch
Wesley Fofana v Luther Burrell: The French centre is just a joy to watch and Burrell will need to call on all of his Heineken Cup experience to nullify the Clermont runner.
Rhys Priestland v Tommaso Allan: Italy's Allan is yet to play in the Six Nations and has a handful of Perpignan games to his name. Wales' Priestland is back in the Welsh driving seat having endured a difficult couple of years and will hope to shine.
Rob Kearney v Stuart Hogg: Two Lions fullbacks, but two No.15s who have a different style of rugby. Scotland's Hogg is a more direct runner while Ireland's Kearney has a superb tactical brain.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
Bows, bouts and big hits, launches, lineouts and late tries. Here's the finest snaps from the last seven days: it's Week in Pictures time
The Scotland coach enters his first Six Nations with at least one familiar face to look to for inspiration - Joe Schmidt. He chats to Tom Hamilton
Italy coach Jacques Brunel spoke to ESPN ahead of his final season as Italy coach and tells of his desire to experiment and evolve
"There's no bull with me, I just tell it straight." Tom Hamilton talks to Warren Gatland in an exclusive interview