Six Nations: Wales eye glory, can England steal their crown?
The key players and key clashes that will decide the outcome of this year's tournament
THE 2014 Six Nations kicks off on Saturday with Wales looking to create rugby history by becoming the first country to win three consecutive championship titles.
No nation has ever scooped a hat-trick of Six Nations successes and the Welsh will require all of their experience and expertise if they're to enter the record books. Although three of their five matches are home, Wales must face England at Twickenham and the English will be thirsting for revenge following their 30-3 humbling in Cardiff last year.
With Ireland looking good, and a French side out to erase memories of their wooden spoon in last season's championship, the 2014 Six Nations is shaping up to be one of the most open for years.
ENGLAND: Once derided for their conservatism, England under Stuart Lancaster are a young and exciting side with 28-year-old full-back Mike Brown the oldest player in the XV selected to play France in their opening game. Despite injuries to key players such Manu Tuilagi and Alex Corbisiero, England's young generation includes wings Jack Nowell and Johnny May. Up front the pack is beginning to take on a tough edge as it showed in November when England ran the All Blacks close.
Player to watch: At 6ft 3in and over 17 stone, debutant centre Luther Burrell has shown he has power and pace for Northampton, but has he the vision and skill set to make the step up to Test rugby?
Key game: Their opening fixture in Paris. Win against France and that sets them up nicely for the rest of the tournament with Wales and Ireland both travelling to Twickenham
FRANCE: 2013 was the worst year for France since the professional era began, with just two wins from 11 matches and those victories coming against Tonga and Scotland. Coach Philippe Saint-Andre is under huge pressure to deliver after France finished bottom of last season's Six Nations but the signs are he's more sure of his side and his style this time around. Fly-half Jules Plisson, 22, wins his first cap against England but the long-term absence of captain Thierry Dusautoir is a blow for the French.
Player to watch: Jean-Marc Doussain. Just 22 years of age, the Toulouse scrum-half can also play fly-half and is an accomplished goal-kicker as well as an astute footballer.
Key game: If France can beat England they'll carry that momentum forward the following week for the visit of Italy to Paris, and then their fragile Gallic confidence will start to build.
IRELAND: Irish rugby is on a high right now, what with Ulster, Munster and Leinster all through to the last eight of the Heineken Cup, and memories of that incredible match against New Zealand still fresh. Despite the agonising defeat, Ireland's performance that day proved they have what it takes to compete with the best in the world. The absence through injury of Lions flanker Sean O'Brien will hurt them and they'll have to be at the top of their game when they travel to Twickenham and Paris.
Player to watch: Jonathan Sexton. Their experienced fly-half has been playing his rugby in France this season and the weekly grind of the fiercely competitive French league has taken the edge of his game thus far. Ireland need their master tactician to be at his sharpest if they're to have any chance of winning the title.
Key game: The Irish host Wales in their second fixture and matches between the two are usually fast and furious. With tensions allegedly remaining from the Lions tour – when the Irish and Welsh didn't always see eye-to-eye – the date in Dublin should be a cracker.
ITALY: With two wins last season – including a stunning defeat of the French – Italy finished a respectable fourth under French coach Jacque Brunel. They have a new fly-half in the half-Scottish Tommy Allan and any side led by the brilliant No8 Sergio Parisse should never be taken lightly. All the same, Italy will be unlikely to launch their campaign with a win against Wales but they'll be relishing the visits of Scotland and England to Rome.
Player to watch: Italy captain Sergio Parisse has been the most consistent No8 in world rugby over the last decade. Still only 30, the Paris-based Parisse has vision, athleticism and ball skills and always leads from the front.
Key Game: Italy have never beaten England but on their last three visits to Rome the English have had to work hard for their wins. The two clash on the final weekend and Italy will fancy their chances of causing an upset.
SCOTLAND: Humiliated 28-0 at home to South Africa in November, Scotland were as inconsistent as ever in 2013 with that defeat one of several that detracted from good displays elsewhere. With coach Scott Johnson departing at the end of the championship, he has nothing to lose in his team selection and his Six Nations squad contains a good mix of youth (23-year-old centre Alex Dunbar and wing Duncan Taylor) and experience (captain Kelly Brown and wing Sean Lamont). All the same losing the injured Tim Visser, Euan Murray and Alastair Kellock for the championship is a serious setback for the Scots.
Player to watch: Stuart Hogg went on the Lions tour but missed Scotland's autumn internationals with injury. Restored to full-back for the Six Nations, he will give his side a creative cutting edge out wide.
Key game: It's eight years since Scotland won their opening game of the Six Nations so how they'd love to start as they mean to go on – with a win away in Ireland.
WALES: This is a golden era for Welsh rugby what with Grand Slams in 2005, 2008 and 2012. Add in their title success last season, not to mention the fact they had ten players in the Lions XV that beat Australia in the third Test, and Welsh rugby has been the dominant force in Europe over the past decade. The loss through suspension of Ian Evans in the second row is cause for concern, and while Wales is teeming with brilliant backs right now the resources are thinner at prop and second row where coach Warren Gatland will be praying for an injury-free tournament.
Player to watch: George North is not only big but he also has blistering pace and soft hands for such a hulk of a man. Probably the best wing in world rugby right now.
Key game: Wales will win their first game against Italy but then the following week they travel to Ireland, the only side to defeat them last season.