Six Nations start World Cup show
The World Cup countdown is officially on, as the Six Nations sides get the first opportunity in the spotlight.
The Northern Hemisphere teams will look to sharpen up on their game plans, test out combinations and look to see who to cut from their World Cup plans.
With England hosting the global showpiece this year, the onus is on the Northern Hemisphere sides to fully challenge and grab the opportunity of a World Cup on their turf.
The conditions, referees and schedule seems to favour them.
The Six Nations in 2014 saw a tournament only decided on the final day – with three teams still able to win it. Eventually Ireland won it, a perfect swan song for arguably the greatest No.13 in the modern era – Brian O'Driscoll.
England won the triple crown, beating all the other Home Nations, but failed to win the Six Nations. Italy was also in the record books for the most tackles in a Test match as they made 208!
What do we expect in the 2015 edition of the Six Nations? Benedict Chanakira looks at each of the teams and their prospect!
The pressure is starting to mount as the showpiece approaches. There will be no better way to prepare that a challenging schedule in the World Cup tournament than their Six Nations campaign.
England will visit Cardiff and Dublin this year, where Wales and Ireland have been formidable.
The Welsh clash will be special considering they will vie for a spot at the World Cup in their group of death. Who will grab the mental edge?
With Manu Tuilagi's participation in the tournament, after months out due to injury, still uncertain, one would hope the big centre stays fit as he will be an integral part of Stuart Lancaster's World Cup plans. Injuries have hampered their progress over the last four to five months.
Young George Ford has produced some impressive performances as an understudy to the established Owen Farrell at flyhalf. Farrell had a tough year-end series and it will be important to give Ford a few chances, as well as a possible call to Danny Cipriani who has been in top form. Ford showed glimpses of brilliance in the year-end series and it will benefit England to allow the understudies starts against the tough Italians or the arch-rivals Scotland.
One selection we will all be looking for will be that of Sam Burgess, who is adapting steadily to Rugby Union. The question remains: What is his best position – in the centres or in the back row? Could he be the English's version of Sonny Bill Williams? Will he provide the team's x-factor!
The best back row player up north has to be Toulon-based Steffon Armitage. Will the RFU find a way to accommodate him, or should the player find a way to meet the RFU requirements?
England will find it tough to win this tournament and are likely to replicate last years' runners up finish. The two away trips to Wales and Ireland seem beyond them.
Les Bleus! The French continue to be the unknown factor in this tournament. Will they be able to take their year-end series form into the event, having won two out of their three games in November?
France managed to destroy Fiji, beat Australia and will look to win the Six Nations for the first time since 2010.
Could Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Camille Lopez be the halfback pairing France have sought out for so long? Morgan Parra will be a boost to the side which could see a halfback merry-go-round start all over again.
Despite a poor finish to the year-end campaign the French showed a lot of their swagger.
Whispers are doing the rounds in France that Jake White is a possible option for the job post Six Nations or post World Cup.
If there is anyone capable of bringing the best out of the French, and show us what they are about in a consistent manner, Jake is the man.
Enough about him. France are unlikely to win the Six Nations due to their inability to be consistent, but this will be another tournament where they will play a part in deciding who wins the showpiece.
They will look to improve on their fourth spot last season. Third will be their best bet.
A very favourable fixture list, a morale boosting win over powerhouse South Africa and Wales can go into this tournament with their tails up and their eyes firmly set on winning the crown.
Two home fixtures, against England and Ireland, will decide how this tournament will end up.
What they just can't seem to do is play a full 80-minute match. Should the game be played for 60 to 70 minutes the Welsh would be untouchable – unless they would then play 50-minute rugby!
Wales will look to answer the nagging question about their mental fortitude – or lack of it – and the ability to win against the big sides.
With rhythm returning to their play, the reason for this may be found in the midfield, where centre Jamie Roberts is starting to get back to his best. Will his combination with Dan Biggar prove the difference?
With Gareth Anscombe also in the frame as an unknown factor the Welsh have more going for than their opponents.
This tournament will give us a glimpse of their mental capacity.
The key to the outcome of the Six Nations will be the two matches against the English and Irish. Two wins will make them outright favourites. Easy fixture list.
They continue to improve and they are building toward the World Cup. Will the 2015 Six Nations be any different?
Their Six Nations record has been appalling in the last four years, with just five wins in 25 games. They show a lot of courage and are brave, but continue to be beaten by the same bug as most teams – inconsistency.
A performance that left all Scots proud was when they pushed the All Blacks all the way, albeit a weak New Zealand side.
The Scots boast strength in their forward pack, in the form of the Gray brothers Richie and Jonny, Adam Ashe and Ross Ford.
With Vern Cotter at the helm and some decent form in the November series they are bullish about their title chances – with Ford recently speaking about their quality, form and title credentials.
It will take a lot, as the side only managed a solitary, last-gasp win over Italy.
The captain, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Lamont and the rest of the experienced contingent are enjoying some form and it bodes well for Scotland this year.
With the majority of the squad coming from a Glasgow side that is impressive in the Pro12, a winning culture will surely be there. An opening round trip to France to get them up and running. What tone will they set?
No title since 1999, does not look like changing. Scotland look like claiming a big scalp. Will do well to avoid finishing below fourth.
The defending champions. The year 2014 was the perfect year for the Irish. Every game looked like they reached the end of a rainbow.
The men in emerald green were impressive and showed a lot of class from the Six Nations to an impressive year-end series – which saw them rise to third in the world rankings.
They could do little wrong and that saw growing believe in their chances of winning the World Cup.
Is it possible? Yes, it is, but 2015 could be too early. Teams struggle in their second season with increased expectations and few teams have managed this level of consistency, with New Zealand the only side to manage such excellence.
Ireland are outright favourites to win the Six Nations.
They defend exceptionally well, have a balance to their play and an efficient forward pack. The line-out and driving maul are strong weapons.
It will be interesting how they will fare at a packed Olimpico Stadium in Rome in the opening round.
Jonathan Sexton will be missing and that will allow Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson or Ian Keatley set to get the nod.
On the Irish books, no youngster has impressed more than Connacht's Rob Henshaw – who has raised his hand and will probably move to Leinster after a big couple of months.
A defining season for the youngster ahead. All Irish sides are in the top half of the Pro12 and continue to stake a claim for the title.
The Italians have more wooden spoons than most sides in the competition since their addition.
The y will have fond memories of their 2013 campaign, which saw the side claim two scalps – France and Ireland.
The side had an impressive showing against South Africa last year, before a Bryan Habana try sealed the match. Despite spirited performances, the Italians always seem to fall at the last hurdle.
With their best finish being fourth, in 2013, one has to wonder what are their chances in the 2015 campaign?
The only positive is that their home turf is difficult for visiting teams and could see some results go their way this year.
With a fading scrum, youth integration and the coming to an end of the careers of stalwarts – the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni, Martin Aguero, Lorenzo Cittadini and Sergio Parisse to name a few – this could be swan song for these Azzurri legends.
Progress remains slow, but the Italians just not world beaters yet.
Wooden spoon! An upset will be appreciated to spice up the tournament. Maybe a win in their opening game against Ireland at home? No.