Six Nations: Team-by-team guide

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The Six Nations kicks off this weekend as England go in search of a third consecutive title amid stiff competition. While the reigning champions head to Italy for their opening match, Wales host a Scotland side whose chances are being talked up by many.

But it was Ireland who dashed England's hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams last time out, and they will look to begin their campaign with a bang away to France. With four more rounds of fixtures to follow until the finale on March 17, we take a look at each of the sides involved to see how they are shaping up. As ever, the six nations is Live & Exclusive on beIN SPORTS CONNECT

 

ENGLAND

Who's in charge?  

The inimitable Eddie Jones has led England to 22 wins in 23 matches, including a Grand Slam success at the 2016 edition of this tournament. The 58-year-old was named the World Rugby Coach of the Year for 2017.

Who's got the captain's armband?

Dylan Hartley's position as skipper has come under some scrutiny as the hooker continues to struggle for form with Northampton Saints, but the 31-year-old appears to have the backing of his coach.

Who's the key man?

Saracens star Owen Farrell is prolific with the boot and displays a cool head with the ball in hand. He can help make England tick.

What happened last year? 

England retained their Six Nations crown, despite finally suffering a loss under Jones' stewardship, going down 13-9 against Ireland in Dublin. 

What's expected this year? 

The last two Six Nations titles have gone England's way and they are favourites to make it an unprecedented three on the spin. That burden of expectation has rarely been a problem for Jones and his men, but once again they are the side everyone else is out to get.

 

IRELAND

Who's in charge? 

New Zealander Joe Schmidt's Ireland tenure has seen the country win this tournament twice, though questions have been asked since they failed to build on a 2016 win over the All Blacks.

Who's got the captain's armband?

Rory Best has not enjoyed the ideal preparation for the Six Nations with his wait for an extension to his Ulster and Ireland contract continuing to drag on. However, the commitment of the veteran hooker, who skippered the British and Irish Lions last year, during the competition will surely be unwavering.

Who's the key man?

Unlike Best, CJ Stander's future is sorted having agreed a three-year deal with Munster in December despite interest from France. The powerful number eight is bound to eat up the metres and will look for any opportunity to get Ireland on the front foot.

What happened last year? 

The final-game win over England ensured second spot for Ireland, who were always playing catch-up after suffering a 27-22 loss to Scotland in their opener. 

What's expected this year? 

Having won the tournament two years running before England's recent dominance began, Ireland's expectation will be to usurp the holders and claim the honour for themselves once again.

 

SCOTLAND

Who's in charge? 

It will be a first Six Nations at the helm for Gregor Townsend, whose appointment has provided a significant boost for a Scotland side very much on the up.

Who's got the captain's armband?

Since making his international debut at the age of 20, back-rower John Barclay has become an integral part of Scotland's make-up, with 66 caps to his name.

Who's the key man?

Scotland's new-found confidence has manifested in a style of play that is a joy to watch and Stuart Hogg is a major part of that.

What happened last year? 

Wins over Wales and Ireland showed the potential that this Scotland side has, even if points difference left them in a rather harsh-looking fourth spot.

What's expected this year? 

Lots. Scotland's progress was underlined by two wins over Australia and a gutsy performance in defeat to the All Blacks in 2017, form that has marked them out as genuine contenders. 

WALES

Who's in charge? 

Two-time British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland is the man charged with the almighty challenge to make an injury-plagued Wales outfit competitive this year.

Who's got the captain's armband?

It has fallen to Alun Wyn Jones to give his patched-up team as much guidance and leadership as possible.

Who's the key man?

Liam Williams is set to miss Wales' first game, but Gatland has expressed hope he will feature in the tournament and his involvement would give the side a huge lift.

What happened last year? 

Beating Ireland in Cardiff proved to be the highlight for Wales last time out, with Italy the only other side they defeated en route to fifth.

What's expected this year? 

Fitness woes have blighted Gatland's selection options and will in all likelihood limit their chances of troubling the trophy engravers. 

 

FRANCE

Who's in charge? 

Jacques Brunel was appointed to turn things around for France, who sacked Guy Noves after six winless matches in 2017. Brunel knows what it takes to win the tournament having been an assistant to Bernard Laporte for the Grand Slam triumphs in 2002 and 2004.

Who's got the captain's armband?

The backing to remain as skipper from Brunel will no doubt be a boost to Guilhem Guirado, but the hooker will be expected to lead by example and help France turn in some vastly improved displays.

Who's the key man?

Kevin Gourdon's versatility on the back row makes him hugely important for Les Bleus. He is predominantly a flanker, a position at which he has excelled for La Rochelle, but he may find himself being used at number eight.

What happened last year? 

How different it all might have been had France held on to their lead to win at Twickenham. As it was, a Ben Te'o try handed Les Bleus a losing start in the competition and, despite wins over Scotland, Italy and Wales, put paid to their aspirations of a first triumph since 2010. 

What's expected this year? 

Of all the sides, France may be the least predictable. With a new coach and several fresh faces in the mix on the playing side, they could well capitalise on the advantage of having three home games this year.

 

ITALY

Who's in charge? 

Conor O'Shea may have the toughest job of all the coaches, with a fight on his hands to avoid another whitewash like the ones Italy have suffered in each of the last two editions.

Who's got the captain's armband?

Sergio Parisse, the colossal number eight, has the skills to grace any team, but it is Italy who have been blessed with his presence for an international career that has spanned 16 years.

Who's the key man?

Italy are not a one-man team, but few players stand out as brightly for their side as Parisse does for Italy. With him, they have hope.

What happened last year? 

A familiar tale unfolded for Italy, who lost all five matches and claimed the wooden spoon for the third time in four years, taking their overall tally to 12.

What's expected this year? 

Quite probably more of the same. O'Shea's men are rank outsiders and can only hope England endure a slow start when they arrive in Rome for Sunday's showdown.