Gone are the days when England would dole out humiliating punishments to their opponents of this Saturday, Six Nations new boys Italy. Back in 2001, under the inspirational captaincy of current manager Martin Johnson, and emboldened by 35 points from Jonny Wilkinson, England purred to an 80–23 victory, a record score for the tournament. How different it all was at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome last season.

In a contest that saw Wilkinson top 1,000 international points, England floundered and looked devoid of ideas, eventually stuttering to a 23–19 win. An unlikely success in Paris coupled with a Danny Cipriani inspired demolition of an error-strewn Ireland gave cause for optimism. Unfortunately, what has transpired since has done the complete opposite.

The summer tour of New Zealand, with all its unsavoury aspects, is best forgotten. The autumn internationals against the crème de la crème from the Southern Hemisphere hardly left the Twickenham faithful licking their lips in anti-cipation, as Johnson’s new-look Fifteen were found wanting in all three encounters that mattered, against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

The low-level all-round performance of the side was compounded by a litany of mistakes, with the likes of Cipriani often the culprit. Mind you, the fact that the precocious youngster was fast-tracked back on to the Test stage so soon after sustaining a serious injury playing for his club Wasps was surely another factor in his indifferent form.

To his credit, manager Johnson has been refreshingly candid about his charges’ recent performances: ‘We learnt some harsh lessons in the autumn,’ he admitted. ‘We weren’t good enough, and we were disappointed we could not perform at a higher level. We could have done better that’s the coaches, myself and the team. It’s about making sure we get the best out of this group and performing at the level we know we can do.’

So, despite being bereft of confidence, following their autumn debacles, England should have enough class at their disposal to open their campaign with victory against an Italian side, whose main frailty is a serial lack of discipline, something their South African coach Nick Mallett has worked tirelessly to redress.

Having said that, however, the Italians will, no doubt, be buoyed by the number of penalties that England conceded during the autumn. Italy displayed true grit and determination last term when prevailing 23–20 over Scotland, with their kicking proving a potent weapon. Everyone in the Northern Hemisphere looks up to the Welsh these days.

Champions last year, they showed when shading it 21–18 over Australia in November that they possess both the nous and skill to retain their crown. As for England, the chances of repeating the success of that halcyon year of 2003 seem remote. For fixtures, visit www.rbs6nations.com

England

Overview

Having no settled team since 2003 has showed in the side’s curate’s-egg performances. Muscular in style, they relied for too long on the boot of Jonny Wilkinson. Manager Martin Johnson needs to instil confidence into a side still smarting from three autumn defeats

Team selection

Their cause has not been helped by the loss of the influential Bath prop Matt Stevens, whose drug problem could mean a two-year ban. This unexpected setback, coupled with injuries to the likes of Lewis Moody and Tom Rees, have made it a rocky road

Vital contest

The St Valentine’s Day clash in Cardiff with the champions may determine their fortunes

Overall chances

Slim. England’s main players will have to rise up and be counted if they are to mount a challenge

Players to watch

Saracens’ Steve Borthwick is a born leader. Much will depend on Mike Tindall and Danny Cipriani

Current odds: 7/2

France

Overview

There is a large question mark hanging over coach Marc Lievremont, and it all revolves around the position of fly-half

Selection problems

Lievremont has named just one No 10 in his squad, Stade Français playmaker Lionel Beauxis, who perversely dons the full-back jersey for his club more often than not, with Argentinian star Juan Martín Hernández taking the fly-half role. With David Skrela injured and Frederik Michalak out of form, the coach’s hands may have been tied, but it still represents a gamble. 2008 star Vincent Clerc is also missing

Overall chances

Les Bleus won the title in 2006 and 2007, but not even diehard supporters would bank on them this time Vital match Wales travel to Paris on February 27 for what should be a pivotal contest.

Players to watch

Beauxis and Sebastien Chabal, the darling of French rugby, will dominate

Current odds: 3/1

Ireland

Overview

‘The Six Nations is one of, if not the best annual international tournament in the world.’ So said Ireland coach Declan Kidney. The Irish kick off their campaign on Saturday at Croke Park Dublin against the unpredictable French. A home victory would not be beyond their capabilities

Selections

Ireland welcomes back Leinster centre Gordon D’Arcy, player of the tournament in 2004 and 2005, after a lengthy injury lay-off

Overall chances

Victory over France on Saturday, and anything is possible

Vital match

Their last success in the old Five Nations tournament was way back in 1985. Wins over England on February 28 and in Wales on March 21 could see them Six Nations top dogs for the first time

Players to watch

The fly-half and leading points scorer Ronan O’Gara and captain Brian O’Driscol

Current odds: 3/1

Italy

Overview

If the players that make their living in England and France, in particular their Argentinian-born No 8 and captain Sergio Parisse , perform to their potential, the Azzurri could create a few shocks. But discipline remains a problem. Since joining the championship in 2000, they have been sound in Rome, but needed 20 matches before their first away win, 37–17 over Scotland in 2007

Selections

Coach Nick Mallett named six uncapped players, including two, Treviso back Tommaso Benvenuti and Rovigo winger Andrea Bacchetti, who are still part of the National Youth Academy

Overall chances

They won’t win the Six Nations, but, if their big guns fire, they should be able to engineer one victory

Vital match

The final fixture with the French on March 21 will be a passionate affair

Players to watch Sergio Parisse, Italy’s world-class star, and the experienced Marco Bortolami

Current odds: 66/1

Scotland

Overview

Several shoots of recovery showed during the autumn internationals, in particular, the tussle with world champions South Africa, which would have resulted in a shock win if penalty chances had not been spurned. Coach Frank Hadden has former Scotland legend Gregor Townsend on his coaching staff, definitely a shrewd appointment

Selections

Despite erratic form last season losing to Italy, yet out gunning England in a real slog Hadden had no real concerns over selection. Having their ace goal kicker, Chris Paterson, in the team is a real insurance policy

Overall chances

If Paterson is fit and Mike Blair pulls out all the stops, the Scots could embarrass a couple of the more fancied nations

Vital match

This Sunday at Murrayfield against the Welsh

Players to watch

‘Mr Reliable’ Paterson  and skipper Mike Blair, who would merit selection in any squad

Current odds: 14/1

Wales

Overview

Victory over Australia injected even more confidence into the Welsh camp, and with the return of several star names, their canny Kiwi coach Warren Gatland must surely feel his team is capable of making it three titles in five years

Selections

Wales welcome back Huw Bennett, Charlotte Church’s ‘other half’ Gavin Henson, Mike Phillips and Jonathan Thomas riches indeed!

Overall chances

They have risen like  a phoenix since their dismal World Cup in 2007 to become probably the best side in the Northern Hemisphere. Only over-confidence can prevent them retaining their crown

Vital match

England next Saturday is a must-win game, but the trip to Paris on the evening of February 27, will show what Gatland’s troops are made of

Players to watch

Leading try scorer Shane Williams  and the precocious back Leigh Halfpenny

Current odds: 2/1