England

Overview

Predicting which England will turn up these days is like forecasting the weather. Their one November victory, over Argentina, was a dire contest with too much ‘kick-tennis’. Their paucity of tries-one in their last three Tests-is the prime problem. But the inclusion of try-poacher Chris Ashton could mark a change in their fortunes

Vital contest

The clash with Wales, which, in the words of Wales coach Warren Gatland, is ‘now huge for both sides’

Overall chances

Better than last year is the best that can be said

Players to watch

Riki Flutey and Jonny Wilkinson, whose kicking prowess is still second to none

Current odds 4/1

Ireland

Overview

The holders and Grand Slam champions are in fine fettle to defend their crown. IRB Coach of the Year Declan Kidney hasn’t put a foot wrong since his appointment in 2008, and, with the likes of centre Brian O’Driscoll pulling all the strings, who would bet against them?

Overall chances

They have so much self-belief that another Grand Slam shouldn’t be beyond them

Vital match

The face-off with France in Paris on February 13-it could decide the championship

Players to watch

World Player of the Decade O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, successful captain of the Lions

Current odds 9/4

Italy

Overview

Will miss the services of their one truly world-class player, captain Sergio Parisse, following a serious knee injury. Lack of discipline has always been coach Nick Mallet’s main concern, and it’s doubtful if they will improve on last year’s dire campaign in which they lost all five contests

Overall chances

Probably zero, but, on their day, can ruffle a few feathers

Vital match

The game with England at the Stadio Flaminio on St Valentine’s Day, as England often struggle in Rome

Players to watch: Lock Marco Bortolami and experienced full-back Andrea Masi

Current odds 250/1

France

Overview Les Bleus stirred Gallic blood with a 20-13 success over South Africa in November, before being outplayed to the tune of 39-12 by New Zealand. Somewhat surprisingly, they’re the bookies’ favourites, despite lacking a host of frontline performers

Overall chances

Coach Marc Lievremont has said ‘the tournament will be tough’. But, if their natural flair comes to the fore, they should have enough in their armoury to run Ireland close

Vital match

The home game with England on March 20-always a great occasion

Players to watch

Fans’ favourite Sebastien Chabal and wing Vincent Clerc

Current odds 6/4

Wales

Overview

The 2008 champions will be without Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel, which has created a scrum-half problem, but with 2008 World Player of The Year Shane Williams in their line-up, the Welsh will always be a threat

Overall chances

On paper, not as great as last year, when fourth spot was obtained, but no Wales XV is a poor one, so a good outside bet for the championship

Vital match

Their tussle at Twickenham with an England side that has still yet to convince

Players to watch

Record try-scorer Williams and full-back Lee Byrne

Current odds 7/2

Scotland

Overview

Former England coach Andy Robinson has instilled some real steel into the Scottish defence, which was best illustrated by the nail-biting 9-8 defeat of Australia last November

Overall chances

Scotland have shown enough improvement in recent times to suggest the side can better the fifth slot of last year’s tournament

Vital match

This Sunday’s meeting with France at their home stadium of Murrayfield will show by just how much the Scottish side has improved

Players to watch

Goal-kickers, Phil Godman and Chris Paterson, with the latter requiring just two caps to
register his century

Current odds 20/1

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