How the Six Nations leaderboard will look:

1 England

2 France

3 Wales

4 Ireland

5 Scotland

6 Italy

Will it be the march of the Red Rose or French fireworks? Will the Welsh be singing in the streets or Irish eyes smiling? Can the Scots and Italians cause a form upset at last?

England

Form

England are riding on the back of a quite remarkable 38-21 win over the world’s best team, the All Blacks. The poser for England fans is whether it was a one-off or the start of the Red Rose’s inexorable march towards 2015 World Cup glory in their own backyard.

Prediction

The bookies have them neck and neck with France, but expect England to go one better than last year, when they finished second. Their only speed bump will be the obdurate Welsh at the Millennium Stadium on the final weekend.

Player to watch

Stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s just over two years ago, Joe Launchbury has been a revelation in an England shirt. Despite being 6ft 6in and 18 stone-plus, he has the grace of the Royal Ballet’s finest when airborne and makes a nuisance of himself on the deck and in the loose. If you want a punt, mark him down as a Lions starter in Australia. You heard it here first. The best name, however, remains Billy Twelvetrees- his father is a tree surgeon and he’s known in Irish circles as ‘Thirty-six’ (12 trees equals 36).

France

Form

Formidable! Les Bleus shook off years of lethargic Gallic shrugging to hand a mighty thrashing to the Wallabies in the autumn and earn top-seed status for the World Cup. France play with innate flair as well as the pragmatism coach Philippe Saint-Andre found during his time with the English Premiership. If they can stumble across a settled side, there’s one word for the rest: beware.

Prediction

France have a thriving domestic scene and a player base to make the Scots and Welsh weep. The only issue is being, well, French. They’ve long had the knack of imploding just when they’re looking like world-beaters. Look out for the brawn of Louis Picamoles in the back row and enigmatic fly-half Frédéric Michalak, who will hope to orchestrate Le Grand Chelem.

Player to watch

Oh, Fofana! Young Wesley is the sharpest end of Clermont Auvergne’s rapier-like attack. The centre makes rugby look easy and has the un-coachable quality of appearing to have time on his hands, even in the most cluttered of midfields. He has an exquisite feint and sensational shimmy, but also puts in the graft. A future star of the world game.

Wales

Form

It’s head-in-hands time for the reigning Grand Slam champions. Wales have lost seven games on the spin, often by excruciatingly small margins, but with interim coach Rob Howley at the helm while coach Warren Gatland is on a sabbatical with the Lions, there is cautious optimism that Wales can put up a steadfast defence.

Prediction

They’ll be singing in the streets of Llangadog if Wales can defend their crown, but it’s a long shot, such is the disarray in their domestic game and the frown-inducing injury list. However, they have a spine of genuinely gifted players in Adam Jones, Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny and George North, who all possess the individual brilliance to win tight matches.

Player to watch

Jonathan Davies, or Foxy, as he’s known in Wales, has grown out of Jamie Roberts’s considerable shadow in Wales’s midfield to be talked up as a potential Lions starter at No 13. His form over the past year has been superlative. Despite his robust 16 stone 7lbs frame, capable of smashing into the opposition’s defence, it’s the soft hands, vision and cultured left boot that mark him out as very nearly the complete centre.

Ireland

Form

Ireland have been bedevilled by inconsistency: one weekend they come within minutes of beating New Zealand, and the next, they’re walloped 60-0. In the autumn, they threw away a nine-point lead to lose 16- 12 to South Africa before sending Los Pumas back to the Southern Hemisphere after a 46-24 trouncing. Which Ireland will turn up this time round?

Prediction

There’s a cigarette wrapper between the top four sides- Ireland simply have to win their home games against England and France to stand a chance of improving on last year’s third place. It will be interesting to see if the team dynamic changes as Brian O’Driscoll adjusts to losing his captaincy for the first time in nearly a decade, with No 8 Jamie Heaslip taking over the armband.

Player to watch

When Tommy Bowe, their free-scoring wingman, was ruled out with a knee injury, the people of Ireland fretted. Step forward Craig Gilroy, 21, a fresh-faced Ulsterman who runs with frenetic, carefree abandon to scare the bejesus out of opposition defences. After scoring a couple of tries in the Autumn Series, he was mentioned by Lions coach Warren Gatland.

Scotland

Form

They’ve also had a split-personality 12 months: whitewashed in the Six Nations, triumphant in the Southern Hemisphere against Australia, Samoa and Fiji before being humiliated by Tonga on home ground, a loss that led to coach Andy Robinson resigning. The only upside is that expectation is tempered among the Tartan Army, so there’s little to lose under new coaching duo Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan.

Prediction

Two wins will be viewed as satisfactory, the targets being Wales and Italy at Murrayfield, and three as an unqualified success. Any less and expect more navel-gazing. It’ll be a year of transition for the Scots, who have a small bunch of hugely committed players, but need to unearth some worldclass quality. It could be a rollercoaster.

Player to watch

Tim Visser: if he doesn’t sound very Scottish, that’s because he’s Dutch. Now qualified on the three-year residency rule, the flying, er, Scotsman, has already showed his try-scoring prowess with a brace on his debut against Fiji and another double against New Zealand in the autumn. The 6ft 4in, 17-stone wing takes some stopping and, if given ball time, could do damage

Italy

Form

There are limited expectations for Jacques Brunel’s side, however, as a former French backs coach, he’s tried to instill an adventurous spirit that relies less on dogmatic grunt up front and more on flair and creativity. Inspiration may be found at the grand, if dilapidated, 80,000 capacity Stadio Olimpico, in use while the smaller Stadio Flaminio is refurbished.

Likely outcome

It’ll be a tough ask to register wins outside Italy and, with France, Wales and Ireland coming to Rome, there will be no home bankers. It’s an experienced squad, with better players such as Alessandro Zanni and Andrea Masi, but overall, quality is lacking. The usual dogfight with Scotland at the bottom of the Six Nations barrel looks a certainty.

Player to watch

Sergio Parisse has been Italy’s go-to man for nearly a decade. The Argentinian-born No 8 was nominated as IRB Player of the Year in 2008 thanks to superb handling skills, athleticism and a never-say-die attitude. Still only 29, the dashing Italian captain is a brute on the pitch, and is married to the 2006 Miss France.

Owain Jones is editor of ‘Rugby World