The Six Nations is set to kick-off this Saturday with what is being described as one of the most open tournaments in recent times. Wales will be looking to win the Six Nations title for a record third time in succession, however, the champions will have their hands extremely full with Scotland, England, France and Italy all fancying their chances.
"It is not just the relative merits of the teams’ playing strengths, it is also the way that the fixtures have fallen that gives room for hope and doubt" says Rugby expert Brian Moore in the Telegraph.
This year's competition is one rugby fans will not want to miss and it all kicks off with the big game at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff when Wales take on Italy. Here's a rundown of the opening fixtures and predictions.
|Six Nations 2014: Opening Fixtures Predictions|
|Wales vs. Italy||Saturday, Feb. 1||2:30 p.m. GMT/9:30 a.m. ET||BBC One/BBC Online||Wales win|
|France vs. England||Saturday, Feb. 1||5 p.m. GMT/12 p.m. ET||BBC One/BBC Online||France win|
|Ireland vs. Scotland||Sunday, Feb. 2||3 p.m. GMT/10 a.m. ET||BBC One/BBC Online||Ireland win|
Wales vs Italy
Defending champions Wales begin their defence at the Millennium Stadium against Italy. The visitors will be looking for a rare victory away from home after reaching fourth place in last year's championship—their best ever finish.
Most will argue that Wales have got the easiest of starts but minnows Italy will provide a tough opening match for the champions.
The Welsh squad is strong and they can boast with some of the best players in the world. According to Moore, they have the potential "match-winning" players and that will prove to be important as the tournament goes on.
Wales know that winning your opening game is the most important factor in this tournament and they'll be up for it on Saturday. Italy started last year's tournament with a win over France and they'll be hoping to repeat that opening game luck, and they will be dangerous opponents.
The Italians will be hoping for post-Lions' fatigue on the part of their opponents. But Wales coach Warren Gatland has said the Welsh will be looking for a good start, per Sky Sports, and he doesn't want a repeat of last year when they started slowly.
"We are looking for a good start, we started slowly last year and know we need to be ready from the off," he said.
Sam Warburton will be on the bench and Second row Alun Wyn Jones will lead the side. Wales are the favourites, and they'll show why in this opening fixture.
France vs. England
This is definitely the tastiest fixture of the opening round of games. England begin their Six Nations campaign with a tough away fixture with both teams trying their hardest to avoid defeat to their nearest rivals.
Despite being last year's Wooden Spoon winners, the French hope for a renaissance of sorts and will have their tails up.
England will have to turn Saturday's game against France from a fixture they would rather not have had to one that they are happy to play so early.
"The only real positive of having such a difficult opening game for England is that if you have to play away against the French it is preferable to do so at the start of the tournament rather than the end," says Moore.
The battle for dominance between England and France will lie in the middle of the park. French coach Philippe Saint-Andre has admitted being under pressure, Planet Rugby reported, but on Saturday he will be placing his hopes on Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud.
In 2013 in all Tests, the French mustered just two wins (Tonga being the other victory), a draw and eight defeats, per Planet Rugby.
However, with the pressure on the French coach, they may well just edge this one with home advantage playing a big role.
Ireland vs. Scotland
With Vern Cotter soon to replace the interim coach, this will be Scott Johnson's last Six Nations tournament as his Scottish side go to the Aviva Stadium and he'll be hoping to go out with a bang.
Meanwhile Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will go into what is his first-ever Six Nations tournament desperate for his side to turn their home ground into a fortress. This will be vital if they are to be a threat throughout the tournament, reported the Six Nations website:
If we could defend the Aviva that would be great. If we manage an away victory against either England or France, as well, then that would put us in the mix for a shot at being in the top two.
The game might come too early for Scotland's hotly tipped star Matt Scott, who has been out of action since the autumn victory over Japan but should the Tartan Army remain strong and resilient, they'll give Ireland a tough game.