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Who can conquer Ireland to land the greatest prize?

England
Manager: Martin Johnson
Captain: Steve Borthwick
Last season: Italy (h) won 36-11; Wales (a) lost 15-23; Ireland (a) lost 13-14; France (h) won 34-10; Scotland (h) won 26-12 = 2nd.

Where they stand: Endured a disappointing autumn international campaign when
they lost to Australia and New Zealand and looked unconvincing in their narrow victory over Argentina. At that time, however, Martin Johnson was beset with injuries but now many of his key men are back.

Strengths: The return of Riki Flutey is crucial to signaling England’s attacking intent, and will prove an exciting addition to England’s centre field alongside Jonny Wilkinson, who remains as potent as ever with the boot at Toulon. Flutey, along with Danny Care, Mathew Tait, Ugo Monye and Delon Armitage have plenty of pace and look a force to be reckoned with.

Weaknesses: Injuries to front-line props Phil Vickery and Andrew Sheridan will no doubt hurt them and places added pressure on the relatively inexperienced Tim Payne and David Wilson. The pack in the autumn Tests were as weak as they have been in a long time and Johnson will need to compensate elsewhere.

Key man: Riki Flutey – Sorely missed in the autumn, could just give England that midfield spark that’s been lacking.

Verdict: Home games with Wales and Ireland are as crucial as trips to France and Scotland are tough. Need to find consistency – 3rd.
Odds: 5-1

Squad: Backs: D Armitage, M Banahan, D Care, M Cueto, H Ellis, T Flood, B Foden, R Flutey, S Hape, D Hipkiss, P Hodgson, U Monye, M Tait, J Wilkinson. Forwards: S Armitage, C Ashton, S Borthwick, J Crane, T Croft, L Deacon, N Easter, D Hartley, J Haskell, C Lawes, L Mears, L Moody, T Payne, S Shaw, A
Sheridan, S Thompson, J White, D Wilson.

Wales
Head coach: Warren Gatland
Captain: Ryan Jones
Last season: Scotland (a) won 26-13; England (h) won 23-15, France (a) lost 16-21, Italy (a) won 20-15, Ireland (h) lost 15-17 = 4th.

Where they stand: After two Grand Slam successes in the last five years, Wales relish this competition and will be desperate to ease the pain of last year when Stephen Jones’ missed penalty handed Ireland the Grand Slam. Can beat anyone on their day but will think more fondly of their performance against South Africa last summer than their autumn international defeat by Australia.

Strengths: Have world-class performers in every row in the pack. Deadly in the front row but will miss Lions props Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees on Saturday. Under Gatland, Wales have a winning mentality, steely in defence and often explosive in the attack. Lee Byrne’s successful appeal of a two-week ban to play England is a huge boost, allowing Gatland to pair class act James Hook and Jamie Roberts in the centre.

Weaknesses: Injured front-line No9s, Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel are huge losses to the side. The line-out is seen as vulnerable and the scrum prone to lapses in concentration.
Key man: No8 and captain Ryan Jones is back to his best, bringing power, strength and balance to the back row

Verdict: Crucial opener at Twickenham and home game with Ireland will determine their campaign = 4th
Odds: 5-1

Squad: Backs: D Biggar, A Bishop, L Byrne, G Cooper, J Davies, L Halfpenny, J Hook, T James, S Jones, K Phillips, T Prydie, R Rees, J Roberts, M Roberts, T Shanklin, S Williams. Forwards: H Bennett, L Charteris, B Davies, R Gill, I Gough, P James, G Jenkins, A Jones, A-W Jones, D Jones, R Jones, E Lewis-Roberts, D Lydiate, A Powell, M Rees, J Thomas, S Warburton, G Williams, M Williams.

Scotland
Head coach: Andy Robinson
Captain: Chris Cusiter
Last season: Wales (h) lost 13-26; France (a) lost 13-22, Italy (h) won 26-6, Ireland (h) lost 15-22, England (a) lost 12-26 = 5th.

Where they stand: Their narrow victory over Australia in autumn earned their former England coach Andy Robinson instant hero status with the loyal Scottish supporters. Recent Six Nations performances, however, have been bitterly disappointing, winning just 14 of their 50 matches since they last
won the title 11 years ago.

Strengths: Showed against the Australians that they have true defensive resilience and will prove frustrating opponents. The scrum is improving all the time and in John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie they have stubborn back-row pair. The Scots are not short of runners at the other end either with Sean Lamont offering a new dimension by moving across to centre and his brother Rory forming a pacey back three with Simon Danielli and Thom Evans.

Weaknesses: Still struggle to score tries and the loss of Euan Murray for the opener with France on Sunday is a huge void. Legend Gregor Townsend has been brought in tio assist Robinson as backs coach but does he have enough to work with to make an immediate difference?
Key man: Captain Chris Cusiter is a brave, free-scoring scrum-half and a true leader.

Verdict: Never been the best of travellers, three away games makes life difficult – 5th.
Odds: 25-1

Squad: Backs: C Cusiter; S Danielli, N De Luca, M Evans, T Evans, P Godman, A Grove, R Jackson, S Lamont, R Lawson, G Morrison, C Paterson, D Parks, H Southwell. Forwards: J Barclay; J Beattie, K Brown, A Dickinson, R Ford, R Gray, D Hall, J Hamilton, N Hines, A Jacobsen, A Kellock, S Lawson, M Low, A
MacDonald, E Murray, A Strokosch.

Ireland
Head coach: Declan Kidney
Captain: Brian O’Driscoll
Last season: France (h) won 30-21, Italy (a) won 38-9, England (h) won 14-13, Scotland (a) won 22-15, Wales (a) won 17-15 = 1st.
Where they stand: Grand Slam champions and with both Munster and Leinster through to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, Irish rugby is still on the crest of a wave. Victory over world champions South Africa in the autumn was just rewards for the whole host of Lions stars in this Irish squad. The ‘Golden Generation’ have history in their sights.

Strengths: Where do you start? Kidney’s side are full of confidence at the moment, fully fit, and look strong in every area of the park. They are well-organised with a clear game plan and a settled and consistent selection policy, testimony to central contracts. In Ronan O’Gara and Jonathan Sexton, they have the two best kickers in the game.

Weaknesses: Not always the most comfortable at handling the tag of favourites and will not relish tough trips to England and France. Going through a second successive campaign unbeaten would make them the greatest-ever Irish side. Will the pressure of that take its toll? The scrum is also not renouned as the strongest.

Key man: Captain Brian O’Driscoll remains the heartbeat of the Irish side. His partnership with Gordon D’Arcy is the key.

Verdict: Defending champions are full of confidence and bang of form = 2nd.
Odds: 14-5

Squad: T Bowe, G Dempsey, G D’Arcy, G Duffy, L Fitzgerald, S Horgan, R Kearney, G Murphy, B O’Driscoll, R
O’Gara, E Reddan, J Sexton, P Stringer, A Trimble, P Wallace. Forwards: N Best, R Best, T Buckley, L Cullen, S Easterby, J Flannery, J Hayes, C Healy, J Heaslip, M Horan, B Jackman, D Leamy, D O’Callaghan, J O’Connor, M O’Driscoll, M O’Kelly, A Quinlan, D Wallace.

Italy
Head coach: Nick Mallet
Captain: Leonardo Ghiraldini
Last season: England (a) lost 11-36, Ireland (h) lost 9-38, Scotland (a) lost 6-26, Wales (h) lost 15-20, France (h) lost 8-50 = 6th.

Where they stand: Just one victory throughout the whole of a hectic 2009 does nothing to suggest they could break into the world’s elite any time yet. That said, the forward pack gave the All Blacks the fright of their lives in Milan back in November and the never-say-die attitude of Nick Mallet’s men always makes them dangerous opponents.

Strengths: Still the best scrummagers in Europe and in Salvatore Perugini and Martin Castrogiovanni they boast two of the best props in the game. One thing you will almost get from the Azzurri is a desire to win. Spurred on the Bergamasco brothers of Mirco and Mauro, they will battle on to the death.

Weaknesses: Losing captain and No8 Sergio Parisse to a knee injury is a major blow and Italy suddenly lack leadership and experience at half-back. Since Alessando Troncon and Diego Dominguez hung up their boots, the Azzurri have struggled to find their feet and create opportunities to score.

Key man: Although inexperienced, Australian rugby league convert Craig Gower is, potentially, an exciting addition, but it’s time to step up to the plate.

Verdict: Nothing to suggest they can overturn the formbook, their home game with Scotland remains their biggest hope = 6th.
Odds: 250-1

Squad: Backs: Mirco Bergamasco, R Bocchino, G Canale, G Garcia, C Gower, A Marcato, A Masi, L McLean, S Picone, M Pratichetti, K Robertson, M Sepe, A Sgarbi, T Tebaldi. Forwards: M Aguero, Mauro Bergamasco, M Bortolami, M Castrogiovanni, L Cittadini, C-A Del Fava, P Derbyshire, S Favaro, Q Geldenhuys, L Ghiraldini, F Ongaro, A Ravanello, S Perugini, J Sole, M Vosawai, A Zanni.

France
Head coach: Marc Lievremont
Captain: Thierry Dusautoir
Last season: Ireland (a) lost 21-30, Scotland (h) won 22-13, Wales (h) won 21-16, England (a) lost 10-34, Italy (a) won 50-8 = 3rd.

Where they stand: As always, the French a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. A rampant victory over world champions South Africa showed just what they are capable of, only to then crash to a heavy defeat to the All Blacks. Domestically, the Top 14 is as strong as ever with no fewer than four of its sides through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.

Strengths: Not only are they powerful in the pack, the French do still possess that Gallic flair which makes them so watchable. Look out for wings Julien Malzieu and Aurelien Rougerie with Sebastien Chabal and Imanol Harindoroquy battening down the hatches.

Weaknesses: Inconsistency makes them the great enigma of world rugby. As impressive as their slaying of the Springboks was in October, their defeat to New Zealand was embarrassing. Lievremont has taken a gamble in leaving out experienced wing Cedric Heymans and fly-half Lionel Beauxis, His selection now has to be spot on.

Key man: Captain Thierry Dusatoir is an openside flanker capable of out-muscling any in world rugby. Talisman of the side.

Verdict: Three homes matches, including England and Ireland, will certainly boost their chances = 1st.
Odds: 7-4 fav

Squad: Backs: M Bastareaud, B Boyet, V Clerc, J-B Elissalde, F Estebanez, B Fall, Y Jauzion, J Malzieu, D Marty, A Palisson, M Parra, C Poitrenaud, A Rougerie, F Trinh-Duc. Forwards: J Bonnaire, S Chabal, T Domingo, T Dusatoir, L Ducalcon, I Harinordoquy, A Lapandry, S Marconnet, N Mas, R Millo-Chluski, L Nallet, F Ouedraogo, P Pape, L Picamoles, J Pierre, W Servat, D Szarzewski.