2014 Six Nations preview - Overview
Can Wales hold off fierce competition in the Six Nations to win a third title in a row?
Last Updated: 27/01/14 2:29pm
Sean O'Brien is a huge loss for Ireland but the return of Cian Healy is a huge bonus and the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Paul O'Connell will also be on hand to carry that ball up. Jonny Sexton will be relishing the chance to get back under Joe Schmidt; however two away fixtures against England and France will be tough to overcome.
Defending champions Wales have their work cut out if they are to make Six Nations history and win three titles in a row. Injury to key players like Jonathan Davies and prop Adam Jones' struggles to get to grips with the new scrum laws is certainly cause for concern. Add the lack of game time for influential players like Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate and that task seems very difficult indeed. However this is a settled squad and the form of Alun-Wyn Jones, George North and Scott Williams is certainly a plus. Warren Gatland will have to make a big decision as to who win run the ship - Rhys Priestland or Dan Biggar - but Wales certainly have every chance to make that three in a row a real possibility.
Have England recovered from their loss to Wales in the final game in last season's campaign? They have certainly grown since then and their performances in the autumn internationals while not exactly scintillating showed that this team have moved on. Their pack will be as competitive and as combative as ever, but can they find some sort of attacking prowess that is so sorely missing from their game at the moment? Stuart Lancaster will be looking to make a few changes and the likes of Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and George Ford could be called upon to give that little bit extra. Midfield is a concern for England and Lancaster will need to act bravely if he wants to use the pace the likes of Watson and Nowell bring.
France, well who knows what France are going to do? But coach Philippe Saint-André must be hanging onto his job by his fingernails. There cannot be any repeat of for last year's wooden spoonists but Castres' fly-half Remi Tales should bring a more stable and controlled game plan, while the likes of Wesley Fofana is just pure class. They will miss Thierry Dusautoir's captaincy but there are plenty of able replacements who may well prove to be better ball carriers than Dusautoir - in fact there is plenty of power and should they get that vital home win against England first up, then they should be right up there.
You would expect Scotland to take at least one scalp this year but they are still lacking the confidence to perform consistently. Glasgow may be doing well domestically but their European form has knocked them back a bit. There are some bright sparks in the side but they will be battling at the bottom half of the table.
It looks almost impossible for Italy to repeat their fourth-place performance of last year, when they beat France and Ireland. Injury has stripped them of some experienced campaigners and coach Jacques Brunel has been forced to call on some very inexperienced players. Captain Sergio Parisse will once again put his body on the line for the Azzurri but it could be a long hard campaign for them.
However, nothing is straightforward in the Six Nations and chances are there will be plenty of surprises to come.