Simon Mail previews this year's Six Nations and thinks favourites England are worth taking on in an open edition of the tournament...
England must overcome World Cup hangover
England are short-priced favourites to win this year's Six Nations but there are several factors which suggest Eddie Jones' side may fail to justify their status. Their World Cup final defeat a couple of months ago could still hang over them with England's failure to perform against South Africa a huge disappointment. Aside from overcoming this, Jones must regroup his squad with Saracens' relegation, for breaking the Premiership salary cap, potentially offering an unwelcome distraction and split in the camp.
The schedule has not been kind to England either with a tough opener in France presenting an early hurdle to overcome. Victory in Paris is no certainty with a game in Scotland following in the second round of games. Two tricky away matches suggests England are too short at 1.87 and they are not helped by the loss of number eight Billy Vunipola with a broken arm.
Ireland to make fast start under Farrell
Ireland are under new management with Andy Farrell replacing Joe Schmidt as head coach. After a disappointing World Cup which continued a below par 2019, Ireland will be determined to reproduce the form which saw them win the Six Nations Grand Slam two years ago. Farrell previously worked as the team's defence coach and his knowledge of the players should ensure continuity heading into the tournament.
There is no doubt their performances last season were not good enough but Ireland are the most successful team in recent history with three Six Nations titles in the last six years. Ireland, who will be captained by influential fly-half Jonny Sexton, have been handed a favourable start to the competition with home games against Scotland and Wales. The significance of momentum in this competition is important and early wins can give them a potential edge heading into tests in England and France.
Pivac faces challenge with defending champions
It is also a new era for Wales with Warren Gatland calling time on his 12-year tenure as coach. Gatland has been replaced by Wayne Pivac and the New Zealander faces a difficult task in following his compatriot after last season's Six Nations Grand Slam triumph. The defending champions also reached the World Cup semi-final last year but there is no guarantee Wales will hit the ground running this year.
Pivac is putting his faith in emerging talent with wing Louis Rees-Zammit selected after enjoying a breakthrough season for Gloucester. The 18-year-old scored a hat-trick against Northampton and has ten tries this season for Gloucester. If he is handed a starting spot for Wales, a home game against Italy is a generous opener and the teenager is a tempting each way bet at 33/1 to be the top tournament tryscorer.
Unpredictable France could produce surprise
France are also under new management with Falbian Galthie promoted to replace Jacques Brunel as their coach. Galthie has opted to focus on youth with a raft of inexperienced, talented players selected for their Six Nations squad. Flanker Charles Ollivon has been chosen as their captain in a squad with an average age of just 24.
Whether France can produce the consistency required to challenge for the title is doubtful but the team have enough ability to cause significant problems for the leading nations. This looks a very open competition and another bet worth taking is for no team to win the Grand Slam at Evens on the Sportsbook. With England, Wales and Ireland all facing tricky away fixtures, and all the teams showing signs of fallibility, it looks unlikely the champions will win all five matches.
Scotland could struggle without Russell
Scotland suffered a miserable 2019 with fifth place in the Six Nations followed by a pool stage exit at the World Cup. Gregor Townsend comes in under pressure and his task has not been helped by Finn Russell's absence. The world class playmaker is not considered for their opening match after being disciplined following an extended drinking session. It is very difficult to see Scotland achieving success without him and this could be another disappointing campaign.
Finishing bottom looks unlikely, with Italy overwhelming favourites for the wooden spoon, but Townsend will be expecting his team to progress after last year's poor results. Stuart Hogg has been handed the captaincy but has his work cut out to help Scotland contend. At the prices, Ireland look the best bet for the title but are unlikely to repeat their 2018 Grand Slam heroics.