Wales v Ireland
Saturday 2nd Feb, Millennium Stadium, 1:30 GMT
This year’s opening clash looks to be the closest of the weekend. Two former Grand Slam Champions, both yearning to rediscover their lost form and open the Six Nations with a spirit-lifting win.
Autumn: The Autumn wasn’t an entire write off for Ireland – after a disappointing summer tour, including a 60-0 drubbing by New Zealand, they narrowly missed out on victory against South Africa before triumphing convincingly over Argentina. Wales, meanwhile, haven’t won an international fixture since last year’s Six Nations and will be desperate not to make it eight defeats in a row.
Record: History leans in Wales’ favour, with the Welsh claiming 65 victories in the history of this rivalry, compared to Ireland’s 47. It’s been three years since the Irish managed to beat them, losing most painfully to the Welsh in their 2011 World Cup quarter-final.
Prediction: With some of Europe’s most respected legends appearing for both sides, this is going to be a hard fought and captivating fixtures. But with experienced stars like North, Roberts and Phillips yearning to make up for the Autumn’s disappointments, Wales might just clinch this.
England v Scotland
Saturday 2nd Feb, Twickenham 16:00 GMT
An England side buoyed by victory over New Zealand last year will be quietly confident of beating a youthful Scottish side under a new coaching team. A home victory will be crucial if Lancaster’s men want to stand any chance of taking this year’s championship.
Autumn: November’s fixtures proved an experience Scotland would probably rather forget. After falling to South Africa, New Zealand and, most humiliatingly, Tonga, the Scots found themselves in utter disarray when coach Andy Robinson finally called it a day and walked away. Stuart Lancaster, meanwhile, has managed to build on his side’s Six Nations runner up success to lead a relatively inexperienced bunch to a shock victory over the All Blacks in December.
History: Recent years have seen the Calcutta Cup remain firmly in the grasp of the English, although Scotland did manage to pilfer it by narrow margins in 2006 and 2008. England boast 70 victories to Scotland’s 42 in the history of the confrontation between these two sides, but bear in mind that the Scottish have only managed 3 victories in the last two decades,
Prediction: Expect Scotland to acquit themselves with passion and determination, particularly in the pack where powerhouses including Johnnie Beattie, Richie Gray and Kelly Brown will keep the English forwards busy. Ultimately, though, a roaring Twickenham crowd and a confident developing English side should win this comfortably.
Italy v France
Sunday 3rd Feb, Stadio Olimpico, 15:00 GMT
There was barely a dry eye in Rome (and that includes Italian captain Sergio Parisse) when the undeniable underdogs Italy held on to beat France by a single point in 2011. Although the French made amends the following year with a convincing victory, the win proved that France are far from infallible, and Italy should not be underestimated.
Autumn: France were all but unstoppable in last year’s test matches, obliterating Australia and securing comfortable wins over Samoa and Argentina. They’re strong contenders for tournament champions if they continue their blistering form. Italy have much to be proud of from their own Autumn results, coming close to beating Australia, securing victory over Tonga and putting in a disciplined performance (for the first half at least) against the All Blacks.
History: Italy have managed just two victories in 33 meetings with the French and find themselves ranked six places beneath their opponents, so few pundits will be envisaging a repeat of 2011’s magic.
Prediction: Parisse’s men continue to develop under the impressive tutelage of Jacques Brunel, but still lack the impetus of a talismanic fly half and the depth of talent France boast. With the deadly form Frédéric Michalak is currently in and the experience of his teammates, a victory for the Italians looks highly unlikely.