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Last Updated: Friday, 2 February 2007, 11:57 GMT
Six Nations team guides
EnglandFranceIrelandItalyScotlandWales

By Rob Hodgetts

The 2007 Six Nations opens with Italy v France in Rome on Saturday and heralds the start of a huge year for rugby union culminating in the World Cup in France in September and October.

Ireland, runners-up to France last year, are widely regarded as favourites after beating Australia and South Africa in the autumn but this promises to be one of the most open Six Nations for years.

We run the rule over each team and assess their prospects.


ENGLAND

Four to one
Stadium: Twickenham
Coach: Brian Ashton
Captain: Phil Vickery

Prospects: Since the 2003 World Cup win, England have finished third, fourth and fourth in the Six Nations. They also lost eight of their last nine matches under Andy Robinson, so all eyes will be on the combination of new coach - Ashton was promoted from England attack guru in December - and captain to arrest the slide, initially, and then cobble together a decent defence of the World Cup.

England coach Brian Ashton
We have to build our game on firm foundations

Brian Ashton
Coach's view: "We had to go right back to square one. We've had a massive reality check after losing eight of our last nine games.

"We know where we are in world rugby and we've got to do something about it.

"But this is a joint venture, not the Brian Ashton show. This is the start of a process. But we have got players who are bright enough and talented enough to evolve the game."

Verdict: "England are in a better position than people give them credit for. They've got people coming back from injury and a new coach who will not leave anything behind in the changing room or on the training ground. There's no more excuses. They've got a licence to go and play with ambition."
Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson

FRANCE

Five to two
Stadium: Stade de France
Coach: Bernard Laporte
Captain: Fabien Pelous

Prospects: With the World Cup at home in eight months' time, the Six Nations champions are under serious pressure to perform. France beat Ireland on points difference last year but lost to Scotland along the way. Heavy defeats to New Zealand in the autumn suggest they are still haunted by inconsistency.

French coach Bernard Laporte
We are going to defend our Six Nations title tooth and nail

Bernard Laporte

Coach's view: "First of all we want to defend our title, and then we have the World Cup, so all the players will be motivated to keep their places. About 21 players are already there for the World Cup squad, so there are still nine places available."

Verdict: "The expectation is huge in the French team. It's the first time the squad of 40 players will be together for seven weeks.

"It's the dream of every player to win the World Cup in France, so for this we need Six Nations success. France will be strong but it's more open than ever with four teams - France, Ireland, England, Wales - capable of winning."
Former France captain Philippe Saint-Andre

IRELAND

Six to four
Stadium: Croke Park
Coach: Eddie O'Sullivan
Captain: Brian O'Driscoll

Prospects: Most people's idea of the favourites after tying on points with champions France last year and beating Australia and South Africa in the autumn. Runners-up to England in 2003, Triple Crown winners in 2004 and 2006 but blew a title bid in 2005, losing at home to France and again in Cardiff as Wales clinched the Grand Slam.

Ireland last won the Grand Slam in 1948 but they could be further inspired by playing at Croke Park - home of the Gaelic Athletic Association - while Lansdowne Road is rebuilt. The 82,300-capacity "Croker" was previously barred from staging "foreign" sports.

Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan
It's a nice accolade to be favourites but it can bite you in the ass more often than not

Eddie O'Sullivan
Coach's view: "The Six Nations is all about momentum and if you can generate it early on you give yourself a chance of coming out on top. But if you don't start well, it can be very difficult. If we live off what we did in the autumn we are not going to go anywhere. We need to park that and get on with the job in front of us."

Verdict: "If we play as well as we can, I think we can win all of our matches. I've never said that before. In the past we've needed other sides to play badly, but we don't need that now. A few injuries would put us under pressure - losing Shane Horgan is a big blow - and a lot depends on what goes on with the scrummaging."
Former Ireland captain Keith Wood

ITALY

Two hundred to one
Stadium: Stadio Flaminio
Coach: Pierre Berbizier
Captain: Marco Bortolami

Prospects: The recent resurgence of Scotland suggests Italy are looking at a sixth Wooden Spoon in eight attempts, but they are improving year on year and could well spring a few surprises. They possess a powerful pack and a core of talented players but have struggled to make the most of their opportunities.

Have only won three matches in the tournament, as well as a draw with Wales in Cardiff last year, and are still chasing a first away win.

Italy coach Pierre Berbizier
We will continue to close the gap with the other high-quality teams

Pierre Berbizier
Coach's view: "We demonstrated last year that we can be competitive for 80 minutes. It is having the experience at a particular moment to win the game that we need to improve, especially at the end of the game."

Verdict: "Our target is to be at 100% for all five matches. The first two matches (against France and England) are going to be very tough but we are going to put a lot of intensity into those and perform as well as we can. It is always a small chance to win a Six Nations match but if we stop giving away easy tries and take our opportunities, it will be very interesting for us."
Italy captain Marco Bortolami

SCOTLAND

Twenty five to one
Stadium: Murrayfield
Coach: Frank Hadden
Captain: Chris Paterson

Prospects: New coach Frank Hadden worked wonders in the wake of Australian Matt Williams' ill-fated reign, leading Scotland to shock home wins over France and England en route to third place in last year's championship. But other nations may have made more advances in the interim, while Scotland's cause may be further hampered by the loss for the tournament of injured captain Jason White.

Scotland coach Frank Hadden
Expectations have rightly grown

Frank Hadden
Coach's view: "We did reasonably well last year and we have to build on that now. We have got some new targets and we want to continue to be more competitive. I expect us to make continued progress even if we are not at full strength."

Verdict: "Hadden has got Scotland playing with self-belief, confidence and the characteristics associated with Scottish rugby - pride, passion and total commitment. The areas of vulnerability are front row and fly-half. To sneak an away win would be magnificent, and certainly we want to win two if not all three of our home matches. My heart says we'll finish near the top, my head says in the middle."
Former Scotland skipper David Sole

WALES

Six to one
Stadium: Millennium Stadium
Coach: Gareth Jenkins
Captain: Stephen Jones

Prospects: Gareth Jenkins' first Six Nations in charge. The 2005 Grand Slam triumph is a distant memory after recording only one win last year. But an opening victory against Ireland in Cardiff could prove pivotal, though Wales then face three straight away matches.

Wales coach Gareth Jenkins
We are the good, the bad and the ugly

Gareth Jenkins
Coach's view: "On our day we can beat any side in the world, and my challenge is to make us far more consistent, getting a high quality of performance in place each week.

"It is one game at a time and we can't allow ourselves to be sidetracked by looking beyond Ireland (first game). But one thing I want is to win the tournament, and if that means having consistency of selection (rather than experimenting), then I am prepared to do that."

Verdict: "Wales have a very talented squad, though we've lost a couple of players through injury. Our strength is an ability to create. We've some very talented footballers in the backline if they are allowed to play their natural game. But they need a solid platform up front. Ireland are pre-tournament favourites with Wales second. "
Former Wales captain Ieuan Evans


Odds illustrated are to win the tournament outright




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