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Eddie Jones has promised that England will defend the Grand Slam won last year with a brave brand of rugby that he hopes will ignite the entire Six Nations, but he knows the champions enter the tournament with a target on their backs after 14 successive victories.
The most dangerous of their rivals are Ireland, the team responsible for ending New Zealand’s record-breaking run last year, and a thunderous climax to the tournament awaits in Dublin on March 18 when white and green shirts collide.
Wales have a new captain in Alun Wyn Jones and could be ready to make their presence felt once more, and Vern Cotter will be hoping to end his Scotland reign on a successful note.
Italy will anticipate that Conor O’Shea’s presence will help them avoid the wooden spoon, while Jones is among those to speak enthusiastically of France’s revival under Guy Noves.
Only five teams have successfully defended the Grand Slam and in seeking to become the sixth, Eddie Jones’ England have pledged to adopt a bold approach.
The Six Nations title launched Jones’ regime with Twickenham’s first silverware for five years and by the end of 2016 the Australian had presided over a sequence of 13 successive Test victories.
England are now second in the global rankings and the next stage on their mission to supplant New Zealand at the pinnacle of the sport is to rid themselves of any conservatism against their European rivals.
It is a question which seems to accompany every staging of the Six Nations – and 2017 is no exception. Which France team will turn up?
There used to be no doubt, as illustrated by Les Bleus winning five Six Nations titles in nine seasons between 2002 and 2010. But that 2010 season – a Grand Slam campaign – was France’s most recent taste of Six Nations silverware, as Wales, Ireland and England have dominated since then.
It is eminently possible that France could again find themselves on a slippery Six Nations slope after the opening weekend of this year’s tournament, given that their first game is against England at Twickenham.
But international rugby’s most recent form guide – the autumn Tests – showed a French squad appearing to make strides under head coach Guy Noves. Even though they were beaten narrowly by Australia and New Zealand, performance levels were high and sustained.
Ireland finished third last year in fending off a host of injuries having won the title in 2014 and 2015, and Joe Schmidt is seeking a top-two finish after November wins over New Zealand and Australia.
Schmidt says “indomitable” England are the team to beat but wants an improvement on his side’s finish of 12 months ago.
Ireland face a tough opening assignment in Murrayfield and concerns remain over Johnny Sexton’s fitness, but a favourable fixture list presents them with the chance to build momentum heading into their key clashes with Wales and England in March.
When Conor O’Shea took the Italy job he talked of bringing the team to the highest point in their history. For now, that entails securing a respectable finish in the Six Nations.
The former Ireland full-back has improved Italy’s fortunes in the six months since he swapped the Stoop for Rome. Few expected two-time world champions South Africa to struggle in Florence in November, but the Springboks were stunned as Italy registered a first-ever victory against one of the ‘big three’ southern hemisphere nations.
Having picked up a head of steam, and with accomplished defensive coach Brendan Venter recruited on the eve of the tournament, Italy are further boosted by a two-game opening home stand against Wales and Ireland.
Vern Cotter’s path as Scotland head coach has not always been smooth but the Kiwi will hope he can bow out this summer having steered the Dark Blues down the road to lasting success.
The 54-year-old is gearing up for his final Six Nations campaign after Scottish Rugby took the unilateral decision to replace him with Glasgow boss Gregor Townsend when his contract expires later this year.
From suffering a humiliating whitewash during Cotter’s first Six Nations campaign in charge, the Scots have grown into an exciting side packed with attacking intent and backed up by an ever-deepening pool of talent.
Their run to the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Cup has been the clear highlight of the Cotter reign so far, yet he will also have to admit that just two wins from 10 games in the Six Nations has hardly persuaded Murrayfield chiefs he is irreplaceable.
Cotter now has five matches left to write his final Scotland chapter and shape his legacy.
However, Wales will have a major say as they face both teams in Cardiff during a campaign that will see them targeting a first Six Nations crown since 2013.
Rob Howley, in charge this season while Warren Gatland concentrates on British and Irish Lions business, oversaw Wales’ most successful autumn series since 2002 last November as victories were recorded over South Africa, Argentina and Japan.
And when he was last at the helm four years ago, Wales recovered from a comprehensive opening Six Nations weekend loss against Ireland to reel off four successive wins and secure Six Nations silverware in scintillating fashion by crushing England 30-3 in Cardiff.