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Six Nations predictions: ESPN's team-by-team guide

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The Six Nations has appeared on the horizon amid the usual hum of excitement and no little amount of anticipation as Ireland and Scotland attempt to ruin England's quest for a third successive championship title.

Injuries have played havoc with Wales' build-up, while France head into the tournament with a new coach and Conor O'Shea preaches a message of long-term progression with Italy.

But who will walk off with the title come March 17? ESPN's experts have their say.

England

Player to watch: Sam Simmonds. With Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes both out injured, England's options are suddenly pretty bare at No.8. This gives Eddie Jones a chance to assess the next rung of contenders, perhaps giving a sign of the potential ahead for England post-2019. Zach Mercer has impressed for Bath from the back of the scrum and has lost his 'apprentice' tag; expect to see him feature at some juncture. But the smart money is on Exeter's Sam Simmonds to get the No.8 shirt for England's opener against Italy. He has been in superb form this term and what he lacks in ballast, he makes up for with ball-handling and running skills.

Key fixture: Ireland. The nature of the Six Nations and the relentless round-on-round beast means all fixtures are essential for England, but attention is already being trained on their final match of the championship against Ireland at Twickenham on March 17. Some are already billing it as a potential Grand Slam-decider. Jones has refused to be drawn on this potential scenario, instead reiterating their constant credo they are simply focusing on their opener against Italy. But if both sides win all four of their opening matches and with the clean sweep on the line, then it should be one of the great Six Nations matches.

Biggest talking point: The other teams will be hoping to see some sign that England are on the decline, having won back-to-back Six Nations titles. Jones says his side are underdogs heading into the championship, with Scotland and Ireland the "darlings" of Europe. The reality is though England's numbers are depleted through injury, they still have plenty of players available and this is still a good situation for Jones to be in as he gets to see the depth within his squad and build an accurate idea of the final party that will travel to Japan for the 2019 showpiece. The talking point around England is if they can achieve the 'three-peat', having secured the Grand Slam in 2016 and the title last year. Do that and the signs look promising ahead of Japan; if they falter, then the pressure grows ahead of their tour to South Africa in June.

Prediction: It will come down to that final round match against Ireland. England will get a win over Italy -- pulling away in the final quarter -- and will just edge past Wales in round two. They will beat a resilient Scotland at Murrayfield and will head to France with more of their currently injured contingent fit again, but though they will find it hard in Paris, they will tee up a Grand Slam decider with Ireland at Twickenham. It will be like a chess match, nervy and decided by a couple of points. Ireland are a formidable side, packed with talent, nous and experience but Jones' England will just about sneak over the line for a Grand Slam. -- Tom Hamilton

France

Player to watch: Matthieu Jalibert. Meteoric doesn't begin to describe the rise of the Bordeaux fly-half, 19. He hadn't featured in a Top 14 game until this season. He didn't start a match until November. Three months -- almost to the day -- after that playing milestone match at Toulouse, he is widely tipped to start his first Test against Ireland on Saturday. New France coach Jacques Brunel clearly believes the hype surrounding his teenage 10 -- he gave the young man his big break at club level. But this is a big step.

Key fixture: Ireland. Opening matches do not get much bigger than this particular one for France -- and not just because it happens to be against an experienced top-three-in-the-world side. The game will set the early tone for the Jacques Brunel era. It's not enough any more for a France side to lose with flair -- something they admittedly haven't managed since November 2016, and something they're unlikely to do under the pragmatic Brunel. It's not quite win-or-bust, but it's not far off.

Biggest talking point: The make-up of the French team. It could easily have been the new coach; his novice staff; the old coach; the president's woes; French rugby's other off-pitch problems; or that perennial halfback hinge problem -- made worse by Morgan Parra's injury. But the new coach's decision to opt for youth and inexperience must be the big one. Captain Guilhem Guirado is the only player with more than 50 caps to his name. He's also the only one aged over 30. Of the 32 selected for the training squad, 17 are under 25, and 10 are under 23.

Prediction: Fifth. Given everything surrounding French rugby right now, it's surely too much to expect more, even with the matches against Ireland, Italy and England being on home turf. Of course, if Brunel can engineer a win over the Irish first up, all bets will suddenly be off. -- James Harrington

Ireland

Player to watch: Jacob Stockdale. It might take a leap of faith from Joe Schmidt to throw him into his first Six Nations campaign, but with Simon Zebo out in the cold, Stockdale could have a huge impact on the wing. He has the pace, dancing feet and sleight of hand to play a big part in Ireland's Grand Slam challenge. If Schmidt throws him in, he will light up the championship.

Key fixture: England. Twelve months ago Ireland dashed England's world-record hopes. This year, it is being tipped as the fixture that could decide the destination of the Six Nations trophy. Ireland should make the trip across the Irish sea on St Patrick's weekend with a 100 percent record, with home games against Italy, Wales and Scotland after an opening day trip to France. Winner takes all March 17.

Biggest talking point: It is a rare week that Ireland's 'player-welfare system' is not in the media, but with injuries a cause for concern among Wales and England, allowing Ireland's internationals to have the majority of the PRO14 season off is sure to help them once again. Injuries to Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip -- and the concussion prone Jonathan Sexton -- aside, it's a clean bill of health for Ireland, and there's one reason why.

Prediction: It's got to be a first Six Nations Grand Slam for Joe Schmidt's team. He has the quality, the strength-in-depth and the luck with injuries that could see Warren Gatland's Wales and Eddie Jones' England suffer. The only danger is the uncharacteristic complacency which crept in during last season's tournament and contributed to defeats to Scotland and Wales. -- Cillian O Conchuir

Italy

Player to watch: Giovanni Licata. We have only seen glimpses of Licata this season but his will and determination are those of a well established international player. The competition in the Italian back row is both the Sicilian's fortune and misfortunes at the moment, as he grows at an incredible pace and attempts to find a space between masters Sergio Parisse, Braam Steyn and Maxime Mbanda. He may not find a regular spot in this edition.

Key fixture: Scotland. There's a buzz in the country amid talk of a possible win against England on Sunday in front of a packed Stadio Olimpico. Yes, we may see some surprising plays and a very committed Italy but it is difficult to underestimate a team that runs such a solid style of rugby and has built its foundations on preparation, internal competition and depth. Scotland in the last round will either travel south as a serious title contender or a downbeat team: that remains the vital game for the Italians. I also expect some surprising performances in Paris and Cardiff.

Biggest talking point: Oddly, the young and exciting Italian team won't be the 'centre of it all' this term. With the four-year broadcasting agreement renewal with Discovery-Eurosport [that will include the historic women's live coverage] and a full-house in Rome waiting for the reigning champions England, there's a sense of relief after some years of serious financial turbulence. Italian rugby is in desperate need of fresh money to fund the deep revolution Conor O'Shea is aiming to achieve, and finally it seems the Azzurri are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Prediction: England at home, then Ireland, France and Wales away before finishing with the 'Roman party' against Scotland. With that waiting on the horizon there's not much to be expected result-wise from Parisse & Co. Again, at the moment winning is not the priority for the Azzurri staff, but all the Italian teams involved in the Tournament MUST deliver some consistent performances from the beginning till the very last game of year. -- Enrico Borra

Scotland

Player to watch: Ali Price. The scrum-half, 24, enjoyed a stellar 2017 as he nailed down a starting spot for both club and country. His understanding on the pitch with his flat mate and halfback partner, Finn Russell, has been integral to the expansive game which Scotland have played during Gregor Townsend's fledgling reign. Russell, Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones might be the players who attract the headlines, but it is Price's dynamism that allows them to play.

Key fixture: Wales. Eddie Jones was quick to quip about the media's thirst for a Scotland renaissance at last week's Six Nations launch, and the team's long-suffering fans will know to take title-winning predictions with a mountain of salt. After all they were tipped to end their long Twickenham drought last year, only to lose 61-21 to Jones' England. But if Townsend's men can start with a win in Cardiff, then noise surrounding this exciting Scotland side will only get louder.

Biggest talking point: Do Scotland have the depth to maintain their current form all the way to Japan? Townsend has a fairly formidable XV at his disposal, bolstered by the fact that many of his squad play together for a Glasgow side challenging at the top of the PRO14. In certain positions -- scrum-half, centre, wing, back row -- there is genuine depth. But in others the stocks are considerably thinner. The question facing the Scotland coach is how he can best develop his talent pool across the park.

Prediction: Third. Beat Wales in the opening game and anything seems possible, as France at home follow before a huge clash with England at Murrayfield on Feb. 24. Italy wait in Rome in the final round, but even if Townsend can mastermind a win over England, victory against Ireland in Dublin would seem a step too far. Scotland will continue to make progress this year, but they are not title contenders -- yet. -- Martyn Thomas

Wales

Player to watch: Steff Evans. The Scarlets have been in red-hot form this season, storming to the top of their PRO14 conference while easing through their Champions Cup pool, containing the likes of European big-hitters Toulon and Bath. Wales' men from Wayne Pivac's side -- 10 of whom make up Saturday's starting XV -- will be crucial, including Evans who took his chance in the side in the autumn. With options including George North, Liam Williams and Hallam Amos, Wales are certain to be dangerous out wide.

Key fixture: Wales are starting off the Six Nations with arguably their most important fixture of the competition -- Scotland in Cardiff on Feb. 3. Wales have not lost to Scotland in Cardiff since 2002, but Gregor Townsend's team is the best to arrive in the capital from Edinburgh since then. It is a dangerous game to start with, and momentum is vital in the Six Nations. Start with a defeat to the Scots, and Wales' campaign could be down the pan with trips to England and Ireland following.

Biggest talking point: With Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland both ruled out of the start of the tournament, Gatland has a nightmare scenario on his hands. He has turned to in-form Scarlets fly-half Rhys Patchell to fill the void against Scotland, but there is little Test experience in reserve with Gareth Anscombe and Owen Williams his other options at 10. It will be fascinating to see whether Patchell can take his chance on the big stage.

Prediction: Wales have a tough fixture list for this year's tournament despite playing three games at home. Lose to Scotland, and then further defeats to England and Ireland will surely follow -- leaving Wales in a precarious position heading into games against France and Italy. Third place would delight Gatland, but fourth or fifth looks more realistic, with the final day showdown with France likely to determine who finishes where. -- Sean Nevin