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Craig Chalmers casts his eye over the Six Nations sides

SCOTLAND

Coach: Scott Johnson

Captain: TBC

Recent form: Dreadful. Last year was bleak for Scottish rugby, with a Six Nations whitewash and three November defeats. They had a very good summer tour, so they showed they can win, but overall it was bad.

The big question: Can Scott Johnson inspire the side? Scotland coaches have traditionally enjoyed a honeymoon period and Johnson must hope he gets Scotland on the rebound. Critically, can they cut out all the silly little errors that they were making in the autumn games?

Tactics: There's nothing wrong with the pack in general. So long as the line-out functions again – and it was misfiring a bit last year – then the forwards should be able to provide the ball Scotland need. I reckon Scotland will want to play rugby, to move the ball through the hands and shift the point of attack, but you need confidence to attempt that kind of game-plan – and the skills to carry it off.

What they really have to do is get a bit of creativity in the midfield. There's nothing wrong with the likely back three, but you need to bring them on to the ball in the right places and at the right times. Scotland haven't been able to do that in recent seasons. The centres have to create the chances in the first place before players like Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg can finish them off.

Key man: Ruaridh Jackson. It looks like Jackson will be the starting fly-half, which is quite a comeback after dropping so far out of favour last year. I've never been convinced by Jackson as a playmaker; he has been too inconsistent for my tastes. It's good to see him playing well again, of course, but he has to be on top of every aspect of his game. He is no youngster any more, so this could be his last chance to live up to the expectations he was creating a few seasons ago.

Weak link: Scotland's defence was poor in November. Players were going in too high and falling off tackles. Hopefully, defence coach Matt Taylor, whose results at Glasgow have been impressive, will have sorted that out.

The coach will worry about: Props getting injured. Johnson has a couple of top-notch props in the shape of Ryan Grant and Euan Murray, but he'll need them at full fitness if his side are to compete up front.

Prediction: 5th – although they could sneak up to 4th.

ENGLAND

Coach: Stuart Lancaster

Captain: Chris Robshaw

Recent form: Quite patchy. England may have lit up the rugby world with their stunning win against New Zealand two months ago, but they had been beaten by Australia and South Africa over the two previous weeks. In summary they're good – just not that good.

The big question: Basically, can they carry on where they left off against the All Blacks or will confidence seep away again if they don't find their rhythm against Scotland?

Tactics: Being England, they draw their strength from the pack. They have a very solid platform there, although I'm not sure the back row blend is quite right as Robshaw is not an out-and-out openside.

Key man: The scrum-half, whether it is Danny Care or Ben Youngs. The No 9 always seems to be the barometer of an England side, and the performances of whoever wears that shirt for them this season will be critical.

Weak link: The midfield. Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi are both excellent players, but they are too similar for my tastes. They are both bashers, and they need more creativity in that area.

The coach will worry about: Over-confidence. It has been the undoing of England in the past.

Prediction: 3rd

FRANCE

Coach: Philippe Saint-Andre Captain: Pascal Pape

Recent form: Impressive. France went off the boil during the last Six Nations, and losing at home to England was a shattering experience, but they found themselves later in the year and come into the tournament on a run of four straight wins. That said, they struggled for long periods in their last outing, against Samoa.

The big question: Can they find the consistency that Saint-Andre wants and demands? All too often, one bad result sends them off the rails.

Tactics: France can always field a pack of big, ugly bruisers, and they will no doubt play to that strength yet again. They have flair to spare, but they generally turn it on only after subduing their opponents up front. But they will still want to release that talented backline of theirs when they can.

Key man: Frederic Michalak. The little fly-half is finally finding the consistency and all-round authority that he has struggled to produce in the past. If he fires, then so will France.

Weak link: As ever, it's the mental game with France. As much as coaches try to instil Anglo-Saxon values, the Latin temperament and lack of discipline are bubbling under the surface. And their opponents know it.

The coach will worry about: See above. They can also still struggle in poor weather.

Prediction: 2nd

IRELAND

Coach: Declan Kidney Captain: Jamie Heaslip

Recent form: A bit of a mixed bag. They had a good win against Argentina in November, but it came on the back of five straight defeats. Their summer tour to New Zealand last year pretty much summed them up: one week they were pushing the All Blacks to the wire; the next they were being hammered 60-0.

The big question: A new generation of players is coming through. But will Kidney be bold enough to turn his back on the old guard and give exciting newcomers like Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy their chance?

Tactics: Ireland have one of the great back rows in world rugby, and most of their play will revolve around them. If Jamie Heaslip and his mates can bully the breakdowns as they do in club matches, then it is a matter of getting the strike runners on to the ball.

Key man: Sean O'Brien. The Leinsterman is a big lump, but surprisingly mobile. He is strong as an ox as well, and will want to impress in a Lions year.

Weak link: Their props are good in the loose, but not so convincing in the scrum. Clued-in opponents will want to attack them in that department.

The coach will worry about: The health and form of Brian O'Driscoll. BOD is getting on a bit, but he is still the Irish talisman.

Prediction: 1st

ITALY

Coach: Jacques Brunel Captain: Sergio Parisse

Recent form: They ended the Six Nations on a triumphant note as they gave Scotland a wooden spoon mugging in Rome. In the autumn, they rubbed in their superiority over our lot by managing to beat Tonga as well. They took a hammering from New Zealand, but they threatened an upset against Australia in their last match before losing out 22-19.

The big question: Can they find a pair of half-backs who can make the team tick? They have struggled in that area since the days of Diego Dominguez and Alessandro Troncon. It is their most pressing need.

Tactics: Italy's front five have won a lot of admirers in recent seasons. Obviously, they will want to exploit that strength, but there seems to be a growing appreciation that they have to move the ball a little more if they are to develop their game at Test level.

Key man: Sergio Parisse. One of the great players of the modern era, and a man who would walk into any other side on earth.

Weak link: It has to be the half-backs. There are also serious issues concerning their composure, although that might relate to the shortcomings at 9 and 10.

The coach will worry about: Their inconvenient habit of giving away soft scores.

Prediction: 6th

WALES

Coach: Rob Howley Captain: Sam Warburton

Recent form: Wales have made Scotland look like world beaters over the past few months. They won a Grand Slam in the last Six Nations and promptly went pear-shaped. They have lost their last seven games, a sequence of results that saw them drop out of the top eight in the world rankings.

The big question: They have a terrible injury list. Can they overcome those losses?

Tactics: Hang in as best they can in the front five and hope the rest of the side can do damage. Wales have some wonderful open-field players and broken-play runners, so they won't be keeping it tight.

Key man: Toby Faletau. Big hair, big player. He's only 22, but the No 8 is the most important cog in the Welsh wheel. If he can give them momentum, either off the base of the scrum or with his power at the breakdown, they will go well.

Weak link: The front five. Wales have a big old lump at tighthead in the XXL shape of Adam Jones, but they are weak in the other positions and seem to have a second-row injury crisis on their hands.

The coach will worry about: Picking up more injuries in the pack. They're stretched to breaking point already.

Prediction: 4th

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