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Six Nations: How the teams are shaping up

We take a look at the six teams ahead of this year's Championship. 

England

If you could blot out the loss in the World Cup Final, England would be going into 2018 on the back of a highly successful year that included a 6 Nations title and strong summer and Autumn series. 

And while publicly England's players and management have put on a positive face about how 2017 unfolded, the World Cup Final loss must still sting with the RFU having thrown every resource possible at its top players to win the title last summer.

They they didn't will surely remain a bitter disappointment for the core of this squad though Simon Middleton is expected to give plenty of game time to the youngsters he blooded in the series against Canada in the Autumn, who don't carry any such baggage with them. 

In those games, Middleton handed debuts to 10 players with the likes of Ellie Kildunne (18), Hannah Botterman (18) and Zoe Harrison (19) all involved in this 6 Nations squad. Jess Breach, who shone on the wing, has gone to play sevens along with a number of other stars from last year's World Cup including Emily Scarratt. 

England's schedule works well for them this year, beginning away with Italy before facing Wales and Scotland ahead of what they might consider the tougher tests against France and Ireland. 

English rugby is going through a period of change domestically with the addition of the Premier 15s helping to positively drive the standards of the domestic competition. That is already helping to push along players who were bubbling away under the radar in recent seasons, with players like Abby Dow, Shaunagh Brown and Lagi Tuima all breaking through. Also watch out for the return of Sarah Bern, the brilliant England prop who lit up the World Cup but has been injured. 

England start as favourites but have a tricky away game against France to navigate, which may well determine where the title ends up this season. 

France

With a new skipper in the form of Gaelle Hermet at open side flanker, France look set to be a force again this season. Straightforward wins against Italy and Spain in the Autumn, followed a good World Cup where they finished third - a result that the coaching team see as disappointing. 

Humble and hungry are main words the coaches are using to describe the team preparing for this year's Six Nations. Forwards coach Samuel Cherouk explains: "Humble because we are not champions of the world, we attack a new cycle with new girls and new ambitions and we must keep a lot of humility in relation to that. "

Olivier Lievremont, backs coach, added: "The girls want success. These are words that define them well and terms we use in training. Humble and hungry, they are on and off the field." The coaching team also sum up the way they aim to play as "simple, fast and strong" .
 
Players who excelled in Ireland are all fit to play in this tournament with Marjorie Mayans and Romane Menager, two of the best back rows in the competition while Jessy Trémoulière and Yanna Rivoalen all provide excellent experience in the backline. 
 
With such strong back row talent, expect Safi N'Diaye to move into the second row at times this season, where she will still be able to unleash her destructive running game. 

Ireland

After their well documented disappointing World Cup, Ireland went through a tumultuous winter but seem to have come out the other side, with a good warmup win over Wales and the assembly of a new look coaching team, however belated.

Protests from leading players and clubs were not the legacy that the IRFU would have anticipated from their home World Cup the there have been a coupe of other strange decisions around the squad, not least the non selection of Sophie Spence resulting in a sad end to what has been an excellent career in the green jersey, while Jen Murphy's decision to step down seemed sonewhat avoidable.

Nonetheless, this the start of a new cycle and era for Ireland and head coach Adam Griggs deserves his chance (short term as it stands) to make his own mark.  He has started well with the appointment of the popular Ciara Griffin as captain and recruitment of Mike Ross as scrum coach, and Ireland were impressive in their warm up win over Wales, where Niamh Briggs made her long awaited comeback from injury. 

Briggs is now Ireland's likely starting 10 for the Championship following Nora Stapleton's retirement, and her kicking game will be vitally important. 

Like every other side after the World Cup, Ireland have a host of new faces with nine uncapped players involved in the squad, and this weekend they will be without players who were playing at the Sydney 7s last weekend.  France away to begin is a tough opener, and this season Ireland have their toughest away trips with England at the Ricoh Arena also ahead. 

However if they can return with something from their French trip, home games v Scotland, Italy and Wales promise points and Ireland should be much more polished by the time the trip to England comes. Three home wins seem the most likely return.

Scotland 

What a difference a year makes. Two wins last season, a renewed focus from the SRU and crucially fresh investment into both the top and bottom of the game and Scotland are suddenly a team on the up. 

With four players now being paid to play and train full-time, this is a much more experienced Scotland team than even 12 months ago. Jade Konkel, Chloe Rollie and Lisa Thompson will bring a hardened edge to their game following their ongoing time in France - with Konkel, interestingly having been moved to prop. 

The wins against Wales and Italy last season rejuvenated Scotland, giving them much needed points and a morale boost which in some way could help make up for the disappointment for failing to qualify for the World Cup. As a result of their non involvement in that competition, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that Scotland are probably the most settled squad of the tournament this year with time to have dealt with the retirements of last season and relatively little change around the squad, led by the impressive Shade Munro. 

With England and France to follow their opener against Wales, the Scots will know how important a win in their first match is is and this must be the first time in well over a decade that Scotland go into the game as slight favourites, even though they are away, with Wales missing a raft of players on sevens duty. 

Wales

Wales begin this weekend's Championship with numerous players missing thanks to their involvement in the Super 7s in Australia.  Players like Elinor Snowsill, Jasmien Joyce, Shona Powerll-Hughes and Sioned Harries will all be missed against Scotland this weekend but their travels do mean that Rowland Phillips has a great chance to test new faces.

Wales had a decent World Cup, finishing seventh and securing their place at the next tournament, and have used the Autumn to develop young and inexperienced players. They came up short against Ireland recently in a Six Nations warmup but with both sides chopping and changing combinations, not too much can be read into that. 

Phillips sees this tournament as being about building for the future but Friday night is an important clash for his side with away trips against England and Ireland to follow in rounds two and three.  Having made steady improvements in recent years, a loss to Scotland in the opening game would be a disappointment, but with a core of experience missing, this is a very tough opener for the Welsh. 

Italy
 
Italy’s policy of keeping a very stable squad right up to the World Cup was effective in improving their finishing position, but now the by-product of that comes into effect as they enter this year’s Six Nations with a squad that is a mix of very experienced players alongside complete newcomers to the international stage.

Up front Lucia Gai (52 caps) remains at prop and Melissa Bettoni (41 caps) at hooker, alongside experienced second rows Valentina Ruzza and Saracens’ Valeria Fedrighi. The back row can also call on Isabella Locatelli, Elisa Giordano and, above all, Ilaria Arrighetti/ But against this experience Giordana Duca, Giorgia Durante and Michela Merlo are all debutants, and Eleonora Ricci and Beatrice Veronese have only one cap each.

The backbone of the team is based on captain Sara Barattin (77 caps) – one of the best scrumhalves in the world – is supported by Beatrice Rigoni at fly, and Manuela Furlan at 15 of this team. Michela Sillari and Sofia Stefan are also still around, but the rest of the backline - Maria Magatti. Veronica Madia and Aura Muzzo - are much younger.

Given this wide variation in experience maintaining consistency across the full 80 minutes may be an issue - but in the end it is very hard to say how well so many relatively inexperienced players will perform.