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Six Nations | Opening weekend to prove crucial

The return of the Six Nations is almost upon us.

Six weeks of drama, entertainment, and controversy awaits, with three of the four top ranked teams in the world competing in the European competition.

The opening round of fixtures will go a long way to deciding which country is crowned as champions.

Johnny Sexton’s stunning drop goal against France, the most important moment of last year’s Six Nations, came in the opening weekend of the tournament in Paris.

So what can we expect from the opening round this time around?

France v Wales

What a curtain-raiser for the 2019 tournament.

Warren Gatland has claimed that Wales will go on to win the Championship if they beat France in Paris on Friday night, citing the nation’s ability to thrive when feeling confident.

France were a mixed bag in last year’s tournament (eventually finishing fourth), but were a miraculous Johnny Sexton dropkick away from beating eventual Grand Slam champions Ireland in last year’s opening fixture at the Stade de France.

France will have to visit London, Dublin, and Rome, so a home win on Friday night against Wales will be a must if they are to win their first Championship since 2010.

Jacques Brunel’s side have fallen to ninth in the world rankings following a loss to Fiji in November, and also blew an opportunity to beat South Africa in the autumn internationals.

Toulouse and Racing 92’s impressive European form offers hope, but Brunel has won just two of his 11 games at the helm.

Wales, on the other hand, are being tipped as strong contenders for the Championship after finishing second last year, in what will be Gatland’s last year in charge.

Despite their considerable injury list, they boast strength in depth at fly-half and in the back row, and many are predicting that the title will go right down to the last day when the Welsh host Ireland in Cardiff.

Will their squad be strong enough to cope without the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Patchell, and Ellis Jenkins?

Friday's opener will be a good indication.

A win in Paris would set things up nicely for Wales, who then travel to Italy before hosting neighbours England.

Verdict: Wales

Scotland v Italy

Italy’s last Six Nations win came in Murrayfield in 2015.

Conor O’Shea’s side came close to beating the Scots again last year, but came out on the losing end of a 29-27 scoreline following a late Greig Laidlaw penalty.

The Azzurri have finished bottom of the group in the last three tournaments, but usually perform better in the early matches, and Saturday’s visit to Scotland will likely provide their best chance of an upset in this year’s competition.

With calls for promotion and relegation to Europe’s elite rugby tournament, Italy will be desperate to avoid another whitewash.

Scotland, on the other hand, are targeting an end to their 20-year wait for a Six Nations title. They have won 10 of their last 12 home games, but have been inconsistent on the road.

They beat France and England in Murrayfield last year, but lost away to Wales and Ireland, while squeezing past Italy in Rome on the last day.

The Champions Cup form of Edinburgh – who had 15 players in Scotland’s squad for the autumn internationals – bodes well, and Greg Townsend’s side will be aiming to build on last year’s third-placed finish.

"I think we are on the right path to achieving something incredibly special," full-back Stuart Hogg said this week.

The opening two rounds at home to Italy and Ireland will be key indicators of whether Scotland can end their Six Nations drought, and should have far too much for Italy on home soil.

Verdict: Scotland

Ireland v England

What a huge game.

Ireland’s last Six Nations match was a victory against England in Twickenham which sealed Grand Slam success.

Joe Schmidt’s men – ranked second in the world - deservedly enter the tournament as the favourites having won last year’s Grand Slam, beaten New Zealand for the second time in three years, and claiming a clean sweep in the autumn internationals.

Ireland are unbeaten in 14 home games, but England will pose a stern test. The visitors will be without injured trio Ben Te'o, Brad Shields and Joe Cokanasiga, but still have more than enough quality to hurt Ireland.

Reports suggest Robbie Henshaw is in line to start at full back ahead of Rob Kearney, and Schmidt will also have to decide whether to start Sean O'Brien or Josh van der Flier at openside flanker.

Schmidt has incredible talent and strength in depth at his disposal, and I'm tipping Ireland to start the defence of their crown with a win over their biggest rivals.

Verdict: Ireland

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