2016 record: P13 W13 L0
Average points per match v tier one nations: 30.5
Six Nations: 1st
Eddie Jones followed Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland in winning the Six Nations at the first attempt and England then got better. England did what they had to in the championship and little more. Jones had little time with his players before the tournament but they were impressive in defence and attack in defeating Australia 3-0 and won their four autumn internationals comfortably by double-figure margins to leave them unbeaten in 2016 and second in the world rankings, averaging more than 30 points a match.
Six Nations predictions: back Scotland if you’re brave but Ireland are in box seat
Injuries will test them at the start of the Six Nations, with the Vunipola brothers out along with Chris Robshaw. James Haskell, George Kruis and Dylan Hartley have played little or no rugby this year, which suggests England may be undercooked against France. Without the Vunipolas, England will have to find other means of getting over the gainline: Jones operated without a powerful midfielder last year but has Ben Te’o to call on should he need a tactical adjustment. Strength over the ball should not be an issue, despite the players missing. The champions will be strong in the set piece and they look the most flexible of the six teams.
Key man Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell’s kicking may prove vital for England. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
2016 record: P10 W4 L6
Average points v tier one nations: 18.9
Six Nations: 5th
France’s final match last year was a five-point defeat to New Zealand, although at one point in the second half they trailed 24-9. They tightened up defensively in the second half of 2016, but they do not score enough points to beat the top sides, reaching 25 only once against a tier one side, in Argentina in the summer.
That makes the loss of the centre Wesley Fofana, their most creative midfielder, all the more acute: he has been replaced in the squad by a rather different centre, Mathieu Bastereaud, although Guy Novès has Gaël Fickou in reserve.
Novès, who took over after the 2015 World Cup, has used defence as his starting point wanting a foundation laid before resurrecting French flair. He has a choice to make at scrum-half, where Baptiste Serin is pushing Maxime Machenaud, if not at fly-half, a problem position for France this decade. They have power at forward and the ability to counterattack but this French revolution is gradual and a first top-half finish since 2011 would represent success.
Key man Louis Picamoles
Louis Picamoles prepares to face England
Louis Picamoles prepares to face England. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images
Johnny Sexton ruled out of Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Scotland
2016 record: P 12 W6 D1 L5
Average points v tier one nations: 24.5
Six Nations: 3rd
Ireland had a two-tone 2016: a disappointing defence of their Six Nations title was followed by a narrow series defeat against South Africa after winning the first Test with 14 men and an historic victory over New Zealand in Chicago which not only ended the All Blacks’ long winning streak but was the first time they had won the fixture.
They ended the year, after the World Cup holders exacted revenge in a tight, tense return in Dublin, by beating Australia, becoming the first European nation to defeat the southern hemisphere’s big three since England in 2003.
Ireland have, under their New Zealand coach Joe Schmidt, generally avoided risk but as 2016 went on they offloaded more in a gameplan that was not quite as prescriptive. If they are not going the way of England, where the emphasis is on player responsibility, a slightly looser rein has made them more dangerous but they need Jonathan Sexton, the master of tactical kicking, to overcome the calf problem that rules him out of the opening game.
Key man Robbie Henshaw
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland’s master of tactical kicking
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland’s master of tactical kicking. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images
2016 record: P10 W4 L6
Average points v Tier One: 16.7
Six Nations: 6th
Another new era for Italy with Conor O’Shea at the helm assisted by Mike Catt and Brendan Venter. Since joining the Six Nations in 2000, they have won 12 matches and lost 72. Much, as ever, will fall on their No8 and captain, Sergio Parisse, and, as their scoring record shows, they are the team in the championship least suited to the faster pace of the international game.
The forecast of showers in Rome may increase the number of set pieces against Wales but O’Shea tried a new combination at half-back in the autumn in Carlo Canna and Giorgio Bronzini – the latter was playing domestic league rugby a year ago – and there will be a tactical shift in the coming years. Their task is to be competitive for longer than the first round and keep players motivated – O’Shea’s forte.
Key man Sergio Parisse
Sergio Parisse, left, and the coach, Conor O’Shea, are the backbone of Italy. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
2016 record: P10 W6 L4
Average points v tier one nations: 21.9
Six Nations: 4th
Since winning the last Five Nations in 1999, Scotland have had only three top-half finishes in the Six Nations and reached no higher than third in the table. There is cautious optimism with visible signs of progress under Vern Cotter last year: more tries and points were scored, another narrow, late defeat to Australia was followed by victory over Argentina and there is competition for places in a number of positions, most notably the midfield, second row and back row.
In 2014, Scotland scored 47 points in the Six Nations, 38 of them against Italy and France, and scored only four tries. The latter total rose to 11 last year, the first time they had reached double figures since Italy’s inclusion in the tournament. The manner in which Glasgow qualified for the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup for the first time has provided a pre-tournament bounce. A relative lack of experience and power make them unlikely title contenders but they have the capacity to shock.
Key man Finn Russell
Finn Russell, the main man for Scotland. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA
Ben Youngs: When I met Eddie Jones I just thought ‘I want to play for this guy’
2016 record: P13 W6 D1 L6
Average points v tier one nations: 24.2
Six Nations: 2nd
Wales won three of their four autumn internationals, their best return in the series, but won few plaudits from supporters and pundits. Under the interim coach, Rob Howley, they are moving away from the formula that won them the title in 2012 and 2013 when their threat was physical and aerial, recognising that victory against a tier one nation is statistically unlikely now without scoring 25-30 points.
Wales got into the 30s only against Italy last year (Japan are tier two) while conceding 30 points or more four times. Howley named seven new caps in his squad and, if he is likely to start with the tried and tested against Italy in Rome, the return of Rhys Webb at scrum-half will add impetus.
It is at fly-half where a selection dilemma may come. Dan Biggar, who stood out in the World Cup when Wales were still in direct mode, is being challenged by Sam Davies who likes to stand flat and attack the line. Biggar prefers to lie deeper. Will the attack coach Alex King – whose time at Northampton where they played a deep-lying 10 in Stephen Myler – ended early, coax Biggar into providing more of an attacking threat?
Luke Charteris, with a broken bone in a hand, and Taulupe Faletau, will not play against Italy on Sunday