The 6 Nations tournament, which kicks off this weekend, looks to be the most competitive edition of the Northern Hemisphere rugby championship in a long time. Ireland, Wales and England are ranked number 2, 3, and 4 in the world, respectively, while Scotland are in 7th (but could realistically rise to 6th with a good performance) and France are 9th. Italy are making up the numbers, in 15th.
Ireland, who won the tournament last year in a Grand Slam performance, are the favourites to again take out the title. A repeat Grand Slam should also be enough to see them knock New Zealand from the number 1 world ranking for the first time since 2009 to claim the spot for the first time.
However, no team has ever completed a 6 Nations Grand Slam in consecutive years, so this would be a big achievement. Winning the tournament would also be the perfect springboard for a World Cup attempt later in the year.
Wales are another big chance, despite playing 3 of their 5 matches away. These 3 away matches are against their weaker opponents, however, with Ireland and England both coming to Cardiff. If the Welsh can win there home matches and beat England in Cardiff then the tournament could well come down to the final game, when the Welsh will face Ireland.
England are the third realistic contender for the title, although if Ireland beat them in Dublin this weekend (which is expected) they will be put seriously behind. They were riding high in the first two years of this World Cup cycle, but have been unable to recover since Ireland beat them in Dublin at the end of the 2017 tournament.
They will need to lay down a marker in this tournament if they are to be a serious World Cup contender, but away games against the two other big contenders is a huge ask.
Scotland and France look like they will be limited to the role of spoiler, as they are unlikely to have the consistency or depth to be particularly dangerous away from home. Both will face Wales at their home grounds, and Scotland will welcome Ireland to Edinburgh, so there is a strong possibility of one of these matches derailing one of the main contenders.
Italy are overwhelming favourites for yet another wooden spoon, and look unlikely to win a single match. They will be targeting their final match of the tournament, against France in Rome, as a possible win.