On the 4th of February, the ‘world’s greatest rugby tournament’ gets underway once again. Given the countless competitions that exist on both sides of the hemisphere, however, one would be forgiven for not quite knowing what this ‘greatest’ tournament is. I’m referring to, of course, The Six Nations Championship – northern hemisphere’s flagship rugby tournament that pits the nations of England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales against one another to decide who gets the privilege of being crowned champions of European Rugby’s most prestigious event.

With the exception of Italy, each team will believe that they’re good enough to end 2017 as the champions. Will England go back to back and repeat the heroics of 2016? Can France finally win it again after so many years in the wilderness? Can Scotland prove that they have more than just potential and go all the way? Will Wales improve and dethrone England? What about Ireland? Victorious in both 2014 and 2015 with a recent triumph over the All Blacks, can they win it?

With all that said and done, who is likely to conquer all before them and rightfully call themselves the best in Europe? Let’s rank the likely winners from least to most likely;

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Conor O’Shea’s men will be hoping to recreate their historic performance against South Africa when they face Europe’s big guns in this season’s Six Nations.

To the surprise of nobody, Italy would be my pick for basement dwellers and wooden spoon holders following the completion of 2017’s Six Nations Championship. The reasoning? Well, for one, they’re the lowest-ranked side in the competition at 13th in the world. Furthermore, they’ve shown little in the previous few tournaments to suggest that they’ll finish anywhere other than last. Italy are capable of competing against any side on their day, but they lack the quality and consistency that is required to improve on their finishing in the previous tournament. A ray of hope for the Italians would be, since their recently appointed head coach Conor O’ Shea was appointed, they recorded a memorable victory over South Africa during the recent Autumn Internationals. However, they then went on to lose their next game against a much weaker opponent in Tonga which highlights their biggest flaw; inconsistency. Their opening match is against Wales at home.  Likely finish; 6th

To the surprise of quite a few no doubt, I believe France are the most likely to finish in 5th. France, despite possessing myriad of mercurial talents such as Fofana (who’ll miss the tournament due to a severe tendon injury), Les Bleus haven’t won the famed trophy since 2010, and coupled with their disastrous recent world cup campaign, which saw them finish second in their group to Ireland before being massacred by eventual winners New Zealand in the quarter finals, it’s hard to see them challenging in a meaningful way. However, their recent showing in the Autumn Internationals in losing very narrowly to both New Zealand and Australia will give their head coach Guy Noves hope. Their opening match, billed Le Crunch, is against England at Twickenham. Likely finish: 5th

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Warren Gatland will be hoping his Welsh side can finish higher than our predicted 4th position.

Wales possess a great history in this tournament. Having achieved victory in successive years in 2012 and 2013, with 3 grand slam winning teams since 2005, Wales love the 6 Nations. But can they win it again? Doubtful, however having both England and Ireland visit the Millennium stadium in their up and coming 2017 campaign will help in their quest, no doubt. Despite wins over South Africa, Argentina and Japan during the recent Autumn Internationals, Wales played some turgid rugby and were very fortunate to beat both Japan and Argentina. They also got mercilessly cut open and demolished by Australia – a side that went on to lose to Ireland as well as losing heavily to England. Predicting where Wales will finish is difficult at best, thus they’re middle of the pack in this prediction. Their opening match is away to Italy. Likely finish: 4th

The surprise team of the upcoming championship, in my view, is Scotland. Vern Cotter’s side, in recent times, have shown that there is real potential within the Scottish team. Their showing at the recent Rugby World Cup in losing dramatically and controversially to Australia in the quarter finals drew them a lot of admirers and their victory over Argentina in the Autumn Internationals whilst, once again, losing extremely narrowly and at the death against Australia would have given them confidence that they can compete with the very best. Also, lest we forget, much of their side will be made up of Pro 12 side Glasgow who are into the quarter finals of the Champions Cup whilst playing some mesmeric attacking Rugby. Scotland will be a serious threat to every team, and for that, I’ll put them 3rd.  Likely finish: 3rd

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The Irish squad in training ahead of their Six Nations opener against Scotland.

Many people’s top two would have been predictable, however, predicting the placement of the top two, especially in these isles, would prove more difficult. I’ve settled for Ireland to finish as runners up. Why? Firstly, Ireland won the tournament back-to-back in 2014 and 2015. They have recent winning experience. Secondly, I believe they have the second best starting 15 in the tournament overall with many players such as Heaslip, Murray and O’Brien the best players in their respective positions. Thirdly, they have the recent form to back up their promise. After suffering a very disappointing quarter-final exit at the recent World Cup in addition to their less than stellar showing in last years Six Nations, Ireland have since beaten New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in 2016 to end it on a huge high. Ireland are also the second highest ranked side in the tournament. Their first game is a hugely tough tie away to Scotland whereas their last is at home to England.  Likely finish: 2nd

Most people’s favourites, certainly the bookies favourites, are England – and rightfully so. England, under the management of their blunt Australian coach Eddie Jones, have amassed a total of 14 consecutive wins. During this streak, England have claimed a Grand slam title in 2016 whilst also securing a 3-0 series whitewash in Australia as well as defeating the same opposition again alongside both South Africa and Argentina in the recent Autumn Internationals. The only team left to be conquered by Jones’s England is New Zealand, the best team in the world. England will be looking to achieve consecutive tournament victories to rubberstamp their position as the second best team in the world and the best in Europe. Their first game is against France at Twickenham with their last being a mouth-watering clash against Ireland in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Likely finish; 1st

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Can England win the Grand Slam once again?

So there you have it; England to win and Italy to, well, not win. However, thus is the unpredictability of this championship, it wouldn’t surprise me whatsoever if Ireland conquered all. Outside Ireland and England, though? No chance. It makes for exciting viewing and the 4th of February can’t come quick enough!

Ger Ball