Five talking points ahead of the opening weekend of the 2015 Six Nations
How will the home nations fare out and which French team will show up?
Will the Joe Schmidt magic last?
The reigning champions start as favourites - a status some bookmakers have them sharing with England - and after a stellar autumn in which they toppled South Africa and Australia it is easy to see why. Old warrior Paul O'Connell may be nearing the end of a magnificent career, but in Jonathan Sexton they have Europe's finest fly-half and in Joe Schmidt one of the game's shrewdest rugby brains whose stewardship of the team has been an unqualified success to date.
Can Vern Cotter weave his magic for Scotland?
The Scots only won one game last season, a one point victory over Italy. They failed to score at home to England, were no match for Ireland and lost by 48 points to Wales. Even allowing for a morale victory at least in a two-point defeat to the French, this season will have to be an improvement.
Glasgow have been impressing many over the past few years with their brand of rugby, while an Autumn victory over Argentina and a gritty display against the All Blacks will give optimism for fans who have been starved of success in recent year.
England under siege
Ideally the 2015 World Cup hosts would arrive in Cardiff with a settled team and a clear gameplan, yet they possess neither. Injury has ravaged a backline that has suffered from the chronic uncertainty in midfield and the pack has been significantly weakened by the loss of Ben Morgan, Tom Wood, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Geoff Parling. Tactically, the all-court game sought by England may have to be abandoned after the autumn win against Australia proved they are better served by a conservative approach.
Which France team will turn up?
France once had an embarrassment of riches, but now head coach Philippe Saint Andre has among the hardest jobs in the Six Nations. "It is very tough to be an English coach or a French coach because of the structure of the English League, which is 12 teams and us, which is 14 teams," Saint Andre has said. Of the two France face the greater hurdles, however. The vast number of oversees players in action in the Top 14 has substantially narrowed Saint Andre's options, particularly in key positions. It is the cash rich clubs who call the shots in the French game.
How are Wales shaping up?
Warren Gatland guided Wales to the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup and this year's Six Nations will offer an insight into whether they could once again be dark horses of the global showpiece. Much depends on their injury profile, but they are currently in good shape and boast a settled team with a well-rehearsed gameplan that plays to their strengths.