Our panel of experts answer the key Six Nations questions.
Rúaidhrí O’Connor: Cardiff has been the iceberg to Ireland’s Six Nations ambitions in the last decade. Overcome Gatland’s Wales and the whole thing opens up for them. If they keep Sexton and Furlong fit, the Slam is there.
Cian Tracey: France are the team to beat, despite what the world rankings suggest. Expect Ireland to be in the hunt on the final day, but Les Bleus to edge the title without a Slam.
David Kelly: February 11th in Dublin may be significant in answering both these questions, when France travel to Ireland following opening wins. No Slam and France to edge a tight title race with the Irish.
Sinéad Kissane: Ireland to edge France. Their round 2 meeting at the Aviva stadium is lined up to be a championship decider. But this Six Nations might not be as straightforward as to deliver a Grand Slam.
Will Slattery: In terms of form and fitness, there’s no reason why Ireland shouldn’t win this year’s Six Nations. With France and England at home, they should be targeting a Grand Slam.
Tony Ward: 2018 aside, the uneven years represent our best chance with England and France travelling to Dublin so let us, as number one ranked nation, face expectation head on and say yes.
Lindsay Peat: My money would be on Ireland and I think, with England and France at home, they can win the Grand Slam. Obviously, the biggest obstacle will be when the French visit on February 11.
Rúaidhrí O’Connor: Most of the big battles are on the bench but the No 12 shirt is up for grabs in Robbie Henshaw’s absence. Jamie Osborne is the form man, Stuart McCloskey the incumbent, Bundee Aki out in the cold.
Cian Tracey: Barring any late injuries, the only debate is around who plays ‘12’ in Robbie Henshaw’s absence. Stuart McCloskey deserves another shot but Bundee Aki may get the nod for the battle in Cardiff.
David Kelly: His team picks itself presuming Furlong and Sexton are fit; the wings are not pivotal for success. Midfield is the crucial call in Henshaw’s absence. Fitful McCloskey, the out-of-favour Aki or the wildest of thrilling cards, Osborne.
Sinéad Kissane: Garry Ringrose’s plus one in the centre. Bundee Aki started against Wales last year and scored an early try but his lack of gametime may work against him. This should be a selection for Stuart McCloskey.
Will Slattery: The starting team looks straightforward but with Joey Carbery’s omission, who Andy Farrell picks between Ross Byrne and Jack Crowley as the back-up out-half will be very interesting.
Tony Ward: Balancing the calls he wants to make on both wings (Hansen and Lowe), at inside centre (Aki), out half (Sexton) and tight head prop (Furlong), with lack of match practice measured against form in training.
Lindsay Peat: What to do with Johnny Sexton. There is still no clarity around Ireland’s next best No 10. How Sexton’s minutes are managed will be tricky. I would be taking him out for Scotland and Italy.
Rúaidhrí O’Connor: Borthwick’s squad has been weakened with injury, whereas the Ospreys’ improvements have strengthened confidence within Wales. Gatland’s experience will count for a lot as he trods a familiar path.
Cian Tracey: Yes, just don’t expect either to be an overnight success. Borthwick has a strong squad, Gatland less so, but he will get a tune out of Wales, starting against Ireland.
David Kelly: Both will, but slowly; neither will be judged on this campaign but they will form judgments from it to guide their true motivation, the World Cup. Each will want to bloody a nose, which makes France and Ireland vulnerable.
Sinéad Kissane: The way both teams had been playing it won’t be hard to make improvements. Gatland may not have the same level of player as before but he’ll make his Wales team get under the skin of Ireland on opening day.
Will Slattery: England’s fixture list gives Borthwick a good chance of starting with three wins before the tough tests of France and Ireland. If Warren Gatland claims more than two wins from five it will be a surprise.
Tony Ward: I sincerely hope not but Borthwick has strength in depth and the relevant tools in the box, while Gatland will be focused on momentum or more specifically on getting one over on us in seven days’ time.
Lindsay Peat: Gatland will make an initial impact but I don’t see enough coming through for him to sustain that. Borthwick has more than enough talent but I’d be surprised if he gets them humming in time for the Six Nations.
Rúaidhrí O’Connor: The answer is Johnny Sexton but James Lowe’s importance was clear during his absence in November. The Kiwi wing unlocks attacking potential, while his left boot gets them out of trouble,
Cian Tracey: Finlay Bealham has stepped up as Tadhg Furlong’s deputy, but you’d still worry if the latter was unavailable. However, as ever, Ireland are a different team when Johnny Sexton isn’t playing.
David Kelly: Andy Farrell’s aim is to ensure that there isn’t one; but still, without Sexton or Furlong, supporters will fret more than should be reasonable were there viable alternatives.
Sinéad Kissane: Besides Johnny Sexton, that’s Tadhg Furlong. The way the Leinster scrum has struggled recently without Furlong won’t have gone unnoticed by other nations.
Will Slattery: Johnny Sexton – although the importance of Tadhg Furlong in shoring up the Irish scrum can’t be over-stated.
Tony Ward: No bias on my part I can assure you but whoever wears ten whether it be Sexton, Byrne or Crowley and in that order.
Lindsay Peat: Garry Ringrose and Caelan Doris, I couldn’t separate them. Two ball-players. Brilliant and unassuming leaders who know their roles inside out. Both are world-class operators.
Rúaidhrí O’Connor: The French side are a joy to behold and their No 8 Grégory Alldritt is a hell of a player. His battle with Caelan Doris in a fortnight’s time is one for the ages.
Cian Tracey: Does Ben Healy count? Scotland’s new out-half has a point to prove and as Gregor Townsend rates him highly, he will get his chance. An honourable mention to Italy’s magic man Ange Capuozzo.
David Kelly: Antoine Dupont, toujours. For simply reminding us that this sport can still, someday, perhaps rediscover that the aim of the game is to find space, seek evasion, rather than collide, inviting repeated self-destruction.
Sinéad Kissane: Ange Capuozzo. His creation of that last-minute try to help Italy beat Wales in Cardiff on the final day of last year’s Six Nations is the kind of magic you hope to see.
Will Slattery: Eddie Jones didn’t get near to getting the best out of flamboyant out-half Marcus Smith. The presence of his Harlequins attack coach Nick Evans in England camp could change that.
Tony Ward: In terms of exciting potential, French-born Italian full back Ange Capuozzo does it for me. That said Antoine Dupont is Gareth Edwards reincarnated, the most complete scrum half to grace this tournament since the Principality’s finest.
Lindsay Peat: Antoine Dupont. For a player who is liable to do anything in possession, it’s so impressive that he gets it right most of the time. Watching him is always good for the rugby soul – the game is rarely dull when the France No 9 is lurking.
Rúaidhrí O’Connor: H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, J Osborne, J Lowe; J Sexton (capt), J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong; T Beirne, J Ryan; P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris. Replacements: R Kelleher, D Kilcoyne, F Bealham, R Baird, J Conan, C Casey, R Byrne, J Larmour.
Cian Tracey: H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, S McCloskey, J Lowe; J Sexton (capt), J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong; T Beirne, J Ryan; P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris. Replacements: R Kelleher, C Healy, F Bealham, I Henderson, R Baird, C Murray, J Crowley, B Aki.
David Kelly: H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, S McCloskey, J Lowe; J Sexton, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong; T Beirne, J Ryan; P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris. Replacements: R Kelleher, D Kilcoyne, F Bealham, R Baird, J Conan, C Murray, R Byrne, B Aki.
Sinéad Kissane: H Keenan, M Hansen, G Ringrose, S McCloskey, J Lowe, J Sexton (capt), J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong, T Beirne, J Ryan, P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris. Replacements: R Kelleher, D Kilcoyne, F Bealham, R Baird, J Conan, C Murray, R Byrne, B Aki.
Will Slattery: H Keenan, M Hansen, G Ringrose, S McCloskey, J Lowe, J Sexton, J Gibson-Park, A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong, J Ryan, T Beirne, P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris. Replacements: R Kelleher, D Kilcoyne, F Bealham, I Henderson, R Baird, C Murray, R Byrne, J Larmour.
Tony Ward: H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, S McCloskey, J Lowe; J Sexton, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong; T Beirne, J Ryan; P O’Mahony, J Van Der Flier, C Doris. Replacements: R Kelleher, C Healy, F Bealham, I Henderson/R Baird, J Conan, C Murray, R Byrne, B Aki/J O’Brien.
Lindsay Peat: H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, S McCloskey, J Lowe; J Sexton, J Gibson-Park; A Porter, D Sheehan, T Furlong; T Beirne, J Ryan; C Doris, J van der Flier, G Coombes. Replacements: R Kelleher, C Healy, F Bealham, I Henderson, P O’Mahony, C Murray, J Crowley, J O’Brien.