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All signs pointing to 2016 Six Nations thriller with no clear favourite


New head coach Eddie Jones will lead England's bid for RBS 6 Nations title glory this season

New head coach Eddie Jones will lead England's bid for RBS 6 Nations title glory this season

New head coach Eddie Jones will lead England's bid for RBS 6 Nations title glory this season

Wales boss Warren Gatland summed things up perfectly when he described this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship as having "a little bit of uncertainty" surrounding it.

Predictably, the bookmakers have installed England as tournament favourites, with Italy odds-on for yet another wooden spoon.

But perhaps for the first time in Six Nations history, there are possibly five countries holding genuine title aspirations, which suggests a thrilling battle to secure silverware.

Two challengers - England and France - are under the direction of new head coaches in Eddie Jones and Guy Noves, respectively, while Ireland are chasing a Six Nations title hat-trick, which has never previously been accomplished.

Wales, meanwhile, should be buoyed by a Six Nations trend of them winning a Grand Slam immediately after a World Cup (2007 and 2011), while Scotland, possibly still reeling from the horrible injustice that engulfed their World Cup exit in October, look in excellent shape.

And what better opportunity could they have wished for to make a statement than on day one, when England arrive at Murrayfield and the Calcutta Cup takes centre-stage.

It offers an immediate fierce examination for Australian Jones, who succeeded Stuart Lancaster in England's coaching hot-seat following a World Cup debacle when the host nation suffered a pool stage exit and packed their bags with indecent haste.

Jones has already put a stamp on proceedings by naming seven uncapped players in his 33-man elite player squad, while also appointing serial offender Dylan Hartley, who has spent more than 50 weeks of his rugby career banned, as captain.

If the players match their coach's boldness, then a first Six Nations crown since 2011 could be on its way to Twickenham, but that is half the fascination with England in that no-one really quite knows what to expect.

Jones has talked about re-establishing power and menace in the forwards - Hartley appears an ideal leader to shape those plans - but England also require a sharper attacking edge and consistency of selection. Maybe on this occasion, there are too many things that need falling into place in too short a time-frame.

Reigning champions Ireland go into battle without one of European rugby's all-time greats after Paul O'Connell's international retirement earlier this year, while injuries will deprive them of outstanding talent like Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson and Peter O'Mahony.

As ever, fly-half Jonathan Sexton holds the tactical and operational controls, but for Ireland - and Wales - so much would appear to hinge on their opening weekend meeting in Dublin.

The winners of that Aviva Stadium encounter will be off and running, and in Wales' case that would mean them having a victory in the bank with three home games to come at the newly-named Principality Stadium, with Scotland and France among their Cardiff opponents.

Wales have lost injured backs Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb for the tournament, but powerful centre Jonathan Davies is back after missing the World Cup and there is a tried and tested look to their pack, with players such as Sam Warburton, Alun-Wyn Jones and Taulupe Faletau leading the way.

Wales, unquestionably, need more variation in their attacking game, yet if they can overcome a tendency to be slow starters in major tournaments, then a fourth Six Nations title of Gatland's reign appears eminently possible.

Scotland, whitewashed in last season's Six Nations, displayed many green shoots of revival during the World Cup last autumn, when, had Lady Luck ultimately smiled upon them, a semi-final place - at least - would have been accomplished.

Their opening two games - England at home, Wales in Cardiff - will set the tone for Vern Cotter's men, but Scotland are serious dark horses this year in a tournament they have never previously won.

Italy, whose coach Jacques Brunel looks set to make way for Harlequins rugby director Conor O'Shea at the end of this season, appear off the pace, which leaves France, now led by long-time Toulouse chief Noves, with Guilhem Guirado replacing Thierry Dusautoir as skipper.

Noves' biggest task will be restoring consistency in terms of performance and selection, two areas that suffered badly under his predecessor Philippe Saint-Andre, and if he gets it right, then Les Bleus could once again be a Six Nations force.

But the fact they have not claimed a Six Nations title since 2010 suggests there is a huge amount of work to be done, and like Jones with England, it will surely take time.