The 2019 Six Nations gets under way on Friday, when France host Wales in Paris.

Ireland won the Grand Slam last time around and begin their campaign in Dublin on Saturday against England, whose Twickenham home was the setting for the defending champions' crowning moment in 2018.

Scotland will be keen to continue the improvements of recent seasons, while for Italy the priority will be ending a Six Nations losing run which stands at 17 matches.

Here we take a look at the teams and what each can expect from their 2019 campaign.

 

IRELAND

Who's in charge?

Joe Schmidt is nearing the end of his time at the Irish helm after announcing that he will leave the job at the end of the World Cup. Successor Andy Farrell is already on Schmidt's staff and will be taking notes during this year’s championship.

Rory Best has skippered Ireland for the past two years – a period of tremendous success for Schmidt’s side that has seen them crowned Grand Slam winners and beat the All Blacks for the first two times in their history. He is the oldest player in this year's championship at 36.

Who's the key man?

Ireland boast World Rugby's Player in the Year in the shape of fly-half Johnny Sexton. He has faced a race to be fit for the opener against England but will be key to Ireland's success if he has shaken off the effects of a knee injury. Wing Jacob Stockdale - player of the tournament in 2018 - also poses a threat to any defence.

What happened last year?

Ireland completed the Grand Slam at Twickenham on the final weekend of the championship, consigning their opponents to a fifth-place finish. It was Ireland's first clean sweep since 2009.

What's expected this year?

Ireland have arguably enhanced their reputation since last year’s championship, picking up a series win in Australia, as well as a 16-9 victory over the All Blacks in November. If they can keep up that kind of form over the coming weeks, they will prove themselves to be serious contenders for the 2019 World Cup.

WALES

Who's in charge?

Another coach preparing to say his goodbyes at the end of the year is Warren Gatland, who will stand down as Wales chief after 12 years in charge. The Kiwi has led the team to two Grand Slams during his tenure.

Alun Wyn Jones is captain and, with 119 caps to his name, is rapidly closing in on Gethin Jenkins' record of 129 appearances for his country.

Who's the key man?

The battle for Wales' number 10 jersey is always fiercely fought and Gareth Anscombe appears to have his hands on the prize after starting the wins over Scotland, Australia and South Africa in November. Anscombe's challenge will be maintaining his level of performance with Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell snapping at his heels.

What happened last year?

It was an impressive second-placed finish for Wales in 2018, although their failure to win a match on the road may be a lingering cause for concern ahead of a championship in which they face three away fixtures.

What's expected this year?

Wales have been faced with dreadful luck when it comes to injuries, with Gatland saying only a week and a half before the tournament that just 27 members of his 39-man squad had been able to train, with experienced campaigners Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate among those missing altogether. The situation will likely see players such as Thomas Young and Aaron Wainwright given their chance – experience that could come in useful in Japan later this year. Of the sides contesting the Six Nations, only Ireland can better Wales' record of 10 Test wins in 2018.

SCOTLAND

Who's in charge?

Gregor Townsend continued Scotland's sustained growth in the competition last season, guiding them to impressive victories over England and France.

The captaincy has returned to scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, with John Barclay, who led Scotland in the 2018 championship, yet to recover from an Achilles injury that has prevented him from making his Edinburgh debut since joining from the Scarlets ahead of the 2018-19 season.

Who's the key man?

Stuart Hogg has been the most eye-catching star of Scotland's resurgence over recent years and made more metres than any other player in the competition last year.

What happened last year?

Scotland finished third but things could have been better had it not been for a slow start in Wales, where they kicked off the championship with a 34-7 defeat. Their campaign will be remembered for the 25-13 win against England at Murrayfield – their first Calcutta Cup victory for a decade.

What's expected this year?

With Italy heading to Edinburgh on the opening weekend, Scotland should have an opportunity to get into gear before they welcome Ireland a week later. Scotland are capable of upsetting the campaigns of other would-be Six Nations champions but, with trips to Paris and Twickenham in their itinerary, a challenge for the title looks unlikely.

FRANCE

Who's in charge?

Jacques Brunel took over not long before last year's championship, following the sacking of Guy Noves. He almost got France off to a winning start in his first match in charge against eventual champions Ireland - Les Bleus undone by a last-minute Sexton drop goal in Paris.

Toulon hooker Guilhem Guirado skippers the side, having held onto the role despite the change of coach.

Who's the key man?

Centre Mathieu Bastareaud sits on 50 caps and his experience should complement the wave of young talent coming into the squad. Romain Ntamack - son of former France international Emile - is among the youthful contingent and could make his debut.

What happened last year?

Victory over England in round four was the highlight for France but a series of narrow defeats limited their impact on the championship. The disappointment of a 15-13 home defeat to Ireland was compounded by a 32-26 loss at Murrayfield and a 14-13 reverse in Cardiff as they finished fourth. France dropped a number of players after they were involved in an incident on a night out following the Scotland defeat.

What's expected this year?

France are, as ever, difficult to predict but if they could convert some of those narrow defeats into victories, there is no reason why they could not put themselves in the mix at the top of the table.

ENGLAND

Who's in charge?

Eddie Jones came under pressure for the first time in his England tenure in 2018. The team were unbeatable in the first 17 matches of his time in charge but last year lost six of 12 Tests - they had only lost one of the previous 23 under Jones.

Jones has opted for joint-captains over recent times but will begin the championship with a solo skipper in the form of Owen Farrell, with Dylan Hartley having been ruled out of the opener against Ireland due to a knee injury.

Who's the key man?

It is difficult to look beyond Farrell - a man who has spent most of his time as a centre under Jones and in a share of leadership with Hartley. The Saracens man was utilised at fly-half in November and, with the captaincy his for the time being, this could be Farrell's chance to make both roles his own ahead of the World Cup.

What happened last year?

England's disappointing 2018 kicked off with a shock fifth-place finish in the Six Nations - a championship that saw them beaten by Scotland, France and Ireland after they opened with wins against Italy and Wales. It was England's worst performance since the 1987 Five Nations.

What's expected this year?

An improvement at the very least. England will be underdogs for their opener against Ireland and how they fare in Dublin could set the tone for their campaign. France at home and a trip to Cardiff follow, so England are going to have to work hard for their points early in the championship.

ITALY

Who's in charge?

Conor O'Shea's time as Italy coach has failed to bring about much of an improvement in their Six Nations performances and he may be under pressure in 2019 to show the fruits of his three years at the helm.

Stalwart Sergio Parisse has been a fantastic servant to Italy over the years and at 35 years old, with 134 caps to his name, he remains the figurehead of the national team.

Who's the key man?

Matteo Minozzi would have this category all tied up based on his breakthrough performance last year, but a serious knee injury has ruled out the full-back. His absence puts the pressure on Jayden Hayward or Edoardo Padovani to perform at 15.

What happened last year?

Italy’s defeat to Scotland in their final match of 2018 means they have lost their last 17 games in the championship, the joint longest such run in Five/Six Nations history, level with France who lost 17 matches in succession from 1911 to 1920. Italy's run stretches back to 2015.

What's expected this year?

With injuries to key players there appears little hope Italy can break their torrid run and avoid going a full World Cup cycle without winning a Six Nations fixture.

Tomos Williams will make his Six Nations debut for Wales against France on Friday and Gareth Anscombe is preferred to Dan Biggar for the first game of the tournament in Paris.

Scrum-half Williams gets the nod over Gareth Davies, and his Cardiff Blues team-mate Anscombe retains the number 10 shirt for the Stade de France showdown, with Biggar on the bench.

Liam Williams switches to full-back in the absence of Leigh Halfpenny (concussion), so Josh Adams comes in on the left wing.

Adam Beard keeps his place in the second row alongside captain Alun Wyn Jones, while Ross Moriarty has overcome concussion to don the number eight shirt.

Josh Navidi has also recovered from injury to take his place in the back row along with British and Irish Lions flanker Justin Tipuric.

Coach Warren Gatland has once again gone with the midfield pairing of Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies.

 

Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Gareth Anscombe, Tomos Williams; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Aaron Wainwright, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.

Uncapped teenager Romain Ntamack has been preferred to the axed Mathieu Bastareaud in the France team for the Six Nations opener against Wales on Friday.

Centre Bastareaud - who captained France last year - not only misses out on a place in the starting line-up, but he will not be on the bench at Stade de France either.

Coach Jacques Brunel has put his faith in the 19-year-old Ntamack, whose father, Emile, won 46 caps for Les Bleus, to take on Warren Gatland's side after some eye-catching displays for Toulouse and France Under-20s.

Ntamack - the youngest player in any of this year's Six Nations squads - will be paired with Wesley Fofana, while South African-born lock Paul Willemse will also make his debut in Paris.

Brunel has reunited experienced scrum-half Morgan Parra and fly-half Camille Lopez for the start of the tournament.

Promising pop Demba Bamba, who made his international bow against Fiji last November, has only been named among the replacements.

 

France: Maxime Medard, Damian Penaud, Wesley Fofana, Romain Ntamack, Yoann Huget, Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Uini Atonio, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Willemse, Wenceslas Lauret, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles.

Replacements: Julien Marchand, Dany Priso, Demba Bamba, Felix Lambey, Gregory Alldritt, Baptiste Serin, Gaël Fickou, Geoffrey Doumayrou.

Gareth Davies has handed Wales a huge injury boost after being passed fit for Friday's Six Nations opener against France.

Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey has been charged by the Football Association (FA) over a social media post in which he made an alleged Nazi salute.

Warren Gatland says Leigh Halfpenny is unlikely to play in Wales' first two Six Nations matches, while Gareth Davies and Scott Williams are also set to miss the opener against France.

Halfpenny has been out since suffering concussion in the victory over Australia in November and the full-back is not expected to return until the home clash with England on February 23, at the earliest.

Wales also look likely to be without scrum-half Davies and centre Williams when they take on Les Bleus in the opening game of the tournament at Stade de France a week on Friday.

In a news conference at the Six Nations launch on Wednesday, Gatland said: "Leigh Halfpenny is unlikely to play the first couple of games, Gareth Davies has a quad strain and Scott Williams an ankle injury.

"Those three are unlikely to be considered against France. We will know more after we come into camp this weekend.

"Only 27 of the 39 players in the squad were able to take a full part in training on our first day together because of knocks."

The Wales head coach added: "For us, it's [about] easing Leigh back in slowly. It's been tough for him but he's been philosophical; he's lucky his partner has given birth and he's been working on his kicking with Neil Jenkins.

"His well-being is the most important thing for us."

Jake Ball is the only Wales player who will be released to play for his region, the lock set to feature for the Scarlets against Leinster in the Pro14 on Friday.

Warren Gatland is waiting for a "concrete" offer before deciding on his next coaching venture after Wales.

The New Zealander will oversee his final Six Nations campaign before leaving his post after 12 years following the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Gatland this week revealed he has held informal talks about the possibility of leading the British and Irish Lions for a third consecutive tour when they visit South Africa in 2021.

In terms of a permanent position, Gatland is hoping to take a short break after the World Cup before aiming to take a post in New Zealand, while also refusing to rule out another stint in the Premiership or venture to France or Japan.

"I have had a couple of discussions but there is definitely nothing concrete. Maybe at the end of the World Cup I will be unemployed," he said.

"I was looking to take a few months off and then start looking in the middle of 2020, potentially do some Super Rugby in New Zealand if there was an opportunity.

"But I am also aware that there are not a lot of jobs in New Zealand. That might not be an option.

"So [it could be] back in club rugby in the Premiership, or France or Japan, or something like that."

Under Gatland, Wales are two-time Six Nations Grand Slam winners and have another title to their name, while they reached the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup.

"I take a lot of pride in the fact we go out there and it doesn't matter who we play, they know they are in for one hell of a tough game," Gatland added.

"I've watched and been to a number of games at the old Millennium Stadium and seen the All Blacks put out a second-string team against Wales. There is no way they would do that now.

"We've put ourselves in positions where we should have beaten Australia on more occasions, but we've been pretty good against South Africa in winning five of our last six games.

"Success for me is not always about winning, it's about over-achieving.

"If you look at [Premier League] football and a team like Bournemouth, they've been successful because they are over-achieving in terms of what people expect.

"If Cardiff City stay up this season they will have been successful and over-achieved because everyone expects them to get relegated. That's the way I look at things.

"For me it's not always about winning, it's about becoming hard to beat, and if you do that you get a sense of pride in how you do things. Then it's about winning more often and developing your game."

Wales head coach Warren Gatland is confident his side can win his final Six Nations in the job after naming his squad on Tuesday.

Gatland announced a 39-man selection for the championship, which kicks off for Wales against France on February 1.

The New Zealander, who will be replaced by Wayne Pivac after the Rugby World Cup, has had to negotiate a number of injury concerns in shaping his squad - not least a broken arm sustained by Taulupe Faletau at the weekend.

But Gatland remains positive about his team's chances and says the opening fixture in Paris will be key to the success of their campaign.

“I think we’ve got a great chance of winning the Six Nations, if we win that opening game," Gatland said.

"That first game is going to be our toughest. We feel like we are in as good a position as anybody to do well.

"The whole thing about the Six Nations is momentum. If you can win your first couple of games, then you have a great chance of being in contention on the last weekend.

"This is competition time. The autumn was great, but it wasn’t about points.

"This is what we are going to experience in Japan [at the World Cup], so it’s about fronting up and winning games, playing some good rugby, but also thinking about tournament rugby."

Leigh Halfpenny and Ross Moriarty have been included despite being sidelined with concussion - the Scarlets full-back since November and the Dragons back-row forward since mid-December.

"It's important that we don't rush him [Moriarty] back and hopefully he starts training and potentially he will have a game before the Six Nations," he said.

"We'll see where he [Halfpenny] is at. He's been advised to continue training and ... if he's right, he'll be in contention but if not we'll have to make some other plans."

Gatland added of fly-half Dan Biggar (knee): "Dan has a medial injury but he's a fast healer and hopefully he might be in contention for this game."

Leigh Halfpenny has been included in Wales' Six Nations squad and Thomas Young was also called up on Tuesday.

Halfpenny has not played since suffering concussion against Australia in November and is expected to miss at least the first two games of the competition.

The British and Irish Lions full-back was among the names in Warren Gatland's 39-man squad as he continues his recovery from his latest injury setback.

Young could make his Six Nations debut after he was given the nod along with fellow back-row Josh Turnbull.

Taulupe Faletau misses out after suffering another broken arm on his comeback from the same injury in Bath's win over Wasps last weekend, but Ross Moriarty, Rhys Patchell and Jake Ball were selected.

Jarrod Evans and Jonah Holmes, who made their international bows in November, were also in Gatland's squad.

Wales face France in Paris in the opening match of the tournament on February 1.

 

Wales squad:

Forwards: Rob Evans, Wyn Jones, Nicky Smith, Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias, Ken Owens, Leon Brown, Tomas Francis, Samson Lee, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Seb Davies, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Josh Turnbull, Aaron Wainwright, Thomas Young.

Backs: Aled Davies, Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Dan Biggar, Jarrod Evans, Rhys Patchell, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Owen Watkin, Scott Williams, Josh Adams, Hallam Amos, Steffan Evans, Leigh Halfpenny, Jonah Holmes, George North, Liam Williams.

Taulupe Faletau is set to miss the Six Nations after the Wales number eight suffered another broken arm in his Bath comeback on Saturday.

The British and Irish Lions back-row produced an impressive performance on his return in an 18-16 European Rugby Champions Cup victory over Wasps.

Faletau had been out since breaking his arm in October and Bath confirmed on Tuesday the unfortunate 28-year-old is facing another spell on the sidelines with the same injury.

A statement from the Premiership club said: "Bath Rugby can confirm that Taulupe Faletau suffered a fracture to his forearm in Saturday's Champions Cup fixture against Wasps. 

"Faletau was making his return following another fracture which occurred in October. 

"It's not yet known at this time how long Taulupe will be out of action."

The loss of Faletau is a big blow for Warren Gatland, who is due to name his Six Nations squad later on Tuesday.

Bath director of rugby Todd Blackadder expects Taulupe Faletau to be fit for Wales' Six Nations campaign and has offered a positive injury update on England's Jonathan Joseph.

Leigh Halfpenny would appear to be a doubt for Wales' Six Nations campaign after the Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac confirmed he would visit a specialist due to his concussion issues.

The full-back has not featured since November 10 when he took a blow to the head from Samu Kerevi in Wales' victory over Australia in Cardiff.

Halfpenny had been due to return against Cardiff Blues last weekend only to withdraw prior to kick-off and despite training with the Scarlets in the build-up to Saturday's Pro14 clash against the Dragons, Pivac has confirmed he will not feature due to ongoing headaches.

With Wales beginning the Six Nations against France on February 1, Halfpenny is now due to see a specialist to determine how much longer he can expect to be out for.

"Leigh is still out," Pivac said.

"He was training at the start of the week and still picking up the odd issue there in terms of headaches.

"He is seeing a specialist and that will hopefully give us an accurate timeframe for him in terms of coming back to play. We will know more next week, hopefully.

"It has been about eight weeks now so we want to get some reassurance that we are doing the right things and make sure we stay on track."

There is better news elsewhere for Wales, with Halfpenny's international team-mate Liam Williams set to make his return from a hamstring injury when Saracens face Sale Sharks in the Premiership on Friday.

Wayne Pivac says a tour to New Zealand is "on the horizon" for his first year in charge of Wales.

Scarlets chief Pivac will take over from current Wales coach Warren Gatland after the 2019 Rugby World Cup and his first major assignment will be the following year's Six Nations.

But the Kiwi could be back on home soil soon after, with the Welsh Rugby Union said to be planning a series against the All Blacks.

"That would be fantastic if it was to come to fruition," said Pivac. "It would be a proud moment for me.

"I have heard it's on the horizon but when it's confirmed, it's confirmed.

"It would be a Six Nations followed by three matches against the All Blacks.

"What better way early on to test yourself against one of the best teams, if not the best, in the world?

"That would be a big challenge but one I'm sure everyone would look forward to."

It was also confirmed on Thursday that Scarlets duo Rhys Patchell (hamstring) and Jake Ball (shoulder) could be out for up to six weeks, making them doubts for the start of the Six Nations.

Leigh Halfpenny, meanwhile, is in contention to face Cardiff Blues this weekend having not played since suffering concussion in Wales' win against Australia on November 10.

"Leigh trained today [Thursday] and we will see how he goes between today's session and the captain's run for tomorrow," said Pivac.

"So he has a chance, but we will not risk him if he is not cleared for the weekend."

Wales and Ospreys prop Paul James has been forced to retire due to a shoulder problem.

James has not featured competitively since coming on as a replacement in the Ospreys' Pro14 victory over the Dragons on December 31, 2017.

The 36-year-old, capped 66 times by Wales, revealed a lack of improvement in his shoulder after two operations has forced him to switch his focus to coaching.

"I'm sad to say my time has come to an end. After two shoulder operations and a lot of rehab I'm afraid that my shoulder hasn't recovered," James wrote in a post on Twitter.

"I would just like to thank everyone who has supported me over my career and has helped me achieve everything I did, especially my wife Louise as she had to go through the highs and lows with me.

"I look back with no regrets and loved every second of it. I will miss the banter with the boys but hope to get a new buzz out of dipping my toes into coaching."

Wayne Pivac will be assisted by Stephen Jones and Jonathan Humphreys when he starts his reign as Wales head coach next year.

Pivac, who will replace Warren Gatland after the Rugby World Cup in Japan, on Wednesday added the two former Wales captains to his staff.

Jones currently works under Pivac at the Scarlets and Humphreys is assistant coach of Glasgow Warriors, but the pair will move on at the end of the season.

Neil Jenkins and Paul 'Bobby' Stridgeon will retain their positions on the Wales coaching staff when Gatland departs.

Pivac said: "I'm delighted with today's announcement. We are bringing in two hugely experienced, quality Welsh coaches to our set-up in Stephen and Jonathan and have secured the services of both Neil and Paul which is vitally important,

"The WRU have been forward thinking with their planning and recruitment for post RWC 2019 and this has allowed me to bring in and secure the coaches we wanted.

"Stephen and Jonathan are hugely respected not only for what they did on the field as players but in their careers as coaches and I'm delighted to have them as part of our team.

"They will bring a huge amount of experience, excitement and passion to their roles.

"It is fantastic that both Neil and Bobby will be part of the team going forward. They are both very well respected across the world game, possess huge international experience and will be an important part of our plans going forward.

"We are ahead of schedule with our appointments with more to be made but it is great we are able to confirm where we stand at the moment."

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