Who'll win the championship? What's the key game? Our writers' Six Nations predictions

We answer all the important questions.

Greig Laidlaw, Alun Wyn Jones, Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Guilhem Guirado and Sergio Parisse Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

1. Who will win the championship?

Murray Kinsella: I think England will just pip Ireland to the title, with a losing bonus point in Dublin proving to be enough for Eddie Jones’ side. They have built superb defensive and set-piece foundations – with vast room for growth – and have three fine playmakers in Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell.

Sean Farrell: I don’t know where it’s going to come, but England are due a loss in a big way. Hopefully Ireland can do the honours on the last day of the Championship, but I feel that needs to be a Grand Slam decider to bring the title Ireland’s way.

I’ve a nagging feeling that Wales will go and shock the two favoured horses, especially with that tasty Friday night game against Ireland in Cardiff.

Ryan Bailey: It’s incredibly hard to look beyond England, but the fixtures do fall in Ireland’s favour this year. All the talk is of a Grand Slam decider in Dublin on the final weekend of the Championship but there is so much rugby to be played between now and then and I would be surprised if that came to pass.

Joe Schmidt’s side have momentum at their back and there is certainly a lot of excitement around this campaign from an Irish point of view but England are the favourites for good reason.

Paul Fennessy: Ireland. Recent performances — most notably the defeats of Australia and New Zealand — suggest they are arguably as good as any side in the world right now. Plus, facing France and England at home this year is a major advantage.

Joe Schmidt Source: James Crombie/INPHO

2. What is Joe Schmidt’s biggest concern heading into the tournament

Murray Kinsella: A couple of weeks ago, I felt that if Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray played all five games, Ireland would win a Grand Slam.

We now know that is not going to happen, which is why I opted for England as overall winners. Getting Sexton back to full fitness and keeping Murray in good health are key concerns for Ireland.

Sean Farrell: Injuries left him with only two recognised out-halves before the tournament and Jonathan Sexton’s continuing calf trouble must bring disruption to preparations.

Outside of the 10 channel, while there are brilliant players in starting back-line positions, the current injuries and attrition rate of the Six Nations has to make you concerned for what Ireland’s 9-15 would look like if even two more key players fall away.

Ryan Bailey: Across the board, Ireland have a squad in form and there is huge competition but how they cope without Sexton will prove crucial. It’s stating the obvious but Schmidt has limited options at 10 and it has been the big talking point at Carton House all week. There is huge pressure on the shoulders of Paddy Jackson and regardless of the Ulster man’s ability at this level, the loss of a player of Sexton’s calibre will always weaken a side.

Paul Fennessy: Unquestionably the out-half position. With Jonathan Sexton now unavailable for the Scotland game, options are looking a little scarce in that department. Moreover, losing a world-class player of Sexton’s calibre weakens the side both in terms of ability and morale.

Billy Vunipola celebrates after his side won a late penalty Source: James Crombie/INPHO

3. What will be the key match?

Murray Kinsella: From Ireland’s point of view, I’d be concerned over the visit to Wales. Obviously, hosting England on the final weekend could be really special and you’d have to hope it all comes down to that game, but travelling to Cardiff isn’t easy.

Sean Farrell: There’s no getting away from the final day clash with England. Mouthwatering.

Ryan Bailey: You’re naturally drawn to that final day in Dublin but Friday night under the lights in Cardiff is arguably a tougher assignment for Schmidt’s men. Both games promise to be special occasions but Ireland’s race may have been run by the time England arrive at the Aviva Stadium. Let’s hope not but we can’t get carried away and that game in Wales is potentially a Championship-defining one.

Paul Fennessy: Ireland v England. Eddie Jones’ team have been in terrific form of late and this climactic match features conceivably the best two sides in the tournament. It’s hard to envisage any team going unbeaten for the duration of the competition given that relatively fine margins separate the majority of the teams involved, so both sides may well be going into this game with a chance of winning the Six Nations outright, even if they slip up in one of their prior games.

France’s Baptiste Serin Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

4. Name one player you’re looking forward to seeing in action?

Murray Kinsella: I hope to see plenty of Baptiste Serin for France. He’s a delight to watch – creative, skillful, daring, confident, and hungry. He reminds me of all the reasons I love French rugby and I hope to see les Bleus maximise his exciting potential.

Sean Farrell: Paddy Jackson is Ireland’s incumbent out-half having guided his team in the November win over Australia. This weekend will be his first Six Nations start since his extremely difficult debut international season, but he has matured immeasurably as a controlling 10 since then and with question marks never far from Sexton, he has the opportunity to lay down a solid case that he’s worth investing heaps more faith in as Ireland’s primary playmaker.

Ryan Bailey: It’s easy to forget that Garry Ringrose hadn’t even made his international debut this time last year. The Leinster centre is the real deal and has backed up the hype with a host of standout performances for the province this season and his partnership with Robbie Henshaw has the potential to be explosive. They’ve already showed it at club level, and now they’ll look to bring it onto the international stage.

Paul Fennessy: CJ Stander. His Ireland career is still relatively young, but the South African-born forward has already established himself as a key player for this Irish side. He was superb in the win over New Zealand in particular, and the 26-year-old has been generally superb since making his debut in the opening game of last year’s competition against Wales.

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Richie Gray celebrates scoring a try Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

5. This year’s surprise package will be…

Murray Kinsella: Tommy Bowe is 32 and we’re all well aware of what he can do, but he’s already been involved in one surprise by making the Ireland bench for the clash with Scotland.

The Ulsterman is good in the air, powerful in the carry, makes good reads and communicates well. If his pace was a concern, he wouldn’t be in this match day squad. His comeback begins on the bench but I sense Bowe might bag a few tries in this competition.

Sean Farrell: With only six teams, there’s not much room to hide surprises. While Italy claimed a historic win over South Africa in November, the 2016 incarnation of that team were one of the worst Springbok teams ever. So I’m leaving Scotland in this category, Vern Cotter may be on the way out, but his players are certainly on the way up and in Huw Jones they have an exciting centre to add to an already impressive arsenal.

Ryan Bailey: You’d love to see Italy be more competitive and they’ve certainly made progress under Conor O’Shea so far. That landmark win over South Africa in November will have been a huge confidence booster and with three home games in Rome, this could be a good Championship for the Italians.

Paul Fennessy: Scotland. Vern Cotter’s side look a much-improved outfit of late while Scottish rugby as a whole seems to have made significant strides in recent times, as evidenced by the progress made by Glasgow Warriors in the Champions Cup. Don’t be surprised to see them upset a few teams this year.

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