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Pundits divided over potential Six Nations winners.

Byline: anthony woolford Sports writer anthony.woolford@walesonline.co.uk

BARELY a Six Nations comes around without predictions the tournament could be the tightest yet.

But 2019 could be just the year with many pundits and former players predicting a three nation race between Wales, Ireland and England with Scotland potential dark horses.

So just how will events unfold when France and Wales kick off the tournament with a Paris showdown on Friday night.

Here's what seven eminent figures in Five and Six Nations history have to say.

BRIAN MOORE The Six Nations never fails to surprise and this year is shaping up to be one of the best series in recent memory.

Every team has improved from last year, with Ireland, Wales and, arguably, Scotland having squads that are probably better than any they have had in the professional era, the former England hooker wrote in the Telegraph.

People are viewing the final round clash between Wales and Ireland as the championship and/or Grand Slam decider.

It could be, but before that denouement there is an awful lot of rugby to be played. Ireland have the advantage of facing both England and France at home and rightly go into the tournament as favourites.

My view, which will be a minority view, is that Scotland will have the biggest say in what the final table looks like come March 16.

They are unlikely to win the tournament, yet they will provide a far harder test for teams than many imagine. Their home games against Ireland and Wales will be particularly problematic for the away teams.

Home advantage has been shown to be a major asset in the Six Nations and though this means England have to go to Dublin and Cardiff, it does mean they should be confident of winning three games and that would be an improvement on last year's final position.

You would not make them favourites for either of their away games, but nor would any sensible person dismiss their chances out of hand. In a year when a Grand Slam is improbable and one away win could see them equal Ireland and Wales in the final table.

SAM WARBURTON How to predict this season's Six Nations? It is going to be so tight with England, Ireland and Wales the three main contenders for the title in my eyes.

I had an interesting conversation with a fan the other day. He said he had tickets for both Wales versus Ireland and England against Scotland on the last weekend of the tournament, and could not decide which was going to be the best game to go to.

And he was an England fan, said the ex-Wales and Lions skipper in his Times column.

My reply? I told him if England beat Ireland, then go for England versus Scotland. But if Ireland win, and Wales beat France in Paris on Friday, then Wales against Ireland could be a classic.

These are two huge matches and it will be hard for England to win in Dublin and I expect Ireland to win.

But you never know with England and they could just produce a performance that shocks everyone.

It wouldn't surprise me if Wales were down at half-time in Paris but I think they will edge it by two or three points. That is not just my heart speaking.

Wales are too good now. France have a mental block against Wales at the moment. It is a hostile crowd, but Wales will have no qualms about going there and doing a job.

GORDON D'ARCY I think it is a decider on the final day between Wales and Ireland.

Both carry some impressive form over from the November internationals, and more strength in depth across their squads.

The freshness of centrally-contracted players for both could be a telling difference from the rest of the pack.

The more success a team has, the larger a target they become; Ireland are a giant target at the moment.

However, Ireland have become very adept at looking after their own performances, I don't see them wavering from that formula during the Six Nations.

They can't control everything, so a bounce of a ball may go against them or a decision.

Can they win? Yes, but they might need a little luck along the way, the former Lions and Ireland centre told the Independent.

The way (England) played (in the autumn) they looked more like individuals under pressure to perform rather than a team that pulled together to win close games.

But it is a good place to build from and Eddie (Jones) is the master of that.

IAN MCGEECHAN I make Warren Gatland's team marginal favourites on the basis that they are flying at the moment (unbeaten in nine) and have the most favourable draw, with home fixtures against Ireland and England.

They have a heck of a tough first game in Paris but, win that, and they can go all the way.

The loss of Taulupe Faletau is a blow, but Wales have more depth than previously, wrote the Lions legend in his Telegraph column.

You look at that squad and there are options everywhere. You have some wonderful ball players, some real grit and some X-factor. George North is back in form and that is huge.

The point is, Wales have options. They were stuck in a rut for a while, but it felt as if they moved on tactically in the autumn and their collective identity is clear.

They can scrap out a tight game if they need to, and put teams to the sword given half a chance.

Ireland are the team to beat, no question. Their 2018 calendar year was just phenomenal, delivering on every objective.

Trips to Dublin and Cardiff will make it very difficult for England to win.

The challenge is to build on their strong autumn and try to establish their first-choice combinations looking ahead to the World Cup.

CLIVE WOODWARD If England get the mindset right and play an attacking style, there is no reason why they can't win (the Six Nations).

And that would make them favourites for the World Cup, especially if they can roll Ireland over in Dublin.

That is how big the opener is. There is lots of pressure on this Irish team because the expectations are so high and they have a history of underwhelming World Cups.

I am really excited for Ireland this year because they have an opportunity of a lifetime, wrote the 2003 World Cup winning coach in his Daily Mail column.

It's one that if they manage to take, they will never forget.

They can do it. But they know that if they don't manage to achieve it, then they will be looking in the mirror forever.

That is why sport is so good. One thing Warren Gatland is absolutely right about is if they beat France in Paris, they are on a roll.

That first weekend for them is massive, playing at the Stade de France -- Wales might not have the depth of England or Ireland, but have a very strong starting XV.

TONY WARD Given what it is, the staging of the World Cup every four years has to be the greatest rugby show of all,.

But no tournament or no time of year captures the imagination like the Six Nations and those magical six weeks between early February and mid-March.

Before a ball is kicked in the 2019 Six Nations I think it is fair to say that all pre-tournament evidence points to Ireland, England and Wales being marginally ahead of Scotland and France, with the Italians, as ever, battling for that solitary win to maintain interest and credibility.

The Welsh, under Warren Gatland, are in a rich vein of winning form. They are injury-hit with Leigh Halfpenny and most particularly No.8 Taulupe Faletau ruled out, wrote the Irish legend in his Independent column.

That said, they are looking good despite the dismal showing of the regions in both PRO14 and Champions Cup. That can often prove the way whereby the break from a losing environment on a regular basis to a different set-up entirely, for the Six Nations window, can prove heavensent.

In simple terms Gatland is where Joe Schmidt was 12 months ago. Win on Friday in France and everything is possible.

The target for each and every one of the six head coaches is winning momentum in that opening game, especially on the road.

Momentum in this tournament is everything.

JASON LEONARD Warren Gatland has done a tremendous job with Wales and is a credit to rugby - and the Welsh players will want to make sure that he goes out on a high.

England going to Ireland is going to be a tough one, the England legend told the Rugby Paper.

Yes, England can win in Dublin, but Ireland are favourites not just for that match, but also the tournament.

When you beat the All Blacks common sense dictates that you are the Six Nations favourites.

However, England and Wales are not far behind them, and Scotland have come on a long way under Gregor Townsend, and are a potential banana skin for anyone.

But England can win - of course they can - and the autumn gives a lot of hope.

We've unearthed some great talent with guys putting themselves forward, and others coming back from injury.

Having Mako and Billy Vunipola back is a huge lift for England.

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The Six Nations kicks off on Friday... and it promises to be as hard-fought as ever
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Jan 30, 2019
Words:1597
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