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Six Nations 2018: All you need to know

In a recent study...

Posted: Feb. 1, 2018 12:09 PM
Updated: Feb. 1, 2018 12:09 PM

In a recent study, the world's most attended sports competition wasn't the NFL, the FIFA World Cup, La Liga, or the Premier League. It was the Six Nations championship.

According to football governing body UEFA, the annual rugby tournament between England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy pulled in an average crowd of 72,000 across its 15 games in 2015 -- 3,600 more than the NFL in second.

Northern Hemisphere's premier rugby tournament returns

Six countries compete 15 games over two months

England favorite to take third consecutive title

The success of the Six Nations, which pits the Northern Hemisphere's best rugby sides against each other in February and March each year, is due in part to the competition's rich history.

It dates back to 1871 and a single rugby game between England and Scotland. From there it has grown, with Ireland, Wales and France all added by 1910. The Five Nations endured until the end of the century, until the inclusion of Italy in 2000 saw the birth of the modern Six Nations.

With one current coach calling it "the best rugby competition in the world," needless to say excitement is high ahead of this year's tournament, which kicks off at Cardiff's Principality Stadium on February 3.

Here's a team-by-team guide to the 2018 edition.

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England

2017: 1st

Coach: Eddie Jones

Captain: Dylan Hartley

England has won the past two championships and boasts the best recent record of any Test side, winning 22 of 23 matches under coach Eddie Jones.

However, that hasn't stopped Jones, not one to shy away from managerial mind-games, saying his side has been "written off" ahead of this year's tournament due to injuries.

"If you read the papers then we might as well not turn up," Jones told reporters. "The expectation around the team externally is quite low, but certainly the expectations internally are very high."

Notable injury absentees include No. 8s Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. Jones' initial squad included eight uncapped players and, in line with a recent trend, an apprentice player intended to gain experience as part of the squad.

England begins its campaign in Rome against Italy. A final weekend clash against Ireland -- on St. Patrick's Day -- at its Twickenham home is being billed as a potential championship decider.

Owen Farrell, a key playmaker during last year's British and Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand, brings crucial game management and reliability off the kicking tee. In the forwards, Joe Launchbury has proven to be a gritty performer; no player made more tackles over the course of last year's tournament.

France

2017: 3rd

Coach: Jacques Brunel

Captain: Guilhem Guirado

The past few years haven't been easy for French fans, and matters went from bad to worse last week when police raided the nation's rugby headquarters as part of an investigation into federation president Bernard Laporte.

READ: What's behind France's 'disastrous' run of form?

Embroiled in controversy away from the pitch, performances on it have also signaled cause for concern as Les Bleus lost all their November Tests, bar a draw at home to Japan.

"The results are extremely disappointing," captain Guilhem Guirado recently told CNN World Rugby.

"It's very difficult, especially as a captain. I'm so frustrated about this autumn tour [in November 2017] which was a disaster, honestly."

Last year saw the sacking of coach Guy Noves, who led France to just seven victories in 21 games. He's been replaced by former Italy boss Jacques Brunel, who has named a youthful squad for this season's Six Nations.

Captain Guirado is the only player with more than 50 caps. The hooker is at the heart of a pack that isn't short on size with the likes of lock S-bastien Vahaamahina tipping the scales at close to 280 pounds (127 kilograms).

Ireland

2017: 2nd

Coach: Joe Schmidt

Captain: Rory Best

Ireland will be hungry for the Six Nations title after a second-place finish behind England in 2017. Victory over Jones' side in the final game wrecked England's grand slam bid (five wins from five) in the process.

"It's always open, there's always a couple of results that throw things up in the air," said coach Joe Schmidt. "England have got in front of everyone in the last two championships. It's up to the rest of us to try and chase them down."

A win in Paris on the first weekend would set Ireland up nicely ahead of home games against Wales, Scotland and Italy. The Irish, as ever, have plenty of forward firepower.

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CJ Stander carried the ball into contact more times than any player (103) during last year's tournament and even grabbed a hat-trick against Italy. More of the same will be required given the absence of fellow British and Irish Lion Sean O'Brien in the back row.

Winger Jacob Stockdale is an exciting prospect. He recently admitted he almost quit rugby as a teenager because he was too small; he's now 6"3' with pace and power to boot.

Italy

2017: 6th

Coach: Conor O'Shea

Captain: Sergio Parisse

Italy will be desperate to avoid the so-called wooden spoon -- a sixth-place finish -- for the third time in four years.

The Azzurri went winless throughout 2017. Their most memorable performance saw them baffle England by deploying an innovative technique at last year's Six Nations whereby players didn't commit to rucks. It was criticized by some, strongly defended by coach Conor O'Shea, and forced World Rugby into a rule change.

"It's a tough competition but we're just looking to improve year on year," said O'Shea ahead of his second Six Nations with Italy.

"Gradually, little by little, we have to become more competitive. Our job is to be the best we can be and on any given day something special can happen."

READ: Italy coach defends controversial tactic

With the likes of Georgia and Romania knocking at the door to be included in the tournament, Italy, a side not short on experience, has a point to prove.

Sergio Parisse (129 caps), Alessandro Zanni (99 caps) and Leonardo Ghiraldini (89 caps) make up the Azzurri veterans. Parisse has been so important for so long, but this year could receive the unwanted accolade of being the first man to lose 100 tests.

Scotland

2017: 4th

Coach: Gregor Townsend

Captain: John Barclay

Great things are expected from Scotland at this year's Six Nations. A record 53-24 win against Australia in November was its best result in recent memory, a week after coming agonizingly close to beating New Zealand for the first time ever.

Full back Stuart Hogg, named player of the tournament for the past two years, has been central to Scotland's recent rise. Expect him to make breaks and score tries when this talented backline begins to purr.

"The performances by the players in November were excellent," says coach Gregor Townsend, who took charge of Scotland in May last year.

"It gives us belief, but it starts again from zero really ... we've got some tough opponents and three away games this season. We're going to have to be better if we want to be in a position to win."

Having not finished higher than fourth since 2014, Scotland fans will be hopeful this is the year their team reaches new heights.

Wales

2017: 5th

Coach: Warren Gatland

Captain: Alun Wyn Jones

While all teams have their injury woes, none has felt the bite quite like Wales ahead of its first game against Scotland in Cardiff.

Last year's Lions captain Sam Warburton is the most high-profile absentee, but center Jonathan Davies has been arguably just as valuable in recent times. Scrumhalf Rhys Webb, No. 8 Taulupe Faletau, and fly-half Dan Biggar are also amongst those also sidelined for opening games.

This means there are first-team places for the likes of uncapped winger Josh Adams and fly-half Rhys Patchell who has impressed for club side Scarlets.

There are, though, familiar faces fit for Wales, namely lock Alun Wyn Jones, a veteran of 113 caps, who leads an injury-ravaged side desperate to improve on last season's fifth-place finish.

Visit cnn.com/rugby for more news and videos

"Everyone's in the same boat, you've always got half a dozen players who are not available for whatever reason, for injuries and that," said Warren Gatland, who returns to his position as Wales coach after leading the British and Irish Lions last year.

"It's a great chance for younger players to take their opportunity with both hands, step up and maybe get a chance to be a star in what's probably, in my opinion, the best rugby tournament in the world."

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