Amid the turmoil and uncertainty COVID-19 has caused, the 2021 Six Nations kicks off on Saturday in the annual battle for European rugby supremacy. The stands will be empty, the streets of the six magnificent cities will be quiet, the pubs shut -- yet for five weekends, national pride is on the line.
Though it will feel like a diluted Six Nations experience for the fervent supporters, the players know full well what's at stake. This is also a British and Irish Lions year (for the time being, at least) and Warren Gatland will be in the Twickenham and Principality stands in the opening weekend to see how his potential protagonists are shaping up. The players all posed for their Lions portraits earlier this week -- those photographs are now stored away for the squad announcement day later in the year -- but that will be at the back of their minds.
It all starts in Rome on Saturday with Italy hosting France, before attention switches to Twickenham where England face Scotland for the Calcutta Cup. Then on Sunday it's Wayne Pivac's Wales up against Andy Farrell's Ireland in Cardiff. To help you with your ESPN Rugby Pick'em decisions, here's how the teams are shaping up ahead of the opening round.
Italy vs. France
(Saturday, Feb. 6, 15:15 local; 14:15 GMT)
Italy are stuck in a tumble-dryer of perennial evolution. Every year we keep everything crossed they'll come through and start regularly throwing spanners into the well-oiled works of the bigger hitters, but the basic facts remain: since they joined the Six Nations in 2000, they are yet to record more than a single victory per year. Critics and Georgia-champions hit Italy over the head with the Wooden Spoon. Those of the more romantic rugby ideology hope we see the fruits of their developing club scene come through on Test rugby's biggest stage.
Though they start with one hand tied behind their back, with Jake Polledri absent through injury, look to their half-back partnership of Stephen Varney and Paolo Garbisi for optimism. Franco Smith has named a young side for their opener, but Luca Bigi is also a formidable hooker and will lead from the front. However, they'll know full well having France first up is less a graceful entrance into this year's tournament, and more a rude introduction.
France are many people's favourites to win the championship. Their second-string side pushed England all the way in the Autumn Nations Cup, and they finished last year's championship just below Jones' England. There's a feeling this crop of French players could be the greatest in recent memory and unlike in the last World Cup cycle, they now have a world-class coaching team to help bring out the best in them.
The team on the field is a wonderful personification of their coaches' personalities. You have the steely defence of Shaun Edwards, the set piece solidity of Raphael Ibanez and then the laissez-faire exuberance of Fabien Galthie. It's unfortunate we won't see the outstanding Romain Ntamack in the opening rounds due to injury but sit back and enjoy the mesmeric scrum-half Antoine Dupont, one of the world's finest players. His half-back partner Matthieu Jalibert is an outstanding deputy for Ntamack, while they have enough fire power in their wingers Teddy Thomas and Gavin Villiere and No. 8 Cyril Baille to challenge any side in the world.
Prediction: France will get their championship off to a winning start with a bonus point win in Rome with over 40.5 points scored.
England vs. Scotland
(Saturday, Feb. 6, 16:45 GMT)
The last time these two sides met at Twickenham they played out an epic 38-38 draw, with George Ford's try in the dying embers of the game enough to preserve England's impressive home record against their old foes. Scotland last won at Twickenham against England in 1983, but there is a bubbling optimism around this class of 2021.
Gregor Townsend's side have a sturdy spine, with some thrilling talent in the backs, anchored by captain Stuart Hogg. The fiercely talented Cameron Redpath makes his debut in the centres -- having chosen Scotland over England -- while Duhan van der Merwe is one of Europe's most prolific try-scorers on the flank. And then there's the returning Finn Russell at fly-half who will look to keep England's defence spinning with those delightful short-length chips.
Scotland will fancy their chances of upsetting Eddie Jones' side, but England will be equally pumped up for this one. "Scotland don't have a monopoly on pride," was Jones' take earlier in the week, and despite their nervy Autumn Nations Cup victory over France in December, this England side will fancy their chances of landing the Grand Slam.
Owen Farrell is in at fly-half so watch out for Ollie Lawrence at inside centre, while the pack is built to dominate the breakdown with Mark Wilson returning. The autumn was dominated by attritional, kick-heavy rugby, but England are hoping to play a more expansive game in this championship and head into Saturday's game with just one defeat in their last nine matches. That came in the opening match of last season's Six Nations against France in Paris, so Jones' team will know the perils of starting cold. Those Saracens players in the side will need to find their sharpened match senses quickly as they last played in December, but the party line from England is they have loved having the chance to rest weary bodies. Also, England have won three of the last five Six Nations. They are favourites for a reason.
Prediction: Despite the lack of crowds, the Calcutta Cup is one of the sport's box office matches. We are backing England to beat Scotland in their championship opener, with Farrell outscoring Russell on points.
Wales vs. Ireland
(Sunday, Feb. 7, 15:00 GMT)
The pressure was already on Wayne Pivac's shoulders heading into this tournament after a dismal run of results, but even the most one-eyed supporters from the other nations must have felt a pang of sympathy for him this week when he had to send star winger Josh Adams home for a breach of COVID-19 protocols. It's something -- put politely -- he could have done without. With just one win in eight, Pivac needs a good start to this championship on Sunday to alleviate some of that weight of expectation. He'll also have his incredibly successful predecessor Gatland sitting in the stands, watching over potential Lions.
But! It's not all doom and gloom. Far from it. Wales are back in their Principality Stadium home after it was repurposed as a field hospital last year, so that will bring some welcome familiarity. Dan Lydiate is also back in the Wales pack looking to chop down some trees. Dan Biggar is one of the northern hemisphere's premier No. 10s while Tomos Williams will be looking to bolster his Lions prospects. Alun Wyn Jones is flying in training as he looks to add to his remarkable tally of 151 Test caps, and expect to see more of the old guard in the early stages of the championship. For the opener they've gone with George North in the centres with Jon Davies out injured while Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau start a Test together for the first time since 2016. But also keep an eye on young winger Louis Rees-Zammit -- he is lightning quick. They were poor in the breakdown and in the set piece last year, while we're still waiting to see Pivac's philosophy materialising on the field, but they'll back themselves to land an early blow on their Celtic rivals.
Ireland are also in transition under Andy Farrell. They beat France and Wales in November and are better than results suggest. But so much of their game plan still revolves around that age-old combination of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton at half-back. Sexton, 35, last played 80 minutes for Ireland in February 2020, but still has the trust of Farrell to steer his side to what they hope will be their first Six Nations title since that memorable Grand Slam in 2018. The likes of Andrew Porter and Caelan Doris (missing for the first match through injury) will harbour hopes of featuring prominently for the Lions in the summer, while James Lowe will be in the mix to plug the gap left by the injured Jacob Stockdale. And when you have the likes of James Ryan and Garry Ringrose in the side, then you will not be wanting for class. Farrell has gone with Josh van der Flier in the back-row for the opener alongside CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony with Tadhg Beirne in the second-row, and Tadhg Furlong off the bench. With so many of the Leinster group in their squad, expect to see a similar multi-phase attack -- rather than the one-off runners we saw at times in the Autumn Nations Cup -- married with a ferocious defence in Farrell's own sturdy image.
Prediction: This will be tight, but we think Ireland will win by fewer than seven points. And we're backing Alyn Wyn Jones to make more tackles than CJ Stander.