Maggie Alphonsi's guide to the Women's Six Nations

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'Absolutely buzzing' - captains on Women's Six Nations
Women's Six Nations
Date: 3 February-18 March
Coverage: Watch live coverage of selected matches on the BBC Sport website and Connected TV with highlights on BBC TV. Full details.

With the World Cup in Ireland in August, teams have the twin challenges of building momentum for that as well as claiming the Six Nations crown.

Some sides had the challenge of reintegrating players from the Olympic sevens teams in the autumn, now it is a chance for the coaches to try out combinations and build depth.

The announcement of full-time professional contracts for England's women is incredibly beneficial for the women's game generally and for those players personally.

I expect them to be the chief threat to France once again after the dramatic winner-takes-all match between them on the final weekend of last season's tournament.

Here are the contenders for the title, starting with last season's champions:

France celebrate winning the 2016 Six Nations
France's 2016 triumph was their fifth in the tournament

France

I don't know the ins and out of the structure and politics at the French Federation, but in December they sacked Jean-Michel Gonzalez and Philippe Laurent - the coaches that guided them to the title last year.

It does not leave much time for the players to adapt to Samuel Cherouk, get used to his way of playing and implement changes.

Women's Six Nations 2017 - opening weekend fixtures
Friday, 3 February: Scotland v Ireland, Broadwood Stadium, 18:35 GMT
Saturday, 4 February: Italy v Wales, Stadio Comunale, 14:00
Saturday, 4 February: England v France, Twickenham, 19:35

They are still a strong side. In the autumn, they narrowly lost 10-5 to England and beat the United States twice so they will still be going in with a decent team.

Their pack is probably their biggest strength - they tend to score a lot of their tries through their catch and drive line-out.

Their opener against England on Saturday at Twickenham (19:35 GMT kick-off) could be crucial for deciding the title's destination.

Safi N'Diaye
Safi N'Diaye (left) and her team-mates en route to their Six Nations opener

Key player: Safi N'Diaye (Montpellier): She plays number eight, is very physical - similar to England's Billy Vunipola - and is a strong ball-carrier and skilful at off-loading. She is integral to France's attack, providing the go-forward.

Prediction: 2nd (last season: champions)

England

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England's Danielle Waterman says rugby is 'an amazing sport for women'

As professional players, England now have the time to refine their fitness, work on their skills and get the rest when they need it.

They were a little slow to get going in the autumn as coach Simon Middleton brought those who had been playing sevens back into the fold, but still managed to register wins over France, Ireland and Canada and push New Zealand close.

There is a huge amount of experience in their ranks as well with Rochelle Clark leading the way on 117 caps and Tamara Taylor just short of a century on 98.

Marlie Packer

Key player: Marlie Packer (Bristol) Marlie has taken over the open-side flanker role that I used to fulfil for England. She is physical, aggressive and dominates the breakdown, turning over the opposition ball, as well as hitting good lines in the loose.

Prediction: Champions (last season: 2nd)

Ireland

From the words of coach Tom Tierney it sounds like a positive environment in the Ireland camp as he develops younger players and depth before hosting the World Cup in the summer.

The women's game in Ireland is going from strength to strength, with them competing in their first autumn series last year.

They pushed England incredibly close, going down by just two points, as well as playing the world's number three and one sides in Canada and New Zealand.

It was a tough series, but they are growing as a team and getting more consistent.

Claire Molloy

Key player: Claire Molloy (Bristol) Ireland's number seven is small, but packs a big punch. She is integral to the team.

Prediction: Fourth (last season: third)

Wales

Rowland Phillips took charge of Wales in July and since then they have won four games out of four.

Their most recent win was a 22-14 victory away in Ireland and they will come into the Six Nations with lots of positive momentum.

As a former Wales international, Phillips knows what it takes to be successful and that is rubbing off on the players. He has been speaking about consistency and rewarding players for good performances.

They have got a tough World Cup group alongside New Zealand - the emphasis will be on having a very strong Six Nations to build into that.

Key player: Jasmine Joyce (Scarlets) Joyce was the only player from Wales to make the GB Sevens side for Rio 2016. She is pure gas and will be hard for the opposition to contain.

Prediction: Third (last season: fourth)

Italy

Italy have shown improvement at every Six Nations since they joined in 2007.

They finished fifth in the tournament last year and, although I wouldn't say they are potential champions, you can never count them out of any game.

They were just two points behind England approaching the hour mark in last year's Six Nations and, in the same World Cup group as the Red Roses later this year, they will want to show they can mix it with big teams.

They have three games at home and that will benefit them as well.

Manuela Furlan (right)

Key player: Manuela Furlan (Aylesford Bulls) She is a strong, balanced runner and great finisher and will benefit from playing her domestic rugby in England.

Prediction: Fifth (last season: fifth)

Scotland

Scotland failed to qualify for the World Cup after losing both their qualifying matches against Spain unfortunately.

The silver lining to that might be that it might help their focus on this tournament.

On a positive note, they have young players coming through and a coach in Shade Munro who is trying to develop the team.

I would love to see them turn in some of the performances that they managed back in 2010 when they beat France and drew with Italy, if they could do that again that would be great.

However, based on their performances and the improvements of the other teams I think another wooden spoon is most realistic.

Key player: Jade Konkel (Hillhead Jordanhill) Konkel is their only full-time player and her return after missing those games against Spain will be timely. She is a big unit, who at number eight offers them a lot of leadership, presence and ball-carrying.

Prediction: 6th (last season: 6th)

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