Women’s Six Nations preview: England have target on their backs
|Women's Six Nations|
|Dates: 1 February-17 March|
|Coverage: Watch live coverage of selected matches on BBC Red Button, BBC iPlayer, Connected TVs and online; live commentary of every England game on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra; text updates on the BBC Sport website and app; highlights on Sundays on BBC Two.|
England and France are expected to dominate the Women's Six Nations this year, with a potential championship-decider taking place in Doncaster in round two.
Scotland, Ireland and Italy had thought they would be competing for the two remaining qualification places for the 2021 World Cup, but World Rugby has announced it is changing the qualification process.
This removes some of the pressure on the three nations, who are looking to develop the depth of their squads.
The weight of expectation is firmly on England after they started their full-time women's XVs programme in January, with 28 players now on permanent contracts.
While Ireland always offer good opposition, France, as Grand Slam champions, are the team best equipped to upset any English party.
The only issue for France is that several of their top players are expected to have to focus on sevens during the opening weeks of the tournament.
That is further advantage England.
England - second in 2018
As full-time players, the Red Roses will be playing with a target on their back throughout the tournament.
An unbeaten autumn international campaign against the United States, Canada and Ireland gives them strong momentum, while high-profile players returning from the sevens programme provides a further boost to the squad.
One of those players is centre Emily Scarratt, still considered one of the most gifted players of her generation. There will be concerns over the 2014 World Cup winner's hamstring injury, but she is hopeful of playing some part in the tournament.
Ireland - third in 2018
An Ireland XV beat a Wales XV 29-19 in a Six Nations warm-up to help boost Irish confidence.
Ireland are the one country to consistently test England and France in recent years. It is impressive considering the differing levels in investment into the countries' respective women's sides.
Although Ireland appear to be a long way off offering contracts for their women's players, the squad do now receive per diems on match days and playing both the Red Roses and Les Bleus at home will give them an extra boost.
Scotland - fifth in 2018
The Scots are the lowest ranked team in the Women's Six Nations at 11th in the world.
This statistic should not detract from the improvements made in Scotland in recent years. Eight Scotland players are now on contracts and that investment is starting to show.
The most significant marker saw Scotland produce arguably the best result of 2018 when they beat Ireland at Donnybrook to claim their first away win in the tournament in 12 years.
The main Scottish speed bump is the loss of impressive number eight Jade Konkel because of injury. However, coach Shade Munro has been keen to stress her loss is an opportunity for the likes of Siobhan Cattigan and Sarah Bonar to shine on the international stage.
Wales - sixth in 2018
Wales open their Six Nations account away in France - which is not exactly ideal.
They say they will play with "no fear" but having lost one of their star players, number eight Sioned Harries, to injury, they will need all the experience they can muster.
Head coach Rowland Phillips is also monitoring the progress of full-back Bethan Davies and prop Gwenllian Pyrs who were involved in a car accident on the way to training three weeks before the start of the tournament.
Wales will once again be relying on youth in many positions while they wait to see the results of their regional programme rise through the ranks.
France - Grand Slam champions
Expect fireworks when France arrive at Doncaster to play England in round two. While England announced full-time contracts, the French Rugby Federation announced 24 players on part-time contracts in November.
Les Bleus will be in confident mood after beating world champions New Zealand for the first time since 1991 in the autumn internationals.
Not only are the French reigning Grand Slam champions but they claimed four out of the five nominees for the 2018 World Rugby women's XVs player of the year.
The winner was full-back Jessy Tremouliere, who was injured towards the end of last year, and it will be a blow to the French squad that she is unavailable, along with a number of their other leading players who will be on sevens duty.
Italy - fourth in 2018
The Azzurre will be buoyant after thumping Scotland 38-0 in Calvisano last autumn and then backing up the result with victory over South Africa.
Coach Andrea di Giandomenico has named experienced full-back Manuela Furlan as captain, a player well known to England fans, having previously played for Harlequins Ladies in the Tyrrells Premier 15s.
Italy finished third in 2015 and will be looking to use their experienced squad and three home matches as the formula to rise up the table.