The Six Nations tournament has an extra element to it this year as this set of fixtures will be the final opportunity for the main northern hemisphere teams to test out their squads before September's Rugby World Cup.

Moreover, Wales and England are drawn in the same pool, with France, Ireland and Italy in another, for rugby's pinnacle competition that will be played on English soil.

With countries aiming to lay down psychological markers in these matches, it will be a hugely competitive Six Nations as most of the sides harbour realistic ambitions of winning the Championship.

Here are my tips on who will come out on top in nine weeks' time:

Ireland - Champions (8 Points, top on points difference)

The holders are the favourites for the title this year and I believe they will live up to the expectation.

Ireland were the pick of the northern hemisphere sides in the Autumn Internationals after beating South Africa, Georgia and Australia so have the momentum going into the tournament.

With Brian O'Driscoll retired, Johnny Sexton will be the talisman. His return for the latter part of the Six Nations should give Ireland home victories over England and France.

However, I believe the huge competiveness for this year's campaign will make it impossible for any side to win the Grand Slam.

Expect Wales to narrowly overcome the Irish in Cardiff, but Ireland to lift the Championship - with a home match against France (notoriously bad travellers) giving the Emerald Isle a greater points difference.

Wales - Second place (8 points)

If Wales win that eagerly-anticipated opener against England, they will grow in confidence after the vital November victory against South Africa.

Warren Gatland's settled squad and game-plan should give them the edge over most sides and they do have a kind fixture list.

Although I've tipped Wales to defeat my champions Ireland and lift the Triple Crown, their slight lack of creativity and poor record in Paris may see them fall short against the Frenchmen.

England - Third place (6 points)

A year ago, I would have tipped Stuart Lancaster's young side to dominate the European sides in this tournament.

However, England have yet to come up with a firing centre partnership and a host of injuries mean that they will endure a slow start to their campaign.

England's set-piece is strong and if George Ford succeeds at fly half the Red Rose may cause upsets. But at this stage, with the amount of players unavailable, I fail to see England winning in Cardiff or Dublin.

The men in white still have a lot to learn and by the time they face the French at Twickenham in the finale, they will be in better shape with an eye on the World Cup.

France - Fourth Place (6 Points)

Labelling the French as unpredictable is getting, well, predictable. But after an Autumn series where they beat Australia and then lost to Argentina, who knows how Les Bleus will fare?

The only things we do know is that Philippe Saint-Andre will cause shocks with his selection and Wesley Fofana will continue to impress.

France should have too much power for Scotland and Italy and I'm also tipping them to spoil Wales' title and Grand Slam plans. Victories away from Paris are few and far-between though.

Scotland - Fifth Place (2 points)

Unfortunately, Scotland's resurgence has coincided with a tough fixture list for this year's Six Nations.

New coach Vern Cotter has given them real clarity and they finally have a back-line capable of scoring tries, with many impressed by centre Alex Dunbar.

Scotland will pick up their usual win against Italy but it's difficult to see them beating any of the big four.

Their best chance may come in their final game when they host Ireland and could have a say in the title picture.

Italy - Wooden spoon (0 points)

Even though Italy have three home fixtures, they will struggle to win a game.

Too much reliance is placed on Sergio Parisse and, although their forward pack usually holds its own, they do not possess the consistent goal kicker to capitalise on its good work.

Jacques Brunel will be blooding youngsters in this tournament so their only hope is if they catch Scotland on a bad day. Given that this match is at Murrayfield this time out, a victory seems unlikely.