The flagship competition in northern-hemisphere rugby gets underway on Friday, when Wales host England at the Millennium Stadium to kick off the Six Nations Championship. A prestigious event in its own right, this year’s tournament holds even more importance as each nation steps up their preparations ahead of the 2015 World Cup. Just seven months before the biggest competition in rugby gets underway there is little room for error.

Here’s how the teams are shaping up:

The World Cup hosts have arguably more question marks over their heads than any other team heading into the Six Nations. Stuart Lancaster’s side won four of their five matches in the Six Nations to finish behind Ireland 12 months ago but then lost five matches in a row, including four to New Zealand, before beating Samoa and Australia in their final Autumn internationals. Adding to Lancaster’s headaches as he aims to show that the team is on a positive track, is a lengthy list of injuries. Fly-half Owen Farrell has been ruled out for the entire Six Nations, while a dozen players are set to miss a testing opening trip to Wales. Last year, England lost their first match in France, and their ability to get off to a winning start could be crucial to their hopes this time around.

After winning five of the first 11 Six Nations Championships, it is now five years since France last held the trophy aloft. For a country that produces so many talented players, the drought has already gone on for far too long. Yet, after taking the wooden spoon in 2013, France faired only marginally better 12 months ago, finishing fourth after defeats to Wales and Ireland. Things failed to improve during the rest of the year, when they were beaten in all three matches of their tour of Australia before finishing 2014 with a home loss to Argentina. While capable of pulling off a surprise, there could be further disappointment for Philippe Saint-André’s team.

Ireland remain the team to beat as they seek to win back-to-back Six Nations titles for the first time. Indeed, Josef Schmidt’s side may well have ambitions of going one better than last year when their Grand Slam prospects were halted by a narrow defeat to England. Since then they have won seven straight internationals, including victories over Australia and South Africa last November. More impressive is the fact that those wins were achieved without several important players, including star man Jonny Sexton. While the fly-half will miss the opening encounter with Italy as he continues his post-concussion layoff, his return should provide a major boost.

Since their entrance took the Five Nations to Six Nations in 2000, Italy have claimed the wooden spoon on 10 occasions. There were signs of progress in 2013 when they won two matches in a Championship for only the second time, but Italy regressed last year to again prop up the table after failing to record a victory. Indeed, throughout the whole of last year they won just once, at home against Samoa. While captain Sergio Parisse continues to be a driving force, they could well again struggle to get off the mark this time around.

Scotland secured just one win in last year’s Six Nations and were a chore to watch, scoring just only tries in their five matches. But following the exit of coach Scott Johnson, New Zealander Vern Cotter has breathed fresh life into the team and created a much-needed sense of optimism heading into this year’s Championship. While a depleted squad was annihilated in South Africa, Scotland beat both Argentina and Tonga in November, scoring 10 tries in the process. Ambitions heading into the Six Nations should still be moderate, but, with three fixtures at home, Scotland will certainly be looking for improvement.

Warren Gatland’s side had a mixed time of things last year. While they annihilated Scotland and comfortably beat France at home, they were well beaten by Ireland and England on their travels. It bodes well then that this time around both Ireland and England will have to head into the intimidating atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium. Further boosting their chances, Wales have all of their big names fit and available in the shape of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and Jamie Roberts. They will hope to have Ireland’s visit in round four be a Six Nations title decider.

Where to watch in the United States: A live stream of every match will be provided by Premium Sports, while beIN Sports will have tape-delayed coverage of most fixtures. Only the listings for the first round of games are currently available.

Round 1
Feb. 6: Wales vs. England -- 3:05 p.m. EST, Millenium Stadium (7 p.m. beIN Sports)
Feb. 7: Italy vs. Ireland -- 9:30 a.m., Stadio Olimpico
Feb. 7: France vs. Scotland -- noon, Stade de France (7 p.m. beIN Sports)

Round 2
Feb. 14: England vs. Italy -- 9:30 a.m., Twickenham
Feb. 14: Ireland vs. France -- noon, Aviva Stadium
Feb. 15: Scotland vs. Wales -- 10 a.m., Murrayfieldbein

Round 3
Feb. 28: Scotland vs. Italy -- 9:30 a.m., Murrayfield
Feb. 28: France vs. Wales -- noon, Stade de France
March 1: Ireland vs. England -- 10 a.m., Aviva Stadium

Round 4
March 14: Wales vs. Ireland -- 9:30 a.m., Millennium Stadium
March 14: England vs. Scotland -- noon, Twickenham
March 15: Italy vs. France, 10 a.m. -- Stadio Olimpico

Round 5
March 21: Italy vs. Wales -- 7.30 a.m., Stadio Olimpico
March 21: Scotland vs. Ireland -- 9.30 a.m., Murrayfield
March 21: England vs. France -- noon, Twickenham