With four different champions in the past four seasons and no overwhelming favorite, this year’s Six Nations could be the most open and interesting tournament for years.
Three of the six teams have switched coaches since last year’s Rugby World Cup, several stalwarts have retired and there are questions to be answered over the next six weeks.
Can Philippe Saint-Andre fine-tune a France squad that defied expectations to reach last year’s Rugby World Cup final, or will interim England coach Stuart Lancaster engineer a successful title defense with an exciting, but inexperienced squad?
Perhaps Wales can build on fourth place at the World Cup, or maybe Ireland’s injection of youth is exactly what their experienced squad needs.
With Wales hit by injuries to flyhalf Rhys Priestland and prop Gethin Jenkins, France and Ireland appear to be best placed to contest the title.
Saint-Andre has picked largely the same squad that lost the World Cup final by a single point, even with the players and his predecessor, Mark Lievremont, barely on speaking terms. With the coach and players pulling together, the title is a realistic prospect.
The presence of International Rugby Board Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy means that Saint-Andre, who recalled prop David Attoub a year after his 52-week ban for gouging expired, can rely upon the strong pack he — and France — traditionally favor.
There will be no repeat of Lievremont’s use of scrumhalf Morgan Parra at flyhalf, as Francois Trinh-Duc is scheduled to start in that position in tomorrow’s competition opener against Italy.
Italy beat France in the Six Nations for the first time last season, but Nick Mallett’s replacement as coach by Jacques Brunel is unlikely to herald much change in Italy’s approach or fortunes.
Former France assistant Brunel wants to introduce a more expansive style, but the muscle of No. 8 Sergio Parisse and prop Martin Castrogiovanni is still Italy’s most potent weapon.
Italy are scheduled to play at the larger Stadio Olympico in Rome this season, giving them the lift of about 70,000 fans for matches against England and Scotland.
The tone of Scotland’s campaign could be defined by what happens in their opener against England at Murrayfield tomorrow.
Victory over England could galvanize a squad missing the reliable boot of the retired Chris Paterson and captain Kelly Brown to a leg injury. Defeat in one of their two home matches could leave Scotland, led by hooker Ross Ford, facing another tussle with Italy to avoid last place and the so-called wooden spoon.
If Scotland needed any more motivation to wrest back the Calcutta Cup from their oldest and fiercest rival, there’s the fact that England edged them to a place in the World Cup quarter-finals only with a 77th-minute try from Chris Ashton in the teams’ final pool game.
With Robinson among those to accuse England’s players of arrogance for their behavior at the World Cup, Lancaster wants to overhaul his team’s image and mentality, just as much as he does their performances and style of play.
“We want to be known as a humble, honest, grafting team. We want to make sure spectators feel excited watching us and feel connected to us,” he said.
Lancaster has given youth its head and — in something of a gamble — given the armband to flanker Chris Robshaw, a veteran of one cap.