Chris Hewett, Rugby Union Correspondent, asks if the 10-week tournament will be done and dusted in 80 minutes flat, or whether the Celtic fringe can emerge from their twilight zone and confound the big two with some traditional fire and fury.
A smug, spiteful little joke is currently circulating through the bars and committee rooms of England's leading clubs and just for once, the punchline has nothing whatsoever to do with Cliff Brittle. It goes something like this: What's the difference between the Five Nations' Championship and the Monte Carlo Rally? Answer: Brian Ashton and Jim Telfer have more chance of winning the Monte Carlo Rally. On foot.
Cruel but true. To dignify Europe's annual international tournament with the word "five" is to invite an investigation from the Serious Fraud Squad, whose officers would not need an honours degree in sports science to realise that Ireland and Scotland are contenders only in the sense that Les Dawson was a concert pianist. If the Trades Descriptions Act covered rugby as well as soap powder and stereo systems, the organisers would be ordered to rename their product "The Two and a Half Nations".
Where on earth does the half come into it? Surely Les Tricolores and Les Rosbifs will condense the whole shooting match into a single frenzied set-to at the new Stade de France on Saturday afternoon? Possibly. Probably even. But the stirrings on the far side of the Severn Bridge suggest that Wales - remember them? - are in there with a puncher's chance of slipping out of the cheap seats and joining the cosy little twosome in the box circle.
Not that Kevin Bowring, their cerebral coach, is doing himself any favours by continually ignoring Craig Quinnell, the hottest second row in Britain. Unless Gareth Llewellyn, the most-capped lock in Welsh history and almost certainly the luckiest, gives it some real humpty against the Italians in this weekend's non-championship Test at Llanelli, Quinnell will surely face England at Twickenham in a little under three weeks' time.
There are any number of very good reasons why the Welsh should remain in damp squib mode. Rebuilding work at the Arms Park has forced them into temporary residence at Wembley - oddly, the Dragons will play more games in London than England over the course of the tournament - while the even more urgent rebuilding work on their front five has been frustrated by injuries to Christian Loader and Spencer John, the two prime contenders for the loose-head role that has haunted Wales since the long-forgotten days of the one-dimensional but phenomenally strong Staff Jones.
And yet. Bowring's instinctive faith in the darting, side-stepping bundle of street theatre known as Arwel Thomas means that the Welsh threequarter line, graced as it is by Gibbs and Bateman and Evans, will be given its freedom. Neil Jenkins, no great shakes as a full-back but one hell of a goal-kicker, is still around to put points on the board and if Scott Quinnell gets out of bed the right side, the back row will surely make the most of Martyn Williams' bravery on the floor.
Heaven knows, the championship needs the boyos in full bloom once again. It is fashionable in this professional age to dismiss the romance of the Five Nations as so much woolly-headed waffle, to reduce rugby to a laboratory print-out of pounds, ounces and tackle counts and forget all about the individual flashes of derring-do that make the tournament required viewing, even down south in Cape Town and Auckland. The Welsh bring sentiment, nostalgia and dripping emotion to the equation. In its absence, the fare can be as dry as dust.
Particularly now that the Irish and Scots are down on their uppers, the Big Issue salesmen of rugby's international community. Lansdowne Road, so often stained red with the blood of visiting forwards, is no more than a picnic venue for bigger, richer, more professional opponents and while the French continue to view Murrayfield with deep mistrust, they could field two second-string sides good enough to deal with Jim Telfer's rag- tag collection of dispirited lightweights.
It is 13 years since Ireland bagged a Five Nations title and not even the most Guinness-fuelled patriot in Limerick expects them to claim one in the next 13. The Scots have fared rather better, completing a famous Grand Slam in 1990 and going close to two more in 1995 and 1996 before having their pips squeezed by superior English packs. But there has been a poverty of recent performance from both nations that brackets them together. Professionalism has skinned them alive, left them for dead. They are yesterday's men.
Assuming, then, that the Welsh are capable of only one rewriting of the form book rather than two, which of the big guns will avoid the banana skin? England are favourites to take the title, but only just. They are more settled than the French in most areas - second row, back row, half- back, midfield - and go into this week's match with the confidence of men who, last time out, took a great New Zealand side to the cleaners for 20 wonderful minutes and then climbed off the canvas to frighten them again at the death.
But in one very important sense, England deserve to take nothing from this championship apart from a big fat zero. Their refusal to ratify Italy's long overdue appearance at the high table of European rugby was and remains arrogant, supercilious and downright illogical. If they are made to pay for their pomposity by one or more of their opponents over the next two and a half months, a form of justice will be seen to be done.
Clive Woodward insists that he has one priority and one only - namely, to build a team capable of lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy at next year's World Cup - and, if it means taking a painful step backwards in order to accomplish two in the right direction, he will happily pay the price. Such is his current standing with the English rugby public that while he emerged from last autumn's four-Test SANZA series without a win, he also emerged without a smidgen of smelly stuff sticking to his red rose blazer.
How long the honeymoon lasts is not entirely dependent on this weekend's match in Paris. Woodward can afford a narrow defeat there and still talk persuasively about progress. But any defeat by the Celts will leave him exposed to the slings and arrows of sporting fortune, especially as he possesses enviable strength in all areas of his squad.
All, that is, except the front row, which must be giving him nightmares. The Springbok pairing of Os du Randt and Adrian Garvey crucified their opponents at Twickenham in November and there is plenty of smart money on Christian Califano and Frank Tournaire doing something similar on Saturday.
England have the best back five in the championship, a posse of quality scrum-halves and a dream ticket in midfield now that Jeremy Guscott is back on board. If the front row goes belly-up, though, the rest counts for nothing.
Player to watch: Will Greenwood
What on earth are they doing, dropping Marc dal Maso from their front row? The Agen hooker was one of the sensations of last season's victorious Five Nations campaign and, together with Christian Califano and Frank Tournaire, he would have been an even-money favourite to reduce England's front row to rubble this weekend. Instead, the French selectors have handed the No 2 shirt and the captaincy to the unknown Rafael Ibanez.
Still, the French look pretty useful, even without Abdel Benazzi's incomparable presence in the back five of their scrum. Their flankers, Philippe Benetton and Olivier Magne, are right up there with the English thoroughbreds and if Thomas Castaignede catches fire at outside-half, he could bring the Stade de France down almost before the builders have finished putting it up.
The question, as ever, surrounds the state of the French psyche, which is more complex and very nearly as baffling than a Marcel Proust paragraph. As we saw in Bordeaux on Saturday, the Brive contingent of Lamaison, Carbonneau and Magne can freeze up on the big occasion. Stephane Glas has been known to betray his immense talent as an attacking centre, Fabien Pelous may not pack sufficient punch at lock and Thomas Lievremont is a new boy at No 8. All in all, quite a challenge for a rookie captain.
Player to watch: Christian Califano.
The Irish hierarchy moved in for Brian Ashton a matter of hours before Jack Rowell, then England's coach, suggested he might find an opening for his old Bath confrere. How Ashton must wish he had gone shopping or popped along to the bookies that morning, for had he not been at home to take the fatal phone call from Dublin, he would probably be Clive Woodward right now.
It is almost laughably ironic that Ashton, who ranks alongside Pierre Villepreux as the most visionary and inventive backs coach in Europe, does not have a back division worthy of the name. The Irish threequarters will tackle - they always do -but the problems tend to start when the opposition relinquishes the ball. Short of a cutting edge in midfield and genuine gas out wide, the threequarters are also hampered by a lack of control at half-back. In short, it's a no-no.
There is better news up front, even though Jeremy Davidson, such a central figure in last summer's Lions triumph, is long-term injured. Malcolm O'Kelly could develop into one of the great Irish second rows, Paul Wallace is a crafty survivor on the tight head and David Corkery a handful on the blind-side flank.
However, Ashton has decided against giving Newcastle's Ross Nesdale a start at hooker in the opener with Scotland - a move he may live to regret - and Eric Miller's inconsistency remains a worry.
Player to watch: Malcolm O'Kelly.
The nightmare scenario for the Scots is if the opposition manage to find their way to the ground. If they lose in Dublin this week - and their inability to field a competitive pack is far more of a problem than Ireland's unsuccessful search for a back division - they may well be whitewashed for the first time since 1978. Certainly, it is difficult to see them beating the Welsh at Wembley, let alone England or France on their own soil.
Jim Telfer's return as coach should at least ensure a whole-hearted effort from his pack, but there is no escaping the paucity of genuine international talent in all areas of the scrum. The absence of Tom Smith, an important contributor to the Lions in South Africa, has reduced Scotland's set-piece potential to something approaching zero and, with Rob Wainwright off the boil, Telfer cannot even rely on the hard-nut banditry traditionally associated with back-row units of the tartan persuasion. Finlay Calder, where are you now?
Besides, eight days is hardly long enough to boil an egg in rugby, let alone mould a side to Test pitch. Telfer is a superb forward coach and even though he has no time to play with, he can make a degree of progress by imposing a sergeant-majorish, back-to-basics regime on his disconsolate charges and insist that they re-acquaint themselves with the fundamental drills. It is, though, a damage limitation job.
Player to watch: Hard to find one...
We see it every year, the distant half-light of the new dawn breaking over the valleys. And every year, the darkness descends so suddenly and so completely that the long-suffering Welsh supporters have difficulty finding their way from the Arms Park to the pub. Last season, the reversal in fortunes was particularly unbearable: a 30-point victory at Murrayfield, followed two weeks later by a one-point home defeat at the hand of the Irish. Heartbreaking, crazy, downright criminal.
Yet the expectation never fades and this year, Kevin Bowring has an outside chance of fulfilling the desires of a true rugby nation. Wales have the most potent back division in the championship, a combustible mixture of innovation and pragmatism, of physical presence and elusive genius. All Bowring needs to do is work out a failsafe method of giving Rob Howley, Arwel Thomas and company the oxygen of possession.
It has been ever thus these last few years, for the Welsh pack has frightened no-one. Even now, they have problems at prop and, less obviously but equally worryingly, at the line-out. However, England's front row is not what it was and when the two sides meet at Twickenham, the set-piece confrontation could be the most even for the best part of a decade.The Welsh will still find it hellishly difficult at HQ, but three wins from four is not out of the question.
Player to watch: Allan Bateman.
FIVE NATIONS FIXTURES
7 Feb France v England (Paris)
Ireland v Scotland (Dublin)
21 Feb England v Wales (Twickenham)
Scotland v France (Murrayfield)
7 Mar France v Ireland (Paris)
Wales v Scotland (Wembley)
21 Mar Ireland v Wales (Dublin)
22 Mar Scotland v England (Murrayfield)
4 Apr England v Ireland (Twickenham)
5 Apr Wales v France (Wembley)Reuse content