The Six Nations Championship is a unique tournament, with its own dynamic and its own brand of pressure – a competition that seldom turns out as expected. I experienced the competition at first hand between 2001 and 2006, and during those years it was never less than an extreme examination in every respect, from campaign strategy across the seven-week span to micro-management on a daily basis. As the 2008 series begins, I know only this: if there has been a more open, less predictable championship, I cannot recall it.
Every match will have its own distinct character: a match between England and Wales at Twickenham is an entirely different kettle of fish to one between England and Scotland at Murrayfield. But there are a couple of challenges for all coaches and teams to meet over the next seven weeks.
We may well soon be talking about an upturn in the standard of attacking rugby, typified by the number of tries scored from first or second-phase possession, as opposed to those scored from turnovers. Allied to this should be a sharp improvement in off-loading out of the tackle – an area in which the southern hemisphere sides, particularly New Zealand, still lead the way. If the Six Nations teams can make significant advances in these areas, the future of the game in Europe will look very promising indeed.
Having reached a second successive World Cup final and out-performed the other major European nations, at least in terms of results, England go into the tournament under a weight of expectation. This is nothing new. Expectation is a permanent part of the package for a country with a powerful rugby economy, a huge bank of players and an increasingly settled structure at professional club level. Will they deliver? Today's meeting with Wales at Twickenham will be hugely important in shaping England's tournament, because an early defeat – especially at home – cranks up the pressure.
Wales will pose a threat. In Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, new faces in the coaching team, they have a couple of experienced hands who understand what it takes to achieve success. Unusually, they have picked 13 players from one club, Ospreys. That was a surprise and it seems to me that Warren has gone all in on his first poker hand. It is a selection that could cut both ways.
In technical areas such as the line-out, a high degree of familiarity will clearly be valuable. Well-oiled machines, and all that. Yet I wonder whether this intimacy might work against the Ospreys contingent by undermining their chances of rising to the higher level demanded by Test rugby. There is no such thing as a comfort zone in the international arena, and if a lot of individuals from one team naturally start playing as they usually do for their club, there could be problems in finding the right tempo and intensity. And remember: when the Ospreys play in the Heineken Cup, they have three former All Blacks – Justin Marshall, Marty Holah and Filo Tiatia – operating in key positions. They won't be there today.
England do not have that level of familiarity, even though Brian Ashton has repeatedly emphasised the importance of continuity. I agree with his approach in this regard; I too would have stood by the men who gave their all in the World Cup, on the basis that you do not build a team by making changes for the sake of it. Ideally, a coach wants to introduce a player because he has proved himself better than the man in possession. It is the only way to make the shirt precious. David Strettle, Toby Flood, Steve Borthwick: these people have proved themselves the individuals in form and I welcome their inclusion. However, retirements and injuries have forced Brian to act in areas he did not anticipate. As a result, this is a very different England side to the one many expected to see.
One change that was not enforced was the dropping of Mathew Tait. I agree with playing Mike Tindall at outside centre, for he brings a good deal to the party: not just raw power, but a strong sense of defensive organisation, a good chasing game and a range of leadership skills that breed confidence in the players around him. All the same, I feel sorry for Tait. He played wonderfully well in the World Cup final – which, lest we forget, was England's last game – and it just goes to show how complex international selection can be. When I was national coach, people queued up to tell me where to pick Mathew and how to handle him. When you're actually charged with making the decisions and you have a mass of evidence to weigh up, it is not quite so straightforward.
Borthwick's brain can give England the edge
It gives me enormous pleasure to see three players I signed for Bath as 18-year-olds, Tindall, Borthwick and Iain Balshaw, in this England line-up on merit. All will have important roles to play, but I see Borthwick as being central to events. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of a properly functioning line-out in the modern game, as anyone who witnessed England's struggles against the Springboks in the World Cup final would agree. It is just about possible for a team to stay in a game while underperforming in this area, but no one can do it indefinitely. Sooner or later, your line-out sins will find you out.
Borthwick is the smartest line-out forward in the British Isles. I worked with him at Bath, and again with England, and I would go so far as to describe him as a line-out anorak; he is utterly dedicated to his art. He learned a good deal from Michael Foley when the former Wallaby hooker was coaching at the Recreation Ground, but Steve has come up with an awful lot of ideas and techniques off his own bat.
Wales will pose a threat at the line-out: Ian Gough, Alun Wyn-Jones and Jonathan Thomas are nobody's fools, and with the outstanding Martyn Williams offering a further option, they have a useful quartet. Steve will have studied every part of their operation, as well as working out ways of securing his own side's ball. A big part of the England strategy will be the driving game. Without a reliable line-out, there will be no driving game. Steve understands the crucial nature of his role today.
Mind you, he cannot call throws to himself all day long. Simon Shaw is not the best line-out forward England could have picked but provided Mark Regan gets his speed of throw right, there is no reason why he should not hold up his end. It is all about precision, both in the decision-making and the execution. If England get it right, they should win the game in the last 20 minutes.
Time for Ireland to repay O'Sullivan
The game in Dublin between Ireland and Italy is fascinating. The Irish had a desperate time of it at the World Cup, but remain largely intact and have an opportunity to repay Eddie O'Sullivan for his faith and patience. Italy, meanwhile, have an outstanding new coach in Nick Mallett, who is just the man to add a little attacking finesse to all that ball-winning ability.
The Irish were fiercely criticised for their performances in France, and rightly so. I believe Argentina's victory over France in the opening match had a seriously negative effect on their mindset and they failed to deal with it. Today they have to get a grip on themselves.
Italy will make them sweat at the scrum and line-out, and I expect another close game along the lines of the one in 2006, when only 10 points separated the teams.
And the French? Who knows...
What do we make of the French? Marc Lièvremont, their new coach, has made some pretty drastic changes. It leaves them vulnerable, but it also makes them dangerous. Let's face it: no one has a clue how France will perform in this tournament.
It remains the case that they do not travel well: look at the performances of Biarritz and Stade Français in the Heineken Cup. Tomorrow they face a Scotland side who look as though they might start generating some real momentum. What is more, the French will find themselves playing on a heavy Murrayfield surface, possibly in bad weather conditions. It is not ideal for them, to say the least.
The Scots have reasons to feel excited about this campaign. They have good players in important positions, and genuine competition for places. Glasgow have gone really well under the direction of Dan Parks at outside-half – they have also benefited from John Barclay's outstanding performances on the open-side flank; Edinburgh have done OK for themselves with Mike Blair's guiding hand at scrum-half; and the people playing top-level rugby elsewhere in Europe are stronger for their experience. The national side certainly has real potential, and while the French are equipped to take advantage of any slip-ups, Scotland have confidence and belief in their ability to win this contest.
Rising stars: Three players to light up the Championship
Toby Flood (England)
England have yet to satisfactorily replace Will Greenwood at inside centre, despite going through a lengthy list of candidates. More than anyone over the last two or three years, Flood has the attributes to fill the hole. He has a lot of Will about him in terms of his sophisticated passing game, and his strong right-footed kicking makes him a natural foil for the left-footed Jonny Wilkinson. I want to see his running game in full flow before I make a lasting judgement, but the signs are encouraging.
Ross Ford (Scotland)
Some talk about Ford as a potential Lions Test hooker in South Africa next year. I work with him on a daily basis at Edinburgh and see his potential, although there are parts of his game that require development. The next seven weeks will tell us a good deal about how well he is coping with rugby at international level. He has the talent, certainly; what I need to see now is consistency and application in the technical areas, to go with all that high-energy work in the loose.
Sergio Parisse (Italy)
The Azzurri No 8 is a Rolls-Royce player in terms of talent, but I'm not sure he has really fired in the Six Nations arena. While he has vast potential, not least as a pure athlete, there have been times when he has allowed himself to go quiet. Will Nick Mallett bring the best out of him? By making him captain, he has sent out a strong signal that he sees the Stade Français forward as the future of the Italian game. Parisse is a good player already, but he has it in him to be far better than good.