The Six Nations has something about it that makes it just that little bit more special than any other annual tournament. Our antipodean friends might feel differently about this, but the approach of the Six Nations always conjures up images in my mind of Jason Leonard with his ears taped and his collar up, of Brian Moore with his face smothered in Vaseline and his collar tucked in, and of Dean Richards running games singlehandedly with his socks around his ankles. There is heritage, genuine rivalry and, above almost all else, good old bragging rights. So this year, with as much at stake as there ever was, what might make all the difference?
Referees have copped some stick lately but, with margins tighter and criticism more public, they are more important than ever. Let gorillas scrummage and they might just self-regulate. But if you micro-manage the unmanageable, it might just cost you your anonymity.
Put simply, if Adam Jones (plays, Wales might just reverse their horrid recent form. If he doesn't, they will stand far less chance. The mighty, Haystacks-haired Merthyr man's brute strength and staunch mindset has seen him become the most valuable player in Wales.
The Irish back row
Yes, Stephen Ferris is a world-beater and is not playing, but in Chris Henry, Ireland have a man on a mission. Henry has for some time been an influential force in the Ulster machine, but recently he has hit new heights. He has quietly been one of the most destructive, intelligent players in the Heineken Cup this season, and his inclusion will see the loss of Ferris tempered somewhat.
The French temperament
This has been one of the less explicable nuances of the game for a long time. I am told by Frenchmen with whom I have played that this all stems back to days when inter-town rugby was tribal in its ferocity, when defending one's home meant everything. Either way, we are still left wondering what kind of French team will turn up. I worry that the side led by Pascal Papé might be rather a good one.
Good old-fashioned mind games
Scott Johnson has started it already and I love it. Not since the days of Brian Moore has pre-match banter had any real spice, so I hope I am not alone in hoping someone from Camp England says something inappropriate soon. Not likely…
The Lions tour
All of the home unions' players will be praying for performances good enough to make the big tour this summer. But most of them will know that being a strong team player is what will get you there. All any team need is one bloke to try too hard to impress alone and the other 14 are compromised. Beware the aspiring Lion.
The Italians do not win very often, but after beating Scotland in Rome last year they will be eyeing a young Scottish team with foam at their mouths this time around. The Azzurri are a gnarled, awkward, abrasive bunch and, frankly, they are a new boy's worst nightmare. So the Scots had better be on their guard.
Ten uncapped players in any squad is a big shift but remember that, for the forwards at least, there is a new coach to get to know as well. Dean Ryan is a brilliant mind and an experienced leader, so expect his team to play with nous and steel. But I still think Scotland might struggle for sheer firepower when Wales and Ireland drop in for a rumble.
I know England lost twice in the autumn, but the demolition of the All Blacks was more than just a great win. That performance will have catapulted the players' confidence into another realm and, when added to the old-school ethics and belief that run through head coach Stuart Lancaster, in my view Twickers once again looks set to become a place that opponents rightly fear.Reuse content