Steve Richardson previews the RBS Six Nations, which kicks off on Saturday.
They are likely to have to settle for just the Six Nations title this time around. Indeed a repeat of last year's Super Saturday - when Ireland, England and Wales were only separated on points difference in the end - in seven weeks time would not surprise in the slightest. But that won't worry them and it shouldn't worry punters at 3-1.
Wales look the most settled side in the competition in terms of coaching staff and personnel available and their form at the World Cup - when only conceding three tries - was the most impressive of the northern hemisphere sides given a horrendous run of injuries.
In the autumn, the Red Dragons beat England and a bout of white-line fever denied them victory against Australia in the pool stages before they were edged out in the last seven minutes by South Africa in the quarter-finals. Scotland, Ireland and France got to the last eight too. But the Scots were flattered by results in their group and Wallabies' complacency in their quarter-final for all the closeness of the score and the apparent injustice of some refereeing decisions. And after being in the same pool, Ireland were out of synch against Argentina and France were steamrolled by the All Blacks.
Wales will certainly not be complacent as they begin in Dublin against hat-trick seeking Ireland. They were beaten by 23 points at the Aviva two years ago and slow starts have cost them the title in the last two seasons as well as leaving them needing to wallop England in Cardiff three years ago to steal the spoils. And they also go to Twickenham. However, three home games against Scotland, France and Italy are the perfect base for a challenge. Wales won in Dublin in 2012 and at Twickenham in 2012 and 2014 as well as at the World Cup.
Red Dragons head coach Warren Gatland seems to be as happy in the role in this ninth campaign as he was in his first, with trusted sidekicks in Rob Howley, Shaun Edwards and Robbie McBryde alongside him. And while he still does not have all his senior players available (Leigh Halfpenny, Scott Williams and Rhys Webb are out for the whole tournament), he has been dealt far worse hands in the past and he has always been a coach that has been prepared to trust youth and come up with specific plans for specific games rather than hope/presume that what has worked before will work again.
England are favourites, now with the irrepressible Eddie Jones at the helm, as they are seemingly every year. But it has been four-straight seconds for the 7-4 Red Rose and there is no compelling reason why it should be different this time.
Jones and his chosen coaches Steve Borthwick, Paul Gustard and Ian Peel are unlikely to have had enough time to right all the wrongs of the end of the Lancaster era. The no foreign-based player rule has not been ended. And injuries have meant that while they have rightly decided that it would be folly to apply a completely fresh broom to the squad, some of the players are nominally holding onto their places and they know it.
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Murrayfield is a difficult starter and while they will be happier to be hosting Ireland and Wales rather than be going to Cardiff and the Aviva, expectation brings its own burdens and both these rivals have plenty of players in their squads who know how to win at Twickenham. Surely Ireland have not gone from back-to-back champions to also-rans just because of legendary lock and captain Paul O'Connell's retirement. They didn't fade last year because there was no Brian O'Driscoll in the centres and they have a calm, shrewd coach in Joe Schmidt. However, Ireland have plenty of forwards injuries to contend with early on in the tournament - especially in the front five - when they are scheduled to do battle with Wales and then France in Paris (on a six-day turnaround) and England at Twickenham so they can't be supported at 4-1.
Scotland will come out of the World Cup in good heart and love the opportunity to beat England first-up at Murrayfield. But it should not be forgotten that they lost all five Six Nations games last year and at the World Cup benefited from Japan having a four-day turnaround from their sensational win over South Africa, were hammered by South Africa and only sneaked past Samoa. Scotland, 16-1 shots, will probably concede too many points again to be contenders, while a number of backline injuries could undermine the fluency of their attacking efforts.
France have a new coach in Guy Noves who has promised to bring back the flair to Les Bleus' game. But while Noves' track record at Toulouse is legendary, igniting a title charge out of the ashes of that hammering by New Zealand at the World Cup would be wondrous especially as the great Thierry Dusautoir has decided it is time to retire and several other seniors have retired, are injured or have been overlooked. France, 7-1 shots, will be dangerous opponents though and should find cohesion as the tournament goes on. Expect a big effort against England in Paris on the final evening whatever has gone before.
Italy are 1-5 for the wooden spoon and it is hard to argue with that. Coach Jacques Brunel has confirmed it is his last campaign and effectively he and captain Sergio Parisse have been charged by the Italian Federation with getting an extremely youthful squad up to speed with international demands. Traditional pack-power may help the Azzurri stay in games but they are extremely unlikely to win any.