And so the RBS Six Nations is once again upon us and, once again, picking a winner is anything but easy. There are so many ifs and buts, so many permutations and quite a lot riding on this weekend alone, let alone the other four to come afterwards.
In one sense it is easy. If England produce five displays identical to that which saw off the All Blacks in November then they will be crowned champions of the Northern Hemisphere. If. Then again, if France produce five identical displays to that which smashed the Wallabies then they, in all probability, will win the title.
Ireland, meanwhile, could be the dark horses. While all eyes were on England’s win over New Zealand and France’s over Australia the Irish were dismantling a very strong Argentina in Dublin. Wales, on the other hand, endured a wretched autumn but should we write off a team that are the defending Grand Slam champions and world cup semi-finalists? Scotland will not win the Six Nations but they can stop another nation from doing so, including England on Saturday, while Italy will be aiming for two wins as their optimum.
England should beat Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham, although a wounded Scotland, with a new coach after the departure of Andy Robinson, a big, bruising, pack of forwards, and all the motivation in the world to take on the auld enemy, will be no pushovers. In Tim Visser they have a natural try scorer, too, and with Manu Tuilagi absent through injury England have lost a major weapon in their armoury. Expect a tighter, slightly rusty game with England coming out on top.
France should see off Italy, even if it is in Rome. Defeat there two years’ ago should ensure there is no Gallic complacency.
Wales versus Ireland in Cardiff is the fixture this weekend almost impossible to call. What I do know is that victory is vital, defeat disastrous. If Ireland win then they can welcome England the following week with an impressive scalp already under their belts. After losing to Wales in the world cup quarter-final and, indeed, in dodgy circumstances the last time they were in Cardiff, they should not need a tub-thumping dressing-room speech to get them going.
Wales, too, will be desperate to win if only to halt a losing streak which now reads seven. In fairness five of those defeats were against Southern Hemisphere giants, and even a home defeat to Argentina was not a complete shock. Losing to Samoa was, however. Wales are a team that feed off momentum, as their three Grand Slams this century prove. A win against Ireland and all is well again.
It promises to be a tumultuous opener and, at the end of the weekend we will not know who will become champions, but we may know who will not. I say England, Ireland and France, but that middle prediction is the one most likely to be wrong.