Just one more week and the wait is over for the most eagerly awaited Six Nations Championship in years. Each of the participating countries has reasons to look forward with hope rather than expectation to what could be the closest fought Championship for years.
Wales come to the competition as Grand Slam champions but suffering the worst year of results imaginable.
The seven lost Tests have left the whole of Wales wondering what has gone wrong as a seemingly invincible team slowly fell apart in an increasingly desperate struggle to rediscover their form.
The style of their Grand Slam win was a testament to the advances they had achieved under their established coaching team, but the loss of head coach Gatland seemed to correspond to a dip in form and, despite his return during the autumn, the team failed to improve.
Gatland’s absence, first through injury and now with the Lions, has taken a toll on his Welsh squad but the hope is that interim coach Howley has had time to turn it around and, with the return of influential prop Adam Jones, gives a boost to Welsh aspirations.
The French, under head coach Philippe Saint Andre, have started to hit a bit of form with a successful autumn series and with the second biggest player base playing in the highly competitive Top 14 they are a team to watch – although they are on their ‘away’ year with games in Italy, England and Ireland, which leaves them with a slight disadvantage.
Meanwhile, the Italians are a side no-one will relish facing particularly in Rome where they have shown a steadfast, pugnacious attitude that has brought results against the best.
That, and the all round game that former Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel has developed since taking over from Nick Mallett after the 2011 World Cup, has made the Italians a real threat and this year’s dark horses.
I expect Ireland to be pretty much the same as last year, neither shining nor fading as coach Kidney sees out the remainder of his contract which rumour has will not be renewed when it comes to an end after the Six Nations.
The win against the All Blacks has raised the stakes for England as they have shown that given the right circumstances they are a more than capable side, but it is unlikely that any of their Six Nations oppositions will be quite as generous as the Blacks.
In the Six Nations, every side with the possible exception of the Italians (they play full tilt against all) raise their game against the English.
A thousand years of history combine with the hopes of their nations in seeking revenge for deeds done by we English!
Whether Cromwell’s conquering of Ireland, the execution of Braveheart William Wallace (the Scots all think the film was real), the Battle of Agincourt or the closure of the coal mines all are used to raise the blood of our Gaul and Celtic cousins as they prepare for the David and Goliath struggle against the ‘arrogant’ English.
As good as the All Blacks game was this England team is nowhere near the finished article and there will be times when they will get exposed. But that is part of the rebuilding process so we just have to grin and bear it when that happens.
Games away to Wales and Ireland this season and the loss of Alex Corbisiero will make this Championship harder than last year for England but if they can bring the same intensity to all their games that they showed against New Zealand and reduce the error count, you just never know it could be England’s year.
I left Scotland to last, not because that is where I think they will end up although judging by all their problems and last year’s results that would be understandable, but because regrettably they are at a cross roads in their rugby history.
As one of the foundation Unions with a place at the top table, they have a history of great teams and results stretching back to the dawn of the game. But since the game turned professional they have struggled to compete and have been on a slow but steady decline.
As the country with the smallest player base and only two full time professional teams, is it any wonder, and with a disappointing run of results the hard question must be asked, should Scotland be downgraded to the second tier?
The standard of teams in the second tier is steadily improving and many of them have similar results against top tier teams as Scotland.
In essence, I am suggesting linking the Six Nations with the Nations Cup (a sec- ond tier European competition) that would mean the winner of the Nations Cup moving up and the last placed team in the Six Nations moving down.
Many would argue that the historical fixtures of the Six Nations should be protected but the competition has evolved from the original Calcutta Cup game to a Six Nations competition, so it should be possible for a format change that allows teams to move up and down between the tiers based on results and IRB world ranking.
The Six Nations is the pre-eminent competition in the Northern Hemisphere but, to remain as such, it must make sure all teams are fit for purpose and that means being in the top ten ranked IRB countries.
The Scots have to prove they deserve to be in the best competition in the world.
They go into this year’s Championship with nothing to lose and everything to gain.