Lions tour, World Cup add 6N edge
Next weekend sees the start of what promises to be another intriguing Six Nations, with Europe's showpiece event given additional interest.
Next weekend sees the start of what promises to be another intriguing Six Nations, with Europe's showpiece event given additional interest by the looming British and Irish Lions tour and the 2015 World Cup draw.
Players from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales will have the Six Nations as a "shop window" in which to impress Lions chief Warren Gatland, seconded from his role as Wales coach, ahead of this year's tour of Australia.
And December's World Cup draw, which placed hosts England and Wales in Pool A while Six Nations rivals France, Ireland and Italy all in Pool D, means that from now on their respective head-to-head clashes will be seen as indications, albeit nothing firmer, of what could happen in two years' time.
The Six Nations is notoriously unpredictable, with recent results so often little guide to Championship performances.
Wales will hope that holds true, with the reigning Grand Slam champions coming into their tournament opener against Ireland in Cardiff on February 2 on a run of seven successive defeats.
"Having a Lions tour in mid-year gives a different feel to the whole season," said Rob Howley, Wales's head coach in Gatland's absence, at the launch of the Six Nations in London on Wednesday.
"Right from pre-season players are working to be physically right for such a long season," added Howley, himself a former Lions scrum-half and assistant coach with the combined side.
"In the end-of-year internationals they put themselves in the shop window and then again in the Six Nations when they are going against their potential rivals."
France may have finished a lowly fourth in the Championship last season but after four wins in a row are one of the favourites along with England, who ended 2012 with a spectacular 38-21 win over world champions New Zealand.
England, at least according to France coach Philippe Saint-Andre, have an advantage as this Championship they have three home games.
However, in coach Stuart Lancaster's first Six Nations in charge last year, England won a record three away matches, with the runners-up' only loss a home defeat by Wales.
Scotland, now under Australian caretaker coach Scott Johnson after Englishman Andy Robinson's resignation following a humiliating defeat by Tonga in November, have not won at Twickenham for 30 years.
They have the chance to right that record on the first weekend of this tournament when they travel to London for the latest edition of rugby union's oldest Test fixture.
"We are the poor little boys on the block and we are happy to go in as the poor little boys on the block," said Johnson.
"Despite what people think, we are going to turn up to this game - we aren't going to cancel it. We are coming."
For England, the situation is the exact reverse of their All Blacks clash, with Lancaster's men widely tipped to retain the Calcutta Cup against Scotland.
"The trick now is to build on that All Black performance and get the consistency we need to win at the highest level," said Lancaster.
Consistency was a theme echoed by Saint-Andre, whose France side were all but alone in upholding European honour against the cream of southern hemisphere rugby until England defeated New Zealand in December.
'Les Bleus' hammered Australia, and also beat Argentina and Samoa.
However, all those wins were on home soil and Saint-Andre said: "We know the big problem of French rugby is to be consistent.
"It's a big step this Six Nations because we have three away games," added the former France captain, whose side face Italy in Rome next weekend and also travel to London and Dublin.
Ireland, with veteran centre Brian O'Driscoll set to drag his injury-hit body though yet another Championship, have lost their last three matches against Wales, including a World Cup quarter-final, but finished 2012 strongly with a decisive win over Argentina.
"You can't win a Grand Slam in the first game but you can lose it," said Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip.
Only once since joining the tournament in 2000 have Italy finished outside the bottom two, with their match against Scotland - this year in Edinburgh on February 9 - often proving the wooden-spoon decider.
But a repeat of their stunning 2011 Rome win over France would make a mockery of all pre-tournament predictions.