Wales eyeing Six Nations hat-trick
Defending champions Wales have a chance to do what no side has ever done by winning the Six Nations three times in a row.
Defending champions Wales have a chance to do what no side has ever done by winning the Six Nations three times in a row when the 2014 edition gets underway next weekend.
The sport in the principality may be in the midst of a bitter civil war between the Welsh Rugby Union and the four professional regions over the future of the club game and the likes of star fullback Leigh Halfpenny, who this week signed to join Toulon, joining a player exodus to France.
But those worries, as well as the ongoing row over the future of the club game's European Cup and the ability of the northern hemisphere's finest to compete against the southern 'big three', are far from the forefront of Wales coach Warren Gatland's mind
"We've got an opportunity to create history," he said.
"Having won the last two years there is a chance, particularly with three home games," added the New Zealander, who guided the British and Irish Lions to a series win in Australia last year.
"The two away games are particularly tough in terms of England at Twickenham and Ireland as well, but if you look at 2008 and 2012 and winning Grand Slams, they were the fixtures then.
"It's a tough competition to win. You need a little bit of luck, you need a bit of momentum.
"Getting Italy first-up, hopefully it is not a banana skin for us. Hopefully, we can get off to a good start and get some momentum."
Injuries though remain a concern with captain Sam Warburton (shoulder) and under-rated centre Jonathan Davies (pectoral muscle) both struggling for fitness.
But it's a familiar situation for Gatland whose side, as well as trying to go for a treble that proved beyond even the reach of the brilliant Wales team of the 1970s, will also be trying to upset the pattern of France winning the Six Nations that follows a Lions tour.
"The big challenge for us is if you look back over the last four or five British and Irish Lions tours, or maybe even further back, the team that has won the Six Nations or Grand Slam after a Lions tour has been France," said Gatland.
"We are aware of that history as well."
But in order for that history to be of any relevance France, who finished bottom of the table in the course of a dreadful 2013, must improve significantly.
France coach Phillipe Saint-Andre, having overseen fourth and sixth-placed finishes in his two Six Nations in charge, knows patience is wearing thin especially as he can call on players of the calibre of Wesly Fofana, Louis Picamoles and Thomas Domingo.
And he also knows he is running out of excuses, given this season he has been granted the kind of preparation time that first-up opponents England have come to regard as standard.
"We'll have had a a two-week camp, which is very important for this team," said Saint-Andre.
"For the first time we have at least the same preparation as the five other nations in this competition," added the former France captain, whose side will be led by Pascal Pape in the absence of injured captain Thierry Dusautoir.
While all teams have one eye on next year's World Cup, especially tournament hosts England, Red Rose coach Stuart Lancaster would dearly love to win the Six Nations after seeing last season's dream of Grand Slam glory end with a 30-3 thrashing by Wales in Cardiff.
"We've drawn with South Africa, beaten Australia and beaten New Zealand, so our confidence and self-belief are growing," Lancaster said.
"As with all players and teams, you want to win things. That's the ambition for everyone."
But in order to do that, England's backs in particular are likely to have to up their game. One of the enduring joys of the Six Nations is its unpredictability.
Few would tip either Italy or Scotland for the title but, as they showed last season when the Azzurri beat France and the Scots stunned Ireland, both teams can have a huge impact upon the destiny of the Championship.
"If we get good consistency then in parts of our game we can beat anyone on our day," said Scotland's bullish Australian coach, Scott Johnson.
Meanwhile Ireland, having pushed world champions New Zealand close before a last-ditch defeat in Dublin in November, will fancy their chances as long as their home form holds up, according to new coach Joe Schmidt.
"If we could defend the Aviva that would be great," said Schmidt ahead of the New Zealander's first Six Nations as a coach and Irish star centre Brian O'Driscoll's last before retirement.
"If we manage an away victory against either England or France as well, then that would put us in the mix."