'Away form could hold key
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: Players may be fitter, faster and stronger than ever before but away wins remain hard to come by in the championship.
This season's edition of Europe's premier international championship kicks off this weekend, with form on the road again likely to play a key role in the destiny of the title, even though there is nothing especially arduous about journeys of a few hours at most.
But a tournament where teams play just five fixtures each is inherently lopsided, as in some seasons they will have three home games and in others just the two.
Last year, excluding matches involving perennial strugglers Italy, the lone away win in the Six Nations was eventual champions England's defeat of Wales in Cardiff.
It was a run of results that left British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland concerned his combined side did not have enough experience of winning away from home ahead of last year's tour of his native New Zealand.
Gatland was especially worried as two of the three Tests against the world champions were at Auckland's Eden Park - where the All Blacks have not lost since 1994.
Yet the Lions still squared the series 1-1, albeit their lone Test win was in Wellington, with the tourists losing first up in Auckland before returning to Eden Park for a 15-15 draw in the finale.
"I made the point before the Lions tour that a concern for me was there hadn't been many away wins," Gatland, now back in his day job of Wales coach, told AFP during the recent Six Nations launch in London.
"I'm not too sure as to the reason why that was. Wales have had their share of success away from home under me. Maybe last year was just one of those seasons."
But for some teams, their away record is more than a blip.
England may have been denied a second successive Grand Slam courtesy of a Dublin defeat by Ireland that was their first reverse in 23 Tests under coach Eddie Jones, but they have still won 25 out of 45 away matches in the Six Nations era.
By contrast the figures for Scotland, now talked of as tournament contenders after a 2017 that featured home and away victories over Australia, as well as a narrow loss to New Zealand in Edinburgh, tell a different story.
Since the competition expanded to six teams in 2000, Scotland have won a mere six out of 45 fixtures away from Murrayfield, with four of those victories in Rome.
They begin this season's Championship against Wales in Cardiff, where Scotland are seeking a first win since 2002.
"There's not that much between the teams and if there isn't much, then you can see a slight home advantage," Scotland coach Gregor Townsend told AFP.
"All the games are sell-outs and that means the home side have some 60-70,000 people cheering them on and that can give you energy. That can make a difference.
"However, I am sure the teams playing away from home this year will be doing their utmost to quieten the home crowds," the former Scotland playmaker added.
With Wales, who announced their team on Tuesday, missing several senior players in Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton through injury, there will be even more pressure on Scotland to end their 16-year Cardiff 'hoodoo' this weekend.
But Scotland forward Ryan Wilson is adamant the weight of history will not prove too heavy a burden for Townsend's men this weekend.
"Winning in Cardiff has not been done for a while - since 2002 - so it's a significant thing but we've got confidence," he said.
"I can't imagine anyone will be thinking we've not won down there before. It'll be focusing on ourselves that we can go down and do a job."