Six Nations 2009 preview
The Six Nations kicks off on 7 February and the tournament this year looks closer than ever.
We can expect a host of inappropriate comments and scandal from the England camp, Wales to go in with roaring optimism only to be bitterly disappointed, the French to be brilliant and horrendous within the same minute, Ireland to have the loudest fans, Scotland to cause an upset and Italy to lose but go down fighting to the death.
Perhaps this year will be different though but one thing for sure it nearly anyone has a realistic chance of winning and maybe we can make things a little clearer for you with a short preview of what each team has to offer.
Wales are and have been by far the most consistent team recently. Their Autumn Test performances and results were far and away superior to all their rivals.
They beat Australia in a thrilling game, just lost to South Africa and while New Zealand eventually beat them by a fair margin, Wales dominated for large parts of the game before succumbing late on.
Coach Warren Gatland has the luxury of having the strongest squad and competition for places is fierce.
Shane Williams is without doubt still on top of his game and most definitely one of the greatest wingers in the world.
The likes of the Ospreys and Cardiff Blues having such excellent European seasons shows the strength of a lot of their players, the likes of Williams, Gavin Henson and Stephen Jones are all match winners and the forwards look strong also.
They will need all these players to be on song as a daunting trip to Paris on 26 February will be the game that makes or breaks their tournament.
Wales will no doubt come into this Six Nations oozing optimism and hope but you get the feeling that this time around that optimism might be slightly misplaced.
The continued European dominance of Munster and Leinster show just how strong Irish rugby is at the moment and this will buoy Declan Kidney as he approaches his first competitive test as Ireland coach.
Ireland without doubt have the ability to win the Six Nations but a problem for them over the years has seemed to be instilling the belief in the players themselves that they are capable of winning it.
They managed to win two of their Autumn Tests against a decent Argentina side and a horrendous Canada side. They also managed to succumb to the might of New Zealand in between those two games.
The Irish forward line is not as great as some of their rivals but their back-line when on song is unquestionably world class.
Ronan O'Gara will pull the strings with Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Peter Stringer all hugely experienced, top players who can win matches.
However, should any of their key players get injured the cover is not nearly as good as the man they would be replacing and the age of some of the players could be a small cause for concern.
They certainly still have the appetite but could some of the older players' legs get tired in the latter stages?
A huge factor in Ireland's favour is playing both England and France at the fortress that is Croke Park and if Kidney can instill a belief in his players then they can beat anyone and it could come down to their last game playing Wales away to decide the title.
As everyone knows France over the years can be jaw-droppingly brilliant one minute and horrendously awful the next. If they are to go all the way this year they need to iron out these inconsistencies in their game.
French rugby is on a relative low, at least at domestic level, with Toulouse their sole Heineken Cup quarter final representative. This is deceptive however as to how good France's chances are.
Marc Lievremont has set about re-building the French side with young and talented players and there is a feeling his plan may well now start to bear fruit.
They have a large players base to pick from which should enable them to have few selection worries.
In the last World Cup, France had a lot of young players that were still learning and they have since had time to come into their own.
The likes of Julien Malzieu and Maxime Medard are starting to look like the real deal and Cedric Heymans is a player any side would love to have and will be vying for the top try-scorer berth come the end of the tournament.
Their pack (especially the front row) are powerful and well organised and enough to worry any other forward line in the tournament.
If these young players have learnt anything from previous defeats then there is no doubt France are capable of winning this Six Nations.
They need not worry about having the ability to beat the other sides, as France seem to beat themselves long before any other side has a chance.
It seems to have been largely downhill for England ever since they won the World Cup in 2003.
They surprised many by reaching the final of the last World Cup, showing they can still do it when it matters but were soundly beaten by South Africa in the final.
England seem to perform best when they are underdogs and nobody believes in them and that is what in this tournament makes them extremely dangerous.
Danny Cipriani has hopefully got through the troubles that got him dropped in the last Six Nations tournament, while there is little to gain from the Autumn Tests as England were annihilated by all three of the Southern Hemisphere sides.
For a lot of people England's hopes could be largely down to what team Martin Johnson chooses.
You get the feeling that if they are to make a real impact then the likes of Phil Vickery and Steve Borthwick should be dropped in favour of some more in-form players.
Also while there is no questions the Wasps' players are immensely talented it could well pay to play players from in-form teams, as Wasps have been woeful all season which must be affecting their confidence.
This would mean the likes of Vickery, Riki Flutey and James Haskell would face the chop but the feeling is in-form players like Mike Tindall and Olly Morgan should be given the chance.
Everyone has a differing opinion about who the starting XV should be and it will be intriguing to see who gets the go-ahead.
If Cipriani can play to the brilliant level we know he is capable of and the England forwards can start to dominate again then the Three Lions are by no means a forlorn hope and write them off at your peril.
From what we have seen in the lead up to the tournament however, they are going to have a fair bit to find with the likes of Wales and France.
One thing the Scots will have is fantastic vocal support. One thing they don't have is much chance of winning.
Frank Hadden is capable of organising his troops to throw in an upset for sure but they simply don't have the capability to sustain that kind of performance for the whole tournament.
While they have some good individual players Scotland don't seem to pull together adequately as a team.
Chris Paterson will be a key player and Sean Lamont is world class on his day and in the Evans brothers Thom and Max they have two potential superstars in the ranks.
However barring some flashes of inspiration it is likely to be a tournament to forget for Scotland.
Italy's odds say it all. They have no chance of winning. They are however more than capable of ruffling a few feathers and could provide a shock.
Their match with Scotland is likely to decide the wooden spoon but every team that plays Italy will know they have been in a hard fought game.
The Italians are very physical with some English-based forwards including Saracens pair Fabio Ongaro and Matias Aguero who have the ability to give any opposing pack a tough day.
Mirco Bergamasco is capable of creating magic from the back-line but to get anywhere this year that is exactly what Italy are going to need - magic.
So, who's going to win? This is such a close year and there is no doubt Wales are worthy favourites and although England's problems are well documented write them off at your peril.
Ireland will be there or thereabouts but the ageing legs could hinder them at the crunch and for these reasons France at 3/1 are the selection to win the tournament in the hope their young squad translate their individual talents collectively and consistently on the International stage and that they can have more of those brilliant moments than shocking ones.