Four different champions in as many years underlines the difficulty of predicting a winner in this season’s Six Nations championship starting at the weekend.
“I’m not a regular reader of the odds but I imagine they’re tight because it’s as tight a championship as there’s ever been,” Ireland coach Declan Kidney said at the official Six Nations launch last week.
“The championship could be decided by points’ difference. Each match is like a Cup final in its own right.”
The tournament’s format, in which teams hold home advantage for three of their five games on alternate years, is as useful a starting point as any in seeking a potential champion with early indications pointing to a France-Wales finale in Cardiff on March 17.
France, who ran New Zealand desperately close in last October’s World Cup final, are the bookmakers’ favourites with home matches against Italy, Ireland and champions England.
They travel to Cardiff for the final day of the championship to meet a Welsh side who will have played Scotland and Italy at home after an intimidating opening fixture against Ireland in Dublin this Sunday.
Even by their own volatile standards, France had a spectacularly erratic 2011. They lost to Italy for the first time in the Six Nations championship and were beaten by Tonga at the World Cup before rallying to eliminate England and hold the All Blacks to a one-point winning margin at Eden Park.
Philippe Saint-Andre, who has succeeded Marc Lievremont as coach, has pledged to bring consistency to the national team and the squad for Saturday’s match against Italy contains 12 players from the World Cup final.
Francois Trinh-Duc, who threatened to win the final on his own after coming on as a replacement, is back at flyhalf while the depth of talent available to Saint-Andre is revealed by the relegation to the bench of number eight Imanol Harinordoquy, who was outstanding at Eden Park.
Wales illuminated the World Cup with some wonderful attacking rugby but fallible goal kicking, usually a strength, cost them dearly when they lost their group match against South Africa, the semi-final against France and finally the third place playoff with Australia.
Losing again to the Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium in December further dampened the early World Cup euphoria and the inevitable rash of injuries during a demanding domestic season has hit Wales harder than the other Six Nations contenders.
Coach Warren Gatland has remained upbeat, predicting a golden future for Welsh rugby with a wealth of young talent to call on.
“I think we have some real quality, some real talent,” he said. “I think we have a special group of talented young players, I think the next few years are potentially very exciting for Welsh rugby.”
Gatland has delayed naming a side until Friday in the hope that flyhalf Rhys Priestland, a revelation in New Zealand, and blindside flanker Dan Lydiate have recovered from knee and ankle injuries respectively.
Ireland, whose win over Australia in the group stages altered the shape of the World Cup, will take to the field without their captain and leading player Brian O’Driscoll who will miss the championship with a shoulder injury.
They will still field a battle-hardened side based on their three leading clubs Leinster, Munster and Ulster who have all reached the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.
Saturday’s other match is potentially the most explosive of the opening weekend, featuring rugby union’s oldest international rivals England and Scotland at Murrayfield.
After imploding on and off the field in New Zealand, England now have a caretaker manager in Stuart Lancaster and a new captain in Chris Robshaw at the head of a team who have not won in Edinburgh since 2004.
England have advertised for a head coach to replace Martin Johnson and Lancaster will be applying for a job he holds on an interim basis two games into his team’s title defence.
Robshaw, who has played just once for his country, owes his elevation to a toe injury to the first-choice Tom Wood and he has been appointed for two games only.
With talk of Scottish devolution in the air and coach Andy Robinson further stoking the fires by accusing England of arrogance at the World Cup, the visitors could hardly have a more daunting championship opener despite Scotland’s indifferent form in recent years.
“They always save a passion for us,” said forwards coach Graham Rowntree, the only survivor of the World Cup coaching team. “There will be fire and brimstone but I like to think we can bring a bit of that as well.”
Six Nations championship fixtures
France v Italy (1430)
Scotland v England (1700)
Ireland v Wales (1500)
Italy v England (1600)
France v Ireland (2000)
Wales v Scotland (1500)
Ireland v Italy (1330)
England v Wales (1600)
Scotland v France (1500)
Wales v Italy (1430)
Ireland v Scotland (1700)
France v England (1500)
Italy v Scotland (1230)
Wales v France (1445)
England v Ireland (1700)