Rugby union: There is undoubtedly a correlation between the domestic rugby arena and the Six Nations competition which commences this coming weekend.
Wales, with no European form or success in recent years, were astute enough to carry away another Grand Slam last season.
Both England and France have relatively new coaches and complicated systems of play and were in a state of change after the 2011 World Cup.
Nevertheless both should see a return of their countries to the top of the European rugby tree this year. Of course, there are other factors to take into account.
If autumn form was anything to go by in this competition, then both England and France would fancy their tournament prospects.
England were superb in beating New Zealand at Twickenham in December. Elsewhere France beat Argentina and Samoa, and hammered Australia in their autumn series.
Meanwhile Wales had lost, admittedly narrowly, three matches in Australia and then all their autumn series against Argentina, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand.
The loss of coach Warren Gatland, initially through injury and, latterly to British and Irish Lions’ duty, has left replacement coach Rob Howley rather exposed.
With a particularly hefty forwards injury list which includes highly-regarded players such as Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Luke Charteris and last year’s player of the tournament Dan Lydiate, Wales will do well to finish in the top
three this time around.
Furthermore, in this season, England, Scotland and Italy have three home games and both England and France must travel to Dublin to face Ireland as one of their encounters.
Scotland and Italy should not worry England and France, but the lesser nations may cause an upset with both having home fixtures against Wales and Ireland during the tournament.
All nations will hope to get off to a good start this coming weekend, win their initial fixture and gain momentum thereafter.
On Sunday, France travel to Rome’s Stadio Olimpico remembering that in 2011 they lost 22-21 to Italy in Rome and their problem has been a lack of consistency in performance.
Coach Phillippe Saint-Andre will show continued faith in fly-half Fredric Michalak’s creative abilities after he guided France to four victories while wearing the shirt.
Italy will themselves be hard to beat, have three home fixtures and many of their players are having good performances, if not results, with Benetton Treviso in the Celtic League.
Scotland’s new coach Scott Johnson has had no great success as a head coach, but has recruited well and will have shrewd forwards’ expert Dean Ryan on his shoulder this season.
Ryan has an exceptional knowledge of the modern forwards game, is a keen rugby analyst and will mix well with Johnson, who is essentially a skills coach.
Both have already stated that their function may take a couple of years to bed in with such a young squad which has 10 uncapped players.
Only four of the 16 backs in Scotland’s 2013 Six Nations squad made their Test debuts more than a year ago. Having their first fixture away at Twickenham on Saturday against a confident and relatively settled England side is also going to be extremely difficult for the Scots.
England will look to their away games being the more difficult despite the visit of France. Both Ireland and Wales will raise their games significantly to play the Red Rose, and both nations may be at fuller strength later in the competition.
First Ireland and Wales clash at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday and Wales, with injury problems withhold the naming of their team until Thursday. Let battle commence!
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