The Six Nations is a tournament that is always played against a backdrop of pride and passion. Every country taking part in the championships has a rugged determination and courage deeply entrenched in its history.
But there can only ever be one winner.
Last year it was Ireland, who overcame tight matches against the English and Welsh to secure their first “Grand Slam” title since 1948. France and Wales had unsatisfactory tournaments and had to settle for third and fourth place respectively.
Martin Johnson’s England side secured a surprise runners-up position, despite being written off by the press prior to the success. As for Scotland and Italy, they continued to languish well behind the pack, as they had for many years previously.
So has anything changed this time around?
Coach: Martin Johnson
Key man: Jonny Wilkinson
Jonny Wilkinson will never be back to his form of 2003. But if he has regained the majority of his fitness, and can stay that way, it will be his job to lead England’s backs through this tournament.
While the forwards are crammed with maturity and leaders, the backs often struggle to organise themselves. Wilkinson has the class and understanding of the game to act not only as a kicking machine, but also as a vital source of knowledge in the backline.
Under-pressure Steve Borthwick will have to show he is worthy of retaining the captaincy past the short-term stay of execution that he has been granted.
Coach: Marc Lievremont
Key man: Vincent Clerc
Never lacking in flair or adventure, France will still be considered favourites by many onlookers.
Clement Poitrenaud, Aurelien Rougerie and Vincent Clerc will come together once again to create a potentially devastating trio. Similarly, Frederic Michalak can make defences look silly with his trickery and quick feet.
But Michalak is almost a microcosm of the rest of the squad. On their day Les Bleus are world-beaters but when they are not on top form, they can be embarrassed (as shown in the 36-10 defeat to England last year). This lack of consistency is likely to prevent them from taking the championship.
Coach: Declan Kidney
Key man: Brian O’Driscoll
The squad looks very similar to the one which saw them beat the entire field last year, and they will undoubtedly benefit from this lack of upheaval.
The backline is fantastically talented, and the experienced heads of O’Gara, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy and co. will give any defence in the world problems. Even Rob Kearney, a relative youngster at 23, will have benefited from a Heineken Cup victory with Leinster and a British & Irish Lions tour.
The forwards are similar to the backs in terms of being wise heads, but often fail to exert their authority at set pieces, particularly against beefy packs such as those of England and France.
Coach: Nick Mallett
Key man: Mauro Bergamasco
With this being their eleventh Six Nations campaign, you would think Italy would be showing signs of competing with the other nations. Not quite, although they are on the up. Wales were close to being downed in Rome last year, in what would have been the biggest shock in Six Nations history.
All in all though, Italy have nowhere near the quality needed to challenge the other teams consistently.
Though it has much improved, their fitness is questionable. Even if they manage to present a challenge for the likes of Wales and Scotland, the Azzurri should be blown away in the second half of matches.
Coach: Andy Robinson
Key man: Mike Blair
Looking at the standings for the 2009 championship, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scotland had a campaign similar to the last few. Just a solitary win for Frank Hadden’s side, against whipping boys Italy, seems to suggest this.
But Scotland showed massive improvements, pushing every opponent close and making France sweat in Paris.
Now with a new coach in Andy Robinson, the question is whether Scotland can continue to improve or whether they will go back to their old ways. Expect them to push Wales close for 4th position.
Coach: Warren Gatland
Key man: Ryan Jones
Like England after their World Cup success in 2003, Wales seem to have regressed since their 2008 Six Nations title.
A sub-standard 4th place finish last year, was followed up by similarly uninspiring performances in the autumn internationals after suffering degrading losses to New Zealand and Australia and unconvincingly scraping through at home to Samoa.
Wales are a side with serious problems, both in the scrum and backline. Coach Warren Gatland is also likely to opt for the conventional Dan Biggar at fly half over the more daring James Hook. Conservatism is not what won Wales their previous Six Nations titles.