Six Nations set for launch with a bang
This year's official Six Nations launch was unusual in one respect.
It was the first time in a decade that the same six coaches who were talking about their team's prospects a year ago were still in situ 12 months on.
That minor miracle aside, a reassuring sense of déjà vu - or perhaps déjà entendu - pervaded proceedings at London's Hurlingham Club.
"This tournament is all about momentum," was, as ever, the go-to phrase, borne out perhaps by three Grand Slams in the last three years by three different countries.
Win the first game, get on a roll, and there's every chance the glory will follow.
Which captain will be lifting the Six Nations trophy aloft this year? Picture: Getty
This is despite the fact that most coaches, players and pundits agree that the teams are so closely matched now that picking a winner becomes harder every year.
Martin Johnson, as he did 12 months ago, predicted that no-one would be, er, predicting the outcome of such a notoriously unpredictable tournament.
"I don't think anyone is putting a lot of money on any team to win it right now," he said, in case anyone had the impression the England manager had suddenly become a compulsive gambler. "I think the field has certainly come together."
The bookies bear him out. England, on the back of an upwardly mobile six months, are slight favourites - for the first time since 2003 - but France, Ireland and Wales are close behind, with Scotland slightly further adrift and Italy rank outsiders as usual.
Not that the Azzurri take offence. "We are not arrogant enough to think we can win every game," said their coach Nick Mallett, whose fourth Six Nations campaign may prove to be his last if reports his bosses have already lined up Jacques Brunel to succeed him after the World Cup prove correct, despite Mallett's insistence that his future remains undecided.
His absence from the annual party would be a pity, because Mallett speaks more sense on most rugby topics, and in a variety of languages, than anyone.
Italy are not without hope, with talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse back in harness and a new 20-year-old scrum-half, Edouardo Gori, who Mallett believes "has the ability in time to become comparable with anything in Europe", but they don't pretend to be realistic title contenders.
Scotland though, it seems, start every Six Nations tournament full of optimism, convinced they can beat anybody if they find the best of themselves. "But if we are not at our best, we get beat," added Andy Robinson by way of a rider.
Just as well you might say, since for each of the last four years, their 'best' has eluded them in four out of five matches.
In theory, the Scots have every right to be buoyant after finally winning a Six Nations away game against someone other than Italy for the first time in eight years (23-20 in Dublin), two summer Test victories in Argentina and an autumn win over South Africa.
But the last time they reconvened for Test duty after several months' away, the result was not pretty. "We are confident, but the New Zealand game in November (a 49-3 home defeat) is a good reminder of where we are," noted Robinson darkly.
It doesn't take a genius to work out why Scotland are 'where they are'. They have never got into double figures for tries in a single Six Nations campaign, and have only managed 10 in the last three years.
Asked whether a statistic of seven tries in his 13 games in charge to date was a concern, Robinson narrowed his eyes, stared at his accuser for a few seconds, then responded: "No" (pause for dramatic effect)...does it concern you?" Ah, the banter.
At least Warren Gatland, bless him, can be relied upon to spice things up.
The Wales coach has started early this year, chucking a verbal grenade in the direction of England hooker Dylan Hartley a full 10 days before match-day.
Johnson's response on Wednesday showed that he too was not averse to a bit of pre-match fun with a sly dig at Gatland's recent record as Wales coach - six defeats and a shambolic draw against Fiji in his last seven Tests.
"That's how people react under pressure," said Johnno. "Where Wales are, not having won a game for a while, it wasn't unexpected." Nice.
Gatland quipped that his captain Matthew Rees has fined him a couple of grand for making the comments, and he has banned himself from any further media pronouncements before the game. Ah, c'mon Warren. Don't be like that.
Not that he had any regrets. "We needed to sell a few thousand tickets and I am on a bonus from the BBC to get the viewing figures up for this game," he grinned.
Despite that run of defeats, all to the southern hemisphere's big three, Gatland believes the benefits will soon be felt in a World Cup year. "We could easily have played lesser teams and made it look good on the scoreboard, but in terms of improving us as a team, that wouldn't have done our rugby any good."
Despite another untimely spate of injuries, the New Zealander is sticking to his belief that Wales are "knocking on the door" and that beating England on opening night could spark similar sensations to wins over the old enemy in 2005 and 2008.
"If we win that first game, we feel we can win the Six Nations," he insisted.
France, despite reuniting the majority of the squad that won the Grand Slam last year, appear to be in something close to funereal mode approaching the defence of their title.
This time last year, Marc Lievremont was heard recalling the 'catastrophe' of their 2009 capitulation at Twickenham.
Twelve months on, the 'catastrophe' in question was at the hands of Australia (59-16) two months ago, and the 'complete suicide' of the second half after the teams went in level at the interval.
"We weren't ourselves. It was an extremely difficult moment," lamented Lievremont.
At least he has an idea of what the French should be. Mallett may be right when he says "France always have the most potential to win the Six Nations, because they are the team with the most talent to choose from." But that doesn't mean they will.
With away games in Dublin and Twickenham, you wouldn't bet your last euro on them winning a sixth Six Nations title in 12 years, would you?
With the tournament taking place against the backdrop of a World Cup in New Zealand in a little over seven months, the stakes are higher than usual. "There is a bit more edge around - everyone knows what is coming," acknowledged Johnson, not that he believes it detracts from the spectacle which will unfold over the next two months.
"The Six Nations is great anyway," said the man who last lifted the trophy for England in 2003. "It is just a great competition to be involved with."
A rapidly escalating injury list - with Tommy Bowe the fifth back-three player, and seventh in all, to be ruled out of their opening game in Italy - has also done nothing to dampen Ireland coach Declan Kidney's enthusiasm for a competition he won at the first attempt two years ago, and finished second in last year.
"It is brilliant," said Kidney. "It is like playing five finals in seven weeks."
Brian O'Driscoll and Declan Kidney were in relaxed mood as they discussed Ireland's prospects. Picture: Getty
The man alongside him, Brian O'Driscoll, was present for the ninth year in a row as Ireland's captain. The weather wasn't the worst he has known for the traditional photocall - "No rain or snow, I'll take that" - but at 32, and with a fourth World Cup in his sights later this year, arguably the greatest player to have graced the Six Nations era would be forgiven for thinking this was all a bit passé. Not a bit of it.
"I love this competition and the interest hasn't waned in any shape or form," said the celebrated centre, who has played in 50 of Ireland's 55 Six Nations matches (only team-mates John Hayes (54) and Ronan O'Gara (52) have played more, from any country) - and scored more tries - 22 - in the tournament than any other player.
"If anything I probably have more of a hunger for it now with the knowledge that I don't know how many more I have left. I treat every one like it could be my last but every moment - in camp, on the bus to matches, those small things - still give me as much of a buzz as they did 10 years ago."
If BOD is buzzing ahead of an opening encounter with Italy, imagine the atmosphere just before kick-off at the Millennium Stadium next Friday night.
Traditionalists may welcome the announcement by the Six Nations committee that there will be no more Friday night fixtures for the foreseeable future.
But for this year, Wales v England in Cardiff promises to give the greatest annual rugby tournament an absolute firecracker to kick things off. As Johnson put it, with delicious understatement, "The adrenaline factor for both teams will be high."
Bring it on.