Ireland coach Declan Kidney predicts tight Six Nations
Ireland coach Declan Kidney is predicting a ferociously contested Six Nations championship which is unlikely to produce a Grand Slam winner.
The Irish have been installed as fourth favourites to win the championship, behind France, Wales and England.
"I'm not a regular reader of the odds but I imagine they're tight because it's as tight a championship as it's ever been," said Kidney.
"Whoever comes out of the traps running will have a good tournament."
"It comes just after a World Cup year and look what happened to Wales after 2007 - they failed to reach the knockout stages in France but went on to win the 2008 Grand Slam.
"It will be very hard to win all five matches and if a team does that then all credit to them.
"The championship could be decided by points difference. Each match is like a cup final in its own right."
Irish rugby is buoyant after Leinster, Munster and Ulster all reached the quarter-finals of European competition for the first time and Kidney hopes to tap into the provinces' success.
"If we can win the first match then we'll build a bit of momentum with the lads having done so well with their provinces," said Kidney.
"While the success in the Heineken Cup doesn't score you any points in the Six Nations, it allows you to go to work in good form."
Ireland will begin their campaign with a home game against Wales on 5 February, followed by a trip to France the following weekend.
Kidney has tried to take the pressure off whoever replaces the legendary Brian O'Driscoll, who will miss the tournament after shoulder surgery, at outside centre.
Munster's Keith Earls and Leinster's Fergus McFadden are the leading contenders after showing strong form for their provinces, while Ospreys wing Tommy Bowe and Ulster wing Andrew Trimble have also played there for their clubs, and Bowe for the British & Irish Lions.
"Whoever fills the jersey, it won't be a like-for-like," said Kidney. "There are different combinations and it is how fellows feed off that person on a particular day.
"There is even the option of having (inside centres) Paddy Wallace and Gordon D'Arcy together too, there is good experience there. I suppose they are all wondering what it feels like to wear that (13) jersey. They reckon it must be very comfortable with some cushioning, Brian has had it for so long.
"I wouldn't try to diminish it. You lose one of the best players in the world, it is not just going to be the same. But someone will come in to do the job and how the other 14 players support him is going to be all-important.
"I am reminded that not so long ago everyone wondered what we would do without (veteran tight-head prop) John Hayes. You could say what he brought can't be replaced, but Mike Ross came in and everyone else has done a different job."