Six Nations 2013: Who will win the title?
RBS SIX NATIONS:
- Saturday 2 February to Saturday 16 March
- Twickenham, Aviva Stadium (Dublin), Stadio Olimpico (Rome), Stade de France (Paris), Murrayfield, Millennium Stadium (Cardiff).
- Watch live on BBC One, BBC One HD, Red Button and online; listen on BBC Radio 5 live; live streaming and text commentary on BBC Sport website; watch again on BBC iPlayer
Every year it seems the Six Nations becomes more open, competitive and harder to predict with any logic or certainty who will prevail at the end of it.
And yet Wales' Grand Slam last year was the eighth in the past 11 championships, suggesting early momentum and confidence regularly take a team right through to the ultimate prize.
England, after their stunning win over world champions New Zealand in December, and France, following an impressive series of autumn victories, start favourites with the bookies.
But if there was a time in the 1990s and early 2000s when such a scenario invariably meant "Le Crunch" between the two was the likely title decider, it is rarely that straightforward these days.
History tells us the French rarely do well in the 'odd' years when they have to travel to Twickenham and Dublin, as they do this time.
Only in 2007, when they lost in London but sneaked home in Dublin and scored a last-gasp try against Scotland in the final round to deny Ireland the title on points difference, have they bucked the trend.
So even if it sounds like a faintly ludicrous attempt at shifting pressure elsewhere, perhaps France coach Philippe Saint-Andre is right to be cautious and not look beyond Sunday's opening fixture in Rome where, memorably, they were beaten two years ago.
"England are the big favourites for the tournament after their performance against New Zealand and the fact they have three games at home," declared Saint-Andre.
"We have three games away and two at home so our target is to do better than last year [fourth]. But in French rugby we like to be outsiders."
France have lost on their last three Six Nations visits to Twickenham, where they will travel on the third weekend of the championship.
Yet Italy captain Sergio Parisse, a player who knows the French well having played with and against them in the Top 14 since 2005, had no hesitation in dumping the favourites' tag on his Latin neighbours.
"France are definitely favourites," said the number eight, who could end up the player of the tournament while holding the Wooden Spoon.
"Everyone now expects England to dominate the Six Nations and they showed some really interesting things against New Zealand, but they probably don't have the natural capacity to adapt their game like the French.
"In France they give us liberty to play, and I think the French have the best players in the world at adapting to every situation. England try to dominate physically, they have a more structured team and they follow instructions. They may find it more difficult to adapt to different defences than the French."
If that was an illuminating insight into how opponents view England, Parisse is also keen to change the perception of Italy as a one-dimensional, forward-orientated side who will always struggle to achieve more than one-off victories because of a lack of class behind.
"We don't fear any team in this Six Nations," he said. "Coach Jacques Brunel wants to give us the liberty to take risks and counter-attack more than we did in the past. It is not enough to play well and improve. We want to confirm our progression and get some wins."
With three home games, Azzurri optimism is high, while three successive games at Murrayfield - after their opener at Twickenham - also offers Scotland's interim coaching team hope of something more than simply returning the Wooden Spoon to Italy.
Wales - in 2005 - and Ireland - in 2009 - are the only countries to have overcome the handicap of having only two home matches in a campaign to win a Grand Slam.
They are both faced with the same scenario this time, and it does not take a genius to grasp that Saturday's opening fixture will be pivotal to their respective fortunes.
Twelve months ago in Dublin, Leigh Halfpenny's last-gasp penalty denied the Irish victory and propelled Wales on an upward trajectory that led to a clean sweep.
A fourth consecutive win over the Irish on Saturday might do similar wonders for Welsh morale, battered by a run of seven straight defeats, the performances of their regions in Europe, and a horrendous catalogue of injuries, notably in the second row.
Equally, an eighth successive loss would cast a grisly shadow over the subsequent trips to Paris and Rome. The spectre of the record 10 straight Welsh defeats from 2002 to 2003 could swiftly loom large.
Ireland, without leading lights in Stephen Ferris, Paul O'Connell and Tommy Bowe but boosted by the return of Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Rory Best, could extract a similar bounce from an opening-day win as Wales did 12 months ago.
Suddenly home games with England, in round two, and France in round four would assume the look of decisive encounters in the destination of the championship.
Could O'Driscoll, who has scored more tries (25) and started more matches (55) in the Six Nations than any other player, sign off what is likely to be his last campaign with a glorious final flourish?
Sport does not tend to lend itself to such romantic endings, but you would not rule it out.
It might be easier to predict next year's champions. Every year following a Lions tour in the professional era, when the best of British and Irish tend to be a tad below their peak, France have won the championship (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010).
They also have three games at home in 'even' years.
Stick your money on the French in 2014. As for 2013, it is anyone's guess. Mine, at a push, is England on points difference. You?