Since five became six and Italy were welcomed on board nine years ago, the trophy has been landed by just three different countries – England, Wales and France.
Yet the destination of this season’s RBS 6 Nations silverware is perhaps tougher to predict than ever before.
Sportinglife reports that the most recent form guide – the autumn Tests two months ago – suggests Wales are shining lights to successfully defend their Six Nations title.
The challenge for Wales though, is to achieve something not even achieved during their 1970s golden era – winning back-to-back Grand Slams.
But they are a meagre 6/1 chance with the bookmakers to repeat their 2008 clean sweep and Six Nations title success, despite three of their games – against Scotland, France and Italy – being away from home.
Autumn form suggests the bookies may have it right, given that Wales were the only Six Nations side to beat Tri-Nations opposition during a demoralising November for northern hemisphere rugby.
Wales’ victory over Australia underlined their quality – and with an outstanding coaching team of Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley again at the helm, their tournament favourites’ tag is fully justified.
England were last crowned Six Nations champions in 2003 – and nothing happened during the autumn to suggest they will end that trophy drought this season.
The emergence of full-back prospect Delon Armitage apart, England had precious little to cheer after a demoralising autumn series when they were beaten by Australia, South Africa and New Zealand – conceding 102 points in the process.
New boss Martin Johnson knows his team must deliver. But after what should be a routine opener against Italy, they face games that will make or break their campaign – Wales in Cardiff, followed by Ireland at Croke Park.
Already written off in many quarters, which England will turn up? It could be the roaring lions or the timid pussycats.
Scotland might not have won anything, yet they produced one of the more remarkable statistics of last season’s Six Nations tournament – 656 passes completed, but just three tries scored.
Unless Frank Hadden’s men can find ways of breaking down opposition defences on a consistent basis, rather than rely on goal-kicking to win games, they will continue to struggle.
Their forwards will be a handful for most opponents – hooker Ross Ford and prop Euan Murray could be Lions Test starters in South Africa later this year – and they know an immediate statement can be made by knocking over Wales at Murrayfield on the opening weekend.
Scotland’s professional sides Edinburgh and Glasgow have both performed well this season – suggesting that at 16/1 for the title, the Scots could be worth a flutter – but their lack of tries remains an enormous concern.
The record books show Ireland have won three Six Nations Triple Crowns – but the title continues to elude them in such regular fashion that it has assumed millstone proportions.
Munster’s consistent success in Europe; the thrilling talent of young Leinster backs like Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney; Brian O’Driscoll’s continued mercurial presence in midfield; Ireland, without question, have a lot to be excited about.
But was it not ever thus?
Coach Declan Kidney takes charge of his first Six Nations campaign, yet one cannot help thinking it will be the same old story of promise and potential – but no Six Nations trophy in the cabinet.
Across the Channel, no one quite knew what approach – if, indeed, he had one – France coach Marc Lievremont adopted towards selection in 2008.
Young players came and went, and his line-up that finished last year with an 18-13 defeat against Australia contained just six survivors from the one that started it – including captain Lionel Nallet – against Scotland almost 10 months previously.
Like Wales, France face three games on the road – visiting Ireland, England and Italy – although their mid-tournament Friday night appointment with the Welsh could prove a critical game in terms of the competition’s final outcome.
One would think Lievremont may adopt a more settled outlook on selection this time around, having found his bearings as a Test coach last year – but only time will tell.
Despite the revered former South Africa coach Nick Mallett taking charge of Italy for last season’s Six Nations, it was a campaign that contained wildly fluctuating fortunes.
Italy beat Scotland and ran both England and Ireland close, yet their crushing defeat against Wales in Cardiff illustrated a tactical naivety that can still unhinge their game.
Mallett’s team start this time around against England at Twickenham – where previous Six Nations visits saw them lose 80-23, 40-5, 39-7 and 20-7 – but Ireland, Wales and France must then all visit the wonderfully-atmospheric Stadio Flaminio in Rome.
A sixth-placed finish again looks likely. But if anyone can turn them around, Mallett is more capable than most.Tweet