The Six Nations enters its final furlong this weekend with four mounts neck and neck as the finishing line appears on the horizon, through the driving rain and flying divots.
Ireland, England, Wales and France all have two matches left to snatch a crown that for once has justified the perennial pre-tournament hype.
‘This is the tightest tournament for years’, the commentators tell us in the weeks before one country whisks off a Grand Slam, of which there have been eight in the last thirteen seasons. Keep saying it and you’ll be right at least once.
And this is the season, the quartet are level on points, each with two victories and a defeat, and each with one fixture left they’d expect to win without any fuss – and a second, more challenging appointment that will shape their season and, potentially, even the XV that starts next year’s Rugby World Cup.
There they are, coming into the home straight, cheek by jowl, all eyes focused dead ahead. But are they neck and neck? Probably not, as in all races momentum and energy resources are the unseen arbiters and after a fallow week it is difficult to predict which steed is strongest.
While Ireland needed a period of reflection following their narrow miss at Twickenham; having dismantled France, Wales could probably have done with playing the next day. England have concerns at tighthead prop, while France were execrable in Cardiff last time out.
Here’s my assessment of the runners and which is likely to reach the finishing post first.
Ireland (currently 1st)
To play: Italy (h), France (a)
Irish hopes of a Triple Crown were dashed in a classic encounter in London, probably because they second -guessed themselves into a position where they didn’t use their most potent weapon, their mauling game.
However, convincing wins over Wales and Scotland have given them a handy points difference advantage and they can approach Brian O’Driscoll’s last home international against winless Italy with real confidence.
It seems unfathomable the Azzurri will be allowed to gate-crash that farewell party, given they haven’t won in Dublin in 17 years.
Whether Ireland have Jonny Sexton fit or not, the fly-half is a doubt with a thumb injury, they will be desperate to score a hat-full of points, give BO’D at least one try and seize control of the championship in the process.
They then take the tournament’s most accurate lineout and proficient rucking game to Paris, where O’Driscoll announced himself to the world by scoring a hat-trick in 2000 and inspiring a first win on French soil since 1972.
Emotion alone could get the job done and the title won.
England (currently 2nd)
To play: Wales (h), Italy (a)
But for Gael Fickou’s late try in Paris on the opening day England could, and should, be striding towards a first Grand Slam under Stuart Lancaster.
Mike Brown has been the player of the tournament so far and Danny Care and Owen Farrell have been the premier half-back partnership. All seems well in the Red Rose garden.
That said both Joe Marler and David Wilson have a massive job on their hands against Wales on Sunday, particularly given the way Welsh tighthead Adam Jones demolished the Harlequin in Cardiff last spring.
The Welsh back-line is sensational and Billy Twelvetrees has to play out of his skin to shut down Jamie Roberts.
Victory, even by a point would be the biggest in Lancaster’s reign and they would head off to Rome virtually certain of a fourth straight win.
A pointer? England have had ten chances to secure a Triple Crown at Twickenham – and have done it every time.
Wales (currently 3rd)
To play: England (a),
The jury is still out on whether Wales’ record-equalling 27-6 win over France was a sign that Warren Gatland’s men are back on track or that Philippe Saint-Andre’s are way off it.
Either way the Welsh come to Twickenham having put their Dublin drubbing behind them and looking to inflict another humbling defeat on the team they love to beat most. Wales are going for successive victories at Twickenham for the first time since 1978.
British Lions Alun Wyn-Jones and Jonathan Davies are back in contention at lock and centre and Rhys Webb looks an inspired choice at scrum-half.
If they do win this weekend they would return to Cardiff next Saturday with only palsied Scotland to beat and every hope of a magnificent third straight title.
France (currently 4th)
To play: Scotland (a),
Saint-Andre deserves the Six Nations crown for services to rugby alone. His decision to drop Louis Picamoles, his best player, for the No.8’s insolent response to being sin-binned against Wales, upholds the culture of the sport.
France should win, a phrase to send shivers across la Manche, in Edinburgh this weekend given their undoubted scrummaging prowess and the ability of their back-line to punish mistakes. Which are usually plentiful against Scotland.
Class on legs Wesley Fofana is out injured but Yoann Huget and Brice Dulin are two-thirds of the best back three in the competition. But they then face the prospect of pooping O’Driscoll’s party on the final weekend, which not even PSA wants.