Brian Dick, The Birmingham Post's rugby correspondent, examines the contenders for this year's Six Nations title...
The Six Nations has bobbled round again and England will be all too aware of their eternal misfortune. Not only must they win the championship, Triple Crown and Grand Slam, they must do so by playing the sort of attractive, free-running rugby to warm even the iciest Celtic heart.
But they have to accept such demands go with the territory. Their status as the most resource-rich nation on the ovoid globe comes with certain responsibilities and while their World Cup victory was universally admired, outside these shores it was not cherished with much affection.
In many respects their Australian triumph only confirmed the perception that when the going gets tough, the Red Rose reverts to type - more thorn than petal. Martin Johnson shoves the ball up his jumper and Jonny Wilkinson kicks it between the posts. Not for England the flashing, dashing three-quarter movement.
And so with Jamie Noon and Mike Tindall in the centres and, in Ben Cohen, a back-row forward on the wing, it seems the England of the 90s has extended its brooding shadow into the current decade.
Yet we must not be too critical. As their openside Pat Sanderson says, this is now a professional sport where the end justifies the means every time. Andy Robinson has a job to save and if that means ten-man rugby, then so be it.
At least it gives us a contrast in styles. England aren't the white-shirted supremacists of a couple of years ago but powered by the biggest front row in history their physical strength won't be diminished by much and will stand in stark contrast to the wispy elan of the Welsh.
The problem for the reigning champions is that they simply don't breed them big enough. Fast? Yes. Elusive? Certainly. Mountainous? Categorically not. None of their three front row forwards who start at Twickenham today are above 6ft.
Theirs is a rather more aesthetic skill. The ability to off-load in the tackle, the bunching of runners and the rapiers out wide who are allowed to express their innate talent, whilst all the time underpinned by their coach's blessing.
Admittedly Mike Ruddock has no other way but even if he could call on the likes of Andrew Sheridan, Steve Thompson and Matthew Stevens, one suspects they'd be asked to haul their heavy frames slightly wider than the No 10 channel.
And, as they say in Cardiff, fair play to them. It is my opinion that last year's Wales team moved the sport up a notch. New Zealand subsequently galloped it forward even further but credit for the original renaissance in running with a rugby ball goes to the Welshmen.
Sadly this season's fixtures make a repeat extremely unlikely. If there is to be a clean sweep the French will do it.
After their opener in Scotland they have three home matches in succession, which means by the time they go to the Millennium Stadium on the last day, they could well be celebrating another Grand Slam at the home of the team they deposed.
The French are simply awesome. Their pack is as robust as England's, their backs as dangerous as Wales' and the whole is galvanised by a Gallic recklessness that makes them a fearsome prospect.
In the Yannicks Nyanga and Jauzion they have have the stand-out piano movers and players in the northern hemisphere.
The former is a rapacious flanker who is as capable of squashing his opposite number into the dirt as he is of racing away from him. Quite simply Jauzion is the complete centre.
The half backs, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Frederic Michelak are consummate footballers, utterly interchangeable, and endlessly creative. On their day they are the top pairing in the world.
Yet 'on their day' is a rider that must be attached to any France team. They are capable of criminal wretchedness and sporting beauty in the same second and therein lies the hope for the others.
It is, perhaps, Scotland's only cause for optimism. They welcome Les Bleus to Murrayfield tomorrow and championship momentum being what it is, must get off to a very, very good start if they are to avoid the all too common fate of a wooden spoon showdown with Italy.
The evidence offered by the autumn internationals proved inconclusive. Their new coach, Frank Hadden, talks about restoring Scottishness to their play after the rugby by numbers favoured by the inestimably dull Matt Williams.
They have two British Lions in their decent back row, Jason White and Simon Taylor join Ally Hogg as the loose forwards and in Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair they have two promising scrum-halves.
Inside and outside of that area they are as shaky as a leaf in a Highland gale. The front row, centres and back three don't convince their own mothers and Hadden really needs to find a way of utilising Chris Paterson instead of shackling him to a wing.
The same allegation cannot be levelled at Ireland. Like France and Wales they have a backline to kill for.
Brian O'Driscoll has rejoined the fray at his brilliant best, Gordon D'Arcy could be the dominant 12 of the tournament and Shane Horgan and Geordan Murphy will finish any openings that come their way.
Unfortunately their Munster props and hooker have yet to prove themselves in the Test match arena and if anything happens to Ronan O'Gara at ten they're in big trouble.
Yet the best thing that could happen to the Irish would be for Eddie O'Sullivan to slip the tactical straitjacket that contorts a naturally balanced line-up. Do that and visits to Paris and London could produce at least one upset.
Which is a way the Italians have come accustomed to feeling - upset. Since their Golden Generation retired a couple of years ago they are been Home Nations whipping boys and more of the same awaits.
They must hope Scotland arrive in Rome on March 18 a bedraggled shower because they have no hope of getting anything from their three away trips or the visit from Robinson's mean machine.