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Captivated by magic roundabout

Six cities, five weekends, 15 games.

Sam Warburton leads his Welsh team in celebrations after clinching the Six Nations title with victory over England at the Millennium Stadium last yearPhotograph: Getty
Sam Warburton leads his Welsh team in celebrations after clinching the Six Nations title with victory over England at the Millennium Stadium last yearPhotograph: Getty

Not really that much to it, is there? Strip it to the bare bones and the RBS 6 Nations hardly stands comparison with all those globetrotting, multi-continent, multi-million dollar circuses that dominate the sporting world these days. Same old teams, same old venues, and then it is over before you know it.

Yet if you could bottle up the magic of the Six Nations you would be trampled in the rush of promoters who wanted to get their hands on the stuff. Nothing much changes from one year to the next - even the coaches and captains are the same as last year - but it is still the envy of the sporting world. Fancy a ticket for the England-Wales clash on March 9? The cheapest on Viagogo at the moment is £499.99.

But would that be your first choice anyway? What about Ireland-Wales the weekend after next? What would you pay to hear the Aviva Stadium crowd tell Wales coach Warren Gatland what they thought of his treatment of Brian O'Driscoll on the Lions tour last year?

Or how about France-England in Paris on the opening Saturday? "We start with the rosbifs," smiled France coach Philippe Saint-Andre last week. "Straight into the main course."

It has been said that the success of the Six Nations depends on its place on the calendar, that it takes place when there is nothing much else going on. Maybe there is a bit of truth in the argument - but only a bit. Play it in August and punters would still be gripped by it all.

Actually, the Murrayfield groundstaff might be open to that idea as well. Just about the last thing their worm-infested pitch needs right now is a bunch of rugby players churning it up again. Scotland coach Scott Johnson shrugged off the matter a few days ago - "The pitch will not be an issue," he said. "It will be the best rugby team that wins." - but just wait for the outcry that erupts if England have to play there on a wet day and the surface is falling to pieces beneath them.

In fairness to Johnson, the pitch probably is the least of his worries right now. Of far more concern is the problem of getting what looks like a decent pack and a decent backline to come together as a decent rugby team. Or, to put it another way, to figure out who the best option at fly-half might be, and then give the player in question an extended run in the position. Ruaridh Jackson had something close to that last year, starting six of Scotland's 12 Tests. However, the fact that Greig Laidlaw, in a scrum-half berth where the depth of talent is arguably greater, started all 11 is a pretty sure indication that Johnson is still uncomfortable with his playmaking options. It is also, of course, a good indication of Laidlaw's quality as a goal-kicker; without that attribute to his game the contest with Chris Cusiter for the No 9 shirt would be a great deal closer.

Johnson has been banging on about consistency lately. In this context, it is no more than a fancy term for not screwing things up. With the exception of their silly loss to Samoa in Durban last June, when they were hopelessly short of match practice, and their feeble November showing against South Africa, Scotland produced decent passages of play in almost every game they played last year, but they let themselves down with errors in key positions and at key times.

As the Six Nations is a sprint rather than a marathon, it is vital to start fast. Well, in theory it is. In recent years, Scotland have been rather less than explosive out of the blocks. The last time they won their opening game was eight years ago, a 20-16 victory over France at Murrayfield. The last time they started their campaign with an away win was in 1998, when they beat Ireland 17-16 at Lansdowne Road.

Back then, of course, Ireland were officially hopeless. But back then they had yet to unveil O'Driscoll, the player who would become the driving force behind their transformation over the next decade, establishing himself as the finest player in the northern hemisphere along the way. As O'Driscoll goes into his final Six Nations, it would be rash to underestimate the emotional power his swansong season will provoke.

Ireland have more than that, though. Nobody who was in Thomond Park a week ago to see Munster blitz Edinburgh out of Europe could fall into the trap of thinking they lack depth. Yes, one or two of them are getting long in the tooth, and they lacked consistency last year, but they finished 2013 with that remarkable performance against New Zealand in which they took the world champions to the wire. Under Joe Schmidt, they have also taught modern rugby what it is to be clever at the breakdown - an area where Scotland can be alarmingy hot and cold at times.

It is Wales, though, who are the team of the moment, going for an astonishing third consecutive title. Their domestic rugby is in crisis and half their team have signed up for French lessons recently, but they are the force of the age. Against that, they are missing some key figures and there are doubts over the fitness of Sam Warburton. When everything works out well for Wales - as it did in their crushing 30-3 defeat of England on the tournament's final day last year - then they are unstoppable, but there is something suspiciously fragile about them as well. Perhaps Gatland's greatest achievement with Wales has been to keep their self-destructive traits under wraps.

England set the expectation bar pretty high last season by beating New Zealand in their final match of 2012. As it happens, their 2013 autumn campaign was probably more convincing, but the fact it ended with a loss to the All Blacks has persuaded some of their more excitable cheerleaders to curb their enthusiasm this time round. As ever, England look mightily impressive up front, but the astute Saint-Andre will have noticed their lack of firepower in the wider channels, the flakiness of their midfield and their helpful habit of giving out gifts in defence.

Saint-Andre will also have noticed that his own side were close to useless last year. Surely they cannot be so bad again? Then again, maybe they can, as they come into the championship with no momentum and no buzz of excitement around any new players in the squad. Staggeringly, Saint Andre has named just nine backs in his 23-man squad to play England, so the indications are that he is looking to take on the English up front.

Italy will not relish the prospect of starting the tournament in Cardiff next weekend. They did wonderfully well to beat France and Ireland last season, but they have been wretched since - as have their club sides. They go in without Andrea Masi and Gonzalo Canale, their two best backs, so they will require dynamism as well as brute force to hold their own. Then again, they tend to be optimistic when they know they will be meeting Scotland in Rome, so maybe things aren't so bad for them after all.

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