NARROW margins. If you got a fiver for every time some pundit uses the phrase over the next few weeks, your bank balance would swell by . . . . Well, quite a large margin.

The critical consensus behind the cliche is that in this year’s Six Nations Championship there is very little to choose between the leading teams. That, as former Scotland forward John Jeffrey put it in these pages earlier this week, five of the six teams are genuine contenders for the title. A ball dropped at a crucial moment in a match, nerve held at another point - such minor incidents are likely to have a major bearing on the outcome of the tournament.

In 2021 the destination of the title was only decided in the final game, when France would have been crowned champions if they had beaten Scotland by at least 21 points and with a try bonus point. They lost, and Wales took the honour instead.

It was by no means a great Welsh side - perhaps not even as impressive as the one that won a Grand Slam two years previously, never mind the legendary teams of the 1970s. But momentum was gathered in a five-point win over Ireland in round one, then grew again with a one-point victory at Murrayfield six days later. More substantial wins followed over England and Italy before France denied the Welsh an improbable Grand Slam, but in the event those four wins plus a losing bonus in Paris were enough to clinch the title.

A year on, Wayne Pivac’s squad know they have what it takes to be champions, and a Wales team who have minimised self-doubt are always dangerous. Yet while the Welsh were worthy winners in 2021, much of the best rugby was played by France, albeit inconsistently as we saw in that last game against Scotland. 

This French team certainly has the ability to win the Championship, and a year on they are older, wiser, and more solidly professional than they were in the last campaign. Their best player, scrum-half Antoine Dupont, has only played once in the past six weeks, having contracted Covid after a few weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury. But, with Italy first up, they should still have more than enough firepower to get off to a winning start before turning their attention to another home game, against Ireland, in round two.

So is this France’s tournament to lose? That might be over-simplifying matters, given how close the teams are in ability. So let’s just say that if all the sides play to their best, Fabien Galthie’s squad - that little bit smarter and sharper than the rest - should end up on top.

Ireland have won three titles in the last decade, including a Grand Slam in 2018, and have consistently confounded those detractors who have claimed they are no longer the force they were. Third last year with three wins and two defeats - the same as France and Scotland - they recovered well from initial losses to Wales and France. And, judging by an Autumn Nations Series in which they beat the All Blacks as well as Japan and Argentina, they remain as fiercely competitive as ever.

It was a statistical quirk that saw Scotland finish fourth after winning three of their games, and despite the disappointing final table, Gregor Townsend’s team were able to look back on the campaign with a fair degree of satisfaction. They won at Twickenham for the first time since 1983, enjoyed a first Six Nations win in Paris, and put Italy to the sword at BT Murrayfield with a commanding display of attacking rugby in which Stuart Hogg ran the show from the unfamiliar position of stand-off. 

To a greater extent than any of their rivals, Scotland fell on the wrong side of those aforementioned narrow margins, losing to Wales by a single point and to Ireland by three. So they know that with just a little more consistency this time round they can claim a first-ever Six Nations title, and what is more they know they have the depth of squad needed to keep up that consistency.

It should be noted that those two away wins, fine though they were, took place at grounds where there were no supporters because of the pandemic. But by the same token it is reasonable to suggest that the Ireland and Wales games would have turned out differently if BT Murrayfield had been packed. And whatever your hypothetical bent, the fact remains that Scotland have yet to prove they are good enough to become champions.   

England began last year’s tournament with high hopes only to end it in the unusually lowly position of fifth. Their high point was a narrow win at home to France, but that apart it was a tournament to forget for Eddie Jones’s side. They can do better this year - a lot better - and given the wealth of talent available to the head coach you would expect them to be in contention right up until the final game in Paris.

By contrast, little or nothing is expected of Italy other than a seventh successive Wooden Spoon. They have not won a game in the competition since 2015, and last year conceded an average of close to 50 points per match. Cutting down on the scale of their losses will be the priority for them - although, as ever, they will be targeting their home game against Scotland as their best chance to end that dismal losing run.