France meet Italy seeking revenge for the biggest shock in tournament history; Scotland take on England in the oldest international fixture in the world; and Ireland welcome Wales for a rematch of the best match at last year's World Cup.

Just a routine start to the RBS 6 Nations Championship, then.

It remains the sport's greatest annual competition in spite of the huge challenge to that status being mounted by the Heineken Cup. Where the world's top provincial/club competition is more exciting for the rugby devotee with its diversity and complexity at a near international level of competition, the Six Nations transcends rugby, demanding the attention of the wider audience that normally requires Olympic medals or World Cups to be at stake before becoming engaged.

To place that in perspective, while close to 150,000 spectators attended the fascinating final round of Heineken Cup matches this season, a dozen ties in all, more than 200,000 will attend the Stade de France, Murrayfield and the Aviva Stadium this weekend as the Six Nations gets under way.

In some ways the Six Nations is not what it was, partly because of the way fixtures are now spread across the weekend – which is excellent for TV viewers, but not for travelling spectators – but also because of the condensed nature of the schedule and the overall increase in Test match activity.

In the seventies and eighties we had to wait a minimum of two weeks between matches and, with an odd number of teams, more often than not there would be a month-long break between matches, allowing tension to mount and also ensuring that each was seen as a special encounter in its own right. There would be two away trips every year, again separated by at least a month, and often six weeks.

Now, the first and last two fixtures are played in batches with teams sometimes having just six days in between. This season, not for the first time, Scottish supporters must either dig deep or choose between two of the most attractive trips just a week apart as the Dublin jig on the penultimate weekend is followed by the pilgrimage to Rome.

Since last year's Six Nations Scotland have played Ireland and Italy in World Cup warm-up matches and England during that tournament; Ireland have played France home and away and England in further warm-up matches, as well as Italy and Wales during the tournament; France met England and Wales in the knockout stages on their way to the World Cup final; and England and Wales have met one another in home-and-away World Cup warm-ups.

A dozen fixtures in all is not that far off another full set of Six Nations matches having taken place since last year's tournament, yet it is all very different under championship conditions.

That was perhaps best demonstrated in the 2003/04 season when England entered the tournament as champions of the world and finished it as the third-best team in Europe. Neither did that present a misleading impression since, with the peerless Martin Johnson having retired in between times, it was a very different England that took the field in the championship, as recognised by Clive Woodward who saw his chance to blame the English clubs for their fall from grace and promptly did a runner, leaving Andy Robinson to try to pick up the pieces.

The corollary of that came in 2008 when Wales, having failed to qualify from their World Cup pool a few months earlier, brought in a new coach in Warren Gatland and claimed a Six Nations grand slam.

That capacity to surprise remains, then, while the advent of professionalism has not been all bad news for this great competition. The introduction of official world rankings in the past decade has, for example, added a significance to matches that goes beyond the dread of wooden spoon avoidance, or pride.

Then again, it has made no difference to the already maximised intensity when teams are pursuing or seeking to prevent championship wins, triple crowns or grand slams, not to mention the Calcutta Cup, played for in the world's oldest international fixture which, unusually this season, takes place in the first round of matches.

It is an opening weekend which should be predictable in that last season's top three meet the bottom three, yet it is a series of fixtures which offers a string of reminders of how difficult it is to know what will happen in this tournament.

France, after all, lost to Italy for the first time last season, England have not won at Murrayfield for eight years and Wales have twice beaten Ireland in the past year, underlining just how little favouritism means in the RBS 6 Nations championship. Another wonderful two months of intense, shocking and possibly even stylish rugby gets under way on Saturday.