Brian Ashton shares his thoughts on Round 1 of the Championship!
"Playing international rugby successfully takes special people, you are looking for special qualities"
The 2018 NatWest 6 Nations is certainly going to be fascinating - and I think it will be the closest one we have seen for a long time.
As an Englishman, I hope they can make history with a third Championship in a row - but as an impartial observer I think they might find it difficult this year. Certainly I find it hard to see a Grand Slam this year for any team.
All the signs point to England and Ireland, on paper certainly, being the two strongest sides and a decider at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day.
But Scotland could upset the applecart, with England coming to BT Murrayfield, you can be sure they are looking forward to that.
But you cannot take out of the equation the Eddie Jones factor, he has got a 90+ percent success rate in two years in charge - which in any sporting organisation, at any level, is quite remarkable.
He has obviously stamped the winning mentality on this England side because no-one would claim they played particularly well in the autumn but they still won all three games.
But the NatWest 6 Nations is different, they won't be able to play five games not well and win them all.
This really could be the game of the Championship.
It's a massively important game for both teams, but I would say more so for Wales.
Scotland are on a bit of a roll, they were the go-to team to watch in the autumn internationals with their all-court, all-action rugby.
But there is also the fact that Wales too, like Scotland, were starting to play a more dynamic game.
Both sides have got injuries. Wales have more than anyone else I think but Scotland's are all focused on one place - the front row.
And that is not what they need, because if they want to play the sort of attacking rugby of last autumn then they will need their forwards to win quality ball.
If the Welsh kicking game is poor, Stuart Hogg and his men will counter-attack, willingly.
So that will be a lot of pressure on a young guy like Rhys Patchell at fly-half. If his Welsh pack are denying Scotland quality set-piece ball then they do not want to kick poorly and gift it to the Scots to run back, because they will.
Scotland have got some really smart players in that backline, as good as anybody across the NatWest 6 Nations when you look at Hogg, Finn Russell and Huw Jones. They can make something out of nothing.
Meanwhile, Warren Gatland has named ten Scarlets in his starting XV which I find very interesting.
Whether that is a statement of intent or down to injuries I could not say. But the Scarlets have been in rip-roaring form, especially in Europe.
But I know from personal experience with England that translating club form to the international arena is not necessarily a given. It is a totally different game with totally different pressures.
Playing international rugby successfully takes special people, you are looking for special qualities outside of the fact that they all play their club rugby together.
But Warren thinks that these ten guys are worthy so it will be absolutely fascinating to see how they go.
Scotland have a terrible record in Wales, and for that reason alone I am going for them. I like to be different and I suppose it has to come to an end eventually, this year is as good as any!
I was involved in the Championship over 23 years, and I can tell you now that I am still absolutely petrified to back against France, in Paris!
Ireland will not find it easy there, not easy at all.
It might look good on paper to get France - under a new head coach in Jacques Brunel - right at the start.
But I would argue with the French team that the less time they spend with their coach, the better they play.
Certainly in the past, the less organised they were, the more dangerous. They have always been absolutely superb at playing chaos rugby.
But it was part of their DNA in the past, and that might have been taken away.
What impact will Brunel have? Who knows? But we need a firing French team, it has been far too long since we saw that hard-hitting, offloading, big rumbustious forwards and the free-running backs we associate with France teams of old.
Now we have to class them as sleeping giants. And some day they are going to explode again. But I just don't see it at the moment.
Ireland are a fascinating side, compared to everyone else they are in pretty good nick injury-wise because they manage the players exceptionally well.
They are a very disciplined and well-organised side, too organised in my book.
Don't get me wrong, they have been pretty successful! If that's the way they want to do it, who am I to argue?
They will beat France this weekend. But I just feel there is something a little bit extra missing, and it will need something a bit extra to win the Championship or if they want to go deep in the World Cup next year.
Italy is always a tricky place to go to these days. Very few teams lose there, but someone always seems to.
In the Championship you always know there is going to be an unexpected result along the way - you just pray that it wasn't going to be your team.
I cannot see England losing to Italy, but I can see it being a tricky fixture.
I am not convinced that Italy still have a side that can last 80 minutes-plus at international level.
I don't think they have the all-round firepower to score the requisite number of tries and I still think, from the outside looking in, that there is a reliance on Sergio Parisse to make things happen.
This guy is not getting any younger, he has been the most remarkable rugby player and probably still is, but as each year passes by they really need to be looking elsewhere to find his replacement.
But having said all that, under Conor O'Shea, with Mike Catt and Brendan Venter, they will come up with something different. You can be sure of that.
Whether that will be sufficient to fool a side for 80 minutes, it's highly unlikely, but it could be a tricky fixture.
England still to win though. The talk is about their injuries, but it doesn't seem to be an issue in camp. They are thinking about it as an opportunity for other people to put their hands up and state a case for next year's World Cup.
Natwest 6 Nations calendar
- 03.02.2018 - 04.02.2018 Round 1
- 10.02.2018 - 11.02.2018 Round 2
- 23.02.2018 - 24.02.2018 Round 3
- 10.03.2018 - 11.03.2018 Round 4
- 17.03.2018 - 17.03.2018 Round 5