LAST FIVE YEARS: 4th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd
JOB SECURITY (1 to 5 stars).
MARTIN JOHNSON **
It is only the reputation of the man as a captain and player that has saved Johnson from the chop as he lurches from one crisis to the next. He is the manager most in danger of losing his job.
The 2003 World Cup-winning captain is at risk of leaving the legacy of a ludite as he persists with the pedestrian style of play that was, at times, the definition of the England of his time.
He has ignored the quick promotion of exciting young players, who can only improve with game time, in favour of the retention of the tried and trusted. His captain, Steve Borthwick, is a case in point.
THE MISSING LINK: Nick Kennedy -- The London Irish man guarantees lineout ball at a time in the game when possession is nine-tenths of the law, especially with Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half.
LAST FIVE YEARS: 2nd, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 3rd
MARC LIEVREMONT ***
For a supposedly intolerant lot, the French public forgave Bernard Laporte time and time again for his re-occupation on defence, with a capital 'D'.
The former number eight Lievremont has dedicated himself to a return to the exquisite flair for which France are renowned. He is in the process of building what could be a special squad.
France's problem is following one sublime performance with a ridiculous one. If he finds the key to consistency -- he has made a great start by picking Toulouse's Thierry Dusautoir as his captain -- the sky is the limit.
THE MISSING LINK: Fabien Barcella -- The Biarritz loosehead has exploded onto the international stage to be rated the best in the world in his rookie year. He could be back before the end of the campaign.
LAST FIVE YEARS: 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 1st
DECLAN KIDNEY *****
The master of Irish psychology has moved seamlessly from club to international rugby. Like Clint Eastwood, as Dirty Harry, mutters in the film Magnum Force, "a man's got to know his limitation". Kidney does.
There is a danger that the only direction the current International Rugby Board Coach of the Year can go is downhill. He has set a standard that is going to be difficult to maintain. He will alter the game plan by moving away from the incessant Munster pick-and-jam, as witnessed against South Africa in November, towards a more rounded approach to piercing defences.
THE MISSING LINK: Luke Fitzgerald -- The cub came of age as a Lion in South Africa last summer. His evasive skills, speed off the mark and steely defence will be sorely missed.
LAST FIVE YEARS: 6th, 6th, 4th, 6th, 6th.
NICK MALLETT ***
The clever South African has set the bar lower than a snake's belly in his pre-tournament comments.
The word talisman was invented for a player of Sergio Parisse's stature as the heartbeat to what amounts to a third-world rugby country, one that cannot drum up the financial clout for their two best clubs to enter the Magners League.
With low expectations comes security of tenure for Mallett, unless his players succumb to the inevitability of their ranking. It is their destiny to finish sixth. It is their responsibility to make the others battle all the way.
THE MISSING LINK: Sergio Parisse -- The man many regard as the best number eight in the world has been ruled out of the tournament by a knee injury. It is a blow that is bound to affect Italy.
LAST FIVE YEARS: 5th, 3rd, 6th, 5th, 5th.
ANDY ROBINSON ****
The former blindside must be the most popular Englishman in Scotland. He orchestrated the first win over Australia in 28 years in November. It was achieved on the back of a demonic defensive display, a sure sign that the players have bought into the ex-Edinburgh coach's systems.
It can be a dangerous thing to raise expectations in Scotland. What will happen when their total commitment is matched? Will they have the skills to make a difference? This is very doubtful.
THE MISSING LINK: Mike Blair -- The Edinburgh scrum-half was odds-on to be the Lions scrum-half this time last year. He is world-class at his best. An ankle injury has forced him out of the squad, leaving Chris Cusiter to wear the number nine jersey.
LAST FIVE YEARS: 1st, 5th, 5th, 1st, 4th.
The Waikato wizard or whinger, depending on whether his pre-match observations turn into victory or defeat on the pitch, is prone to stoke the fires of controversy.
For the first time in his reign, there are doubts about his plans to take over the world of rugby. Like Kidney, he is more a front-man, an overseer of his assistants, Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley and Robyn McBride. There must be pressure to add more variety to their all-out attacking style of play by narrowing their focus in the forward exchanges. If they don't keep the fringes honest, defences will fan out and swarm all over their wide boys.
THE MISSING LINK: Gavin Henson -- The much-maligned Henson has left the game, possibly never to return at a time when he should be at his peak. Wales are poorer for his X-Factor skills, if not for his unstable personality.