It's that time of year again. Spring is in the air and as we come up for air after our European endeavours over the past couple of weekends, our horizons are dominated by the sporting festival that is the Six Nations.
The challenge for Declan Kidney and his adjusted management team is to successfully transfer the provincial positivity into the national team and ensure the variety of talents spread across the country's provinces gel effectively and productively in the international arena. Never before have we had three representatives in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and it's fair to say that the coach is under pressure to mould their disparate parts into a winning combination.
It's easy enough I suppose to arrive at a comfortable conclusion on the back of recent events that the championship is ours for the taking. To do so however, attractive as it may be, would be facile in the extreme.
France and Wales too have serious ambitions for a tournament finale showdown in Cardiff on St Patrick's Day, although England and ourselves will be intent on their game at Twickenham later that evening being the decider.
The English, under caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster in the aftermath of their World Cup debacle, will be delighted to get any kind of an early win. Failure to do this could generate unbearable pressure; the corollary also applies, however, and an early win will be a massive boost and provide crucial early momentum. They start with successive away games in Edinburgh and Italy and could just as easily face into their first home game against Wales in round three with two wins in the bag as with two losses.
France, whose new coach Philippe Saint-Andre has at least been given some form of job security, will always be the ones to beat. Given their pool of players, this is especially so in a post-World Cup setting. Regardless of the many attributes he brings to the job, the very absence Marc Lievremont will be enough to send the French into battle in high spirits and it's the bad luck of the Italians that theirs is the task of testing France in Paris in the opening game. They've the good fortune too of successive home games to open their campaign and will be in fine fettle when Ireland come calling in round two.
Having been presented with their biggest challenge in the opening round, Italy will see their second game, at home to England, as a huge opportunity.
Scotland, despite their great tradition in the competition, will continue their efforts to emerge from the doldrums. Remarkably, their dearth of playing resources is almost on a par with that of the Italians and Andy Robinson, similar to Kidney, will be hoping to build on the improved performances of Edinburgh, in particular, and Glasgow. Nothing fans the Scottish fire quite like their home Calcutta Cup game and this year it is their opener. In the circumstances, it could well provide a launching pad for an overdue emergence from the gloom of recent seasons.
With the carrot of that potential Cardiff play-off on St Patrick's Day, Wales' away games with Ireland and England will make or break the momentum they'll need to take on the French.
With every possible respect to whoever his replacement may be, Brian O'Driscoll will be missed by Ireland. The magnificent recent form with Munster of his successor as captain Paul O'Connell will provide a firm foundation but Kidney's entire repertoire of psychological and man-management skills will be required in the run-in to ensure that the entire squad is in optimum fettle for the Welsh. A reversal of the World Cup quarter-final result will open the campaign to all kinds of possibilities, even an overdue win in Paris the following week. But defeat would leave the remaining home games with Italy and Scotland as their only likely points opportunities.
Such are the fine margins in this grand old tournament. Let the games begin.
Sunday Indo Sport