Tony Ward: Forget the post-Lions mumbo jumbo, France are not real title contenders
Les Bleus have won last four championships following Lions tours, but English chariot can bring streak to shuddering halt
It is somewhat ironic that, in a post-Lions year being highlighted ad nauseam as the precursor to another French Six Nations success, the perennial favourites are struggling under Philippe Saint-Andre to get their winning act together.
For the record, recent history – specifically in 2002, 2006 and 2010 – suggests the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown is France-bound for 2014. Indeed, even before the Five Nations became six, when the Italians were busy making their case for inclusion, the title post-South Africa 1997 went to the French too.
In fact, not since 1994, when the Welsh took the championship (following New Zealand '93) has a 'home nation' succeeded in taking the title in a post-Lions year.
The theory is, of course, that the 'Home Nations' players (the Celtic three and England) are worn out upon their return from the southern hemisphere some six or seven months previously and are therefore unable to launch a meaningful Six Nations assault – leaving the fresh French to waltz home at the end of every four-year cycle.
Who invents this stuff? It is coincidence, nothing more. A bit like Tottenham being expected to take the FA Cup back to north London in a calendar year ending in one. Pure fantasy.
Well, if ever French winning resolve and that piece of Six Nations mumbo jumbo is set to be tested, then this is the year. On the back of a Wooden Spoon finish in 2013, allied to a disappointing autumn series – a year in which Saint Andre's ever-changing side recorded only two wins, over Scotland and Tonga – the only way is up in 2014.
Can they – led by Pascal Pape – win the title (for which they should be a racing certainty given the year that's in it)? Of course they can. Given playing resources that run deep, the French should always be there or thereabouts.
Quite apart from issues of temperament (as in which French team will turn up) there is the much more pressing problem of club v country.
We may be on the outside looking in, but one thing we can be certain of is that when it comes to the rugby affairs of the French nation, clubs and country operate off a different hymn-sheet entirely.
Imposing a structure is logistically impossible, given the time constraints and lack of commitment from the clubs, and while not wishing to sound overly simplistic, when a French coach lets the most natural running rugby players on the planet off the leash to play the opposition in the way they do better than any other, then watch out world.
Again this year, no one knows what French squad will turn up for Six Nations duty.
So, what can we expect in the coming weeks?
In theory, Warren Gatland's Wales are the team everyone has to beat, as the principality chase a record-setting third Six Nations title on the bounce.
They start as favourites to complete what would be an exceptional achievement, but, with trips to Dublin and south-west London, it is one hell of an ask.
Like him or loathe him, what the former Ireland coach has done with Wales has been remarkable, given the ongoing absence of any winning platform at regional level.
England – my own tip for outright success, despite Stuart Lancaster selecting from a squad low on experience – also have an extremely difficult start with trips to Paris and Edinburgh to set the chariot challenge under way.
The big question being asked of Ireland – although I would like to think answered through Heineken Cup form – is what impact that New Zealand defeat back in November, when winning at last seemed all but assured, will have.
Sean O'Brien's loss is massive, but they will adapt and, in Joe Schmidt, have the right man in the right position at the right time.
The Scots will be as competitive as ever, but until Vern Cotter – Schmidt's partner in establishing Clermont Auvergne as the force they now are – comes on board as national coach in June, it looks like a sticking plaster job again this year, with any finish above fifth a move in the right direction.
The Italians, sadly, will most likely finish last. Yes they have added Ireland and France to their credible list of victims over the past two seasons, but 11 wins in the 14 years of matches to date tells its own sad tale. They will huff and puff but ultimately finish last.
The key to success in this tournament, above most others, is momentum. To that end, the Welsh and Irish, with home comforts against the Italians and Scots respectively, should pitch up at the Aviva Stadium in round two for a 'winner takes the momentum' head-to-head. The winner of 'Le Crunch' (in Paris on the opening day) should arrive at round three in pole position.
England have the most difficult journey to that point, but, with home advantage against Ireland and Wales to follow, before heading to Rome in search of possible title success on the last day, this could well be their year.
Each weekend of the five there is one key game, but on Friday, February 21 Wales host France in Cardiff, and then, less than 24 hours later at Twickenham, England and Ireland go head-to-head. In that 20-hour period, the outcome to this Six Nations Championship could be decided.
Should the French defy all pre-tournament logic, and prolong that post-Lions streak, we will acknowledge the achievement for what it is, but to silence those pedalling the myth – indeed, for that reason alone – we hope it is anyone but the French celebrating come March 15.
To that end, weighing up form and fixture scheduling we are looking to England, Wales, Ireland, France, Scotland and Italy to finish in that order.