Like an increasingly ratty teacher during the big snow, the more time we spend going through the names that are missing from the register at the dawn of 2011 Six Nations, the harder it is to find much to get enthused about. Bad enough that we're going to be stuck with a competition that annually congratulates itself anew without even being the most attractive tournament in the northern hemisphere but as we arrive into it, it seems as though we're losing top players from each country with every passing day. At this rate, the games won't start with a referee's whistle but rather the blare of an ambulance siren.
Let's do a quick tot before we go anywhere. Ireland will start next Saturday without Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery, Marcus Horan, Geordan Murphy, and possibly Rory Best and Stephen Ferris too. England will have to do without Courtney Lawes, Lewis Moody and Tom Croft through injury and Delon Armitage and Dave Attwood through suspension.
Wales can't call on Tom Shanklin, Adam Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Andrew Bishop, Richie Rees or George North. Scotland will be without Phil Godman, Graeme Morrison and Chris Cusiter and France will be short Dimitri Szarzewski and Fabien Barcella. The loss Mauro Bergamasco, Craig Gower and, in all likelihood, Sergio Parisse will lay Italy low as well.
Phew. That's close to two dozen frontline players missing, some just for the opening matches, some for the duration. You're looking at a situation where close to a quarter of the first-choice players in the tournament won't be suiting up next weekend. Maybe it's just a one-time thing and this is circumstantial evidence from too small a sample size to prove anything conclusively but the feeling that the players are getting too big and the game too turbo-charged is hard to shake.
"The game has become harder, more physical and more demanding," Brian O'Driscoll said at the tournament launch on Wednesday. "If you asked 100 players in the Six Nations how many of them were 100-per-cent fit, 99 would say they had some niggle and the other person would be a liar. It's impossible to go out 100-per-cent fit these days because of the physicality, both at provincial and international level."
Ireland's hopes of a second championship in three years aren't slim but they're not exactly bubbling over either. Declan Kidney will patch together a side and will spend the coming week talking about how an injury list like this "gives all the other fellas a chance" but the reality is he'll be going into the tournament without a full-back, with a newbie tighthead prop and a back three that will never have lined out together before no matter who is picked. As we've seen, the other countries have their problems as well but they also have bigger playing populations. Whether Ireland can lower the bucket this far into the well and still come up with enough water to do the job required is going to be the theme of the month.
For now, let's accentuate the positive. Heaslip's loss is a serious one but it hasn't caused Leinster to falter since Christmas thanks in the main to the ever forward-bounding Seán O'Brien. That newbie tighthead will be Mike Ross, an overnight success after all these years who'll surely make his Six Nations bow at the age of 31. Paul O'Connell must be the freshest player in world rugby just now after spending so long out last year and Jonny Sexton is maturing before our eyes with every game, so much so that he goes into the championship as the form out-half in Europe. Throw in England and France at home as well as an opener in Rome and the building blocks are there for a successful campaign.
Oh yeah, and O'Driscoll is still playing. Nearly forgot about him. You can still get 8-1 in some places on him being the top Irish try-scorer in the competition. With Bowe out, with Luke Fitzgerald still fighting to get back to full fitness and Keith Earls possibly being shunted to full-back, Ireland could find themselves short of finishers from time to time. If anyone's going to take responsibility, it will be the captain.
Realistically, Ireland will probably come up just that little bit short. Even allowing for the hames France made of the November internationals and the Lievremontian chaos that seems to drag them into crisis at every turn, the defending champions are still just about deserved favourites. Their back-row old firm of Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy is as formidable as ever and with Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc at half-back, they won't lack for class.
Maybe Marc Lievremont will find a way to quixotically mess the whole thing up for them, however. Do it Domenech-style, if you like. If that happens, England will be waiting in the wings. As ever, they're possibly not quite as promising as side as they'll be made out to be over the coming week and the loss of Armitage, Lawes and especially Croft and Moody won't be easily borne (albeit that Moody could make it back sooner rather than later).
But the energy and wit that there was about them in November was hard to ignore and their wheel looks to be turning again. Yes, they'll be talked up and no, they won't deserve every last word of it but there's more substance to them now than at any time since their World Cup win eight years ago. Their wheel looks to be starting to turn.
As for the rest, it's hard to see Wales overcoming an injury crisis that genuinely is worse than Ireland's and you wouldn't put it past the Scots to leapfrog them over the course of the championship. Treviso's progress in the Magners League will bring the Italians forward in time but you still can't imagine much for them here beyond their usual one shock win.
Gun to the head, there's just too much cliff and not enough rope for Ireland this time around. And the French are probably too flighty, even for the French. Which leaves us with England, dear old Jonno's England, as champions.
There. Said it.
Head coach Declan Kidney
Captain Brian O'Driscoll
Last season Second
Recent form beat Argentina 29–9; lost to New Zealand 18-38; beat Samoa 20-10
Prospects For the first time in a long time, they go into the tournament with a red cross on the side of the bus. When they won the Grand Slam two years ago, they needed every last thing to go right – and even then the margin was slim in the end. This time around, carrying a trailer-load of injuries, you couldn't nail their colours to your mast with much confidence. Still, with England and France at the Aviva, the title is certainly possible. Just not probable.
Player to watch Seán O'Brien
Unquestionably the break-out star of the Irish rugby winter, it's still unclear where his ceiling lies. Any doubts over whether Kidney would start him from the first gun disappeared with the injuries to Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris but he still has old dogs to face with every new trick he brings. Attacks space instead of players and has been going through a prodigious try-scoring phase lately too. His versatility across the back-row will guarantee him face-time in every match.
Head coach Martin Johnson
Captain Lewis Moody
Last season Third
Recent form lost to South Africa 11-21; beat Samoa 26-13; beat Australia 35-18
Prospects No championship since 2003, their longest barren spell since the 1980s. And yet, they arguably go into this Six Nations in the best spirits of anyone after a stirring November series. Still short in some areas, especially if Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft are injured for long. But the development of Ben Youngs at scrum-half has invigorated them and finally settled Martin Johnson's team. Win in Cardiff on Friday and they'll have momentum. Throw in France at home and they look dangerous.
Player to watch Chris Ashton
Took his time to figure out the whys and whats of the union code when he crossed over from league side Wigan to Northampton in 2007 but as his electrifying try against Australia at Twickenham in November showed, he's come to terms with most of it by now. A dynamic runner with uncanny ability to offload out of the tackle, he fits well into England's quick-thinking running style. Will need to be watched, regardless of the thigh injury he carries into the championship.
Head coach Marc Lievremont
Captain Thierry Dusautoir
Last season First
Recent form lost to Australia 16-59; beat Argentina 15-9; beat Fiji 34-12
Prospects Since beating England to clinch the Grand Slam, Marc Lievremont's side have shipped 40 points in three of their last five matches. In response, the French coach has gone back to the tried and tested, recalling experienced campaigners Sylvain Marconnet, Vincent Clerc and Clement Poitrenaud and welcoming back out-half Francois Trinh-Duc from injury. The pack will be as strong as ever but with three away matches, France will have to be at their best to retain their title.
Player to watch Clement Poitrenaud
Poitrenaud returns after inexplicably being left out for the November tests, during which France managed only four tries. He was solid at full-back in last year's Six Nations and crossed in the 33-10 victory over Ireland in Paris. But with Mathieu Bastareaud now out of favour and both Damien Traille and Maxime Medard offering alternatives at 15, some observers feel Poitrenaud is France's best option at outside-centre, where he has excelled for his club this season.
Head coach Nick Mallet
Captain Sergio Parisse
Last season Last
Recent form beat Fiji 24-16; lost to Australia 14-32; lost to Argentina 16-22
Prospects Took the wooden spoon last year but beat Scotland and gave England a real scare in Rome. November was a mixed bag in three matches played in the north of Italy but they'll be targeting strong performances when Ireland, Wales and France visit the capital. Sergio Parisse is in doubt after missing last year's tournament but fellow back-row forward Mauro Bergamasco misses out along with Australian-born out-half Craig Gower. As usual, they'll be strong up front but they need to be more potent in attack.
Player to watch Edoardi Gori
Nick Mallet admitted that it was a risk handing Gori his debut against Australia in November in what has been a problem position for Italy, particularly as he had played very little first-team rugby in the previous year. But the 20-year-old impressed enough to keep the number nine jersey for the win over Fiji. Considered a quickly-maturing player who reads the game well, he's tipped to start against Ireland despite not being a regular for his club.
Head coach Andy Robinson
Captain Alastair Kellock
Last season Fifth
Recent form beat Samoa 19-16; beat South Africa 21-17; lost to New Zealand 3-49
Prospects Not as downbeat as in other years and may well finish above Wales as well as Italy. Hold the whip hand over most opponents in one area, since they can boast a settled front-row. But doubts abound throughout the side, with their vaunted back-row struggling for form and fitness. Robinson says they'll try to bring chaos but unless they translate it into tries – they've been lowest try-scorers in eight of the last 11 tournaments – they'll go nowhere.
Player to watch Alastair Kellock
Scotland's fifth captain in five seasons has plenty on his hands, apart from leading the team out – which is only on a game-by-game basis anyway. His return from knee surgery last summer was stuttering at first but he was one of the brighter points of Glasgow's European run, which included an impressive win over Wasps. Scotland need a huge start in Paris and Kellock – outstanding in Glasgow's away win over Toulouse in 2009 – will have no fear of the French.
Head coach Warren Gatland
Captain Matthew Rees
Last season Fourth
Recent form lost to New Zealand 37-25; drew with Fiji 16-16; lost to South Africa 29-25
Prospects Pretty bad. Not only are they a team with only two workaday wins in 12 games since this time last year, they're crippled with injuries. Still capable of dazzling stuff on their day and as Gatland pointed out on Thursday, "Welsh players are very much about confidence." Friday night against England will tell a lot in that respect. There's no getting away though from the fact that heading into a Six Nations with a decimated front-row and a hobbling back line is a major problem.
Player to watch Jonathan Davies
With the shooting star of their November matches George North and old warhorse Tom Shanklin both sidelined through injury, Wales look to Davies for the shot of youth their occasionally stale backline needs. Gatland is putting a fair amount of stock in his burgeoning partnership with Jamie Roberts, the thinking being that he will be a more subtle foil to the burly Roberts in time. Not long back from injury himself, the English-born centre will see a lot of the ball and a lot of expectation to go with it.