Rugby is back, chugging into our lives like an elongated vehicle up a steep hill. The Six Nations – our yearly festival of European eggball, muddy shorts and bloodied foreheads – starts up again on Saturday (6 February) when France are visited by the persistently woeful Italians.
In any other year this would be exciting, but we can't help feeling that last autumn's World Cup has pumped our veins so thick with rugby that our red blood cells have rucked themselves to death, while our white ones have simply given up trying to figure out what a hooker actually does. It's no secret that most (if not all) the European nations failed to impress during the global tournament, with hosts England epitomising what can only be described as the northern hemisphere's fall from the top of the game.
And yet we are excited. Call us masochistic, but we find the prospect of watching general mediocrity smash itself to bits quite the nose-crinkler.
With this in mind, the Six Nations feels like European rugby's Toy Story 3 moment. They're old and battered. Everyone around them – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and especially Argentina – has grown up. People are wondering if it can possibly live up to what came before. We think it can – because while Toy Story 3 wasn't the freshest of the bunch, it provided enough new ideas to reinvigorate a stuttering franchise.
This is what we reckon this Six Nations is going to do for rugby. Don't watch it because you've seen it all before, watch it because it's never going to be so bloody unpredictable.
To drop a more sports-themed analogy, the Six Nations is like football's Premier League: anyone can beat anyone, with no side drastically better than any other. Italy, who are under pressure from Georgia for a place in the tournament, have something to actually play for, a first since they joined up in 2000. Italian rugby has been on a slow decline for a few years now, despite their fourth-place finish in 2013, and coach Jacques Brunel has responded by adding 10 uncapped players to his squad of 30. The stand out is 30-year-old South African-born Andries van Schalkwyk, who has been excellent for Zebre in the Guinness Pro12.
With the southern hemisphere really getting rugby right recently, this seems like a good call. Add to this the returning Biagi, Bisegni and Haimona and there are whispers that Italy are about to step it up. Their opening match against France will be a good place to start.
The one European nation with legitimate reason to believe that things are on the up is Scotland, whose quarter-final appearance in the World Cup was certainly more than they could have hoped for. In last year's Six Nations, Scotland got their hats, coats and asses handed to them in every single match. But the recovery is real: they played out the game of the World Cup in a 34-35 loss against Australia (where they were cruelly robbed of a semi place by a blatantly incorrect decision) and now can look forward to improving on a Six Nations record that is becoming increasingly comical. Their opening game is against none other than England, who are only one place above them in the world rankings. It would not be surprising if they flipped that soon.
Speaking of England, their new coach Eddie Jones made waves with Japan in the World Cup, guiding the Brave Blossoms to a famous victory over South Africa. But they also lost to Scotland, which sets up that match quite wonderfully. England were, of course, bloody awful at the World Cup, with Stuart Lancaster's side often looking like they'd been blindfolded and asked to play pin the tail on the donkey – when they were the donkey.
More worrying for England is that they seem to have overlooked the opportunity to renew themselves: only three uncapped players were picked in Jones's opening squad, with future stars like Eliot Daly left out altogether. The back row seems to be the focus point of Jones's restructuring, with a tight-end and a back-row both in the running to make their debuts. Supposedly, Jones – a pragmatic, straight thinker – doesn't want to send out the youth too soon, in case they get slaughtered. Which is all to say that, despite a terrible World Cup and a new man in charge, England may be the least interesting side in the whole thing. Jones was hired as England's first ever foreign coach for one reason alone: to get results. He's not here to babysit.
France on the other hand are an interesting case, with Guy Novés taking over the reigns after Les Blues's 62-13 quarter-final humiliation at the hands of New Zealand, the biggest ever humbling in the knockout stages. France are arguably in the worst state of all the sides in the tournament: the World Cup was an abysmal mixture of boring, slow rugby and underwhelming backs. Novés is no novice – he's been manager of Toulouse since 1993 and won 19 trophies, including four Heineken Cups. A famously arrogant man, he went on record saying he was unexcited about his Six Nations debut, which we're sure went down beautifully with his players. He also cleared up the rumour that he was Zorro and does not have a magic wand. Which is nice.
At 61 he is the elder statesman of the coaching world, but will be without experienced captain Thierry Dusautoi, who retired in the winter. He's dropped some stars and brought in some youth; mostly, however, he is determined to bring back an attacking France who, when in full flight, are the most attractive side to watch in world rugby. An attacking yet also pretty rubbish side (think Everton, football fans) would be even better.
Wales are also known for their beautiful brand of rygbi, though injuries totally ruined their bid to win the World Cup. By the time they beat England, for example, they were playing a third choice lock and also Warren Gatland's dog on the wing.
Less a wounded animal and more an entirely new beast, the Welsh are the favourites for the tournament – the only side that can legitimately be motivated by the cruelty of fate. Wales also have previous with this: the last two World Cups have resulted in the Welsh taking home the following Six Nations, like a bully who gets shamed in class and then trashes his room when he gets home.
All of this leaves Ireland, who are the holders and the dullest team in the tournament. Not that they don't play good rugby, but that they have nothing to prove – their World Cup was exciting and filled with potential, until Argentina came to town and shoved their South American nuance right down Ireland's quite surprised throat. That match – and the tournament – was more about Argentina's success than Ireland's failings. Following the retirement of inspirational leader Paul O'Connell, who led Ireland to back-to-back championships, the burden falls on Rory Best to continue Ireland's dominance over the Six Nations. Ulster's great form in European competition has been rewarded with Marshall, Trimble and Herring all restored into the side. So Ireland have the form and pedigree to win again, especially with other teams in a state of transition.
But don't get too downhearted if you're cheering for one of the others. No side has ever won three outright Championships in a row – so history dictates Ireland will stumble. Wales may not live up to expectations, while France and England are in transition. With a resurgent Scotland and an Italy with something to prove, this is going to be a great tournament. Bring it on.