This season more than any promises to be one of the most exciting in recent history, now more than ever there is the hope and expectation that the unexpected will happen, witness the Welsh grand slam last season. However the big question facing the defending champions is whether it was a flash in the pan or does their victory over a weakened Australian team, not a thumping as claimed by a Welsh journalist, show that Mike Ruddock is continuing to work miracles with this Welsh unit. I would point to the latter, despite the many injuries suffered in the Autumn the Welsh go into their championship opener at Twickenham with a far stronger deck than the Autumn, but more importantly the return of some key Lions players and not tourists, players who actually stood up to the All Blacks and left New Zealand with their heads held high, witness Gethin Jenkins and Dwayne Peel, two key players who would have a place in many a punditâ€™s World XV. Add to that the confidence exuding from the Welsh camp under Ruddock and the even added boost that winning the Grand Slam would have done and Wales pose a very serious threat, their quick offloads make it difficult for the more structured defences, the fitness improvements in recent seasons are second to none, comparisons between the 2003, 2004 and 2005 teams are laughable. However a note of caution in case the egos in the Valleys become over inflated, one missed penalty in the opening match last season was the crucial difference between winning an opener and going on to achieve a grand slam or losing out narrowly and most likely not having the confidence to win in Paris and finish the job off and no Grand Slam Saturday in Cardiff on that March day. Itâ€™s amazing how fine a line there is between success and failure. If I were a Welsh supporter the least Iâ€™d be expecting is a Triple Crown, however whether they can repeat their Grand Slam success I wouldnâ€™t be so sure. Last season was quite a bizarre one for the French, no doubt the hammering they suffered at the hands of the All Blacks and the sheer physical beating their forwards had to endure in Marseilles at the hands of the Pumas wouldnâ€™t have seen them enter the tournament in the best of spirits and naturally enough that was what transpired with an incredibly lackadaisical performance in their opener against the Scots, seriously fortunate to come away with a victory at Twickenham, yet they went from the ridiculous to the sublime in their first half performance against Wales last year but for Les Bleues that was to be the highlight as the Welsh upped their game while the French panicked and ultimately their grand slam dreams were over. Yet since that Welsh defeat their form has been impressive with a much improved display in Dublin, a professional performance in Rome, picking up a draw in SA, not even the All Blacks won there this year, and then their Autumn performances have given them a very solid platform on which to launch their Six Nations challenge. Thereâ€™s no need to point out the talent of the French squad, itâ€™s there in abundance, more than any of the other teams in the tournament, and with a very favourable set of fixtures they should be in pole position come March to see off the challenge of England, likely to be their toughest game and then onto the Millennium Stadium for that final Saturday Showdown with the defending Champions, certainly gets the mouth watering, and having learnt their lessons from last years encounter I donâ€™t think Laporte will allow his troops to become complacent when the battle heats up. Therefore I think they will come away from Cardiff having recaptured the Six Nations Trophy. Thereâ€™s not much positivity when it comes to examining Irelandâ€™s chances, under Eddie Oâ€™Sullivan Ireland have gone from being one of the most attractive teams on the eye to one stuck in conservative tactics, a coach who refuses to pick the best players and a squad full of doubters who will inevitably fail to give their best as long as the current setup remains in place. While lacking the leaders in the Autumn series all their presence would have done to serve would have been less of a beating, no more no less. The fact that we were unable to defeat one of the weakest Australian teams ever at home doesnâ€™t say much for the coachâ€™s credibility. Therefore he will need a significant improvement in terms of selection and playing style to regain the favourability of a wavering Irish public. Every man and his dog know which team should really take the field against the Italians come opening day but the one man who doesnâ€™t happens to be the coach himself. There is undoubted talent coming through but if we have a coach who refuses to give them game time in the Autumn internationals then what hope do we have of seeing them in the Six Nations, maybe theyâ€™ll get a runout with the â€˜Aâ€™ team in the Churchill Cup or a token cap against the Pacific Islands in the Autumn. Not good enough, these are the players who should be leading our challenge in France 2007, not wasting their Summers in North America picking up experience that wonâ€™t stand to them. Give them 2 Championships and a tough Summer Tour down under and it will stand to them come France 2007. If only the prodigal son who had such an impact in his time here could return and once again be a Saviour to Irish rugby. However in the real world under this current setup the Irish will be lucky to win their 3 home games and thatâ€™s a long shot while hammerings await in Paris and London. Seemingly the English and Irish seem to be in a similar boat, although Andy Robinson doesnâ€™t seem to be sailing a ship thatâ€™s sinking as fast as his counterpart across the Irish Sea. At least Robinson has the luxury of strength in depth, sadly though he too seems to be suffering in picking the right team for the job, the forwards seem set to establish a decent platform for the backs but Robinsonâ€™s conundrum in his centre partnership would appear to be his Achilles heel. A more creative backline would have done the forwards the justice they deserved in their annihilation of the Australian counterparts but none was forthcoming. Should Robinson be able to solve this conundrum then his team may well throw a spanner in the works of the ideal final day showdown in Cardiff and it may yet again fall to Ireland to deny the English a grand slam on the final day, in the final match. Their opener seems to close to call, can go either way, and again as stated earlier, the centre partnership will be crucial to English chances, will Josh Lewsey prove to be the answer to Andy Robinsonâ€™s prayers? Time will tell, but if it is then this championship will take an entirely different path with Englandâ€™s penultimate fixture in Paris the Championship decider. However with Lewsey in need of a partner Robinson again will have another headscratcher on his hands. While he has been vilified for last seasonâ€™s championship performance which saw them finish fourth things could have been oh so different for the World Champions, a missed penalty in Cardiff, chances taken against the French, a less competent ref in Dublin and the Championship and Grand Slam could have been theirs instead of their compatriots across the border. Somehow I donâ€™t think this has gone unnoticed in the World Championâ€™s camp and theyâ€™ll certainly be out to make amends this year. For Scotland new horizons await under their new head coach Frank Hadden. Having taken over from the hapless Matt Williams things slowly seem to be improving in the Scottish setup, leaving his club behind has done Edinburgh no harm as they mount a serious challenge for the Celtic League title and have put in notable performances in the Heineken Cup, there seem to be many similarities between Ireland and Scotland, with the Edinburgh putting in improved performances, Glasgow and the Borders have certainly improved their standing in the Celtic League also and for the first time in a few seasons it looks like all three Scottish Clubs will be playing Heineken Cup which can only be a springboard to greater things for the national side. However this season may not see the Scottish team reaping their rewards in terms of winning matches, they will probably see off Italy in Rome and may well cause an upset in Dublin but other than that they face an uphill task when taking on France, Wales and England. The England match probably offers the Scots their greatest chance of an upset out of those three fixtures, however that still remains a long shot in my opinion. However such a victory would no doubt give increasing momentum to the improvements witnessed in the Autumn international against the All Blacks where their performance was far more competent than that of Wales and Ireland, teams who would normally expect to defeat Scotland quite easily, however such comparisons generally prove to be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. At best the Scots will be hoping to pick up 1 maybe 2 victories, anything else would be just plain fantasy at the moment. Italy seemed to have taken a step backwards in last yearâ€™s championship as they failed to pick up a win and ultimately saw the end of the reign of John Kirwan. However solid Autumn performances under the new coach Pierre Berbizier see the Italians entering their seventh tournament with renewed confidence, especially after they managed to defeat the much fancied Pumas, themselves pushing for entrance into the Six Nations or Tri Nations, and solid wins over Fiji and Tonga. However a tough start awaits with Ireland away, unlikely to come away with victory but their pack will certainly cause problems at a venue where they no longer seem intimidated after their initial thrashing in their opening Six Nations back in 2000, England at home will prove an even tougher task as their forwards will be able to match and most likely surpass the challenge posed of them. A trip to Paris will most likely again see the French take a relaxed approach to the game but ultimately come away with a comfortable victory, and what that will do for their confidence when they come up against the defending champions is anyoneâ€™s guess, more than likely though to see them suffer a heavy defeat. It would be a sign of improvement if the Italians can take the Scotsâ€™ scalp in the final day meeting in Rome, having come through the mental scarring of 4 defeats and able to finish their championship for once on a positive note, time and injuries to the squad will ultimately seal their fate. Everything seems set up for a final day showdown in Cardiff but England hold the key to throwing a spanner in the works, thereâ€™s not much chance of Ireland being able to make it through to Twickenham and arrive there unbeaten with the hope of repaying the English in kind for the grand slam defeat of 2003. However either way come the final day there will be plenty to play for, one way or another, England or Wales will most likely be playing for a Triple Crown while the French will have a Grand Slam in their sights, and this time I donâ€™t think theyâ€™ll take their eye off the ball, this season is a massive step in order to establish themselves as a more serious challenger to New Zealand for the ultimate prize in France in 2007. However one thing does seem to be certain and that is that we are in for one hell of a tournament, with so many possible permutations, so many class players on show and 7 weeks of Rugby Heaven thatâ€™s for sure. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Bit long I know, but it's my first attempt at such an article so rip the **** or whatever, I'm not bothered.