A little early to herald the onset of spring, but the return of the RBS 6 Nations Championship, which begins on Saturday, nevertheless raises the spirits of rugby fans.

It has been the central defining ritual of European rugby for the past century, a status enhanced rather than diminished by the coming of professionalism, its income-generating capacity the crucial underpinning for payments to players.

Playing five opponents once a year is frequent enough to generate connections and continuity, but not so often there is a danger of boredom, an undoubted risk for the southern hemisphere’s Tri-Nations as they start playing each other three times a season.

The Six Nations also retains its vital sense of uncertainty. Only one national newspaper journalist - Tim Glover of the Independent on Sunday - predicted Wales’s triumph last year.

Yet nothing is perfect. Compression to five matches in seven weekends is an uneasy compromise between the more comfortable fortnightly rhythm of the recent past and the desire of clubs and coaches to squeeze it into a single month. However, it is on free-to-air television, for which one match per weekend on a Sunday – although not the distortion of fair competition by which England will have the ad-vantage of playing in the final match for the third year running – is a price well worth paying.

Still, the suspicion is that once again Andy Robinson’s men will be competing for place money rather than the big prize when they face Ireland on March 18. All logic points to France, who kick off in Edinburgh on Sunday.

England and Ireland must visit Paris and coach Bernard Laporte will be highly disappointed if France are not pursuing a grand slam when they arrive in Cardiff on March 18. He might also be surprised to learn that forsaking clubs for regions is the way to concentrate talent after selecting a team drawn from only four sources – with 12 of his original 15 from Toulouse or Stade Français – fewer than any of the regionalised nations. So no problems with cohesion there.

Laporte has found a new back-row and has alarming strength at centre – although he will be without the brilliant Yannick Jauzion for the first two matches because of a broken toe – where everybody else save Ireland looks pedestrian.

As hosts, France run a greater risk than anybody of distraction by next year’s World Cup, but they look to have reached a level where development and winning are complementary.

So where is the challenge? It is too easy to write off Ireland after last year’s anticlimax. They have quality and experience and can afford to exclude talents such as Donncha O’Callaghan and Andrew Trimble but have to visit Paris and Twickenham and still lack that final edge of raw power.

England have that in profusion as they threaten to revert to the grinding style of the pre-Woodward days, leavened only by the sublime Charlie Hodgson. Keeping the ball in front of their pack should be enough to deal with Wales, but seems unlikely to be sufficient in Paris next month.

The reigning champions, meanwhile, are deprived by injuries of not only power but also much of the creativity that might have allowed them to evade and outwit England’s enveloping power. Winning more than three matches would underline Wales coach Mike Ruddock’s credentials as a miracle worker, while getting anywhere near that would be a cue for celebration in Scotland or Italy.

The Italians will compete up front but continue to lack penetration. New coach Pierre Berbizier’s past as a scrum-half give credibility to his ditching of Alessandro Troncon, but the alternatives are unconvincing.

So it looks like France – but then this time last year, it looked like Ireland.

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