The 2018 Six Nations begins on 3rd February, England going for their third title in succession.

One factor that is always significant is the unbalanced schedule with some teams having two games at home, some three. England for example play three games at home but have to travel to Edinburgh and Paris. Ireland also, but have to go to Twickenham in what is being viewed as a potential Grand Slam decider on the last weekend. Wales have three at home, but also play in London. As important is the prospect of a tournament being won on points difference, is who plays who when and here Scotland have the (likely) advantage of playing in Rome on the last weekend.

This year there are other factors to be considered. This is a Six Nations nine months after an arduous British Lions Tour and many of the top Home Union players have been playing now for approaching two seasons solid. The composition of that squad I think has implications for the Six Nations. It comprised 16 players from England, 12 from Wales, 11 from Ireland and 2 from Scotland. One of those two Scottish players, Stuart Hogg, left the tour injured early (and has hardly played since, now fit). Overall including replacements Scotland provided five tour players, and none played a Test.

It is not a coincidence that England, for example, go into this tournament with 13 players missing (in the squad announced for the first two games), 11 injured and 2 suspended. Another factor also contributes to rates of player attrition and that is the relationship between club and country.

The sometimes fractious relationship between Premiership Rugby and the RFU (under whose auspices the national team falls) means there is no agreement on the usage of players for club rugby. There is in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, though they do variously make concerted attempts to tie one hand behind the backs in restricting selection to home based players in an era when talent is drawn (particularly to France) abroad to play.

The workload for the top English players that far exceeds their opponents in this competition. Looking at the workload of the 2017 Lions squad this season in their respective domestic competitions we see twelve of the top fifteen players in terms of minutes played are Englishmen (and all of the top ten). Two Welsh players feature in the top twenty and no Irish players. One illustration: Munster’s outstanding Lions scrum-half Conor Murray has played only five Pro14 games this season while his English counterpart Ben Youngs has already started twice as many Premiership fixtures for Leicester.

It is no surprise that attrition rates are high. Players in this professional era are bigger and stronger and train for longer. The treadmill of Aviva Premiership from August through to European Champions Cup Pool games from October and then into the Six Nations in February and March is constant and players are in the middle of competing demands from club and country.

One final point here. It is no surprise that English sides have performed poorly in this year’s European Champions Cup competition. Global competition (The French top 14 the biggest factor) for players has increased player salary inflation whilst the Aviva Premiership salary cap is constant. As “star player” wages creep higher, squad depth within a static cap is shallower and with English teams trying to compete with resurgent franchises in the Pro 14 and the squads in the Top 14, they ask their International players to play more.

Now all this is not to say that England won’t win their third title in a row. They have great depth and even missing 13 players can put out a team with the world class talents of Farrell, Itoje and others. What I would contend though is that at odds on and drifting towards evens (as I write) with ten days to go they aren’t much value. Of the two favourites Ireland at 2/1 look far more interesting.

Irish domestic rugby is extremely strong and young talent is being churned out (in part as the strong club-country relationship has led to a very big investment in Academies). Ireland have an injury list themselves (O’Brien,Heaslip, Payne etc) but the core of the team (O’Mahoney, Stander, Sexton and Murray) is intact and the best back row/half back combination in the competition. Solid up front it is the emergence of young players outside that has people really excited. We’ll see Stockdale for example right from the first weekend and possibly Jordan Larmour later in the competition

Stack up those prospects with Ireland’s experienced players and you have a balanced, deep squad that looks as robust as it has for some time, crucially lacking similar injury crises to the ones faced by England at loose-head prop and number eight.

So, Ireland it is then? The market would tell you so it is 10/1 bar the front two. I think it is more open than that though.

Scotland are third favourites. I think they could go very close this year. First to wrap up the points made above, their players are comparatively fresh. Second they have been developing, under previous coach Vern Cotter, a style that gives them real scoring potential based around the mercurial talents of Finn Russell at Fly half and the world class Stuart Hogg at full back but also the finishing of Tommy Seymour on the wing. They have developed depth and the signs in the Autumn were that under new coach Gregor Townsend they were moving to the next stage of being competitive with the big boys. Of course running the All Blacks close then beating a 14 man Australia comes with a note of caution as both the Southern Hemisphere sides were at the end of a long season but nevertheless they won three games in the Six Nations last year and lost by six points in France.

You might argue that they need to be prolific in attack because their defence isn’t as solid as the three other home nations, and that is probably right. Also they have three of five away, but really only Ireland away is one we can chalk up as a very unlikely win. Beat Wales in Cardiff first up and it is game on, as England at home follows mid competition. Getting a double figure price looks attractive.

Looking at the other three sides, Wales are missing three world class players in Warburton, Falateu and Jonathan Davies. They, by necessity, blooded a lot of players in the Autumn Internationals but do not have the depth to withstand the absence of key players that England do. A couple of encouraging signs are the emergence of the likes of Shingler in the back row, who could cause England’s makeshift 6-7-8 a lot of problems at Twickenham in the second game and the fantastic displays by the Scarlets in Europe whose superb running rugby (and we will see winger Stef Evans in the Wales team) is something the national team supporters have been crying out for under Gatland/Howley/Edwards. As it is a change of style to something more expansive looked very much a work in progress in November and my expectation for Wales this tournament would be 2-3 wins

Watching the British Lions players trek round New Zealand effectively playing six Test Matches all last summer I bookmarked a stat that read as follows:

France in the 5/6 Nations after recent Lions tours – 1998 won 4/4 games, 2002 5/5, 2006 4/5, 2010 5/5, 2014 3/5.

At various points in the last nine months I was ready to make the case for France. However I do not know what France team (style rather than personnel) we will get and I suspect neither do they. They have changed coach last month (Noves to Brunel) after an inconsistent autumn campaign and the squad selected for the six nations looks (again) transitional with six new caps, seventeen players under 25 selected and the omission of the likes of Picamoles from the squad. Were they a racehorse France (especially away from home) would have a Timeform “double squiggle”

Italy once again are a prohibitive price to “win” the wooden spoon. The encouraging news is that there is young talent coming through. The bad news is that this is a competitive six nations compared to some renewals and there doesn’t look to be a second “bad” team

So the market with best generally available for the Six Nations outright is

England Ev
Ireland 2/1
Scotland 9/1
Wales 16/1
France 20/1
Italy 500/1

Recommendation: Scotland to win the 2018 Six Nations 11/1 Coral/Ladbrokes 10/1 Betfair Sportsbook/Paddy Power