It’s easy to see why England have been installed as the favourites for the Six Nations, which starts this weekend. But they aren’t my tip.
Yes, England are the holders, having prevailed in an interrupted 2020 championship that finally concluded in October.
They then won the Autumn Nations Cup, beating France in the process – albeit only Les Bleus’ third string side.
But the romantic in me believes that France will end their 11-year wait for a Six Nations title.
Some of England’s most important players like Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Jamie George are likely to be rusty.
Owing to Saracens’ relegation and the delays to the Championship season, they have barely played in the last few months.
And while training is one thing, match fitness is another; going from 0 to Six Nations level is very demanding.
France, who open the tournament against Italy, have the style, momentum and an overwhelming vibe that I think can take them all the way.
Under Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards they have mitigated their defensive frailties and built real mental fortitude.
They also have enough guile to counteract England’s effective but dull kicking strategy.
Eddie Jones may need to evolve the holders’ game and perhaps he will. I’d be proud to get it wrong.
England have the players to go toe-to-toe with France and play an expansive game.
If you were picking a world XV there’d be a handful of England players in there; that tells you they have the ability.
Henry Slade, Jonny May, Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson – these are unbelievably talented footballers who you want to see with the ball in hand, not under a high ball.
Based on what we saw in the autumn and recent comments from the camp, however, I suspect it will be more of the same.
I get it: it’s a strategic play. Build pressure, dominate the breakdown. And it will pay off more often than not.
But does it encourage kids to pick up a rugby ball? No. It’s bloody boring.
Why the Six Nations will be sadder this time
If France are to win the Six Nations they will have to do it the hard way, beating England and Ireland away from home.
But the absence of supporters may play into their hands. Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium will be less daunting.
France are less likely to get caught up in the emotion of a home game, too, as they have done in the past.
Perhaps the most exciting other team in the championship is Scotland, who face England on Saturday.
They play an encouraging brand of rugby, have exciting players and Gregor Townsend is moulding them into a cohesive unit.
They are unlucky that their first game is at Twickenham. The Six Nations is about building momentum and that schedule won’t help them.
Ireland aren’t the great side of old any more but at least have their two hardest games – France and England – at home.
First up on Sunday they travel Wales, who will maybe suffer the most of any team from the lack of home support.
Wales look like they lack ideas and their key men are the wrong side of 30. Wayne Pivac could be under a lot of pressure by the end of March.
The Six Nations lifts the spirits at a drab time of year but without fans it feels a lot sadder.
Some fixtures will be hugely affected and the likes of Wales and Scotland in particular will feel the absence.
England, meanwhile, can just get on with being even more workmanlike but for France it could just turn out to be a bonus.