England are just a week away from once again stepping into the Six Nations forum, with high hopes for what promises to be the closest-run tournament in the competition's history.
There are no prizes for coming anywhere except first, though, and it will prove too much to ask of Stuart Lancaster's side in the end.
Enemies are bearing down and England's squad is experiencing indecision in some areas. Read on for 20 reasons why the rugby championship will once again escape England's clutches in 2014.
Although the demands of a tough travelling timetable don't generally impact international rugby as much as other sports, they will greatly affect England's chances this year.
After enjoying three home fixtures 12 months ago, the squad once again finds themselves with the majority of their matches away from Twickenham.
Lancaster's men will make trips to France, Scotland and Italy over the next seven weeks. Although the latter two would be considered the more preferential matchups in unfamiliar territory, even the Six Nations' small fries will be tough to take points away from this time around.
This year marks the two-year anniversary of Chris Robshaw's first appointment as England's captain and his third Six Nations tournament in the role.
The Harlequins flanker is closing in on the 21-game run that Steve Borthwick made as the leader of the team. It's been a fairly fruitful 24 months; however, some still doubt that Robshaw is the man to lead England forward.
Falling to Wales at the last hurdle in last year's championship was one of several occasions in which Robshaw failed to inspire when tasked on the biggest stage, and it's not a trait that inspires confidence.
A side should be able to rely on the captain to produce the goods when times are at their lowest, and Robshaw has been fortunate to lead an England team that hasn't had too many lows during his involvement.
That being said, Robshaw lacks a certain star quality in the role, and one would like to think that the captain's armband is not up for debate.
In Robshaw's case, though, it is, and it's not a spin that has any positive connotations.
During his run as England's coach, Lancaster hasn't been afraid to give his youth a chance on the biggest stages of all; in fact, he's been hugely encouraging of that development.
Ex-Liverpool footballer Alan Hansen once said, "You'll never win anything with kids."
Though that may have been proven wrong in other spheres, it applies all the more in rugby.
When one looks at his initial 35-man selection, Lancaster's back line this year carries on his experimental tradition to a degree.
Not including the trio of scrum-halves, there are just 118 caps between the remaining 13 backs in the squad.
Chris Ashton and Mike Brown make up for 58 of those, and the pool features two uncapped wings, an uncapped centre and an uncapped fly-half in George Ford—not to mention all the back contenders who have been capped but are yet to amass more than a single-digit tally.
These players have not only failed to impress internationally as of yet, but some are barely taking their first steps as playing professionals in the Premier League.
A tournament of this calibre requires experienced heads, and while the pack is able to rely upon a more agreeable average in England's experience, the lack of wisdom elsewhere should be considered worrying.
Of course, a more focused area of that back-line inexperience comes in midfield, where Saracens' Brad Barritt and Gloucester's Billy Twelvetrees account for 24 of the 26 caps among the centres selected.
Northampton Saints' Luther Burrell is the only option to make his debut for the national team, but February holds great promise for the player, who's shown extremely consistent form at the club level.
That being said, a part of Lancaster's side is lacking superstar quality, and the absence of the injured Manu Tuilagi dramatically hurts England's chances of winning the title.
It's what's got him this far in the role, but Lancaster has stated that he's set to shirk his habit of experimentation in favour of what he sees as a more unified unit for the Six Nations.
Speaking at the tournament's launch last week, Duncan Bech of The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the England tactician said:
You would never approach a game against France, or any Six Nations match, as an experiment because you want to win.
It's a results-based business. There are no friendlies in international rugby. You can't see a game as a trial. The players have to be ready.
What you don't want to do is put a player into an environment like France away if they're not quite ready. It's not fair on the player.
It's sound reasoning from the 44-year-old, of course; however, the tools (at least the ones that would be considered "safer" options) put at his disposal simply aren't strong enough to win a tournament of this magnitude.
For example, while Barritt sits as the most experienced centre in England's ranks, who's to say that Burrell isn't an international gem waiting to be unearthed, or that Ed Slater couldn't become the lock of the English future?
They're questions that come with dire consequences, but thus is the pressure on a man in Lancaster's position.
It's a double-edged sword. If Lancaster sticks with what he knows, the goods aren't likely to be produced. Alternatively, he faces a sink-or-swim situation by trying certain tests that could have been put through their paces in November. Either way, he risks making or breaking England's entire competition.
It's both a blessing in disguise and a curse that England have three scrum-halves—each of whom could have a stake at being Lancaster's starter against France—at their disposal.
Ben Youngs, Danny Care and Richard Wigglesworth have all shown glimpses of bright form coming into this year's tournament, with the former two in particular jostling for international playing time in recent years.
Of the three, one would think that Youngs will get the call in the end. It was a surprise to see the Leicester Tiger dropped in favour of Northampton's Lee Dickson against Australia two months ago, and the British and Irish Lions haven't put many a foot wrong thus far.
Even Care, the Harlequins man with the propensity for the outrageous at times—which is both good and bad—also has a case to be picked at No. 9.
Wigglesworth, the Saracens' resurgent, sits as the outsider after being called back into the England frame, but again, it speaks volumes that so many players have a reason to see the starting shirt as realistic.
It's a trademark of most great line-ups to have a standout nominee at half-back, with perhaps a backup option vying for competition's sake. The fact that all three are in the running, though, says there's a certain dearth of that something special, which the likes of Conor Murray, Mike Phillips and even Greig Laidlaw are capable of producing.
Wales are looking to become the first team ever to win three successive Six Nations Championships, and it's assuredly within the side's reach.
Last year's Cardiff finale was a clinical orchestration of just how powerful this crop of Cymru's finest truly is, so it was of little surprise to see Warren Gatland's British and Irish Lions selection heavily influenced by what was then Europe's in-form giant.
Since then, Wales have maintained good pace and are slated to travel to Twickenham in Round Four of the tournament, at which point we'll have a very clear idea of who is and isn't in the running for silverware.
There aren't too many major injury concerns affecting the squad in what promises to be another productive campaign for the Welsh. There's also arguably no side more mentally prepared to make history than Gatland's aspiring batch.
Of course, England can still win the tournament should they lose to Wales once again, but that's not the only concern in view.
Everyone's well aware of the threats that France, Wales, Ireland and England can pose on the Six Nations title any given year, but one might find it easier to disregard Scotland and Italy.
Until recently, that is, with the pair enjoying more fruitful coaching under the guidance of Scott Johnson and Jacques Brunel, respectively.
As a result of that and a more improved player pool selection, Scotland and Italy were able to enjoy more promising Six Nations campaigns in 2013.
It's understandable why one might underestimate the pair. After all, neither country has ever won the Six Nations title, and they won't win it in 2014. That's not to say, however, that they can't dent the hopes of other teams.
In the past, England may have been able to rely upon an easier four points from the duo, but those will be harder than ever to come by this year. Also, as aforementioned, the Red Rose has the burden of travelling to both matches.
Last year was the first time in the tournament's history that neither Scotland nor Italy were in the bottom two of the Six Nations table, and dethroning a giant like England is massive motivation for the rising powers.
France's November international series was far from its most prolific, winning just one of its three test outings against Southern Hemisphere opposition.
It compounded a fruitless year during which Les Bleus came last in the 2013 Six Nations and were ousted from New Zealand without so much as a win during their summer tour.
Positives are beginning to show for Philippe Saint-Andre's side, however. The two autumn matches they lost—against the All Blacks and South Africa—each came by deficits of just seven and nine, respectively.
Saint-Andre's squad selection is starting to appease more after a period of controversial picks, and a new wave of French talent promises to hit England hard in Round One when the teams meet in Paris.
Last year's evidence may not serve as proof that France are ready to fight for Six Nations honours once more; however, their tails will be up after such a harrowing 2013 competition, and England won't come away from the Stade de France with points intact.
It's two years into his England tenure, and Lancaster has made great strides with the national project, but there's a long, long way to go until his side is ready for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
As has been discussed, youngsters are being drafted under the strain of shallow experience, and there's a weight of indecision regarding the positions of nearly half the squad, which is hardly a calling card of the world's finest.
Whereas Gatland, Joe Schmidt, Saint-Andre and even Johnson have a clear idea of the line-ups that they're striving to mold with their respective teams, England's vision is more blurred, with Lancaster lucky enough to drop in a star of Owen Farrell's or Dan Cole's quality here and there.
It's nothing that England can go about correcting all too swiftly, admittedly, but it may just be a case of the deck dealing the side a bad hand for now.
Christian Wade and Marland Yarde will be sorely missed on the wings for England. The pair were only taking their first strides internationally this past year, but they didn't look out of place and would have given Lancaster a solid choice of wide assets, both starting and from the bench.
Anthony Watson and Jonny May will be grateful that the pair's injuries have provided their opening in the squad, but the young wing pair were just starting to hit their grooves in international colours.
Tuilagi, of course, stands as the biggest miss, however. His no-nonsense combination of fierce attacking strength and rabid defence is on a par, which Twelvetrees and Barritt aren't entirely capable of in their own capacities.
Up front, Alex Corbisiero's void is fortunate enough to be filled by a player of Joe Marler's standard, but having the prop pair fit and available would obviously have been a major boost.
The side has had a chance to get used to life without Tom Croft, and the galloping flanker could very arguably have been the component who displaced Robshaw if fit.
At the back, Ben Foden is a more acceptable loss, given that Alex Goode is a reliable option in the No. 15 jersey, but the Northampton Saint's talents wouldn't have gone astray.
All in all, there's a sample of key figures missing in crunch areas of the pitch, and a couple of unfortunate injury blows could see gaps popping up where not needed.
It's been mentioned that Wales will win the Twickenham test against England, but there's so much more for which Gatland's men can hold out.
Unlike Lancaster's team, the Welsh have the majority of their matches in their own backyard, doing a small favour to their chances of a third consecutive Six Nations title.
With Gatland—the most experienced of any coach now involved in the competition—and a thriving squad of stars, Wales promise to do away with any troubles that may be affecting the regions by trotting to victory once more.
A poor Autumn series is nothing new for the Welsh, who have showed their knack for bouncing back before and are set to do so again.
As was the case last year, England will fall just short of the mark and have to deal with the fact that there's little one can do in a round-robin tournament if another presence proves unstoppable.
It's worth considering that perhaps the reason why Robshaw has lasted quite so long in his captain's responsibilities is because there are simply no superior options present.
The right combination of experience, squad value, age and leadership skills is a potent and rare blend to get absolutely right, but teams at least have players who tend to tick most of the boxes.
Lancaster's latest selection is a very young squad. Half of those named in the initial 35 are 25 years old or younger, and only five are over the age of 27.
Looking at the roster, there are not many faces one could look at and see a lieutenant for Robshaw's cause. Aside from captain, every team needs their crop of voices across the park, men who can lead by example regardless of who wears the armband (which is metaphorical in this case).
Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood each have experience leading the team, while Farrell and Brown might be considered some of the louder back-line figures. It's hardly the thriving number, though, that a title-chasing side would hope to boast.
In other camps, such as Ireland, Wales and Scotland, it's possible to pick out a bigger sample of stars who could set a precedent as a result of their international experience. England, however, can't say the same right now.
It's a relatively small quandary, given that versatile players are, by and large, a positive for any team; however, malleability also has its downsides, which are best summarised by the cliched "jack of all trades, master of none" tag.
Twelvetrees stands out as the most obvious culprit in this essence, and it's a sorry situation that the Cherry and Whites star might sit at the top of the pecking order at inside centre yet play most of his club rugby at fly-half.
That's not to say Twelvetrees isn't proficient in the No. 12 jersey. He is, and he has proven quite capable over the last year or so; however, he has physically fallen short of the mark on occasion, too.
It's a similar situation for Robshaw, who continues to play his international game exclusively at open side, despite being a No. 6 at heart.
They are small margins at heart, but these are weaknesses from which other sides may not be suffering, and it will cost England when all's said and done.
As we know by now, this England squad is mainly lacking in experienced heads, but what of those who have been a staple of the nation for some time now?
Nine of the 35 in Lancaster's training squad have 20 caps or more to their name, split fairly evenly among the forwards and backs.
An aspiring youngster should be able to look up to such peers and feel that's where they want to be in a certain amount of time, but that isn't always the case.
For example, Chris Ashton could easily have dropped out of his squad, where both Wade and Yarde were ready to feature against France. The 37-times capped Saracens wing has been far from the deadly finisher of two years ago. Even though he's a likely bet to start, it says a lot that one might still consider May or Watson in his stead.
Of course, even the very best professionals can be dropped if going through a bad patch. Wen a bad patch develops into more of a rout, though, it's a sign that cap count doesn't always equate in terms of quality on the pitch.
England have played the last match of the Six Nations tournaments away from home on five out of the last 11 occasions, winning none.
On two occasions, Wales have gotten the better of their European rivals, with France also triumphing on two occasions and Ireland making up for the fifth unsavoury trip.
Admittedly, the Stadio Olimpico makes for a more promising venture in 2014, but luck is nevertheless running against Robshaw and his men when tasked with a curtain-closer in unfamiliar territory.
Not a lot has been said of Farrell and his importance to the England cause lately, which is strange considering how sensationally the 22-year-old has coped with the pressure placed upon him in recent months.
This year's Six Nations, however, could be an extreme test of the youngster's seniority, considering Toby Flood is no longer around, thanks to his impending move to Toulouse creating a desire to blood new talent.
While Twelvetrees offers an option himself, uncapped Ford is likely to be the man who replaces Farrell should the unthinkable happen and Lancaster's No. 10 pick up an injury.
One-cap wonder Stephen Myler is the other alternative, and he's a good one to have at that. Again, though, there's a concern of the Saints star being slightly out of his depth.
As long as Farrell remains fit, Lancaster will rest easier at night; however, should he be sidelined, a great deal of England's playmaking plans will go out the window with him.
By the time one has reached the international standard in rugby, playing a full 80-minute match shouldn't be too difficult a task; however, England showed in the November internationals that they were incapable of maintaining momentum for that long.
Against Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, fans were only ever treated to brief 15-minute spats of an impressive player. Every now and then, that stretched into halves if the team was fortunate.
It would be folly for Lancaster and his side to hope that the other European big guns are willing to fall for such weaknesses, as it's certainly not something they'll be able to count on for five matches.
Although it wouldn't be fair to judge England solely on their Autumn outings, it is the most recent example we've been given of a side that sometimes looked incapable when passing the ball about their own back line.
Of the seven tries scored against their three Southern Hemisphere foes, only three of those came from the backs, with Farrell and Ashton doing the honours.
Quite simply, England haven't got the confidence among their backs. They can't fight against the best defences in the world if their attacking lines are currently off the necessary pace.
Lateral running and a failed Joel Tomkins plunge made for an altogether disappointing period for England's backs in recent months. There's no use to be as exclusive in relying on the pack to get the glamorous work done, too.
In the 2012 Autumn internationals, Robshaw came under heavy fire for some of his penalty decisions that eventually led to England's misery against Australia and South Africa.
While the back rower has been fortunate enough not to be put in the same position too many times since, the lack of decisiveness still stands to haunt the team should a contentious call need to be made once again.
England (Robshaw as much as anybody else), much like their football team, faces a weight of expectation.
Whereas the likes of New Zealand have no qualms in chasing the line out rather than kicking at goal, England have been known as a more conservative machine in the past.
It just won't do anymore. Pressure notwithstanding, it's time that the nation shirk that tag of constant collapsing.
Their two-year wait for a Six Nations triumph won't end this year, and their tendency to bottle the tightest occasions is one of the main reasons why.