Power Ranking the Six Nations Sides on the Strength of Their Packs
This week's announcements of the squads preparing to participate in the 2015 Six Nations means the tournament lies only a fortnight away.
Each team possesses strengths and weaknesses. Some boast more power up front, while others will be leaning heavily on the guile of their backs to bring about success.
Examining the selections, we've gone about ranking the packs heading into this year's competition, taking into account the quality of each side's stars, depth and experience as some of the more decisive factors.
Even then, a strong pack alone isn't enough to win titles, but prior to the tournament getting underway, some stand a better chance of thriving up front when compared with their Six Nations peers.
Jacques Brunel will attempt to engineer a set-piece mastery as the Azzurri head coach this year, an aspect of their play that has stood out as a forte at times in recent years.
Players such as Martin Castrogiovanni and Leonardo Ghiraldini are great helps in that pursuit, while talismanic Sergio Parisse will play the role of one-man army on occasion throughout the tournament.
Yet again, the problem for Italy is a lack of depth when it comes to these star talents. Brunel has his selection of elite professionals, but with nine of his 16 named pack members aged 30 or above, there's an overripe feel among the forwards.
Experience is, of course, welcome, but not all the older figures are seasoned on the international stage, as some came into the Azzurri frame late in their careers or are merely included due to injuries.
Oldest among the squad are Test centurion Mauro Bergamasco, 35, and lock veteran Marco Bortolami, 34. Granted, the pair still sit as arguably safe options for Brunel, but the fact that younger, more promising players aren't present speaks volumes.
In Vern Cotter's hands, Scotland may stage a surprise or two after developing well under the coach these past nine months, but on paper, the side enter the Six Nations as underdogs.
The head coach has made some gutsy decisions regarding those selected, with an equally contentious number of names in the omission pile.
Tim Swinson, Johnnie Beattie, Pat MacArthur and Scott Lawson are among the regular names left absent, while nine of the 17 forwards included in the 32-man squad have 10 Tests caps or fewer.
What's more, Ben Toolis, Hugh Blake and Hamish Watson are primed to make their international debuts. Blake is a particularly controversial decision, as he's yet to play a single game for Edinburgh since moving from his native New Zealand.
A host of familiar faces with some Kiwi flavour now thrown in the mix, Scotland may stage a shock and turn some heads, but their expectations heading into the competition aren't staggering.
The back row stands out as a particularly strong area for France, and as long as the likes of Thierry Dusautoir, Yannick Nyanga and Damien Chouly can stay fit, Les Bleus at least have that to lean on this year.
Philippe Saint-Andre's willingness to experiment during last year's autumn internationals has led to a host of less experienced assets taking their places in the squad, many of whom are heading into their first Six Nations.
Players such as Uini Atonio, Romain Taofifenua and Wenceslas Lauret—replacement for the injured Charles Ollivon—are hoping to cement their status in the starting XI, but the veterans of the squad are perhaps too few and far between.
There's a chance this could be the last Six Nations for 34-year-old Nicolas Mas and Pascal Pape, also 34, while Dusautoir is surely past his peak, too.
Saint-Andre has top-14 talents in numbers, but that relates to the club spotlight more than anything else, and a lot of those included still need to earn their stripes in the national team.
It says a lot of the Welsh back row that in-form Cardiff Blues star Josh Navidi has missed out on his a place in Warren Gatland's squad, with captain Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric headlining the flanker positions.
In Taulupe Faletau, Gatland also has a world-class No. 8 he can rely upon to do damage, but the lack of star quality and depth in other areas may be a concern.
In particular, the front row needs to maintain full fitness throughout the tournament if Wales are to stand a chance at the title. All-time cap record holder Gethin Jenkins is not the asset he once was, Richard Hibbard can be elite on his day, and uncapped Kristian Dacey and Ospreys' Scott Baldwin are far behind in terms of experience.
At prop, Samson Lee looks a potentially top-class option, but this year may be too soon to expect wonders from the Scarlets up-and-comer.
The same can be said of Jake Ball, who displayed some huge promise in last year's competition and will jostle alongside Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris to partner Alun Wyn Jones in the second row.
In truth, it's a strong forward setup, but when compared with their fellow title challengers, Wales may not have the same options to be considered among the top packs.
Joe Schmidt was the last of the Six Nations coaches to name his squad, announcing on Thursday that Nathan White and Jack Conan would be among the 46-man extended selection, seeking their first caps.
It's an extremely tough call to decide between our top two pack contenders, but considering much of Ireland's strength comes from their backs, they just miss out on the throne in comparison with our No. 1 choice.
Schmidt has typical strength at lock. The rise of Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner over the past two seasons gives them a classy partnership, with the likes of Iain Henderson and Mike McCarthy pressuring for their places.
Cian Healy may get a run-out with the Wolfhounds as he continues his comeback from injury, as could Sean O'Brien, but on their given day, the duo are potential worldbeaters.
The flanks have particular strength in depth. With this possibly being O'Connell's last Six Nations, Munster team-mate Peter O'Mahony will undoubtedly step up his responsibilities once again.
Schmidt has a bevy of options at blind side and open side, and it says a lot that any one of Robbie Diack, Rhys Ruddock, Tommy O'Donnell or Jordi Murphy won't be seeing a lot of playing time.
The rows are strong, and Jamie Heaslip can be the leader figure of old from No. 8, with the only genuine doubts at front row. Consistency is a question over the likes of Mike Ross, Jack McGrath and Marty Moore at the top level, so the sooner Healy makes his return to full fitness, the better.
Even with injuries to players such as Ben Morgan, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, England have a well-sourced and fight-ready unit ready to go up front.
Over the past year, Stuart Lancaster's forwards have been the one reliable staple of the team, while the back line has gone through its transitions and a struggle to settle on a consistent lineup.
The returns of props Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola are welcome, while Dan Cole is finally back in the national team frame and adds some considerable oomph to the front row.
Launchbury and Lawes may be missing—the latter perhaps only for the opener against Wales—but Geoff Parling, Graham Kitchener and Dave Attwood make for some agreeable secondary options.
Of course, captain Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood should be expected to continue their fine form at No. 7 and No. 6, respectively, giving James Haskell and Calum Clark a difficult route into the team.
And perhaps best of all, while Morgan may be out for the foreseeable future, to be able to call upon a No. 8 alternative of Billy Vunipola's quality—and in his current form—is magnificent.
The true test of a great pack—and by extension, a great team—is its depth and its strength to cope with certain injuries. On paper, England have that in abundance, making them the forward bunch to watch out for.