By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - A pre-Lions Six Nations normally carries an extra frisson of excitement as it acts as a two-month final trial, but the chaos and uncertainty of this year's international rugby calendar means the focus will be very much on the here and now.
It is still not clear how France will play their matches against the Home Unions, given the COVID-19 travel restrictions, and still nobody knows when, where or even if the British and Irish Lions' series against South Africa will go ahead.
What is clear, however, is that defending champions England will take some dislodging and that the fourth-round Twickenham clash between Eddie Jones's team and France could go a long way to deciding the title.
Ireland, Wales and Scotland, of course, all have more than enough talent and motivation to change that narrative and unpredictability is one of the reasons the competition is always so compelling.
All three of those countries, however, look to have considerable ground to make up based on their performances in the delayed 2020 Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup matches played late last year.
The games all look set to be played without fans and Scotland coach Gregor Townsend believes an empty Twickenham might work in his team's favour as they seek a first win there in 38 years.
They did manage a memorable 38-38 draw, coming from 31-0 down, on their last visit in 2019 and triumphed at Murrayfield in 2018, and if they are going to pull off a shock, getting England first up on Feb. 6 probably helps.
Captain Owen Farrell and other key Saracens players have not played a game since England edged France in sudden death extra time to win the Nations Cup at the start of December so they may need time to rediscover their groove.
Scotland have an exciting backline and if they can drag England out of their dull but effective strangulation approach, it could be a lively start to the tournament.
By then France will have got their campaign up and running in Rome against an Italy side desperate to show they still deserve a place at the top table.
A dismal six-year run of 27 successive championship defeats does not auger well and with Sergio Parisse retired and injured flanker Jake Polledri ruled out of the tournament, they look desperately short of class.
It is the opposite case for France, whose coach Fabien Galthie appears to be developing a strong side not only for their home World Cup in 2023 but also for now.
Built around the world-class halfback pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack - who will miss the first two games with a broken jaw - France have the ability to carve out openings against anyone, but that is now allied with a new dedication to defence inspired by English coach Shaun Edwards.
Wales and Ireland, both in the early stages of rebuilding jobs, complete the opening weekend in Cardiff on Feb. 7.
Wales had a torrid time last year, finishing fifth in the Six Nations and Nations Cup and are on a run of four successive defeats against the Irish.
It was always likely to be a tough initiation for coach Wayne Pivac as he sought to instil his way of playing on a side that enjoyed so much success under Warren Gatland but with the regional sides performing so consistently poorly he does not have the greatest pool to select from.
There is a similar feel to the Ireland team, where coach Andy Farrell seems torn between trying to forge a new identity while clinging on to his ageing Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton halfback combination as long as possible.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)