An emerging England side will find themselves having to deal with the pressure of expectation as never before in this season’s Six Nations Championship.
It may be, as coach Stuart Lancaster – now preparing for only his second Championship in charge of England – has often said, that England ought to expect to win every match they play.
But England’s stunning 38-21 defeat of world champions New Zealand last time out in December means they have now set a high standard for themselves.
After all, if they can beat the All Blacks by a record 17 point-margin, surely their opening Six Nations match next weekend at home to Scotland – who haven’t won at Twickenham for 30 years – ought to produce another victory?
The Scotland match is one of three home fixtures for England, and France coach Philippe Saint-Andre believes that could be a key factor in deciding the destiny of the title.
“England, with their performance against New Zealand and three home games, they are the favourites,” said Saint-Andre.
Doubts do still remain as to whether England have sufficient creativity behind the scrum to ensure the win over New Zealand becomes more than a glorious one-off.
And ahead of the Scotland match they have injury concerns, with Manu Tuilagi struggling with an ankle injury.
Not that there was much sympathy from Scotland coach Scott Johnson.
“That just leaves you (England) with another 40,000 players to pick from, it’s a sad story,” was the Australian’s response to England’s problems.
Professional rugby has not been kind to Scotland, with the Test side now selected from just two home-based ‘pro teams’ in Edinburgh – who lost all six of their European Cup pool matches this season – and Glasgow, along with a sprinkling of overseas-based players.
Despite occasional highlights elsewhere, such as last year’s win away to Australia, Scotland’s recent Six Nations record is dire with 12 defeats in their past 15 matches.
“We are happy to go in as the poor little boys on the block,” said Johnson.
“But rest assured, come game time we may not be a poor little boy.
“Despite what people think, we are going to turn up to this game – we aren’t going to cancel it.”
France, on a four-game winning streak, meet Italy in their Six Nations opener while Wales will clash with Ireland.
Wales are rated rank outsiders to defend their Six Nations title after yet another disastrous European campaign by Welsh regions, the absence of coach Warren Gatland and a raft of injuries.
Rob Howley will take over as interim Wales boss, in a move that rankles many home fans, and the former international scrum-half is charged with the ominous task of bucking a trend of seven successive losses.
“We have spoken to the players and Rob Howley has made it clear we are on the back of a run of games without a win,” assistant coach Robin McBryde said.
“We cannot be happy with it. We have to make sure all members of the squad feel that pain and hurt as much as the coaches.”