Not only will there be Grand Slams, Triple Crowns and bragging rights on the line during the Six Nations, but places on the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
While there has been a logical focus on those who are competing for places in the touring party, there are a number of players who already have one foot on the plane.
However, such knowledge brings with it added pressure, particularly from “bolters” who might suddenly demonstrate an impressive run of form that cannot be denied.
Consequently, certain players may very quickly fall down the perceived pecking order during the Six Nations, and left playing a massively difficult game of catch-up during the closing weeks of the club season.
[tie_slide]1. Dylan Hartley (England)
An obvious choice, but any indiscretion from Dylan Hartley will not only result in calls for him to be ignored by Warren Gatland, but deposed as England captain in some sections of the media.
Hartley must therefore tread very carefully if he is to be included in Warren Gatland’s squad. This places a huge amount of pressure on a player who both relishes and produces his best rugby while playing on the edge.
Although Gatland did state that Hartley remains in the hunt for the captaincy, one little error could see the England hooker miss out on yet another Lions tour.
[tie_slide]2. Conor Murray (Ireland)
In the eyes of most observers, Conor Murray currently has an iron-clad grip on the Lions number nine jersey.
Murray saw off Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara during the autumn, and carried over his form into Munster’s European campaign.
Indeed. the Irish scrum-half is now seen the key cog in the attacking strategy of both Ireland and Munster, and has been at the receiving end of some roughhousing from the All Blacks and Glasgow Warriors as a result.
Nevertheless, the gap between Murray and Ben Youngs can be closed very quickly if the Irish scrum-half lets down his guard for a second.
[tie_slide]3. Sam Warburton (Wales)
Captained the Lions in 2013, but faces a fight to retain his place in the Welsh team given Justin Tipuric’s form. Warburton’s class remains, but injuries have taken their toll on the 28-year-old.
Worse still for Warburton, he faces tough competition from the likes of Sean O’Brien and James Haskell for a place in the touring party.
While Wales fans would love to see Warburton regain his form now that he has surrendered the Welsh captaincy to Alun Wyn Jones, he must hit the ground running if he is to see off his Lions rivals.
[tie_slide]4. Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
So far this season Sexton has only completed one of the nine games he has started with either Ireland or Leinster. This doesn’t mean he has regressed as a player, but that he is now extremely susceptible to injury.
Therefore Sexton might need to prove that he is up to the rigours of playing five test matches in seven weeks during the Six Nations. Any injury, no matter how insignificant, will work to the advantage of his rivals – of which he has many.
Seeing off Finn Russell over 80 minutes in Ireland’s opening game should go a long way in that regard, but it must be remembered that the Lions face one of the most arduous schedules ever devised.
[tie_slide]5. Jamie Roberts (Wales)
This time last year Jamie Roberts would have been viewed as a banker to at least be included in the touring party.
However, Wales have since adopted a more expansive game plan, leaving the two-time tourist looking on from the bench.
As Wales are unlikely to row back on their strategic shift, Roberts will have to evolve his own game if he is to regain his place ahead of Scott Williams.
This is of course unlikely given that Roberts’ strength lies in his ability to straighten the line and carry hard through the tackle.
Roberts’ chances of being involved in a third Lions tour are therefore hanging by a thread.
On this week’s edition of the Oval Office, we discuss Ireland’s selection policy for overseas players, the England captaincy and more…