Power Ranking the Six Nations Coaches
As Europe's titans once again prepare to descend upon the Six Nations forum, it's the head coaches that are lumped with more pressure than any.
With Wales looking to become the first team ever to win three titles on the bounce, Warren Gatland will be feeling the heat leading up to February's kickoff. But it's a sensation that will ring true with all six tacticians.
However, some national coaches head into the tournament with more reason to be confident than others, and it's thanks to these bosses that some teams are even considered as contenders for silverware.
Looking at their form throughout 2013, as well as the overall pedigree and other advantages that a coach might give their side, we've ranked this year's six leading men as we once again anticipate the continental forces colliding.
That being said, more recent results will pose a higher significance in the order. After all, a lot can change in a year.
6. Jacques Brunel
Since replacing Nick Mallet at the helm of the Azzurri in 2011, there have been some promising signs of growth under Jacques Brunel.
Italy's stigma is, of course, that the nation suffers as a result of their generally weak development of players in the native ranks, with Treviso and Zebre accounting for 24 of the 30 men named in Italy's squad.
However, Brunel has dealt well with his selection from that pool of players, drafting new blood in and keeping the most deserving of Mallet's old guard around.
The initial hopes for development were good during last year's Six Nations, but Italy failed to build upon an opening win over France, characteristically showing more passion and moral fibre than actual consistent proficiency with ball in hand.
Brunel would be the first to admit that it's here Italy are still lacking when compared to their European peers.
That win over France was one of just two that the side managed in 2013, and it was another nine months before the second came, a November triumph over Fiji.
The Azzurri once again head into the competition as a favourite for the Wooden Spoon, with Frenchman Brunel struggling to orchestrate the team with the same ease that he once had as assistant coach of Les Bleus.
5. Philippe Saint-Andre
Philippe Saint-Andre may have found himself at the bottom of these rankings were it not for an upturn in form from his side at the end of 2013.
There, Les Bleus managed some impressive outings against the likes of Tonga, New Zealand and South Africa, and while the latter two resulted in losses, signs were at hand that things were improving for France.
The Six Nations has been particularly unkind to Saint-Andre since his 2011 appointment. If 2012's tally of just two wins in the competition was a disappointment, then last year certainly didn't help as the French won just a single game, finishing bottom of the table.
The former Gloucester staple has been a controversial figure in terms of squad selection since arriving in the position, some seeing his omission of certain players at certain points as debatable, to say the least.
They may well have a case to claim as much, Francois Trinh-Duc being one of those with reason to be upset about his exclusion at times in the last 12 months.
Les Bleus have a thriving player pool to select from, and despite the foreign influx that's come into the Top 14 in recent years, a strong squad is still at hand.
Nevertheless, Saint-Andre's side losing eight of their 11 games in 2013 has to be put down to bad management for periods, including a somewhat limp 0-3 record on their summer tour of New Zealand.
4. Scott Johnson
With Vern Cotter's arrival at Murrayfield impending, Scotland have a finite amount of time left under the guidance of Scott Johnson. But the Australian's interim tenure in charge of the team has been a highly positive one for the most part.
The one major positive that Johnson has given his side is the belief in themselves that seemed lost for a while; the knowledge that they can and by all likelihood should be challenging the rest of Europe's giants more vigorously.
With that, the Scots have injected a newfound attacking impetus into their game, the try count rising in kind.
That being said, Johnson hasn't completely lost sight of what Scotland were doing right in recent years, too, maintaining a focus on the ground game for which Scotland's scrappy stars have become quite renowned.
Last year's Six Nations was one of the team's more fruitful campaigns for some time, Scotland finishing third in the table and mustering the second-highest amount of tries behind champions Wales.
The former Wales, Wallabies and Ospreys staff member has brought a bout of fresh faces into the squad, using the vast base of knowledge he's established after spending several years with the team to great effect.
3. Joe Schmidt
Legacy will be the main thing helping Joe Schmidt as he heads into his first Six Nations tournament as Ireland coach, given that he's been in the job for less than half a year.
That being said, the former Leinster mastermind has been quick to stem the impact of Ireland's transitional phase, bringing through a raft of fresh talent from the provinces in order to fill those voids left by some of the departed.
The 24-22 loss to reigning Rugby World Cup champions New Zealand was a tremendously cruel way to end the year for Schmidt's side, but it showed that the team can most certainly duke it out with the world's biggest powers.
Confidence along those lines will have been low following Declan Kidney's last Six Nations, where Ireland won just a single match in their 2013 competition.
Since taking over at the team's helm, Schmidt's men have shown their weaker moments, such as a 32-15 loss at home to Australia, but the signs are quite positive on the whole, with a deep reserve of player quality emerging at the Aviva Stadium.
2. Stuart Lancaster
Stuart Lancaster's 2013 was more prolific than any of Europe's other representatives, with England winning eight of their 10 fixtures.
That journey all started with a Six Nations campaign that would go down the wire against Wales, but the 30-3 mauling in Cardiff stood as firm validation of who was on top at the time.
That being said, England have only improved since then, with a fruitful summer tour of Argentina giving the nation a chance to those who didn't make their way into the Lions squad, and producing some potential staples of the squad as a result.
The Premiership's best and brightest are going through a great patch of form, having recently been one of only a few sides capable of beating one of the Southern Hemisphere's giants, Australia, during the QBE internationals.
Although New Zealand would show those tactics up at Twickenham, Lancaster still showed his selection process to be an accurate one, if looking slightly shallow in certain positions at times.
That being said, the coach has handled certain matters to a tee, and his decision to retain Chris Robshaw as captain of the team looks a good one for the most part, summer break from the game or no.
1. Warren Gatland
The reigning Six Nations powerhouse have had to cope with some of 2013 being away from their long-standing leader, but Warren Gatland's 2013 British and Irish Lions tour doesn't seem to have interrupted his national team's growth.
For Gatland, the last 12 months have also been ones of change, but the New Zealand native has, as he has done in the role since 2007, adapted to the situation as it comes.
Contesting against the tide of Welsh stars making their way to France's Top 14, not to mention the bout of injuries that have flown his way, especially in the back line, Gatland has dealt excellently with all obstacles put in his way.
Those injuries have at least given the coach a chance to blood a wealth of new talent, with the likes of Rhys Patchell, Josh Navidi, Rhodri Jones, Liam Williams, Hallam Amos, Scott Williams and others all coming further into the line-up over the last 18 months.
Losses to Australia and South Africa would serve to put a negative spin on the team's success of late, but even those losses each came by single-digit margins, and Gatland remains a worldly force at the head of Wales' table.