Ireland lock Paul O'Connell expects this year's RBS 6 Nations to be one of the most open tournaments in years.
O'Connell believes the general standard in the competition is as high as it has ever been and reckons the old England and France duopoly has been well and truly put to rest.
Although the experienced forward refused to rule out the either of those sides from featuring strongly, he insists every game will represent its own challenge.
He said: "Wales have players back from injury, Italy are getting stronger, Scotland are improving and England and France are always going to be tough to beat.
"Six or eight years ago, France or England would have been the dominant forces but we can't say that now."
Ireland have yet to win the title since it became a six-team format but, despite the high level of the opposition, O'Connell took heart from last season's display.
The Irish finished level on points with winners France - whose victory was established only on a point differential - but had the satisfaction of taking the Triple Crown, with wins over England, Scotland and Wales to savour.
They go into the 2007 championship as favourites and O'Connell feels such recognition is just reward for their recent displays.
"Our last Six Nations campaign was a huge step forward for us and we will be aiming to maintain that progress and momentum when the tournament begins," he said.
"In terms of the results and the way we played, 2006 was very pleasing - we played clever rugby. But we can't get too far ahead of ourselves."
The Munster player also admitted the forthcoming World Cup casts a shadow over the Six Nations, with each side looking to find their form and gain some confidence ahead of the tournament in France.
Despite those considerations, O'Connell is unable to look too far ahead and has instead set his sights firmly on his side's opening encounter against a Wales side he expects to be somewhere near their best.
He said: "We're very aware that this a World Cup year but the tournament is in September and there are a lot of games that have to be played before then.
"Our minds must be focused on the Millennium Stadium and on Wales. It's a daunting challenge because the big names that celebrated their Grand Slam success in 2005 are back in the squad, apart from Shane Williams."