Such is the status of the Six Nations on the international rugby landscape, that it requires little subtext to add hype to a tournament which continually justifies its status as the 'greatest championship'. Four different winners in the last seven years – and just three grand slams – means that while the four-team Rugby Championship might provide exquisite off-loads and mesmeric handling, nothing can quite compete with the unpredictability of the annual northern hemisphere showcase.

But in 2017, the added fillip of the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in June works as the backdrop to the event. Try as they might, captains and coaches of each of the six teams attempted in vain to dismiss any notion that the quadrennial series would provide even a remote distraction over the next two months. Nevertheless, the challenge of the All Blacks loomed large over the launch of the Six Nations, the elephant in the room which dare not be poked.

The next five matches could either enrich or vanquish an individual's hopes of figuring in Warren Gatland's plans. Eddie Jones can appreciate the feeling of being on the precipice of success and failure, as he puts his 13-match winning record as England coach on the line. The Australian admits players minds will wander towards the summer during the tournament, but has issued a stark warning to anyone who is led astray.

"I won't pick them," said Jones, whose England side can break New Zealand's all-time winning run of 17 if they claim a second straight grand slam. "I think a player's focus does change, players get swayed and worry about their own performance and that is something we have attempted to address.

Warren Gatland
Gatland faces a pivotal eight weeks as he starts to form his squad for New Zealand. Getty Images

"We want our players to play for the Lions but as a consequence of playing well for us. I don't think there is any change in intensity. I don't think that is a major motivational factor apart from a few individuals who look to put their performance ahead of others."

Opening weekend opponents France are expecting the worst when they take on England at Twickenham. If the Lions does indeed bring the best out of their opponents then Les Blues are prepared for such an eventuality. Guy Noves' side ran the the world champions close last November and will represent a decent barometer for Europe's elite.

Eddie Jones
Jones knows the Six Nations will be another bruising battle Getty images

France captain Guilhem Guirado insisted: "For them we know it is extremely important but we have been focusing on ourselves because we have been making mistakes. We are playing against opponents who are extremely dangerous and the fact that their is a Lions tour is neither here nor there because the motivation is there anyway when you play in a tournament such as the Six Nations."

Alun Wyn Jones has a depth of experience to fall back on to cope with the added scrutiny which comes with a Six Nations, followed by a Lions series. Despite taking sole control of the Wales captaincy – having replaced Sam Warburton – he has led his country five times previously and took charge of the Lions for the decisive third test in Sydney in 2013. Success follows him like a bad smell.

Alun Wyn Jones
Jones only has eyes for Wales as he begins his tenure as the permanent Wales captain Getty Images

"I think there are a lot more questions for obvious reasons [during a Lions year]," the 31-year-old said. "There are probably players thinking about it and I think that is a good thing. As long as they can bury that down and focus on the team then we'll be good a good place."

If the Ospreys second row is the current favourite to captain the Lions again this summer, Ireland's Rory Best is the next cab off the rank. The Ulsterman was unused by Gatland four years ago but must be considered a shoe-in; assuming Ireland can build on their win over New Zealand in Chicago.

Rory Best
Best is hopeful Ireland can build victory their victory over New Zealand last autumn Getty Images

"The don't think you can ever question the intensity of the Six Nations," the hooker said. "For me it is a great competition to play in. But in terms of intensity you're talking about a very prestigious competition and you're pulling on your national jersey; I don't think you can want a whole lot more than that. People think there is an added incentive because it's a Lions year but for me personally it is all about trying to perform the best you can."

The team that have the most to gain from a promising Six Nations is Scotland, who under Vern Cotter produced a dazzling display against Australia last autumn and beat World Cup semi-finalists Argentina. Greig Laidlaw is the experienced head leading young shoulders and amid the obvious lure of the Lions he expects the competitiveness to be ratcheted up once again.

"The Six Nations is always extremely physical," the scrum-half explained. "Year-on-year it intensifies, this year will be no exception. Everyone is trying to get fitter, faster and stronger. There are big collisions and it is part of the game that if you want to be in games or win games that you've got to get it right. That is an area we've looked to improve on."

Conor O'Shea
O'Shea takes his Six Nations bow as a coach aiming to build on Italy's improvement Getty Images

The greatest victims of any escalation in quality with inevitably be Six Nations bottom-feeders Italy, who have claimed the wooden spoon in six of the last nine years. The Azzuri have enlisted Conor O'Shea as coach in an attempt to ensure they build on their brief attempts to breach the gap between themselves and their illustrious neighbours on the continent.

Skipper Sergio Parisse is braced to appear in his 14th Six Nations championship and once again carries the hopes of an Italy side who did beat South Africa for the first time last year. But merely being consistent remains the central challenge facing O'Shea's men.

"I think every single player who plays for the national team, especially in the Six Nations, from a physical point of view the intensity you put in everything," the number eight stated. "England and Wales are particularly physical, and they really care. They want to be stronger and dominate physically. It is no difference when they play the Six Nations, they don't think about other things they matches and the intensity is the same."

Rhys Webb
Nations will be awarded a bonus point for the first time for scoring four tries Getty Images

There is no doubt that the standard of the Six Nations means the tournament represents an accurate sounding board for Gatland ahead of naming his Lions squad later in the year. The bonus points system – which will reward teams who score four tries or more – will encourage open, risk-taking rugby which will inevitably be require if Steven Hansen's side are to be challenged this summer.

The northern hemisphere is entering its most encouraging period for many years. Though the six competing teams would have you believe their thoughts are only on the next eight weeks, it would be folly to believe the looming challenge posed by the number one nation on the planet isn't on their minds. Success waits for no man, and the time to impress starts now.