Up in the Northern Hemisphere, they’re packing their tin helmets and topping up their hip flasks for the second division tournament of world rugby. PETER BILLS previews the Six Nations.
The NZ Herald
It’s that time of the year again; the time when the European powers indulge in the international rugby fest they regard as the best in the world.
Whisper, at your peril, that their coveted, prestigious Six Nations Championship is in reality the second division tournament of world rugby.
At Croke Park and Twickenham this weekend, the latest instalments in this vibrant, pulsating, unpredictable, extraordinary and quite often thoroughly ordinary tournament will begin.
It’s the same format: the tried and trusted formula of mad, whirlwind weekends in London and Paris, or the morning train from Belfast down to Dublin for the afternoon test match and a glass or two of something decent and appropriate on the journey home.
Attention all stewards and cabin crews on the trains and planes – make sure your liquor supplies are full.
Irish rugby supporters have much reason to exude confidence this year. Has the air ever been so fine at this exalted attitude? Grand Slam winners, Six Nations Champions, Triple Crown holders and, just for a little extra, Leinster are Heineken Cup holders and, with Munster, already into the quarter-finals of this season’s tournament.
Italy at Croke Park on Sunday morning (NZ time) won’t be strong enough to match Ireland, but their scrum could be a test for Declan Kidney’s men. After all, Italian tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni is a one-man wrecking machine, as the All Blacks can testify.
But France in Paris the next weekend could pose problems for the Irish. That surely, will be one of the defining matches of the tournament. As Brian O’Driscoll reminded us last week, Ireland have won just once in Paris in the past 38 years. For sure, not exactly a record to generate false optimism …
But it isn’t ludicrous optimism to suggest this Irish side could again win this great tournament. They could even lose to France in Paris and still emerge, albeit shaken and very definitely stirred, as winners in late March.
The point is, the Six Nations is one of the most unpredictable series in world sport. Results arise that sometimes make you rub your eyes in disbelief.
Take the game in Dublin in 1993 when the bookies had all-conquering England at 10-1 to win at Lansdowne Rd.
Sure, it’d be a breeze, lads, and for sure it was … for Ireland.
France, whom O’Driscoll suspects are going to be the team to beat this year (and why not after their victories over New Zealand and South Africa in the past eight months?) start in Edinburgh against Scotland. This Scottish team will be highly organised and structured, as is the way with their new coach Andy Robinson. And they’ll be hugely encouraged by their defeat of Australia in the autumn. That was a notable scalp and will engender confidence.
Murrayfield has proved an enormous banana skin for the French in the past – and could be again. France should win, but … The French also have to go to Cardiff, late this month.
No easy task, I guarantee.
For then there’s the Welsh. Grand Slam winners in 2008, slipshod under-performers last year, their steely New Zealand coach Warren Gatland a true competitor down to his woolly socks, is still smarting at too many losses in 2009.
Expect them to come out, in true dragon fashion, hissing steam and fire at Twickenham this weekend.
Beyond argument, Wales have some class acts in their side. Jamie Roberts was an outstanding centre on the Lions tour last June. At his best, Lee Byrne is close to being the world’s No 1 fullback (although he may miss Twickenham through suspension) and Stephen Jones is a calm playmaker, an efficient distributor and reliable goal-kicker.
Captain Ryan Jones has looked back to his best in recent weeks with the Ospreys in the backrow and there is potentially an all-Lions front row. I suspect Wales won’t be too far away when the honours are handed out on March 20.
Thus, unless England are ready – Wales at Twickenham first-up could be a most tricky opening for the men in white and their demanding fans.
Might Martin Johnson – once an English icon with a Churchillian air to his leadership – face the sack if England fail again? Frankly, I doubt it.
Johnson looks bombproof until the 2011 World Cup, but if England fail to broaden their game and play some decent rugby, some of their assistant coaches could face the firing squad.
As ever, they’re certain to receive a fair and unbiased hearing from that sober, strictly neutral band of men, the English sports media.
England, like France, will again start off without several first choice men because of injury. Unlike the French, they don’t have that much quality in depth. There are myriad younger players with considerable promise.
But England need to deliver now – tomorrow can go hang.
Johnson forecast this week that many of the games would be close, the outcome separated by just a handful of points. A missed scoring opportunity here, a goalkick that sails narrowly wide there – these are the tiniest of factors that could decide individual games and, ultimately, a Grand Slam.
* Sunday: Ireland v Italy, England v Wales
* Monday: Scotland v France
* February 14: Wales v Scotland, France v Ireland
* February 15: Italy v England
* February 27: Wales v France
* February 28: Italy v Scotland, England v Ireland
* March 14: Ireland v Wales, Scotland v England
* March 15: France v Italy
* March 21: Wales v Italy, Ireland v Scotland, France v England