Is there a bigger oxymoron in the sporting lexicon than ‘friendly rugby match’?
It’s a phrase that comes across as being almost nonsensically self-contradicting – something akin to a ‘merry sexual assault’ or ‘jovial GBH’. Can sticking your head between other men’s legs ever really be done in a ‘ friendly’ way? Well, ‘yes’ is apparently the answer to that ill-judged question according to the token overly camp stereotype in the Paddy Power Journalists office, but the point remains that rugby is not exactly a sport than can be done in a gentle way.
It leaves the teams of the 6 Nations in a bit of a pickle. On one hand they need to prepare themselves for the intensity presented by the South hemisphere teams, but on the other they need to ensure they don’t arrive at the World Cup gasping for breath and enquiring if the guys at Passport Control have any European blood in them. Whilst the All Blacks, Australia and the Springboks Reserves are happily knocking lumps out of each other in an abridged version of the Tri Nations, Europe’s sides have to content themselves with something – in terms of ferocity at least – that will feel like a game of tag with an asthmatic.
The task is to get your key players up to match fitness without seeing them get crippled – it’s a tightrope. Strength in depth isn’t a strong point for the northern hemisphere sides. Each of the 6 Nations sides can name first XVs that will at least be competitive, but if they were to suffer a few injuries, they’d be struggling. Only France could claim to have quality that extends far beyond the starting team and that apparent advantage is somewhat negated by Marc Lievremont’s ‘eeny-meeny-miny-mo’ approach to selection. It’s something even the World Champions have acknowledged by sending a bunch of players who’d normally only get their hands on a Springboks jersey at the whatever the South African version of JJB Sports is to the Tri-Nations and protecting the untouchables by keeping them at home under the safety of Peter de Villiers glorious moustache.
The 6 Nations ended up a lot like a brawl a family wedding. All the protagonists know each other too well and after a brief but ugly melee they stopped to the sound of onlookers tut-tutting and saying things like ‘they really should know better at this stage’ with even the victors not receiving much by way of credit. England were those unloved victors and it’s from these inauspicious beginnings that Martin Johnson must manufacture a performance that can at least be mentioned in the same breath as the 2003 triumph or the possibly even more remarkable achievement of the 2007 runners-up spot. They start the warm-up programme with the visit of Wales. Both coaches have named teams full of familiar names with a sprinkling of more experimental picks. A victory would be nice, but more important is a good performance and an absence of overtime claims from the physios and medical staff.
In the past we would have said that you’d have to question the value that comes from playing Scotland at any time, but then they went and got good again and deprived us of one of our staple gags. Ireland’s most recent preparation for a World Cup went about as well as J-Lo’s love life and by the time the tournament rolled around the players were exhausted and all they could manage was making Argentina look like a rampant Barbarians side from the 1970s. The extra cotton wool has been ordered and it’s very much a second string side that will face the Scots at Murrayfield. With that in mind however, you’d expect to see extra effort from certain players with enough ego to think they can yet force themselves into the starting team.
The road to New Zealand begins here and as long as the last leg of it doesn’t need to be completed on a stretcher, the North hemisphere teams will be happy enough.