No other competition in the world brings together the combination of intense rugby, playful racism and unnecessary kilts of the 6 Nations. It’s fantastic and if you don’t believe us, listen to Craig Doyle – he’s not exactly the type of man who’ll say just about anything in return for money. Here’s a look at how the teams are shaping up ahead of a Championship that promises to be every bit not as strong as the Tri-Nations, but a lot more exciting.
Not since Ricky Martin went into the defence of his Most Eligible Bachelor 2010 title has a reigning champion been so casually dismissed in pursuit of back to back wins. Through a combination of bad behaviour and bad rugby, the 2011 champs are utterly unfancied and unloved and their reputation has sunk faster than Manu Tuilagi jumping into Auckland harbour. People will generally tolerate reasonably bad behaviour as long as results are good – that’s why Naomi Campbell still gets work – but once the quality dips, people are a lot less willing to let it slide. Martin Johnson was arguably the most intimidating man to have ever been cast as the scapegoat, but the blame for the under-performing was unequivocally and perhaps strategically laid at his door. Stuart Lancaster is the short-term band aid applied to guide the team through the Six Nations, but the lack of strength in depth that was rarely used as a defence for Johnson has already been exposed with his selection of a very unproven squad. Toby Flood is the most capped player in the squad and the benefit of his experience will have to be sent telepathically because he’ll sit out at least the first couple of games. England are left with a handful of semi-trusted youngsters and a lot of others that could go either way. If you’re a proponent of the glass half full ideology, the youngsters might collectively seize their chance and make light of supposed inexperience, but a more negative outlook would see them as being woefully unprepared for doing battle with some of the rule-bending masters they’ll do battle with in the 6 Nations. Either outcome is really conceivable. As has become the norm for English rugby of late, nothing would really surprise you these days.
If the French players were to express their feelings through musical theatre – and who’s to day they don’t – the song would probably begin ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’. Marc Lievremont was as popular with the players as monogamy is with the male population of the country and the theory persists that their efforts in reaching the World Cup decider were largely down to steadfastly ignoring the coach. Philippe Saint Andre has plenty of coaching experience and will be welcomed with open arms. At least until the point he does something they don’t agree with. Saint Andre has largely stayed true to the squad that lost out to New Zealand, only bringing in a couple of exciting uncapped youngsters, the most exciting being Wesley Fofana. With the fixture list being extra kind to them in even-numbered years and their large pool of talent at their disposal, they’re the obvious favourites for the Championship and a possible Grand slam. The only concern is that they remain complete and irrevocably French and that normally translates into at least one or two sketchy performances in the 6 Nations. Saint Andre’s vast experience of club management and handling prima-donnas may limit the bouts of Gallic indifference, but they still have it in them. Still though, they’re good enough to win it even if they’re not always firing on all cylinders or even talking to the coach.
The wholesale ‘don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out’s that were predicted following the World Cup haven’t materialised as Ireland go into another 6 Nations with a remarkably familiar look. The scale of Declan Kidney’s conservatism makes Michele Bachmann look like a free-spirited liberal, but there is some justification for not sweeping the deck as clean as some pundits would like. Firstly, the knee-jerk reaction of losing to Wales in the quarter-final was over the top and based mainly on one game where Warren Gatland got all his calls spot on and secondly, as good as some of these rising stars have been, they’re going up against guys with proven experience and reliability from years of performing well in the Heineken Cup and international rugby. The even-numbered years are considered Ireland’s worst chance of claiming a Grand Slam, but conversely, they’ve a decent chance of a Championship. The home games against Wales, Italy and Scotland are very winnable and just one away win in Paris or London – let’s be honest, most likely London – would have them in the frame for the title and glancing nervously at the points difference in the hope things fall their way.
On the face of it, it’s all change in Italian rugby as Nick Mallett saunters into unemployment and a future of being linked with every major vacancy in the sport. Mallet’s time in charge of the Azzurri was a big success, talking them from a position where they managed the occasional win and plentiful moral victories to the point where they now get more frequent occasional wins and even more moral victories. There’s a new name on the door of the manager’s office, but rather wisely Jacques Brunel hasn’t abandoned the formula or the players responsible for the progress. The game-plan will still revolve around attempting to bludgeon teams to death up front with the backs mainly there to hold the tackle bags. Brunel brings ambition and a quality moustache to the Italian game. He harbours aspirations of making them a greater attacking threat, but it’s going to take a while longer for Italian involvement in the Changes It’s Name Too Often To Keep Track Pro12 to benefit the national side so that will be slow burner. The home games against England and Scotland are a great chance to bloody the noses of the big boys, but getting anything from the trips to Paris, Dublin and Cardiff is going to be more difficult than getting rid of Martin Castrogiovanni’s split ends.
There’s a lot to like about the progress Scotland have made under Robinson, but the loss of Chris Paterson could cause problems. Without wanting to be overly hyperbolic, Paterson was virtually guaranteed to score from anywhere inside the opponents have. Blindfolded. With the laces of his boots tied together. Wearing skinny jeans that are actually a bit too restrictive. He kept the scoreboard ticking over and almost always punished opponents with points when they fell foul of the whistle. Dan Parks is arguably a more complete player, but his place-kicking isn’t going to be of the same metronomic standard of Paterson and the points he fails to collect are points Scotland can ill-afford to do without at their current ebb. Living up to their warrior stereotype, Scotland are able to go toe to toe with anyone on any given day, but struggle for consistency and the World Cup campaign highlighted the problems. They came within a Movember whisker of beating England, should have beaten Argentina, but then laboured to wins over Romania and Georgia. It’s a bit clichéd to say ‘they’ll cause problems for anyone on their day’, but it’s also accurate and although we’re guaranteed hard work and effort against everyone, the lack of strength in depth may betray them in their quest for progress.
The pain of a referee actually doing his job correctly and costing them a likely victory over France in the World Cup has only recently abated for Wales. The truth is missed kicks and squandered opportunities were the real reason they missed out on the chance to lose to New Zealand in the World Cup Final, but the good news is at least they were good enough to feel aggrieved and that bodes well for the future. A lot of young players signalled their potential to be world class during that campaign and although Shane Williams balletic tip-toeing around defenders will never truly replaced, they’ve got replacements with their own strengths and the team should be none the weaker for the wee man’s retirement. Warren Gatland’s team start with a game in Dublin that the World Cup showed us it’s entirely winnable. The trip to Twickenham won’t unduly worry them either and the home victories against Scotland and Italy should have them in the frame for the Championship. The sense of injustice can be parked until the final weekend only to be wheeled out in time for the visit of France to Cardiff. Added to the mix is the potential for this game to be a championship decider. Or a dead rubber – it depends on how mildly inaccurate this preview is. There have been some false dawns in the past, but with exciting young talent and Gatland’s guidance, they look like they’ll be a big force in the 6 Nations for at least the next few years.