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Six nations, five questions and four perspectives

Ronan O Gara

A player, a legend, an outside and a fan. Diarmuid O’Flynn asked all four for their opinions ahead of the start of this year’s tournament.

1. THE PLAYER (Ronan O’Gara):

How will the Six Nations go?

"There’s good optimism in the camp, a good buzz after the way the European Cup matches have gone for Munster and Leinster. Munster are playing good rugby, we are up near the top of the try-scoring chart for the competition, and Leinster topped that chart. It proves we’re able to score tries, despite the criticism.

"There’s a good mix between backs and forwards, with quality players everywhere. The competition around Europe is stiff, but it should be no surprise that Munster and Leinster are in the last eight of the European Cup, because of the quality of players. There’s a lot of depth in the squad, with quality players outside the last 22, so we should do well. Fellas are really looking forward to it, it’s going to be a fresh start. England and France away from home are difficult games, no matter where you play them.

With the advent of professional rugby, going away isn’t as big a task as it used to be.

What’s important here is the quality of the opposition, not so much the venue.

"I haven’t a clue who’s going to win the championship, but we’ve learned a simple lesson over the years, never take your eye off the ball, one game at a time, that’s all.

Has it been overtaken by the Tri-Nations or even the Heineken Cup?

"No, it’s still a huge tournament. Rugby is so competitive, it seems whatever competition you’re playing is the most important, it seems to light up the whole scene, just look at the recent Heineken Cup games.

The atmosphere in Thomond Park against Sale was incredible, I don’t think I’ve experienced that in a Test match.

"For those people, their team is Munster, and they have huge pride in that team. As a proud Cork man, I can associate with that.

Hopefully, if Ireland can get on a roll, start performing like Munster, like Leinster, people will get behind us the same way.

Which is the best away venue?

Stade de France. It’s an amazing place, beautiful, super pitch, with a fantastic atmosphere.

It’s not intimidating, at least I don’t find it intimidating, but then I suppose that depends on how you define intimidating.

"Thomond Park does seem to be intimidating, but I don’t feel anything like that in Stade de France, it’s a great ground. The Millennium Stadium is special, Murrayfield is a fine stadium, and I know the fans enjoy Edinburgh, good craic there, Twickenham is grand, but when the sun is shining in Paris, the band playing, there’s no better place to play. Without a doubt my favourite venue.

Are new boys Italy making progress?

"Definitely, you can see it in the European Cup, they got their act together.

There’s been a change of management at international level, which should give them a boost. They’re always very physical to play against, at every level, they love the confrontation.

There’s never a wide margin when you play Italy, that’s a credit to them. They’re making progress and that will last. They have the Bergomasco brothers with Stade Francais, some very good players with teams in France.

Their U21 team does well, I can see them getting better and better in this competition."

Has the Triple Crown lost its lustre?

"No, it was a huge day out when we won it two years ago, I’d put that down as one of my greatest achievements on a rugby pitch.

I don’t think it’s lost its appeal to the players. England would still be seen as the team all three Celtic nations want to beat, that’s always the way, isn’t it?

They’re talked up a lot more than anyone else, the most professional, the most resources, it’s a huge scalp. But Wales, after winning the Grand Slam last year, are there to be knocked, they’ll fancy their chances, so even if you’re lucky enough to beat England, that’s not enough to guarantee you the Triple Crown. You have to earn it, and if you can win it, fair play."

2. THE LEGEND (Willie John McBride):

How will the Six Nations go?

"England are going to be a lot better than they were last year, a lot more difficult team to beat. France will be France, either brilliant or very disappointing. It’s always very difficult to predict how they’re going to play, but they will be very difficult to beat in Paris. Wales had a lot of things going for them last year, they got the breaks, and I can’t see them repeating that. Ireland will find England and France very tough away from home, but I think they’ll beat Wales and Scotland alright, and of course we should beat Italy again.

But England will be the team to beat, too many numbers, a luxury we don’t have. We can’t afford injuries, and we need the breaks.

Maybe with the World Cup being held there next year, there might be a different outlook in France, and they’ll be looking towards that, obviously, but it will be one or the other of France and England.

I’d put my money on England to finish top, especially if they have France at home, with Ireland to finish a very creditable third."

The Southern Hemisphere was always jealous of our Five Nations, and are still jealous of our Six Nations; they will never overtake us.

The Heineken Cup, while a great competition, is a different level, it’s that step below.

The atmosphere in places like Ravenhill and Thomond Park is fantastic, there’s no doubt about that, and I think that’s very important for the game, it spreads the game into the four provinces, but the internationals are another step up again."

Which is the best away venue?

"THE most difficult one for us when I was playing was Paris, we could beat them in Dublin but we had a terrible record over there, they always tended to play very well. The most enjoyable? I’d have to say Scotland, that was always a good weekend. The ground was within walking distance of the city centre, where Twickenham is just a big lump of concrete stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Cardiff Arms Park was a fine venue, but I don’t know much about the new Millennium Stadium, but I always enjoyed Murrayfield.

I don’t mean this in a mean way, but I don’t think Italy have measured up. Two things, they haven’t had the wins they should have had, and they have too many foreign players. They’re not an Italian team, too many guys are from New Zealand, South Africa, that sort of thing. Maybe I have a bit of a phobia about it, but when I was playing, it was all Englishmen when you played against England, Welsh when you played against Wales, that sort of thing. At times, you’d think they’re getting places, but then it looks like they’re going nowhere.

Has the Triple Crown lost its lustre?

"No, definitely not, and I think it would be very sad if ever it did. One of the bad things about professional rugby is that we’ve lost so much about the old ethos of the game, things that were so precious to us for over a hundred years.

The Lions tours, for example, have been cut way back, it’s not anything like it used to be when I was playing. You even have people saying now, forget about the Lions, we have the World Cup. That would be horrendous, it’s something special. The Triple Crown is the same, and it would be very sad if we lost that as well.

Thankfully, from the reaction of the players when Ireland won it a couple of years ago, it still means a lot to them, and rightly so.

It still takes a very good team to win the Triple Crown, nowadays especially so, with the games coming on top of each other. There’s very little between success and failure at the top level, a bounce of a ball, injuries and so on, and it still takes a very good team to win those three matches outright."

3. THE OUTSIDER - Brent Pope (coach and pundit)

How will the Six Nations go?

"France will win it, the fact they’re at home to Ireland. Given the way the provincial teams have gone in the last few weeks, I think that has pushed Ireland up, so they’ll contest second place with England.

I don’t think Wales will be there, the injury factor will hamper them, plus the fact their win last year was a bit flukey.

The games against England and France could have gone either way, while neither Scotland nor Italy will offer much.

If I had to pick between Ireland and England for second place, I’d go for England, based on the fact the game is in Twickenham, but Ireland should win all their home games.

France, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy, that’s how I see it."

Has it been overtaken by the Tri-Nations or even the Heineken Cup?

"No, simple answer. There’s a lot of romance and nostalgia associated with the Six Nations, but the Heineken Cup has made huge inroads. There’s far more interest in Munster or Leinster playing Heineken Cup in the last few weeks, than in Ireland playing Italy. The standard has been diluted in the last few years. When I was growing up in New Zealand, every team had an almost equal chance of winning.

Now it’s a two-tier tournament.

Most of all, the World Cup has taken over. Even Ireland, with Eddie O’Sullivan, look to the Six Nations with one eye on the World Cup, a stepping-stone.

Which is the best away venue?

"Paris, without a doubt. There’s something special about French rugby, but Paris in the spring, the atmosphere, the bands in the stadium, the singing, the passion, the after-match.

I don’t doubt the French would say Dublin, but for the Irish, it has to be Paris. Twickenham is okay, Edinburgh is a good weekend, Wales is probably the best venue from the view of the pure fan, it’s as close as you’ll get to New Zealand in that everyone knows about rugby, but it can be too harsh. With all due respect, ask someone where they’d rather go on Valentine’s weekend, Cardiff or Paris, and there’s only one answer!"

Are new boys Italy making progress?

"No. Don’t get me wrong, Italy deserved their inclusion when they came in, they had beaten most of the Five Nations sides in the previous couple of years, but their record since suggests that they’re a stocking-filler.

I haven’t seen any improvement in them, really, in the last three or four years, which gives me no pleasure to say, really.

They should be kept in it for the same reason I’d like to see Argentina or Samoa invited into competition in the Southern Hemisphere, like the Super 14 or the Tri-Nations; to get a true World Cup, these teams have to play in a meaningful competition.

Has the Triple Crown lost its lustre?

"Yes, without a doubt.

I don’t want to take away from the Triple Crowns that were won years ago, but it’s different now.

When I was watching rugby years ago, for Ireland to beat Wales, Scotland and England in the same season was a major achievement, bloody tough.

Every time Ireland played Scotland it would be nick and tuck, but Ireland is so far ahead of Scotland now that it’s become a game Ireland really shouldn’t lose.

I can’t see where Scotland are going to get the players, they might put up a good fight against some sides, get an odd win here or there, but winning there isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be.

Wales also should be beaten this year, especially given their injury problems, so you’re down to one game really, against England away, for Ireland to win the Triple Crown this year.

Going back to the ‘70s, the ‘80s, it was a lot tougher than that.

It’s still tough, but nowhere near as hard as it used to be, Irish rugby has come on in leaps and bounds, where some of the others haven’t."

4. THE FAN (Paddy O'Brien, Bective Rangers)

How will the 6-Nations go?

"France and England will be the teams to beat, as always; Wales did very well last year, but I don’t think they’ll be able to sustain that.

"Their Heineken Cup teams have performed poorly and they’re under pressure with injuries.

"Write them off at your peril, and I’m not doing that, but it does look like France and England, with Ireland in third.

"I can’t see us winning either of those games away, but I expect us to put it up to both, give a good challenge.

"Our pack is coming together, particularly after the success lately of both Munster and Leinster in the Heineken Cup.

"The Leinster pack has been slagged, but they fronted up very well against Munster in the Celtic League in Donnybrook, which was a bit of a wake-up call for Munster, who went on to defeat Edinburgh away, the first team to do that."

"Then they beat Castres and Sale to top their group in the Heineken Cup. I’d be a huge Munster supporter, didn’t miss any of those games.

Has it been overtaken by the Tri-Nations or even the Heineken Cup?

"It has slipped behind the Heineken Cup, which has gathered huge momentum.

Munster also get great support when they’re doing well in the Heineken Cup.

In fairness, I’d say you’d also get the same sort of support for Leinster in Munster; there are 15 of us that travel together up here, and when Munster aren’t involved, we’d all support Leinster. It’s a fantastic new competition.

"The Six Nations will hold its place, there will always be a place for it, and the fact it’s an All-Ireland team is a good thing as well.

Which is the best away venue?

"A tough one. For craic, it’s Edinburgh; for satisfaction at getting a result, it’s England or Wales, more so England in the past few years, because Wales had become so uncompetitive.

"Overall, I’d have to say England. They love to come here, came here when no one else would (Ireland were denied what would have been a good shot at the Triple Crown in the early ’70s because Wales and Scotland refused to travel, citing the Troubles, but England came, were afforded a fantastic welcome, then given a trouncing.

Are new boys Italy making progress?

"Very slow, they still don’t appear to have the playing numbers to be competitive, though they’re investing big money in the game.

"It’s still worth having them in it; it broadens the rugby base, plus the fact it’s another great trip away! They’re at the bottom of the rung, but they have hope.

"France took a long time to establish themselves after they joined the Five Nations, Argentina have come a long way in the last 20 years, up with the best now.

Italy are only about a third of the way.

Has the Triple Crown lost its lustre?

"Oh, I wouldn’t say so, that will always be there, holding its own. There’s always a bit of bite there for those games, it’s the old enemy, Scotland will shout for Ireland against England, Wales will shout for us, while we’ll do likewise for them.

In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, it was a different environment, everyone was amateur, there was no other major competition around, but even today, with all the changes, the Triple Crown is still relevant, it’s still a great competition. "I would still acclaim an Irish team that wins it."