In the old days of the Five Nations, every side had a fortnight between three of their contests and a month left clicking their heels between one. The inclusion of the Italians in 2000 changed all that.
The scheduling has also become key with three home fixtures every second year an added bonus for teams – and a cash boost for the respective unions. The fixtures are slightly lopsided from an Irish perspective in that every second year we have to travel to the traditional power houses – England and France – in the same season but have the added bonus of hosting both on the alternate year. The fact that France have already called and conquered is a setback, but one Ireland must quickly recover from.
Phase one of the Six Nations covers the opening two games played on successive weekends. Management’s entire focus is firmly placed on preparing for those two games, with a flood of information made available to the players. The general game plan has been agreed and rehearsed well in advance but the specifics of how to tweak your approach for different opposition and what specific lineouts and back-line moves will be cherry-picked from the play book will only be chosen and agreed that week.
England have a very attractive schedule of fixtures this season which set them up perfectly, albeit on the premise that they won their opening game in Cardiff. In that context the win was far more important than the performance. By beating Wales away in that opening game England had the comfort of retreating to Twickenham for three successive games. By having Italy second up they could afford to put all their energy into the preparation for the Welsh game and then do a crash course for the less demanding chore of beating the Azzurri. To do so with such precision and style will have worked wonders for their confidence.
Phase two of the championship, which we enter next weekend, allows teams to recover from the physicaldemands of the back-to-back opening games and to prepare in isolation for one opponent. In England’s case having their phase two game against France at home is a big advantage. Two weeks to recover and prepare. The same of course is true for France but having to travel to Dublin and London for successive games against what they perceive to be their two most difficult opponents challenges them in a different way.
Already the mind games have started with French coach Marc Lievremont declaring his hatred of all things English at a time when he should be keeping his mouth shut and preparing his side for one hell of a test.
At least Lievremont now seems well down the road in picking his best side and I think the reintroduction ofVincent Clerc, Yannick Jauzion,Dimitri Yachvili and the placement of Maxime Medard at full-backstrengthens the back line from the one that featured in Dublin.
The selection of Yoann Huget on the wing over Clermont Auvergne’s Julien Malzieu is the only one I would question, although it will be interesting to see how the Rougerie/Jauzion midfield combination fares after the pair’s disastrous showing together against Australia in November.
Ireland’s visit to Murrayfield is also fraught with danger given that the Scots are seething, even if it is with no one else but themselves. They were so bad against Wales they will have to produce the goods in order to appease what has already become a dispirited and shattered Scottish rugby public. More about that in Saturday’s paper.
France did not have to play anywhere near their best to beat Ireland in Dublin. Ireland’s high error count, succession of kickable penalties and plethora of turnovers made life far easier for the French than they dared to think. However, they will not be afforded such luxuries by an England side that is far from the finished article but is heading in the right direction. Suffice to say, they will learn a lot about themselves this weekend.
The one thing that really impressed me about the English against Italy was the efficiency of their set piece. Remember, this was against an Italian scrum that had Ireland in all kinds of trouble and a lineout that also asked serious questions of Paul O’Connell and company.
In the absence of first choice forwards Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft and captain Lewis Moody, I expected England to struggle out of touch. In addition, when Andrew Sheridan was forced to withdraw on the Thursday before the game and Martin Johnson opted for an unproven debutant in Alex Corbisiero from London Irish to face the might of Martin Castrogiovanni, there was every chance that England could be exposed at scrum time.
On the contrary, Corbisiero and Castro’s clubmate in Leicester Tigers, Dan Cole, had magnificent games and never took a backward step. With four of Johnson’s first choice pack missing that was a significant achievement.
With a further two weeks to prepare for the final assault on the championship, phase three stages another sequence of back-to-back tests that will define just where all the Six Nations sides are six months out from the World Cup. Should England manage to account for the French on Saturday then only Scotland at home will stand between them travelling to the Aviva Stadium to face Ireland for a first tilt at the championship – and with it a Grand Slam – since winning the World Cup in 2003. It is a long time for England to be left on the outside looking in.
Ireland are an infinitely better side than Scotland and have to prove that to themselves as much as anyone else this weekend.
They look like a side fighting with their frailties at the moment, trying too hard and putting themselves under needless pressure. They just need to relax a little. The probable return of Tommy Bowe should facilitate that as he always strikes me as a player who is not only full of confidence and positivity but totally at ease at all times. Hopefully that will permeate down to the rest of the back line.
This is the crucial weekend for all six teams in the tournament. A win in phase two sends players home for a mini break with a spring in their step and a desire to get back into camp to finish the championship on a high.
Lose and the dynamics change appreciably.