We were barely beyond the final rounds of the Champions Cup before the mind games — with Eddie Jones as always to the fore — at the Six Nations launch in London last week reminded us that the main course is about to land in our laps pretty soon, writes Donal Lenihan.
It is a mark of the affair we share with the annual tournament, dating back years to the coverage of the old Five Nations championship, that not even the suspension of a fascinating season of European club action can dim
enthusiasm for the opening round of international fare this weekend.
So much will be revealed over the opening six hours of tournament action that, by Sunday evening, we will have a strong fix of how things might transpire over the course of the next seven weeks.
England supremo Jones, with a highly impressive 22 wins from 23 games in charge, was at his mischievous best at that tournament launch. He has a way of getting under people’s skin, yet it is difficult not to admire him.
Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones have been matching their multi-faceted coaching skills against each other for some time now, dating back to their Super Rugby days with the Auckland Blues and the Brumbies.
Theirs is a healthy rivalry, one forged by respect, yet you get the impression that Schmidt struggles in dealing with the verbal grenades that Jones loves to lob into the mix. It’s not something that Kiwis — Warren Gatland apart — generally like getting dragged into but one the Aussies thrive on.
The fact that Ireland and England are most people’s favourites for championship honours again this season makes that dynamic even more captivating but there is a lot of rugby to be played and, unfortunately, even more injuries to be dealt with before the two sides clash in the final round of action in Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.
Given that Ireland open their campaign at the Stade de France on Saturday evening, Schmidt is absolutely justified in looking no further than an opening fixture that will prove pivotal to what happens from there on in.
That opening day defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield last season still rankles. It immediately put Ireland on the back foot while the loss to Wales in Cardiff in round four will only reinforce Schmidt’s belief in how challenging and unpredictable games on the road are becoming in an
increasingly competitive tournament.
For a coach so meticulous in terms of his analysis of the opposition, Schmidt has only crumbs of information to offer his troops in respect of what the French might throw at them Saturday.
Even by French standards their lack of preparation and uniformity going into this championship is greater still for the sacking of coach Guy Noves after a demoralising draw with Japan in Paris.
What is it with the French that their federation continually conspires to give the national team the least possible chance to succeed?
Once the new French president, the influential Bernard Laporte, delivered the 2023 Rugby World Cup against the odds, you just knew he would immediately turn his attention towards addressing the issues that have dogged the French team since he stepped down as national coach after the 2007 World Cup.
Laporte was the last French coach anywhere near equipped for the role and his record in the tournament — four Six Nations championships, including two Grand Slams — will stand the test of time.
By taking the decision to sack Noves in December — the first ever French coach to lose his job mid-contract — one might have expected a more inspired choice as his replacement.
By appointing former Italian coach Jacques Brunel, Laporte’s forwards coach during his reign with France, he has followed the appointment of Noves, by taking a further step back in time.
If you think Johann van Graan faced a difficult challenge taking over at Munster midway through the season, at least he had some continuity provided by the assistant coaches in situ in Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones.
When the new-look French squad assembled at their training base in Marcoussis last weekend, their first day in camp was not only spent on introductions with so many new and unfamiliar faces on the player roster but also in getting to know a completely new coaching and management team.
Putting that coaching ticket together proved highly complex.
The first issue revolved around who was contractually available to take on the challenge and the second on who was interested in taking on such a poisoned chalice? Coaching France hasn’t exactly enhanced anyone’s CV over the last decade.
Former French hooker and Lyon forwards coach Sebastien Bruno joined Brunel early on while a plethora of the leading coaches in the Top 14, including Clermont Auvergne’s Franck Azema, Fabien Galthie, Pierre Mignoni, Racing 92’s Laurent Labit, and La Rochelle pair Patrice Collazo and Xavier Garbajosa all declined overtures to join the set-up.
Eventually, the out-of-work Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, who had a less-than-productive period at Toulouse, and former French back rower Julien Bonnaire came on board.
Compare that to the clarity, structure, and organised machine that awaited the Irish players when they reported for warm weather training in Spain last week and subsequently on their return to Carton House this week.
Even allowing for the fact that some of the younger brigade are in a Six Nations camp for the first time, the fact the majority of them were on tour with Ireland in the USA and Japan last June means they know exactly what Schmidt requires and what their specific roles are, regardless of whether they are chosen start next Saturday.
Back in France, Laporte was suggesting that in the future, the French approach will be more of a democracy.
“The Top 14 coaches will come together before each tournament. They will sit around a table to exchange ideas and involve everyone around the national side.
"It’s a win-win for the clubs and the French team. We can no longer have clubs on one side and the France XV on the other.”
Good luck with that approach.
Of even more importance, coaching teams quickly have to find a chemistry to be effective. You can’t have individual coaches pulling in different directions, delivering different messages to the players.
Somehow, a French coaching team that has been scrambled together has to find a common ground over a very short period of time.
As for the composition of the French team to be announced tomorrow, the suggestion is that Matthieu Jalibert, an uncapped 19-year-old who has still to play a Champions Cup game, will start at out-half.
The back row being touted — Yacouba Camara, Kevin Gourdon, and a star in the making in Sekou Macalou — have 22 caps between them. Brave or foolhardy? We are about to find out.
As always with French rugby, there is an element of mystique and uncertainty.
It is what worries Schmidt most as he counts down the hours to kick off in Paris on Saturday evening.
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