WE’RE spoiled. After the drama and excitement of the race to reach the last eight of the Heineken Cup, we now have a Six Nations championship to nourish our insatiable appetite for top class rugby.
Is it any wonder the superpowers of the southern hemisphere are so envious of the structure and organisation of the sport in this part of the world?
If this tournament is all about momentum, then Ireland, the clear favourites of many respected rugby figures outside of this country, look the only side certain at this stage of securing the boost that an opening win generates. Unfortunately, the Six Nations has become a three-tier competition in recent seasons with Ireland, Wales and France fighting it out on a regular basis for ultimate honours.
England have not seriously contested for the championship outright since winning the World Cup in 2003, despite reaching the World Cup final again in 2007. While they finished runners-up to Ireland last season on points differential, they were one of three teams to suffer two defeats. The next seven weeks will present the biggest challenge of Martin Johnson’s glittering career – and that’s saying something.
At the bottom of the pile, Scotland and Italy have fought an annual battle to avoid the wooden spoon but the appointment of Andy Robinson as Scotland head coach will certainly add a bit of spice to this year’s championship, starting with their opening game against France at Murrayfield on Sunday.
Italy, with only two home games in this season’s tournament and deprived their best player in captain Sergio Parisse due to injury, already look like a lost cause. If the outcome of the other two games this weekend will have implications for Ireland later, the intriguing aspect of Ireland’s build-up was Declan Kidney’s selection at out half – in the end the decision was taken out of his hands when Jonathan Sexton suffered a recurrence of a dead leg whilst training on Monday.
Who would he have chosen? With Kidney, you could never be sure but with the key game of Ireland’s entire championship only 10 days away in the Stade de France, I am fairly sure that O’Gara was going to get the nod for these two games. Don’t discount however the possibility that Sexton could start in one of the other three. O’Gara is playing and kicking well, and remains one of the key leaders in the team. He has earned the right to start.
ELSEWHERE, the main surprise in the starting team is the decision to opt for Andrew Trimble on the left wing ahead of Keith Earls, who deputised well in that position for the injured Luke Fitzgerald against South Africa. It appears that Kidney wanted a specialist left wing and that tipped the balance in favour of the Ulster man over Earls and the in-form Shane Horgan.
While Trimble is also playing well, he is a converted centre and was exposed badly in that position against France in the 2007 World Cup. Earls is unlucky. The decision to include Gordon D’Arcy in the centre along with Brian O’Driscoll was a no-brainer after the way the Wexford man performed when introduced against the Springboks and against London Irish for Leinster in Twickenham.
A major worry for Kidney with the French game looming must be the regularity with which the inspirational Stephen Ferris is succumbing to injury. It is a price for the physicality he brings to every contest. I am, however, a fan of Kevin McLaughlin who was given the onerous task of replacing Rocky Elsom in Leinster. It is a testimony to the manner in which he responded to that challenge that he now wins his first cap on Saturday.
While the selection of Jerry Flannery was expected despite his lack of game time, the decision to elevate Rory Best to the bench is a monumental gamble. A Division Three AIL game for Banbridge and 40 minutes against England Saxons last Sunday is all he has played in over six months. If Flannery was to get injured in the opening 10 minutes, it would be a huge ask of Best to finish the game. I would have thought he would be better served playing against Scotland A on Friday night.
However now that the team is announced all the attention turns to Saturday. The Irish management and players are duty-bound to talk up the relative virtues of this Italian team – their scrum, which will challenge Ireland – their lineout, which will be competent, and their physicality at the breakdown which will be a factor, especially with referee Romain Poite in control.
But they suffer complete lack of creativity and a defence which stutters alarmingly once the tempo of the game reaches a certain pitch. Ireland will win this weekend, it is only a question of how long Italy can stifle their approach and deny Ireland the pace and quality of ball that an electric backline can convert into points.
With Ireland out of the blocks first on Saturday, the squad should have the luxury of sitting back and analysing the quality on offer from their main rivals as minds turn to Paris.
France travel to Edinburgh secure in the knowledge that their impressive victories over New Zealand last summer and South Africa in the autumn make them a team to fear. However Scotland, under Robinson, are capable of ruffling a few Gallic feathers. Should France emerge from Murrayfield with a win then it will set them up perfectly for the visit of Brian O’Driscoll a decade after his famous hat-trick launched him as a serious performer on the world stage. It is incredible to think that a decade on, he is even more influential.
The clash in Twickenham will also have huge ramifications for Ireland’s hold on the championship. A win for England will, almost certainly, ensure they’ll be unbeaten by the time they entertain Ireland on February 27 – with only Italy in between.
Should Wales replicate their opening tournament win of two years ago in Warren Gatland’s first game in charge, they are capable of going all the way, especially with three of their remaining four games at the Millennium Stadium.
If Johnson is feeling the heat at the moment, then Gatland is also under pressure. Wales, a bit like their regional teams, have flattered to deceive of late. As evidenced on the Lions tour, they have an abundance of talent – their Lions test front row of Jenkins, Rees and Jones is the best in the championship now that France have lost outstanding young loose head prop, Fabien Barcella to injury.
Mike Phillips is a massive loss to Gatland, while Dwayne Peel’s injury jinx and the circus surrounding the availability of Lee Byrne are unwelcome distractions.
The most interesting aspect is whether England, with a change of personnel behind the scrum, are capable of meaningful line breaks. They looked devoid of ideas in attack in the autumn and backs coach, former Irish international Brian Smith, is under even more pressure than Johnson to deliver.
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