IT’S that time of year again: Hooray Henrys braying in the finest hostelries of Dublin 4, sour-faced Welsh fans complaining their team didn’t win by enough, and Cedric Heymans and Clement Poitrenaud in the smoking area of Coppers late on a Saturday night. It’s the Six Nations.
And it’s a fresh-feeling version of the old tournament as well – it seems pretty open, and all countries are well on the World Cup 2015 trail (well, all except the usual suspects, Ireland and Scotland) with their cycles into the second year. France and England in particular look much improved from last year, when the Welsh rode their World Cup 2011 semi-final all the way to a third Grand Slam in seven years. Yet it was low-quality fare in general – only the Taffs will have been content with their form.
Now, let’s look forward to the next five weekends of John Inverdale-filled fun. We’ll start with the French. Phillipe Saint-Andre has now begun to put his stamp on the team, having stated that it was time they “switched generations” – the Servats, Bonnaires and Yachvilis are out and the likes of Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga and Maxime Machenaud are in. The most visible change is, of course, the rebirth of Freddy Michalak.
It’s seven years since the flawed genius last electrified this tournament and, it’s safe to say, he owes it – what a feeling of unfinished business he must have. England grabbed the November headlines with their stunning victory over New Zealand, but France were the best in Europe – they hammered an Aussie team that wiped a purple-clad England, and ground down a fine Samoa team. They’ll probably lose in Twickenham (plus ca change) but win the tournament, with Wesley Fofana the star of the competition.
Speaking of Twickers, the red-blooded, upstanding chaps in the white jerseys have a nice look about them. Stuart Lancaster is now full-time in the job and their squad is sprinkled with exciting youngsters that might just light up their home World Cup in two-and-a-half years – Joe Launchbury, the Vunipolas (Mako and Billy), Freddy Burns and Manu Tuilagi for example. They still struggle for consistency, which is to be expected, but won’t see too much to fear. A win in Dublin looks an ask, but four wins would constitute a good tournament. And the performances will surely be better than the abominations against Scotland and Italy they produced last time. England are serious contenders and look like they will be right through to 2015.
The IRFU’s amateur-era blazers are saddled with a coach who is one loss in Wales away from being the lamest of lame ducks. Finishing a largely-disastrous 2012 on a high, Declan Kidney is into the final few months of his contract and Ireland are six months away from starting our World Cup cycle – is it any wonder we flatter to deceive when we get there?
This is make-or-break time for Kidney; he badly wants a new contract, but it is time to show if he can lead this team in the right direction. Post-2009, Ireland can’t seem to break a pattern of one-off performances and maddening inconsistency.
The feelgood factor is at least reasonably high after an autumn in which a team shorn of its older generation of leaders tore Argentina apart. But can Ireland overcome the twin distractions of Brian O’Driscoll being stripped of the captaincy and Jonny Sexton leaving for Racing Metro?
Memories of Ireland’s lacklustre starts in recent series and three desperate losses in a row against the Welsh mean we can’t be confident about getting a win in the Millennium, and until Ireland beat France, we remain unconvinced the team has the mental strength to do so. We’re forecasting three wins and another curate’s egg of a tournament. It won’t be enough to save Kindney, so it’ll be back to the coaching drawing board 18 months after everyone else.
Speaking of the Welsh, it’s hard to know what to make of them. After looking chock-full of Lions this time last year, it’s hard to pick their starters this time out. Rhys Priestland is injured and inspirational captain Sam Warburton should be benched on form.
Worst of all, they’re missing their five (five!) best second rows and ironclad blindside Dan Lydiate. And yet – even missing all of the above and Lions coach Warren Gatland, they could get their act together. They have a solid front row and giant, skilful backs, but Rob Howley doesn’t fill us with confidence – three wins, and discontent in the Valleys.
As for Italy and Scotland, we cannot get too excited. Jacques Brunel has the Azzurri playing some silky stuff while making progress. But until they find some half-backs of passable quality, all their grunt is in vain. Scotland replaced Andy Robinson with the serially unimpressive Scott Johnson after Tonga felt their sporrans in November and, despite the wooden spoon playoff being in Murrayfield this year, we think (and hope, for Sergio Parrisse’s sake) the Italians will do it.
Of course, this is a Lions year, which adds an extra dimension. Four years ago, Ireland had an unprecedented number of tourists as St Ian McGeechan tried to bring the Munster spirit, and half their team, to the tour. This time last year, the Lions-in-waiting team was festooned with Welsh, but they have the most to lose –the likes of Warburton, Mike Phillips and even George North could easily play themselves out of test contention.
It’s the English who look to have most to gain – any of the aforementioned nippy youngsters, plus Danny Care and Chris Robshaw could all be on the plane by Easter if they bring their recent club form to the white shirt. Robshaw is even a potential captain, even if he may not quite have the pace for the hard Australian ground. The hope, of course, is that the likes of Sean O’Brien, Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and O’Driscoll hit enough form to join already-on-the-plane Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Sexton and Rob Kearney.
So then, France to win it all, but no Grand Slam and no Triple Crown, with Scotland at the bottom – you heard it here first!
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