Let the Six Nations battle commence!
January 31, 2007
If it is true that the RBS Six Nations championship is never better than when it is unpredictable, the 2007 tournament could be one of the best ever. Huw Richards reports
How you regard this is a matter of temperament and nationality. If you are English or French you might look back nostalgically on the time, shorter than is generally remembered, around the turn of the century when those two teams were firmly in charge and the rest little more than sacrifical victims. If you are Welsh or French you might similarly recall the 1970s, and a rather more persistent duopoly.
It can be argued that unpredictability is a symptom of low standards, particularly among the better-resourced nations, and that if you really want one of the Six Nations to make a serious impact at the World Cup, somebody has to be as obviously clear of the pack as England were in 2003.
Maybe so, but that's not the way it is this time round. Just consider the fixtures this weekend. The tournament starts with Italy v France at the delightful Flaminio stadium. History says France has won this one 26 times out of 27, and every time since Italy joined the championship.
Current reality says that France still have a much greater depth of talent but that they have been traumatised by the All Blacks, have one eye on the World Cup already, are desperately casting around for solutions at outside-half (and now, it seems at scrum-half as well) and seem none too certain of their best pack.
Italy, as Marco Bortolami has pointed out, tend to produce their best in their opening match. They have an extremely solid pack with proven world class, in the form of Mauro Bergamasco, Bortolami and Sergio Parisse, exactly where the French have uncertainty. Pierre Berbizier has mischievously raised the stakes by having a dart at Bernard Laporte.
Bortolami has said that one or two wins would represent success, a reasonable call given Italy's record. They have to prove that they can go 80 minutes and also contain the formidable weaponry France deploy beyond that dubious half-back pairing, with Yannick Jauzion back to boss midfield.
Logic still says France, but not by much, and you wouldn't bet much on it.
From there to Twickenham and an England v Scotland match that fascinated even before Brian Ashton decided that his most interesting team was also his best one. There's a renewed ease about English rugby, a sense that at least they will pick their best players and allow them to play. Wilkinson and Farrell are undoubted rugby giants.
They are, though, both hopelessly underprepared in different ways. Farrell has still played only 11 games of first-class union, and Wilkinson only 50 minutes since returning from injury. Throw in a scrum-half with a variable service, a lock with a short fuse and more changes than Arsenal make for a league cup-tie and there are numerous points of vulnerability for the Scots to worry at.
A couple of years ago the reaction to Gavin Hastings' belief that Scotland has a shot at a Triple Crown would have been to ask which interesting hallucinogenic he had been sampling. Not any more.
Win at Twickenham and three consecutive home games follow. Frank Hadden would certainly be happier if he had Jason White available to lead and put in the big hits, but his contention that there is unprecedented competition for places is borne out by his ability to exclude Ally Hogg and Scott Murray.
England? Yes, probably, but considerably closer than most recent Calcutta Cup clashes at Twickenham.
And then on Sunday, there's Wales v Ireland at Cardiff. Once again, as in 2005, both fixtures and form say this should be Ireland's year, but we all remember what happened then. What's different this time is that Munster have shown that Irish teams can win the big prizes and their autumn form -
They can leave out Neil Best, Jerry Flannery and Geordan Murphy. Ronan O'Gara is a different player to last year. Paul O'Connell isn't.
But they could hardly have a tougher opening. After the chaos of 2006, Wales look to be recapturing the equilibrium, confidence and (not least) personnel of their triumphant 2005, while James Hook promises a fresh dimension at centre. Ryan Jones is back to get across gainlines, Dwayne
Ireland? Possibly - and if they win, they must be fancied to go on and take the title - but again no banker. It would be no surprise to discover next Sunday afternoon that I've been totally wrong about three and Italy, Scotland and Wales share the early lead. Then try looking at the following week's fixtures.
Maybe England should beat Italy - but if Ashton's men have fallen at the Scottish hurdle and/or Italy have beaten the French, can we still be so categorical ? Scotland v Wales, Ireland v France. Both lack an easy and obvious answer.
You can go through the rest of the fixtures, all the way to match no 15, Wales v England, and pretty much the same applies. Low standards ? Maybe, but what the hell. It is not as if anything can be done about it at this stage. Nothing is better than going to a great sporting event - and every Six Nations match is a great event, even if fewer than we'd like are great games - not knowing what the outcome will be.
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