The Six Nations Championship found itself deep in phoney war territory yesterday. A week and a half shy of the opening match, there was a nervous edge to the formal tournament launch in London, with the England manager, Martin Johnson, and his two principal rivals from the British mainland, Warren Gatland of Wales and Andy Robinson of Scotland, shadow-boxing their way around the big issues. Marc Lièvremont of France sounded bold enough – "There are green lights everywhere," he pronounced, "so this could be our year" – but no one could quite decide whether he was being serious.
It was left to two men from opposite ends of the Six Nations spectrum to serve up the most nourishing food for thought: a phlegmatic Nick Mallett, coach of Italy, and an equally philosophical Brian O'Driscoll, captain of Ireland. Their teams will set the ball rolling in Dublin on Saturday week, and while the world and his maiden aunt expect the home side, reigning champions and 2009 Grand Slammers, to lay waste to the reluctant holders of the wooden spoon, both men appeared at ease in the face of contrasting pressures.
"Unusually, I'm in the position of being judged on performance, not results," said Mallett. "Traditionally, the Italians support only winning teams, and in football, it's still the case that a coach can be chucked out after three or four defeats. Yet it seems the sporting public there is finding that the values of rugby – its unselfishness, its dignity, its sportsmanship, the huge courage of its players – are things than can be adhered to in life. Last November, we had 80,000 people in the San Siro in Milan for our match with the All Blacks, and it was one of the great spectacles of the year. There were three police wagons there. When Bari play Napoli at football, there are more police than spectators.
"So the interest is building and I can say that, while the Italian team has had its disappointments, there has been no falling off of enthusiasm among the players. If they had taken a negative attitude, they would have opted out of the Six Nations a long time ago. They are a positive, ambitious group who are keen to improve, and while an opening fixture against Ireland is asking a lot of us – we gave them trouble in Dublin two years ago, but that Irish side wasn't as happy or organised or well-structured as this one – I expect us to be competitive."
O'Driscoll, the nearest thing to a great player in the European game, expects something similar. "We know Italy are capable of claiming a scalp," he agreed. "They may not be in a position yet to win four or five games in succession, but a one-off is far from beyond them. It's why we cannot afford to look beyond this opening game. Certainly, I'll approach the tournament the way I always approach it.
"Yes, I suppose it's easy to get a little selfish when you achieve success and develop a taste for it. I enjoyed the trappings that went with the Grand Slam, from the celebrations among the players to the general feeling across the country. Doing it again would be better than not doing it again, so I'd say it's probably heightened our ambition. But this tournament owes us nothing. It's for us to go out and earn it again."
According to the Leinster centre, whose Heineken Cup and Lions tour exploits would have made 2009 his year of years even without the precious added dimension of the Slam, life in the current Ireland squad borders on the blissful. "Those of us who have played for a while have had our lows, and it's definitely a nicer feeling up here," he said. "As a group, we're not affected by public perception. We know our goals, although we don't go shouting them to the world, and we're very close.
"That helped in the tight games against Australia and South Africa back in November. There was no panic; we just looked at the process, at what we needed to do to get over the line, and did it with an air of calmness. But it was also a reminder of how small the margins are. I remember last year's game against England, when we were the better side for much of the contest but ended up defending in the final minute, trying not to concede a penalty that would have given them victory."
Having celebrated his 31st birthday last week, O'Driscoll has little choice but to accept the elder statesman role. He is, however, a benign ruler of all he surveys. "There are younger guys who don't really know about the 10 years of struggle some of us experienced in getting where we are now, but I don't want to burden them with it," he remarked. "It's better for them to go with the flow of the mentality as it is now, which is what I'm doing.
"I'm enjoying living in the moment, rather than looking too far ahead or putting a date on when I'll finally stop playing. It's a simplistic approach, but I'm basically cracking on from here. I certainly don't want to be caught up in any thinking about the next World Cup, which is 18 months away. In international rugby, that's a long, long time."Reuse content