Battle of wills that may be decided on Dublin days of destiny

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The Independent Online
It could be the start of something wonderful. A new era of Celtic confidence - of swaggering splendour on the western banks of the Severn, of an inspired irrepressibility on the far side of the Irish Sea. England and France, France and England ...for an interminably long time, far too long even for the most myopic inhabitant of the red rose garden at Twickenham or the Tricolore temple on the outskirts of Paris, the Six Nations Championship has been about the Big Two and no-one much else. This season, the runes read differently. This season, Wales and Ireland believe.

By the same yardstick, it could be the beginning of the end of something - that something being Scotland. Five years after the move from five to six, an expansion that gave Italy the opportunity to take the whole of European rugby into a new and richer realm, the grand old tournament must contemplate the crumbling of one of its foundation stones. The Scots, poor in spirit as well as pocket and riven by the political fall-out of abject failure, finished down among the dead men in the 2004 competition, and far from being stirred by the unwanted possession of the wooden spoon they are profoundly fearful of the prospect of a second successive whitewash. If it comes to pass, the decline could be terminal.

The positives first. Wales, unusually buoyant after compelling autumn tussles with the Springboks and the All Blacks, have developed a loose, free-form style of attacking rugby within which runners big and small, from Gareth Thomas and Tom Shanklin on the one hand to the electrifying Shane Williams on the other, are finally being granted full freedom of expression. They have a kicking game too - Gavin Henson could be quite something over the coming weeks - and some footballing forwards to boot. Steve Hansen, the New Zealander who coached them in the 2004 Six Nations before answering the call of the silver fern, was not exaggerating when he described Gethin Jenkins and Michael Owen as world-class productions nearing the end of their rehearsal time.

Just the other night, Rob Howley could be heard talking up his country's prospects. The recently retired Lions scrum-half could never be described as one of life's wild-eyed optimists; too often during his days in the Red Dragonhood he looked white-faced at the thought of a full-on confrontation with the England of Martin Johnson or the France of Fabien Pelous. But this year, even he is wondering whether it might be different, not least because Wales play England first up, at the Millennium Stadium. "The players will look down the England teamsheet and see who isn't there - no Johnson or Dallaglio, no Wilkinson, no Leonard," he said with a wicked grin. "And they'll think to themselves: `Hey, we're in with a shout here.'"

If England do not like Cardiff at the best of times, they get the heebie- jeebies at the very mention of Dublin. France are none too fond of Lansdowne Road either, and both heavyweights must take their chances there in mid- championship. There is no earthly point anyone disputing it: Ireland are a quality outfit nowadays. What is more, they know it. They are generally well coached and always well rested, thanks to the sympathetic structure of their season; they spend a good deal of time together, and have developed great powers of cohesion because of it. No team on earth, however accomplished they consider themselves to be, fancies Dublin these days. England and France, neither of them as accomplished as they might be at the moment, will be in a cold sweat about visiting the place.

Which is all fine and dandy: a championship in the true sense of the word, with a sense of the possible finally lording it over the drudgery of the inevitable. But there is a grim dimension to the forthcoming proceedings and it concerns the Scots.

In international terms, Scotland was where the show found its way onto the road. Raeburn Place, Powderhall, Inverleith - a roll call of the mist- shrouded venues of old, where England pitched up and played before the turn of the last century, lend the country's rugby a uniquely historical aspect. For heaven's sake, Sir Walter Scott organised a handling game of something resembling primitive union as early as 1815. Jim Aitken, who by common consent was very nearly old enough to have seen the Waverley novelist in the flesh, led the kilted brethren to as famous a Grand Slam as there ever was back in 1984. There was another Slam in 1990, under David Sole, and as recently as 1999 they put the fear of God into England at Twickenham and ended up sneaking the title itself.

But the 21st century has been brutal to them, and they are on their knees. Neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh, the big-city professional teams, have made the slightest impact on the Celtic League, let alone the Heineken Cup, and as a result they play to crowds so pathetically small that broadcasters are reluctant to go anywhere near either of them. The Borders, the newest act north of the border, are more side-splitting than Billy Connolly on one of his funnier nights, despite the presence of a little gem of a scrum-half in Chris Cusiter, whom they do not expect to keep for more than a few months. Only last month, David Mackay resigned as chairman of the Scottish Rugby Union after a vote of no confidence from the general committee - a development that prompted a walk-out by four fellow board members and the highly resourceful chief executive, Phil Anderton. Meanwhile, a number of senior clubs, banded together as the Premier Forum, are threatening to break away from the SRU. It is a mess, a shambles, an embarrassment.

Finlay Calder, a good enough captain of Scotland to have led the British and Irish Lions as well, sees dire Six Nations implications in all of this. "This is terrible news for every level of Scottish rugby," he said after Mackay's departure. "I was convinced that if anybody could transform the negative atmosphere and rising debt level, it was him. He has been driven out by people who seem happier waging civil war than addressing the central issue, which is that professional rugby can't be run by amateurs.

"I don't understand why we are still having this argument 10 years after professionalism arrived. I think the banks will be dismayed at this decision and, ultimately, it is they who pull the strings. I wouldn't be surprised if they reviewed their position. And we can now expect weeks of arguments and acrimony just at a time when we should be looking forward to the Six Nations Championship." It was a cri de coeur from a lionheart of a flanker, and it put the Scottish crisis into its proper perspective, which is impenetrably dark.

For sure, there is no pleasure to be taken in any of this. If the Six Nations cannot thrive with only two sides punching their weight, as was the case until Ireland got themselves properly organised last year, it cannot realise its true potential on the backs of four. Six it is, and six it must be. There is no earthly point in the more visionary minds of European rugby talking of a more multi-faceted, polyglot tournament 20 years down the road, with promotion and relegation and all mod cons, if the present competition cannot justify its own title.

Fortunately, the Italians are doing their bit for the greater good. John Kirwan, the All Black wing who has been coaching them these last couple of seasons, is fast becoming a Six Nations institution with his smart-aleck one-liners - last year's line about sending dancing girls into the England hotel in Rome the night before the match was a gem - and assuming his more explosive forwards, like the Treviso No 8 Sergio Parisse and the spectacularly-coiffeured Calvisano prop Martin Castrogiovanni, successfully keep their powder dry for the three games at the Stadio Flaminio, they will be cussedly effective up front.

Ireland have what it takes to win in the Eternal City, for they go there in the first round of matches. (Like most of the teams patronisingly grouped together as "developing nations" by the pinstripes who inhabit rugby boardrooms around the world, Italy need to feel their way into a tournament). But there is no guarantee that France will survive their trip across the border, let alone the Welsh, who already know what it is to finish a bad second down there among the sporting catacombs.

Right now, the French are a funny lot. The best of their club sides, from Stade Francais in the north to Perpignan on the Spanish border, have played some stunning stuff this season and there are young players, not least the astonishing teenage centre Thibault Lacroix of Biarritz, who scare the living daylights out of anyone on the wrong side of the halfway line. But their Test performances in the autumn went from so-so to poor to thoroughly rank, and Bernard Laporte, the coach, has been spouting all manner of strange words of late. An example? William Servat will do. Servat was the best hooker in last year's tournament by a mile. What is Laporte threatening him with as a reward for his efforts? A stint in the back row, even though the Biarritz trio of Serge Betsen, Imanol Harinordoquy and Thomas Lievremont share all the talents between them. Weird.

France visit Twickenham in round two, and the pandemonium around the fixture will be as great as ever. But it is reasonable to suggest that this 85th meeting between c the two countries will not be the pivotal game in the tournament. Assuming the Irish deal with business in the early stages by winning in Rome and Edinburgh - and if truth be told, it will be remarkable if they come up short in either city - their Sabbath rumble with England on 27 February will be the match to tell it how it is.

The last time the red-rose army played in Dublin, Martin Johnson refused to stand in his pre-ordained place and forced the president of the republic to walk half-way round the city before she could get within handshake range. He and his side then marmalised the Irish up front to win the Grand Slam that effectively set up a far more meaningful triumph at the World Cup some eight months later. This time, the absence of Johnson and the absence of English self-belief may well amount to the same thing.

England are in a state of metamorphosis. They do not know quite where they are in the back row, or at half-back, or in midfield. They moved a few steps up the hillside during the autumn, when Mark Cueto of Sale emerged as an international wing of considerable potency and Julian White finally delivered on the scrummaging front, a good four seasons after he was first trumpeted as the killer tight-head specialist in northern hemisphere rugby. However, there was little to indicate that Andy Robinson, the new head coach, would restore England to their pre-eminent position in world rugby without suffering further slippage in the process.

In Lions year, such slippage could be damaging to individual ambitions. Some England players - Jason Robinson, Steve Thompson, White - are cast-iron certainties for the summer trip to New Zealand, but the numbers are nowhere near as great as was popularly imagined this time last year, when the World Cup celebrations were still in full swing. And if the white-shirted presence in Sir Clive Woodward's party turns out to be less than a majority, it will indeed have been a Celtic-coloured tournament. What price the Irish boarding the Auckland-bound plane in heavy double figures, as well as the English?

Still, England should worry. They could lose every match in this tournament and still contribute more Lions than Scotland, who will struggle to secure more than half a dozen places among the chosen 44. That would be horribly humiliating for the Scots, and say something deeply disturbing about the state of rugby's most envied annual tournament. If ever the Six Nations Championship needed a Hastings transfusion or a Calder injection or a double dose of the Rutherfords and Renwicks, it is now. The Italians have done their bit. Scotland need to do theirs, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of everyone else.