Chris Hewett: Paris 'decider' would be true test of world champions

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The exciting thing about uncharted waters is that nobody quite knows whether the voyagers will discover the New World or sink like a stone. The 2004 Six Nations' Championship should be a highly rewarding adventure for England, who really ought find a way of navigating themselves around the great rugby capitals of Europe without doing a Titanic on us.

There again, the word "iceberg" insists on springing to mind. Are the crew of the Good Ship Twickenham really indestructible, or do they just imagine themselves to be invulnerable to the forces of sporting nature? The next few weeks will provide the answer.

Uncharted waters? Well, England have never before started the tournament as world champions. History tells us they have generally been strong after World Cup tournaments, rather than during them. They finished the 1988 European tournament strongly after ending the 1987 global one in a state of deep depression, having been beaten by Wales in one of the most inept international matches in living memory. They won the Grand Slam in 1992, a few months after losing a claustrophobic World Cup final to Australia; they beat Scotland to the title in 1996 after being smithereened by a big bloke called Lomu in Cape Town; and they recovered from the trauma of their 1999 meeting with Jannie de Beer and his "boot of God" by winning the inaugural Six Nations in 2000.

This time, it is different. Much of the fascination oozing from this latest international jamboree surrounds the English mindset, for no one can predict how those players who devoted eight years of their professional lives to securing the Webb Ellis Cup - the Neil Backs and Lawrence Dallaglios, the Matthew Dawsons and Richard Hills - will come to terms with the fact that they have actually succeeded. After the Lord Mayor's Show comes the dustcart; after the elation, the hollowness. As Nick Farr-Jones, the captain of the victorious 1991 Wallabies, said after that tight squeeze against England: "We had hardly left the dressing room when we were asking ourselves: 'Is that it, then? What now?'"

What now? It is the question at the heart of this tournament. This much is certain: should England win a second consecutive Grand Slam by beating the French in Paris on the final evening of the competition, the achievement will be positively Lomu-esque. If Sir Clive Woodward, a devil-may-care aristo-cravat of a centre during his playing days and now a knight of the realm, sticks with the old guard - sans the great Martin Johnson, of course - there is no predicting how much desire, or indeed how little, will flow through the veins. If he brings on the next generation, it is impossible to say how long the newcomers will spend finding their bearings. Either way, the world champions will be asked an entire examination's worth of difficult questions.

Once again, the French seemed best placed to demand answers that England might struggle to produce. Bernard Laporte, bitterly frustrated by the turn of meteorological events that undermined his side's chances of reaching the World Cup final in Sydney, was all for giving it up as a bad job, but has wisely agreed to commit himself to the coaching role for another four years. Some of the Tricolores' dry-weather rugby in Australia was sublime - just how good was Frederic Michalak, for instance? - and if Fabien Galthié, that human engine of a scrum-half, has gone the way of Johnson, there is enough potency in the blue-shirted back division to make someone suffer the torments of hell.

Talking of back-lines, there is plenty of interest in the Welsh model. Rather like the French, they were touched with stardust in Australia and might have turned the whole shooting match on its head had they been able to pump a little more iron up front. Gareth Thomas, Shane Williams, Mark Jones... here were some of the most threatening runners in the competition, and if Steve Hansen finds a way of accommodating the likes during the tournament of Matthew Watkins, that scandalously under-valued centre from the Llanelli Scarlets, alongside the pick of the World Cup crop, anything will be possible. Twickenham is likely to remain unstormable, but a full set of home wins is well within the bounds of Red Dragon credibility.

Ireland, better than at any time in the last 20 years but not quite as good as they think they are, must also visit Twickenham, and it is there that genuine world-beaters-in-waiting, such as Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan in the second row, must make their stand. Will Ronan O'Gara ever kick the goals that really matter? Will the mountainous John Hayes finally find a way of dominating an opposition front row in the tight phases? Will Brian O'Driscoll reach full flower against an England side yet to kowtow to his genius? Fascinating indeed.

All the above are capable of standing tall in a heavyweight contest. The Scots and Italians, meanwhile, are welterweights. Scotland have a new coach in Matt Williams, and Australian with rich experience in the Irish provincial set-up. He knows his onions, for sure; Williams' public addresses are as sharply intelligent as they are frequent (he has barely stopped talking since he swapped Dublin for Edinburgh) and he is genuinely ambitious for his adoptive country. He can see flickers of light in the darkness - Simon Taylor is fast becoming a world-class No 8, Chris Paterson an outside-half of genuine scope - but unless he finds himself some threequarters capable of running through opponents rather than through cement, results will remain elusive.

If there is a God, Italy will win at least one of their five matches. Two would be better. Quite how the International Rugby Board sanctioned a World Cup fixture list so heavily loaded against the Azzurri will remain a mystery for ever and a day - those officials who condemned them to four games in a fortnight while their fellow Six Nations teams played from weekend to weekend should hang their heads in shame whenever a whiff of Parmesan reaches their nostrils. And while we are awaiting a formal apology from the board, it would be good to see the victims get lucky and finish halfway up the European rankings.

Their problem is the opposite to that of the Welsh, whom they famously beat at Stadio Flaminio last year: great forwards, not-so-great backs. Those many commentators who scoffed at Italy's newly-confirmed Six Nations status in 2000 should join the IRB in the mea culpa queue, for a trip to Rome is nobody's idea of a holiday. If Andrea de Rossi, Marco Bortolami, Martin Castrogiovanni and the exceptional Sergio Parisse fail to make a splash between now and the end of March, there should be a stewards' inquiry.

Back England to win a fourth title in five years - Woodward is so far out of the habit of losing these days that it is scarcely possible to imagine a team of his slipping up more than once. Do not, however, wager your house on another Slam. What goes up must come down, and this particular championship is rather good at applying a gravitational pull on those who fly highest.

THE INDEPENDENT'S SIX NATIONS PREDICTIONS

JAMES LAWTON, CHIEF SPORTS WRITER

1 France 2 England 3 Wales 4 Ireland 5 Scotland 6 Italy

CHRIS HEWETT, RUGBY CORRESPONDENT

1 England 2 France 3 Ireland 4 Wales 5 Italy 6 Scotland

JONATHAN DAVIES, FORMER INTERNATIONAL

1 England 2 France 3 Wales 4 Ireland 5 Scotland 6 Italy

TIM GLOVER, IOS RUGBY CORRESPONDENT

1 France 2 England 3 Wales 4 Ireland 5 Italy 6 Scotland

HUGH GODWIN, RUGBY UNION WRITER

1 France 2 England 3 Ireland 4 Wales 5 Italy 6 Scotland

DAVID LLEWELLYN, RUGBY UNION WRITER

1 England 2 France 3 Ireland 4 Wales 5 Scotland 6 Italy

JAMES CORRIGAN, RUGBY UNION WRITER

1 France 2 England 3 Ireland 4 Wales 5 Scotland 6 Italy

KEN JONES, COLUMNIST

1 France 2 England 3 Ireland 4 Wales 5 Scotland 6 Italy

SIMON TURNBULL, RUGBY WRITER

1 England 2 France 3 Wales 4 Ireland 5 Scotland 6 Italy

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