Can England break down barriers?
Starting in Scotland, Stuart Lancaster's men face a tough schedule as they defend their Six Nations crown, writes Hugh Godwin
Only six days to go before England can stop talking a good game and get on with attempting to play one. An introspective three months have passed since those wearing the red rose from the World Cup, with opprobrium raining down on the behaviour of some of them plus an intense disappointment on all sides at the way theteam played.
At Murrayfield on Saturday, in a match for the ages – the oldest international, kicking off the oldest international tournament – we will find out whether there was something amiss with Martin Johnson's micro-management or if there is a greater malaise in English rugby that even the new broom of the Stuart Lancaster regime will find impossible to wipe clean.
Speaking of micro, the climate at Murrayfield appeared to be on everyone's minds at the Six Nations launch at the Hurlingham Club the other day. Carefully chosen words fell from the lips of Andy Robinson, Warren Gatland, Declan Kidney – the other home union coaches have all been round many more blocks than Lancaster and can be expected to be cannier than "Lanny", for all the interim boss's experience of playing for Scotland Under-19s and Students and coaching Leeds and the English national academy.
In the absence of any of these luminaries telling us their team, one to 15 – England were the only ones unable to bring along a serving captain, fielding the injured flanker Tom Wood for questions instead – we were left with the abstract and the lessons of history.
"I never played at Murrayfield but it's a fantastic stadium," said Robinson, as English as they come (unlike Lancaster, with his mum from Dumfries) but currently in charge of Scotland. "And there's the wind. Because it blows in all directions. In 2006 when I was England head coach (an 18-12 win for the Scots) I thought we were playing with the wind and I was shocked when Chris Paterson smashed some kicks the length of the pitch. I couldn't work out how he'd done it. And that was because of the way the wind just bounced off the stadium."
Scotland will present Paterson on the pitch on Saturday, to fête their record cap-winner and most reliable kicker of recent times, but he has retired from Tests. Robinson said: "We've got players who can put the ball through the posts," citing the fly-halves Greig Laidlaw (pictured), Dan Parks and Duncan Weir but not Ruaridh Jackson, who is injured. Could England's 20-year-old Owen Farrell be a goal-kicking hero on debut? He will have to cope with that weather, too.
A couple of hundred miles north of the Hurlingham Club – or south of Edinburgh – at England's back-to-basics training camp near Leeds, the flanker Tom Croft recalled his first Six Nations start, a 15-9 defeat by Scotland at guess where in 2008.
"It was nice blue skies above," said Croft, "then the bagpiper started playing before kick-off, it started to rain and it was a hard day at the office."
Robinson, in London, had said: "Yeah, five o'clock, lone piper on the stand, the lights being dimmed, you're raring to go – it's a brilliant game."
If England, with possibly three or four new caps and a few nearly newbies who are keener to talk about the 2015 World Cup than the last one, hightail it with a first Murrayfield win since 2004 – Sir Clive Woodward's last Six Nations as manager – they will go jauntily to Rome's Olympic Stadium, Italy's new home. They have outgrown Stadio Flaminio.
"Even people who don't understand much about rugby find something they like in the Italian team," said Sergio Parisse, Italy's captain. "The people feel the players are playing for the jersey, proudly and with heart. They see in our sport something they don't see in football."
There have been 60,000 tickets sold, with a fortnight to go. "You think, 'Why are they coming when we're not winning and not the best team in this competition?'" said Parisse. "The people really think they're part of the team."
Calm common sense suggests the English public feel the same way about their boys, but we will know for sure on the Championship's middle weekend, when Wales come to Twickenham. Somewhere around this time, if not before, England may reassimilate the injured Wood, Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi. Winning or losing, it will be a delicate task for Lancaster. It may be he is only a caretaker in the event that Nick Mallett takes the job in June, but he is defending the trophy England won last year.
"You want to beat everybody but there's something special about beating England," said Alan Phillips, the Wales manager who played at hooker at Twickenham in the brutal 1980 match. "Always has been, it's in our DNA. Same for the Irish and the Scottish. Because of the size of England, the amount of clubs they've got, the player base, they should be overwhelming favourites every time we play them. They've got a dozen ormore professional teams to pick from, the same as France. When you've played in or been involved with a side that's beaten England, it's a great achievement."
Phillips described Twickenham as "a very sporting crowd, very controlled and respectful". He is old enough to remember when team talks evoked downtrodden miners. But Phillips gave the old foe a fillip. "England are going to play a bit of rugby and they should be applauded for that," he said. "The youngster they've brought in will have a go."
Three down, just France in Paris and Ireland at Twickenham to go – the champions in 2010 and 2009 respectively and England's most troublesome opponents since the Grand Slam of 2003. The win in Paris four years ago was based on hooker Mark Regan's bear-baiting in the dark shadows the cameras have yet to infiltrate.
Two years ago Ben Foden scored an early try from Chris Ashton's pass and it appeared Johnson's England had opened a door to a sunlit upland. But France's scrum dominated and they won 12-10. Croft, the pacy line-out jumper who is likely to be on the blindside while the rest of the back row is uncertain, agreed that the heavy mob of Simon Shaw, Steve Borthwick, Steve Thompson and the like had not been replaced, but he said: "I think boys will front up.
"Most of us have played in France in the Heineken Cup, we're fully aware of how difficult it is. I know if we don't front up we're not going to get very far. In the World Cup the passion was there but we didn't always start at a million miles an hour. That's what the emphasis has been on. Training has been short but very intense. It's massively exciting."
Certainly it will be, for someone, when Ireland come calling on St Patrick's Day, aka the concluding Super Saturday. A Saturday-and-a-half for Foden, whose pop-singer partner, Una Healy, is due to give birth four days later. It is tempting to be guided only by Ireland's seven wins in the eight meetings before last August's Dublin friendly, which England won because Tuilagi ripped through an Irish midfield lacking the rested Brian O'Driscoll.
The guiding hand of BOD will be missing for the entire Six Nations, as the masterly centre recovers from an operation. England have almost an entire team to reshape and hardly any time in which to do it, but they are not covering the loss of one of the world's greatest players. Oh, unless you count Jonny Wilkinson.
Great expectations or hard times: What the Dickens will happen?
Stuart "Lanny" Lancaster will be re-nicknamed "Dynamo" if he shuffles his deck at Murrayfield and they all come up trumps. A new-look team may have a Saracens midfield three of Charlie Hodgson, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt – that's two new caps for starters, and there may be at least two more in the back row, plus a new captain. Toby Flood, Manu Tuilagi and Tom Wood could return from injury as the tournament goes on – but as a rescue act or to reinforce a winning team?
Nightmare: A week's retreat with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope backfires when half the newly well-behaved England squad refuse to play against France because it's on a Sunday.
Dream: Owen Farrell kicks 33 points in a 33-0 win at Murrayfield and is immediately co-opted into the coalition government as "Scottish independence tsar".
France's coach, Philippe Saint-André, might have penned the fixture list himself – Italy and Ireland at home should give the World Cup runners-up two wins to begin with. True, Les Bleus lost in Italy last year, and if the Italians or the Irish do something amazing in Paris, the petulant infighting that made the previous coach Marc Lièvremont's life a misery may return. France's players are busy with league matches this weekend, which is bizarre and unhelpful, but as the world player of 2011 and France's fine captain, Thierry Dusautoir, put it: "No one said to be the French coach is easy."
Nightmare: A vengeful Lièvremont takes Saint-André hostage on the eve of France winning the Grand Slam, leaving new assistants Yannick Bru and Patrice Lagisquet to lift the title.
Dream: France's previous four Grand Slams were in even years, and they were champions in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010. Nice numbers.
The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, was in charge of Ireland when Brian O'Driscoll made his Six Nations debut in 2000. This year the green giant of a centre is injured, which Gatland described, rightly, as "a huge loss for Ireland as a leader, something potentially for us to take advantage of". Wales also have fresh memories of beating Ireland at the World Cup, when they stunted the dynamic Sean O'Brien on the gain line. If O'Brien and Paul O'Connell can get that "go-forward" and Ireland start with a win, they could afford their usual defeat in Paris and still finish well.
Nightmare: The oldest team in the tournament show Declan Kidney why he should have pensioned half of them off years ago.
Dream: O'Driscoll's stand-in, Keith Earls, banishes memory of last August's England friendly, when Manu Tuilagi skated past him, and comes of age as a Test centre.
Bottom of the pile in six of the past seven years, though whitewashed only in the first of those (2005), can the Azzurri dare to hope for a repeat of the two victories (at home to Wales and away to Scotland) that brought fourth place in 2007? England at the Olympic Stadium on the second weekend and Scotland to finish will be their prime targets. "We beat France last year and they ended up in the final of the World Cup," said Italy's captain and high-quality Stade Français No 8, Sergio Parisse. However, he stopped short of predicting a repeat result for the Azzurri in Paris next week.
Nightmare: Their cavernous new home ground swallows up their traditional home advantage.
Dream: New coach Jacques Brunel, 58, reveals a surprise ancestral link to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, prompting a flood of interviews with previously uninterested English newspapers.
The year of the Scots' previous top-two finish in the Championship? Here's a clue: it was still known as the Five Nations back then. That's right, it was 1999, when Scotland were champions and Gregor Townsend, Alan Tait and friends scored tries for fun. Just one against England next week would be handy, as an inability to finish shattered Scotland when they lost to the same opponents and Argentina at the World Cup.
Nightmare: Knowing that kicks have earned two wins and a draw against England at Murrayfield since 2004, Scotland roll Chris Paterson on to the field with a Zimmer frame, only for him to miss in the last minute of a 0-0 draw.
Dream: The buoyancy from the free-scoring Edinburgh making the last eight of the Heineken Cup is carried over as the Scots trounce England and win for the first time in Cardiff since 2002.
While Ireland have three teams in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup, the Welsh regions, yet again, have barely registered. Add to that injuries to the midfielders Rhys Priestland and Jamie Roberts and three of the World Cup front-five – Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris and Gethin Jenkins – and the opening trip to Dublin looks daunting. As Gatland warns: "The Six Nations is all about momentum." On the upside, the tighthead prop Adam Jones is fit and Sam Warburton is a match for anyone at flanker.
Nightmare: The now customary trip to Poland's ice chambers to top up the fitness tanks backfires when Adam Jones's curly hair freezes and falls out, leaving him bald for thetrip to Ireland.
Dream: Super-talented and still improving, Leigh Halfpenny, George North and James Hook rediscover the euphoria of reaching the World Cup semi-finals.
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