As if it were not hard enough for England that any achievement in these next seven weeks will be set into an All Black perspective – the knowledge that Steve Hansen, Richie McCaw and innumerable other New Zealand weapons lie in wait for the World Cup – Stuart Lancaster finds himself surrounded on all sides by Kiwis as he carries the red rose into battle on Friday night.
Wales, Ireland and Scotland all have head coaches who have made the long trip from Aotearoa and, though Lancaster has already tried to turn that into something positive – “It gives me a sense of pride that I am English and coach of England,” he said heading into this competition – it was not convincing. The blend of Celt and Kiwi fire looks combustible in a way which does not augur well for his England.
While we still await any material sense that Lancaster knows his best line-up or even how he wants England to play, Wales’ Warren Gatland and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt show no such uncertainties. That is why both can aspire to win the World Cup in a way that England cannot. Scotland’s Vern Cotter, the third Kiwi Lancaster faces, is also building a tough new proposition, and he, too, looks like a man who knows where he is going.
That is the quality which draws these three Kiwi Celts together. Perhaps it is their exile status which forges that focus. None of them played Tests for the All Blacks. All will need to prosper richly on the other side of the world if they are to catch a place in the Kiwi story. They do not have time for anxious introspection.
Schmidt is the most fascinating – an individual whose impact on the Irish psyche in the past two years has been phenomenal. When he left Leinster for international management he feared the same isolation and lack of player contact that the Republic of Ireland’s football team manager, Martin O’Neill, spoke about recently. But Schmidt has thrown himself into obsessive preparation and detail on the opposition. No side will go into the Six Nations better prepared – champions at Schmidt’s first attempt last year, whose defeat of Australia and South Africa in the autumn internationals confirmed their status as favourites this season.
Of course, there is a monumental Brian O’Driscoll-shaped hole in the Irish ranks, which Paul O’Connell’s age-defying performances cannot begin to fill. But the presence of Schmidt, with his quiet ruthlessness and capacity to build men into mountains, means there will be no room for ghosts. “He’s a player’s coach because he notices what you do,” O’Driscoll said of Schmidt in his autobiography. “If you’re a workhorse, doing your best stuff unseen by almost everyone, he knows you’ve done the work. He gives you credit. And he stores it.”
Ireland have the benefit of avoiding the tinderbox that Twickenham will be in this World Cup year, with Cardiff the only foreign soil where they must face down another serious title contender.
Schmidt will meet an old friend in Gatland and a Welsh nation whose first win over a southern hemisphere team – South Africa – at the 23rd attempt in November creates belief. That factor is less significant than that physical force that Gatland has created, allowing Wales to touch Kiwi levels of fitness and physique. There is also that big, stubborn, indomitable back line that he and Shaun Edwards have built everything around. Wales do not score tries in abundance but the defence, on which the Australia win was built, makes them an almighty challenge.
Cotter, the man from Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty, has his work cut out matching his compatriots in his first season in charge of Scotland, but the growing talk of an opening win against the unpredictable French is not without foundation. The Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, are adding dynamism. But above all Cotter has built a more believing environment. They say he thinks like a Scotsman. “I’ve always said that New Zealanders are Scots who have learnt how to win,” Sir Ian McGeechan philosophised recently. But Cotter’s own observation last week seemed more telling about the philosophy that binds these three men – and all Kiwis – together. “I’m a firm believer that rugby is the best job in the world,” he said, “and that you should have fun doing it.”Reuse content