Six Nations: Old enemies prepare for new battle
After the global jamboree of a World Cup in New Zealand it's time to plunge back into the glorious chaos of European competition, says Chris Hewett
Successful World Cup campaigns do not always lead directly to a strong showing when the Six Nations Championship comes around. Ask Sir Clive Woodward, who led England to the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 but could not defend the European title the following year. Ask Brian Ashton, who somehow coached a ragtag England side to the global final in 2007, only to be knifed in the front by his ungrateful – not to say deluded – employers at the close of northern hemisphere business in 2008. For this reason, if for no other, the Twickenham set should be feeling good about themselves as they prepare for another seven-week shindig with their nearest and dearest.
Whatever England did in New Zealand last autumn – and their deeds were many and varied, as the dwarfs of Queenstown and the harbour police of Auckland have good reason to recall – there was nothing successful about it. Hence the radical change of approach: the fresh coaching team, albeit one of the caretaker variety; the stripping away of dead wood in the elite squad; the ruthless treatment of miscreants like Danny Care and Delon Armitage; the constant reminders to those in Six Nations contention that professionalism is not a one-way street leading to a handsome bank balance. It is many, many years since a red-rose team started from a lower base.
The only way being up – England could find themselves in possession of the wooden spoon next month and still take more pride from their performance than the shower who betrayed the shirt in All Black country – there are reasons for the more rational breed of Twickenham man, if there is such a species, to be in decent cheer ahead of the home games with Wales and Ireland, both of whom undoubtedly have the clout to win in London as things currently stand. This tournament is not an end in itself, but the first act in an unfolding drama leading all the way to a home World Cup in 2015. The uncapped players making their Test debuts in the coming weeks will be better players next year than they are this, and better again 12 months further down the road.
Whether Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree remain in place as a coaching threesome is, in a sense, neither here nor there. Appointed in the wake of the failed Martin Johnson regime, in order to set the recovery in motion, they will make a very strong case for continued backing if they reach the final weekend of this tournament in a position to win it.
They are more likely to find themselves in the bottom three – a situation that will leave Lancaster facing an uphill task if he is to see off his rival contenders for the full-time head coach's job, some of them very big hitters from south of the Equator. Either way, England will have blooded a fresh group of players. They will have moved on, even if they have moved down the Six Nations rankings.
Much of which is in stark contrast to the situation in Scotland, who happen to be England's first opponents this weekend. Andy Robinson, who has been running the side since 2009, used to teach mathematics, but he could be innumerate and still know how many Six Nations victories he has to his name. You don't need to be Stephen Hawking to count to two, after all. A 20 per cent win rate is not the kind of statistic he finds easy to live with, and he is equally embarrassed by consecutive fifth-placed finishes on his watch. Privately, he believes a similarly poor return this year will leave him no option but to cash in what is left of his chips and head for the door. He has been sacked once during his coaching career and is unwilling to go through the pain of it a second time.
By comparison, Robinson's opposite numbers in Ireland, Wales, France and Italy are in a settled place – especially Philippe Saint-André and Jacques Brunel. Both are French, both have a history of success at club level in their own country – in Saint-André's case, in England too – and both are coaching international sides for the first time. What will they make of it? Saint-André clearly has what it takes to establish Les Bleus as a powerhouse: he is a master team-builder, so his players will be fit, ferociously committed and congenitally unable to give a sucker an even break.
Will they trip the light fantastic too, as the coach did in scoring the "try from nowhere" at Twickenham in 1991 and creating the "try from the ends of the earth" in Auckland three years later? Yes, once the forwards have done what he calls "the bad things".
Brunel has less in the way of refined talent with which to work. But he achieved a hell of a lot in Perpignan – indeed, the Catalan club have no idea how to operate without him – and he genuinely believes he can push the Azzurri into the upper echelons of the Six Nations within three years.
Ireland and Wales are already there, each having a recent Grand Slam triumph to their name. The Irish are a strong bet to challenge for this season's title, while the Welsh are so riddled with injury that it would be no massive shock to see them lose two of their first three games – or perhaps all of them. There again, Welsh tempo and imagination did for Ireland at the World Cup, and could do for them again in Dublin this Sunday.
Isn't that the fun of the Six Nations? That for all the theories and predictions, no one knows anything for sure?
Head coach Philippe Saint-André
Captain Thierry Dusautoir
Best-case scenario? Building on their second place at the World Cup last autumn, Les Bleus cruise to a fourth Grand Slam since the turn of the century. Saint-André's decision to stick with the best of his predecessor Marc Lièvremont's personnel, rather than recreate the team in his own image, pays handsome dividends, with the astonishing Dusautoir continuing where he left off in New Zealand, Dimitri Yachvili reinforcing his reputation as the finest tactician in the sport, François Trinh-Duc proving a point after his frustrations in All Black country and Wesley Fofana, the new hot-shot centre, performing as well as his opponents fear he might.
Worst-case scenario? Something strange happens – even stranger than usual, if such a thing is conceivable by anyone not steeped in the French absurdist tradition. Saint-André, in his first match as national coach, has to wait until the last few minutes for his undermotivated pack to take control up front against the Italians and then falls out, very publicly, with his principal players, just as Lièvremont did. They go on to lose a tight game with Ireland and, while they win the next three, they finish unfulfilled.
Last year? Runners-up
This year? Champions
Head coach Declan Kidney
Captain Paul O'Connell
Best-case scenario? Heineken Cup success – three sides in the last eight, two at home – translates into Six Nations performance, with Jonathan Sexton ruling the roost from fly-half and reinforcing his claim to be No 10 for the Lions in Australia next year. No back-row unit, not even the French, can live with Stephen Ferris (how does he do what he does on one leg?), Sean O'Brien (how does he get away with that stuff on the floor?) and Jamie Heaslip, now merely one of three shining lights rather than the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Victory in Paris is a rite of passage, and it's plain sailing from there on in.
Worst-case scenario? It goes horribly wrong in Paris, which comes a round too soon. Maybe Cian Healy, stampeding up the loose-head rankings on those short, powerful legs of his, is injured in the opening scrap with Wales; maybe Sexton has one of his weird days; maybe the absence of Brian O'Driscoll from midfield allows the French, hardly the worst in the centre department, to attack with abandon. By the time they play England at Twickenham in the last game of the competition, the title has slipped away.
Last year? Third
This year? Runners-up
Head coach Warren Gatland
Captain Sam Warburton
Best-case scenario? Somewhere amid the hype – all the smiling and arm-waving and intimations of world domination – there is an element of reality, and Gatland, plenty realistic enough after a playing lifetime spent among New Zealand's front-row fraternity, shows once again that he knows where it is. His players are marginally fitter than their rivals, as they were at the World Cup, after another punishing spell of pre-tournament conditioning and, despite injuries to key personnel, the likes of Warburton, Adam Jones, Toby Faletau and George North prove themselves kings of their positions. At the same time, James Hook is twice the player he was last autumn – not difficult, admittedly – and does enough to keep his country in the shake-up going into round five.
Worst-case scenario? Somewhere amid the hype – all the smiling, etc – there are signs of a country believing its own bullshine. Not even Gatland can keep the lid on things, especially as five first-choicers are out for large parts of the tournament. Three home games give the team an advantage, but the last is against title-chasing France. The trip to Twickenham in round three is pivotal. Failure there puts them below the fold.
Last year? Fourth
This year? Third
Head coach Stuart Lancaster
Captain Chris Robshaw
Best-case scenario? Under normal circumstances, a successful defence of the title – even, perhaps, one last push towards a first Grand Slam in nine years. These are not normal circumstances. All has changed: the coaches, the players, the culture, you name it. If momentum is everything in the Six Nations, the holders enter the tournament wholly bereft. But they make good on the early signs of a reawakening of the spirit, an emotional rejuvenation after the misery of the last three and a half years, and somehow find a way to win at Murrayfield. This enables them to approach the next two games high on confidence and finish on the right side of the ledger. Just.
Worst-case scenario? Defeat in Edinburgh, followed by the torments of hell in Rome, followed by a neurotic encounter with Wales at Twickenham, followed by two brave but fruitless efforts against France and Ireland, the most obvious contenders for the title. The coaches discover, to their acute disappointment, that some of the players they promoted on the basis of honest-to-goodness performances at club level are a smidgen short of international calibre – and that Owen Farrell, billed as a Wilkinson for the post-Wilkinson age, needs another year or two to find the best of himself.
Last year? Champions
This year? Fourth
Head coach Andy Robinson
Captain Ross Ford
Best-case scenario? A good start is crucial in a five-match campaign and the Scots make one this weekend, with Dan Parks kicking goals from all angles and England disappearing into a pea-souper of paranoia, born of callowness. The best of the new-generation back-five forwards, from Richie Gray at lock to Ross Rennie and David Denton in the back row, repay Robinson's faith; Chris Cusiter performs like the scrum-half everyone thought he was five years ago; Sean Lamont does enough at centre to spark something resembling an attacking game. All this gives them a top-three finish.
Worst-case scenario? It was ever thus. Solid work at the set piece, despite the devout Euan Murray's absence from two Sabbath fixtures, gives an energetic back row plenty to build on, even though Robinson comes to regret his decision to relegate the open-side flanker John Barclay to the bench for the match with England. But oh, the backs. Not even Max Evans, twinkle-toed as he is, can find the way to the opposition goal-line without punching the coordinates into the satnav, by which time defences have made themselves impenetrable. Not quite pointless, but certainly tryless.
Last year? Fifth
This year? Fifth
Head coach Jacques Brunel
Captain Sergio Parisse
Best-case scenario? Two wins from five, which equals the performance of 2007 and gives Brunel, a former Perpignan coach, a decent return on his first campaign at international level. Parisse, who always turns in an electrifying performance at some point during the tournament, saves his very best for the visit of England in round two and takes full advantage of red-rose inexperience to lead the Azzurri to a ground-breaking victory. Warming to their task at Stadio Olimpico, the general and his principal lieutenants, Alessandro Zanni and Edoardo Gori, get stuck into Scotland too. That has happened before, more than once.
Worst-case scenario? The Azzurri's worst cases tend to be worse than everyone else's. Good as Parisse, Zanni and Gori are, they cannot mask the team's failings at fly-half and, in the absence of the inspirational Mirco Bergamasco, in a variety of areas elsewhere, not least goal-kicking. They stay in touch with the French for an hour of the opening game, then leak like a sieve in the final quarter. England arrive buoyed by victory in Edinburgh and silence a capacity crowd. Ireland are passionately intense in Dublin. You know the rest.
Last year? Sixth
This year? Sixth
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