State of the Six Nations: Get ready for the greatest rugby show in the northern hemisphere
Chris Hewett looks at the hopes and prospects for each of the competing powers in the Six Nations which kicks off on Saturday week
Wales: The downbeat champs
It takes some doing for reigning Grand Slam champions to emerge from the tournament preliminaries as the most downbeat of the six contenders, but then Rob Howley and Sam Warburton have never been ones to throw a party for the sake of it. Wales have lost seven international matches on the bounce since securing their Championship clean sweep with victory over France at the Millennium Stadium 10 months ago and neither coach nor captain attempted to gloss over that uncomfortable fact.
"The bookies have us down as fourth favourites, do they?" Howley commented. "Those odds probably reflect form coming into the first round of matches."
Then, after being asked whether the failure of the Welsh regions to nail any of the 16 quarter-final places in the two European competitions had led to a deadening of morale in the Red Dragon camp, he struck a positive note. "We didn't do particularly well in Europe last season, either," he said, "yet we ended up with a Slam."
It may well be that the injury-prone but highly effective Warburton will share the breakaway duties with the Ospreys hotshot Justin Tipuric, who many regard as the form open-side specialist in Wales. Certainly, the coach was in no mood to rubbish the idea, and if it comes to pass, the shop-soiled champions could yet catch their rivals on the hop.
Two No 7s? It has been tried before with some success, notably when the Wallabies paired Phil Waugh and George Smith in their back row.
Howley also believes that now he is flying solo – Warren Gatland, the full-time head coach, will spend the entire Six Nations on Lions player-watch ahead of this summer's tour of Australia – he can give his players "clarity". The question is this: can he also give them some much-needed confidence?
England: Expect a lot more this time
Stuart Lancaster did not need telling that the level of expectation surrounding England in this tournament is stratospherically higher than the one in play a year ago, when the Cumbrian was spending his early days as interim head coach expounding home truths to a variety of World Cup miscreants, restoring a culture of responsibility to the red-rose set-up and, in the odd spare half-hour, piecing together a completely new team. But he was told anyway, on lots of occasions. And each time, he responded in the coolest of manners.
"I don't have to address expectation internally, because we're a well-grounded group," he said when asked whether his side might struggle to cope with increased pressure after the relative luxury of last season's "nothing to lose" campaign. "We don't have people – coaches or players – who are likely to get ahead of themselves. Externally, of course, you do have to deal with it, because that's the nature of international sport. But we understand that everything rises and falls on each game we play. Since taking this job full-time, I've been surprised by the scale of it: there are so many moving parts, so many things to manage. But I haven't changed. I have a philosophy of success and a plan to achieve that success. In that sense, I'm the same person I was last January."
Lancaster expects similar consistency of character from his players; certainly, he would react sharply to the faintest whiff of complacency – and with good reason, given the unpredictable nature of the threat posed in the opening match by Scotland, who have an interim think tank of their own following recent coaching upheavals.
"As we showed last time, the 'nothing to lose' mentality is very dangerous," the boss said.
France: Frederic can be great
France will begin the tournament as favourites and there was something sanguine – unnervingly sanguine from a British Isles perspective – about their coach, Philippe Saint-André, when he surfaced in one of the swankier corners of west London. After a playing career spent at the cutting edge, the former Tricolore wing and captain believes a kindred spirit, albeit one on the wrong side of 30, can navigate Les Bleus through the difficult terrain of Rome, London and Dublin.
Frédéric Michalak, the lost genius of French rugby, has finally been located and drawn back into the fold, and Saint-André believes he could yet turn out to be the outside-half the entire union-playing world thought he was as far back as 2003.
"I think No 10s are like prop forwards, or like good red wine: the older they are, the better they are," he remarked. "Frédéric has had many different experiences, both in rugby, after time spent in South Africa, and in life. He is a father now, and he has changed. He still has his flair, his creativity, but playing alongside Jonny Wilkinson in Toulon has helped him focus. He doesn't want to be the head man in the room any more. He is happy just to be in the room with the other guys."
If Michalak presses the right buttons, Saint-André knows he has the back-line firepower – the sensational Wesley Fofana, for starters – to maximise possession generated by a pack certain to be an extremely serious proposition, even if the mighty flanker Thierry Dusautoir, deposed as captain, fails to make the line-up.
"Thierry was disappointed," Saint-André acknowledged, of the decision to install the lock Pascal Papé as his leader of men. "But we need him to be at 100 per cent."
Scotland: Make do and mend
The top-of-the-bill act at today's Six Nations cabaret was Scott Johnson, who took over as Scotland's head coach on a temporary basis when Andy Robinson resigned after the autumn calamity against Tonga. The Australian tried to persuade his audience that he was a reformed character – "I even do the dishes these days," he confessed – but to all intents and purposes he remains a brash, fast-talking, my-way-or-the-highway Wallaby type.
"So England have some injury problems?" he asked when pressed for his view on the orthopaedic issues sweeping through the red-rose squad ahead of next week's Calcutta Cup contest at Twickenham. "That's a sad story. I guess it only leaves them with another 40,000 players to pick from." Withering stuff. Just for a moment, he sounded like a Scot.
Johnson freely admitted he was in make-do-and-mend mode following the traumas of the pre-Christmas Test programme, hence the decision to call in the former England back-row forward and Premiership coach Dean Ryan to prepare the pack. "I wanted someone who could control the shop floor for me," he explained. "In the short time he's been with us, Dean has given me everything I expected from him as a tactician and as a person. I'm glad he said yes."
Like their first-up, age-old rivals, Scotland have their injuries. They also have their talent famines in key positions. But Johnson says he knows the score and intends to approach the challenges ahead with a strong sense of realism. "I don't want to chase rainbows," he said. "If you go for the finish before the blocks are in place, you won't get there. We don't have the time to reinvent the wheel and I have no interest in doing so. We're in a tournament: that's the 'now'. We simply have to do what we do, but better."
Ireland: The unpredictables
No one ever quite knows how the Irish will deal with the slings and arrows of Six Nations fortune: sometimes, they play outrageously well; often, they are outrageously frustrating. But it was difficult to find a rugby aficionado at the launch who did not expect an Emerald Islander to lead the Lions to Australia this summer.
Brian O'Driscoll, fit again and therefore extremely dangerous as a match-winning midfielder, has been an obvious candidate for months. The other, more recent contender is the high-calibre No 8 Jamie Heaslip, who plays alongside O'Driscoll at Leinster and has retained the leadership role after filling in for his injured countryman during the autumn internationals. Heaslip spoke brilliantly, and if his words were an accurate reflection of the rugby his team are about to play, heaven help everyone else.
"Alan Gaffney [the Australian sage who helped coach Ireland at the last World Cup] was fond of saying that while you can't win a Grand Slam on the opening Six Nations weekend, you can certainly lose it," Heaslip remarked. "We have Wales first up, then England – and that's as far as we can afford to think. The good thing is that the resources are there for us to do well: the management have put in an unbelievable amount of work and identified a huge amount of detail. It's all in our team book – our hymnsheet."
By his own admission, Heaslip was profoundly moved when Declan Kidney, the head coach, asked him to continue as captain. "I had to stop myself giving him a man-hug: it could have been a bit awkward between us," he recalled. "The great thing is the support I've already received from Brian. Is he a different person because of this? Not at all. He's the ultimate professional he's always been."
Italy: Don't feel so small
According to Sergio Parisse, who has mastered the art of performing like a god in the company of all-too-mortal colleagues, the Azzurri no longer feel like the little guys. "A few years ago we would approach games thinking we were not a good side – at least, not as good a side as our opponents – and that feeling put fear in us," said the captain. "But I believe we have crossed that barrier now. Even if we don't get the victory, we often end our games feeling we could have won. We won't go into this tournament feeling we're the small team."
Whatever Parisse says, goes. He has been one of the world's outstanding loose forwards for years, and to have made such a contribution in adversity marks him out as a wonder of this rugby age. But there is only so much an individual can do when the other 14 go missing. Are Italy, odds-on for the wooden spoon year on year, really capable of a mid-table position?
"I do not fear any of our rivals," Parisse responded. "I have confidence in the players and know that if we play well for a full 80 minutes, we can beat anyone. The best teams are competitive every time and, because of this, they can sometimes play badly and win. I would like to think we could do that, but it's not going to happen."
In Parisse's view, Italy are seeking variety as well as consistency. "We have bought into the vision of our coach [the Frenchman Jacques Brunel] and we intend to keep the ball longer this time." It will be a bold departure.
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