First things first: don’t believe all that stuff about a southern hemisphere superiority complex when it comes to the Six Nations.
Back home in Australia, people of my vintage grew up with the championship and held the old Five Nations version in the highest regard – in the years before the first World Cup in 1987, it was the only tournament that really mattered. As for the kids of today, believe me when I say that every youngster actively involved in the union game will be staying up into the small hours, watching every try, kick and tackle on television. It’s a big thing, wherever you happen to live.
Another thing: in World Cup year, it takes on extra significance. All those involved in this competition will be psyched up to the optimum level, for the simple reason that there’s a hell of a lot riding on their performances. When I was involved in the England coaching set-up back in 2011, the players really hit their straps in February and March because the global tournament in New Zealand was looming in September and they wanted to be there. The Six Nations-World Cup nexus brings a pressure all of its own and, as a result, the top blokes will be really switched on.
That being the case, tonight’s Wales-England game in Cardiff is quite a curtain-raiser. I’ve written before about the unique challenge of taking a team to the Millennium Stadium, where the pre-match entertainment always seems to be happening precisely where you’re trying to warm up and the noise generated by the full house is out of the ordinary, regardless of whether the roof is open or closed. It will be tough for England to win there on this occasion, given the length of their injury list.
But I have to say that by picking Jonathan Joseph at outside centre the visitors have upped the ante on their hosts. I worked with Jonathan for a long time at London Irish – now that I’m off the Premiership beat, I’m doing my best to forgive him for leaving us for Bath – and I see him as a Rolls-Royce of a centre. There aren’t too many No 13s in world rugby blessed with an outside break like his and I would love to see him make the best of his gifts at international level, starting Friday evening.
I suppose the question mark hanging over what I call the “dancing” centres – Mathew Tait fell into this category during my years with England – concerns their strength in contact and their technical expertise in delivering the ball in a tackle situation. Before I moved into international coaching, I was all for playing at least one dancer in midfield: I clung to the idea that, in the final analysis, creativity always trumps brute strength. But the reality was a little different. In Test rugby, you go wide early at your peril unless your outside centre is absolutely secure in the breakdown environment. The No 13 channel is turnover territory. Full stop.
Which is why a player like Mike Tindall meant so much to England. He gave you graft, he gave you grunt... he oiled the wheels so the rest of the team could play. Jonathan has wonderful gifts, but he’ll need to do at least some of what Mike did if he is to make the shirt his own. Mind you, he’s well capable of doing it. He’s very sound technically, he’s become stronger as he’s grown older and while he can’t be something he isn’t – you’re either 115kg (18st) or you’re not – he seems to understand his game these days. At London Irish we played him in different roles because he was our best player in all of them, but it seems he’s finally convinced the England coaches that he can do a job in his favourite position. Good on him.
So who wins the title? To my mind, Wales will take a fair bit of beating – especially as they’re catching England light in terms of personnel. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Sydney, but it hasn’t been difficult to keep up with the latest thoughts of Warren Gatland, who enjoys nothing better than cranking up the heat from his head coach’s throne down there in Cardiff. He’s been his usual entertaining self, but I just wonder whether his pointed remarks about England’s “strength in depth” and the “challenge of playing under the roof” reveal as much about his own mindset as the one he’s been trying to influence.
Wales really won’t want to lose this one – not with a side as settled as theirs, with Test Lions in every department bar half-back (and even there they have Mike Phillips on the bench). They’re a little like the great West Indies cricket team of the 1980s: you can close your eyes and name the team without having to think for longer than a second. Unless something very strange happens, most of these blokes will be squaring up to England and Australia during the World Cup pool stage. Which will be sweet for Gatland, provided they go well in this tournament. If they mess up tonight against opponents with a dozen front-liners unavailable for selection... well, that’s a different story.
Brian is Smith is a former England attack coach
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