Irish fortress can lift European game

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Listen carefully, and you might hear them laughing. The Irish, that is. A good-humoured lot, pleased as punch with themselves in their provincial pomp – menacing Munster, livewire Leinster, unflinching Ulster – and blissfully happy in the knowledge that certain swanky know-it-alls across the water, some of them in the hallowed corridors of Twickenham and others in the sporting studios of the BBC, think the outcome of this year's Six Nations' Championship will be decided in London on Saturday, rather than in Dublin at the end of March. Do these people never learn?

Listen carefully, and you might hear them laughing. The Irish, that is. A good-humoured lot, pleased as punch with themselves in their provincial pomp – menacing Munster, livewire Leinster, unflinching Ulster – and blissfully happy in the knowledge that certain swanky know-it-alls across the water, some of them in the hallowed corridors of Twickenham and others in the sporting studios of the BBC, think the outcome of this year's Six Nations' Championship will be decided in London on Saturday, rather than in Dublin at the end of March. Do these people never learn?

Some months ago, a variety of Rugby Football Union officials could be heard publicly lamenting the fact that the England-France game had been scheduled for the first weekend of the tournament, as opposed to the last. "We're trying to sell this rugby lark, to give it some drama, yet we present our audience with the best bit straight away," they grumbled into their pink gins. Senior broadcasting types were banging the same drum. "What ever happened to sex appeal?" they spluttered into their yoghurts. "Why put the climax ahead of the foreplay?"

They have been raising a glass or three around Lansdowne Road ever since – and not glasses of gin, either. If pride goes before a fall, England – and France, come to that – may soon find themselves plummeting towards terra firma from a very serious height.

The French visit the rickety old dump on the Ballsbridge Road in round three, having lost there two years ago. England follow them three weeks later for the competition's Sunday afternoon finale, having been denied a Grand Slam there in October 2001 – a match delayed for months by the foot-and-mouth outbreak, and which Clive Woodward wishes had been scrapped altogether. Both sets of players must cringe every time one of their countrymen opens his mouth on the subject of fixture planning.

At least Jacques Laurans, the new chairman of the Six Nations Committee, a recent recipient of the Legion d'Honneur and as suave an administrator as France has produced in years, understands the danger of presumption when the Irish are the ones being presumed about.

"It should be difficult to predict the outcome of the tournament, so we must work hard to bridge the gap between the stronger and weaker nations," he acknowledged in London last week, referring to the failures of Italy and the Celts to summon anything more than a brief flurry of resistance to the Anglo-French hegemony. "But I do not accept the view that this year's competition will be over after the first match at Twickenham... which, of course, France will win. I expect the issue to be in the balance until the final weekend."

Which just happens to be when England cross the pond for another test of physical and emotional resilience: precisely the kind of test Gloucester, the bully boys of the Premiership, failed so spectacularly in Limerick last month. Intriguingly, they are likely to encounter a new, more organised and infinitely more confident Ireland. Brian O'Driscoll and company are talking a different game this time. There is precious little mention of "sticking one up in the heavens and running over the full-back". This season's buzz words are distinctly un-Irish. They include "patience", "maturity", even "science".

Eddie O'Sullivan, about to embark on his second Six Nations as head coach, accepts that if Ireland are to take the next big step up and join international rugby's first division – to maximise the opportunities offered them by a vibrant generation of O'Driscolls, Paul O'Connells, Geordan Murphys, Ronan O'Garas and Peter Stringers – now is the time to do it. During the autumn, they beat Australia for the first time in more than 20 years; they have given John Mitchell's All Blacks serious grief in Dunedin as well as Dublin; they put 54 points on Wales and another 43 on Scotland in last season's championship. With the World Cup a mere eight months away, the moment is there to be seized.

"I think there is a certain maturity about the squad now," O'Sullivan agreed, "and I would like to think the senior players have seen enough of the international game, and are sufficiently familiar with each other, to be more comfortable with the weight of expectation – something with which the Irish team has struggled to cope in the past. This is an important tournament in terms of our development: we have some experienced players – O'Driscoll may be 23, but he is a 23-year-old with 33 caps and an extraordinarily astute take on the game at this level – and we have built some momentum of late. We also have France and England at home. Yes, I believe we can move up a level and challenge the big two."

In one sense, those who subscribe to the "first weekend is everything" theory are quite correct. Just as it would be fatuous to describe England-France as anything other than hugely significant, it would be daft not to take serious note of events in Edinburgh, where Ireland attempt to break an 18-year losing streak against Scotland at Murrayfield.

"It is the key game for us," O'Sullivan said. "I cannot explain our repeated failures in Scotland, except to say there is a mental dimension. This is why I have picked hardened internationals ahead of people like Donncha O'Callaghan and Jeremy Staunton. The Six Nations is not a place for finding out about people, but a place for playing those you already understand. Especially a Six Nations as important as this one."

The tournament needs Ireland to ascend to a new level, for if they fail, who else will stoke the competitive fires and defend the Six Nations against charges under the Trades Descriptions Act? (Six Nations? Two Nations, more like). The Scots, heavily provincialised these days but decades behind the Irish in terms of identity, rarely perform as badly as their own pessimists predict, but they do not possess the backs to win more than twice. The Welsh are up to their eyeballs in politics – who else would vote on the future of their domestic game less than 24 hours after playing England in Cardiff? – while the Italians remain inherently weak. "We try, but there is still no money in our game," said the great pirate of Azzurri, Massimo Giovanelli, with a shake of his Blackbeard locks.

As ever, the potential for the odd shock result is woven into the fabric of the event. But the Six Nations cannot continue to thrive on the occasional out-of-the-blue upset. It requires the creation of a new stronghold as proud and heavily fortified as Twickenham or Stade de France. Lansdowne Road is out of date, and may even be demolished soon. But while it stands, European rugby needs it to stand firm.



Coach: Clive Woodward.
Captain: Martin Johnson.

Front-row crises aside, the red rose army looks fearsomely strong: it measures its talent in whole battalions while the other home nations make do with platoons (or, in Scotland's case, small marauding bands of mercenaries). Had Brian O'Driscoll been born in Doncaster rather than Dublin, they would be the most complete side on the planet and favourites for the 2003 World Cup. They remain open to the occasional pratfall, especially when something disrupts Woodward's tried and tested build-up regime, but, with Richard Hill and Ben Cohen playing the best rugby of their lives and Jonny Wilkinson ticking away like a metronome following his injury break, only a mug would bet against them claiming a third title in four years.

Watch this face: Lewis Moody.


Coach: Bernard Laporte.
Captain: Fabien Galthié.

The French needed the Pieter de Villiers drug scandal like a hole in la tête: Laporte has worked many small wonders with the Tricolores, but the major miracle has been his success in injecting a sense of discipline and collective responsibility into the national team, thereby allowing the whole to equal the sum of its parts. Galthié, all strop and energy, is crucial to the mix – should anything happen to the captain, Les Bleus will be up the Gallic equivalent of a gum tree – but the loss of Tony Marsh may not be as damaging as first feared, for Thomas Castaignède and Xavier Garbajosa are both running hot. Strong in the scrum, world-class in the back row and full of counter-attacking brilliance, they should be quite something.

Watch this face: Clement Poitrenaud.


Coach: Eddie O'Sullivan.
Captain: Brian O'Driscoll.

Distinctly useful. Not so very long ago, the Irish would have contemplated a Six Nations without Keith Wood with the all the confidence of a Standard Life policy holder, but the emerald game is on such a high right now that the human billiard ball is a mere after-thought. The Irish have fancied themselves before, of course, and championship history tells us that, whenever they have harboured ideas above their station, they have been knocked flat on their backsides. This vintage could be the real deal, though: the forwards are as tough and passionate as ever, the backs unusually potent. They have home advantage against both France and England, and have not lost in Wales since 1983. Suddenly, they look very dangerous.

Watch this face: Geordan Murphy.


Coach: John Kirwan.
Captain: Alessandro Troncon.

Slow progress, but progress all the same. Italy are still losing – they have not won a Six Nations match since their first, on the opening weekend of the 2000 tournament – but they are generally losing by less. Indeed, they are losing by less than some of their rivals: they pushed France hard in Paris last season, and lost only 32-17 in Dublin while playing a man short – a decent effort, compared with the 54-point pasting suffered by Wales at the same venue. John Kirwan, who replaced his fellow New Zealander Brad Johnstone as coach 10 months ago, is piecing together a young side keen to learn and happy to take a punt on his expansive approach to the game. The first match, against Wales in Rome, is crucial to their confidence.

Watch this face: Marco Bortolami.


Coach: Ian McGeechan.
Captain: Bryan Redpath.

There are some quality open-side flankers in the Six Nations – Olivier Magne, Neil Back, Martyn Williams, Mauro Bergamasco – and Budge Pountney was as effective as any of them. But Budge is an ex-flanker as far as the Scots are concerned (he was not much of a Scot anyway, having qualified through some distant Channel Islands ancestry), so McGeechan is under some heat to unearth a replacement. The breakaway position is central to the way Scotland play and if that part of their game goes well, bigger and better teams can find them a pain. On a good day, Brendan Laney and Chris Paterson are capable of maximising the efforts of a lively pack; on a bad day, they fire blanks. Unlikely to win away, Scotland are banking on the Murrayfield factor.

Watch this face: Simon Taylor.


Coach: Steve Hansen.
Captain: Colin Charvis.

It is getting to the point where the rest of Europe are willing to forgive and forget the overbearing cockiness of the Welsh in their 1970s pomp: the Six Nations needs a Red Dragonhood breathing fire rather than the sickly air of depression, and those with the union game in their blood now crave the reincarnation of Gareth, Barry and Gerald. Dwayne, Iestyn and Craig does not have the same ring, somehow, but the new Welsh backs would be as dangerous as most, if only they were given the right ball in the right places. The pack is no better than reasonable on paper, and not even that good on grass. And then there is the politics. Is it possible for a Test team to show their best when the management of their game is so hopeless. Probably not.

Watch this face: Craig Morgan.


Saturday 15 February
Italy v Wales (Stadio Flaminio, 13.30)
England v France (Twickenham, 16.00)

Sunday 16 Feburary
Scotland v Ireland (Murrayfield, 15.00)

Saturday 22 Feburuary
Italy v Ireland (Stadio Flaminio, 14.30)
Wales v England (Millennium Stadium, 17.30)

Sunday 23 February
France v Scotland (Stade de France, 14.00)

Saturday 8 March
Ireland v France (Lansdowne Road, 14.00)
Scotland v Wales (Murrayfield, 16.00)

Sunday 9 March
England v Italy (Twickenham, 14.00)

Saturday 22 March
Wales v Ireland (Millennium Stadium, 14.00)
England v Scotland (Twickenham, 16.00)

Sunday 23 March
Italy v France (Stadio Flaminio, 14.00)

Saturday 29 March
France v Wales (Stade de France, 13.00)
Scotland v Italy (Murrayfield, 15.00)

Sunday 30 March
Ireland v England (Lansdowne Road, 14.00)