England were looked after so well during the 2007 World Cup tournament, leaving aside a difficult few days spent at a Marseilles hotel situated in a Mediterranean version of Dog-Poo Alley, that we struck up a wonderfully positive relationship with our hosts, to the extent that the French security staff assigned to us were uncertain who they should support come our semi-final with Les Bleus. Who said the entente cordiale was dead?
I've never been much interested in the banter that routinely criss-crosses the Channel ahead of a serious game between the two nations, but when I cast my mind back to the events of four years ago I must confess that this week's comments by the French coach, Marc Lièvremont, seem a little odd. There again, the response in some quarters to his widely publicised thoughts on Anglo-French relations, or lack of them, has been so staggeringly predictable that it makes me wonder whether Lièvremont touched a nerve after all.
Of far more interest to my way of thinking are the prospects of England continuing their useful run of form against France at Twickenham this afternoon. Leaving aside World Cup warm-up matches, which are necessarily distorted affairs and don't really count in my view, England have beaten the Tricolores in four of the last five meetings and might easily have secured victory in Paris last season had Chris Ashton, then a new face on the wing, shown a little try-scoring devil. What a strange comment that seems in light of events since.
It is my sense that France will approach Twickenham with caution – quite the worst possible route for a French side to take. I also sense that in the minds of certain England players, caution has been banished to a faraway place; certainly, I expect them to play with real positivity from the outset. Can we expect to be treated to an attacking performance on the grand scale of 2001, when we won 48-19? That day, the roles traditionally associated with the two countries were reversed. The flair – the razzmatazz, if you want to call it that – came from England, to the extent that Austin Healey manufactured a startling try for Mike Catt with an overhead kick from the base of a ruck. Could this possibly be matched by my namesake and his mates today? Here's hoping.
The Welsh are hoping, and praying, that their mini-revival in fortunes against Scotland in Edinburgh last time out will continue in Rome. I refuse to entertain the possibility that Italy will play as poorly in front of their home supporters at Stadio Flaminio today as they did in London a fortnight back – that they will be so lacking in desire, in passion, in self-belief. If they are, we can expect Emperor Dondi (Giancarlo Dondi, the president of the Italian union, for those not in the know) to give the national team a Colosseum-style thumbs down, the ramifications of which could be rather painful, albeit in a modern kind of way.
As ever when the Italians are involved, the forward battle will be central to the outcome. If Wales can subdue the Azzurri pack and silence that Roman crowd, they will be three-quarters of the way to victory. This will be no easy matter, though, despite all the recent evidence to the contrary at Twickenham. If I know Italian rugby at all – and I've spent a fair bit of time in the country one way or another – they will be smarting badly from their humiliation at the hands of a rampant England, and I can't imagine they will leave their line-out strategy on the team bus for the second game running.
Wales did not have to play terribly well to beat the Scots, but just occasionally during that game the men of the valleys reminded us of their ability with ball in hand if given a little leeway. Every so often, the blind-alley sideways stuff gave way to something far more interesting and exciting, and as the Welsh are at their best when they are at their most direct, their supporters will travel in anticipation of seeing the running lines and offloading that makes an on-song Red Dragons side such a joy to watch.
Talk of events at Murrayfield leads us back to Edinburgh, where Scotland face a Six Nations D-Day tomorrow against a strangely erratic Ireland. If both teams continue to commit errors at the current rate – the technical mistakes have been coming thick and fast, as have instances of rank ill discipline – the neutral observer may find himself treated to a chaotic, points-laden bonanza. Andy Robinson, an incredibly passionate coach who sets very high standards, was not a happy man as the Wales debacle unfolded before his eyes, as his incredulous, not to say pugilistic, antics up in his glass eyrie indicated all too clearly. And he had just signed a four-year extension to his contract! Thanks, lads.
He will be expecting rather more support from his players tomorrow, while Declan Kidney, his Irish opposite number, must be anticipating another energetic display from his forwards, who summoned some green-shirted "hooley" against France after a peculiarly conciliatory performance in Rome.
That, however, will not count for too much if a back division who look highly capable on paper continue to complicate virtually every essentially simple move they undertake. Declan has publicly stated that he will not abandon his attacking approach, but he needs his players to show more accuracy and intelligence than we have seen from them so far.
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