There is always a crackle of excitement when the Six Nations Championship comes into view, but unfortunately we have yet to lose sight of the stilted performances turned in during the autumn by the northern hemisphere countries, with the single exception of Ireland.
It leaves me wondering exactly what we can expect from the forthcoming tournament. Will the coaches be brave enough to take a step or two back and allow players to navigate their own way through these high-profile, high-pressure contests, or will we see the playbooks and patterns proliferating once again?
With this in mind, I'll be looking closely at the players wearing the Nos 12 and 13 because in many important respects, these will be the people setting the tone for the competition. Is it too much to hope that they will be the centres of attacking attention? Or will they be reduced, as so often these days, to spectator status in attack and find themselves restricted to making big-hit tackles and securing turnover ball? I'm not suggesting tackles and turnovers are anything less than commendable, but do we really want our centres to spend their afternoons ploughing into contact and producing slow ball, or chasing high kicks that are the inevitable consequence of an ultra-conservative, blinkered approach?
Am I alone in craving a little liberation for the midfield community? I want to see them bringing the full range of skills to the party, to savour a little elusive running and distributive subtlety – a passing game that creates space through weight, pace and timing. How often do we see a pair of centres working the angles together in broken play after four or five phases? It is hardly commonplace.
But if anyone tries to tell me this is a thing of the past, that the modern game is not the place for it, I'll tell them to watch Brian O'Driscoll play alongside Gordon D'Arcy for Leinster, or find themselves a tape of O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts cutting up the South Africans on last summer's Lions tour.
O'Driscoll is the perfect example of a centre whose rugby decisions are made in direct response to the things happening around him. He was always a dynamic, highly skilled, courageous player, but over the last 18 months he seems to have added all manner of sophisticated touches to his game. I have no evidence for this, but I suspect the Ireland coach, Declan Kidney, has had a positive influence here. I came to know Declan quite well during my time working with Ireland in the mid-1990s and he is the kind of coach who encourages players to take responsibility, to "give the game" to them.
Ian McGeechan – Sir Ian, as we must refer to him now – is another such coach and his pairing of O'Driscoll and Roberts in South Africa was a masterstroke. Here was a beautifully balanced midfield partnership: strong, aggressive and open-minded; two players blessed with nuance as well as physicality. They showed us multifaceted centre play at its best, playing with speed and variety, handling brilliantly under pressure, supporting each other with cleverly angled late runs and presenting the ball in contact with great precision and reliability. I haven't seen Roberts perform nearly as well since, but O'Driscoll continues to play some mind-stretching stuff.
What do I mean by midfield balance? It is not simply a case of pairing a "footballer" with a bigger, stronger, more direct "basher", although many coaches appear to follow this policy automatically. The most productive partnerships feature individuals who understand each other's games as deeply as their own and bring a wide range of complementary skills to the mix.
Ideally, one should have a strong kicking game. In the Leinster side, D'Arcy does not put boot to ball often, if at all, but while O'Driscoll is not particularly noted for his talents in this field, he can kick intelligently when required. Of course, if you have an outside centre who can kick long and accurately off both feet, like Jeremy Guscott, you're quids in. His ability in this department freed up non-kickers or reluctant kickers – Phil de Glanville, say, or Will Carling – to concentrate on their strengths, safe in the knowledge that there was a safety net nearby.
Will this tournament spark a renaissance in European midfield play? The phrase "dream on" springs to mind. I expect to see players being ordered to smash their way across the gain-line close to the scrum and to follow the "defence wins matches" mantra. I hope I'm proved wrong, but if my worst fears come to pass, at least we will have O'Driscoll.
Northampton missed a chance to rattle Munster
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the Northampton dressing room after last weekend's Heineken Cup pool match in Munster, which they lost by three points. I suspect they will quickly have reached the conclusion that this was an opportunity missed.
The mindset of the game was deeply intriguing, with two elements in particular that set me thinking. Firstly, why did we see Shane Geraghty impersonating Stephen Myler when the real thing was sat on the bench? Shane poses many threats to a defence and does a number of things extremely well, but if a coach decides that Myler's more narrowly focused, kick-based rugby is what he needs, he'd be better advised to pick...Stephen Myler.
Secondly, it was interesting to hear Paul O'Connell, last summer's Lions captain, talking pre-match about Munster's "fear of losing at home" and equating that very rare experience to a "death in the family". Fear can be a motivation, but that unusually strong description seemed to me to indicate a chink in the armour. Munster will never be an easy proposition in Limerick, but there were possibilities for Northampton on this occasion. They did not capitalise and, as a result, must make a return trip in the quarter-finals. Roll on the next game.Reuse content