Brian Ashton: The only thing we can expect? That's right... the unexpected
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 04 February 2012
The wheels on the international bandwagon rarely stop rolling for long: the post-World Cup 2011 era has barely started, yet we are already thinking of the 15 matches that will make up the 2012 Six Nations Championship. There is always a nagging feeling that because of the imbalance of fixtures – some countries play three games at home, others only two – the outcome will not be a definitive reflection of the strengths of the teams involved. There will be no doubting the level of passion, however. Apart from the unexpected, the one thing we can safely expect is complete, no-holds-barred commitment.
Unpredictability is the watchword when it comes to the Six Nations and there is no compelling reason to think things will go entirely the way of the formbook this time round. I don't believe there is a truly outstanding side going into the competition, although if we take seriously the litmus test of the Heineken Cup – the closest the clubs, regions and provinces get to international intensity – it is reasonable to surmise that France and Ireland begin proceedings in the driving seat. This is always a risky approach, though. Heineken Cup indicators have proved nonsensical in the past.
World Cup events should have been consigned to the memory bank marked "distant" by now: those looking back at the top level of the game tend not to see rivals overtaking them at high speed. Yet it is apparent that the things that happened in New Zealand have had a significant knock-on effect pretty much everywhere, be it in terms of coaching set-ups, playing squads or levels of expectation. Certainly, captains and coaches have constantly referred to the World Cup during the preamble to this weekend's opening round of matches.
Personnel-wise, the three Celtic nations are closest to "same old, same old" status (this is not a criticism of Declan Kidney, Andy Robinson and Warren Gatland as coaches of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I have great respect for each of them). The remaining countries are more obviously taking steps into the great unknown, with new people on the payroll and different tactical approaches being developed as a matter of urgency.
Time is one thing rarely granted to anyone in this age of instant gratification, so in the countries where there has been major upheaval – England, France, Italy – ambitious coaches are up against the clock in attempting to work out the best way of moving forward, of deciding on new shapes and structures and getting things bedded down. This is not a straightforward task. I know this from personal experience.
It will be fascinating to see to what extent playing styles reflect the rugby played by the leading domestic sides of the various nations. In a country like Ireland, where the governing body has a large degree of control over the comings and goings of the players, there is more likely to be a homogeneous approach. There again, top coaches invariably enjoy being a little idiosyncratic: it is always fun to fly in the face of perceived logic and undermine commonly held assumptions about national rugby characteristics. Not that it is an easy job dragging people down a different route. I know this from experience, too.
All this adds to the glorious uncertainty of a competition that offers only one guarantee: that at some point over its course, a trapdoor will open and swallow up an unwary team. Factor in the impact of pure luck – not to mention the refereeing foibles that inevitably play some part in the drama – and you begin to wonder why anyone ever considers gambling a penny.
So what of the contenders? Wales, as ever, have fitness issues. Yet if their impressive captain, Sam Warburton, is to be believed, they are determined to maintain their positive outlook on how the game should be played and I, for one, am happy to applaud their refreshing approach. There remains a lack of consistency, both within a game and from match to match, that needs to be eradicated and an early setback in Dublin may test their resolve. But with the bigger picture revealing some light at the end of the tunnel, they should continue on their current course.
Scotland need to start winning games. Andy Robinson is imposing pressure on himself to deliver and I only hope the players respond by taking the same mentality on to the field with them. The Scots' chronic inability to fit the last piece into the jigsaw is an old story; indeed, they have been letting wriggling opponents off the hook for years now. Their fortunes could be transformed if they could just find a way of closing out matches, but the lack of genuine finishing quality in the back division makes this a big ask.
You'd expect the Irish to be strong title contenders, given the success of their provincial rugby in the Heineken Cup environment. Their capacity to manage players through the first half of a season should ensure they start the tournament both fresh and battle-hardened – the optimum state of readiness. They will still be smarting from yet another roller-coaster World Cup and must cope with the loss of talismanic centre Brian O'Driscoll, but as some of the longer-serving figures are beginning to think of last chances, there will be no shortage of motivation.
Italy have a new coach in the Frenchman Jacques Brunel, who is, by all accounts, every bit as pragmatic as his predecessor, Nick Mallett. In Azzurri terms, two wins will signal progress and begin the process of changing perceptions inside the country about how the national side might play the game. The establishment of a stable and intelligent midfield combination would have a cathartic effect, allowing Brunel to build on traditional forward strength. Should he find such a combination, will the pragmatist in him allow it to flourish?
France, the World Cup runners-up, also have a new coach, much more familiar to rugby followers on this side of the water. Philippe Saint-André, the man asked to lead Les Bleus towards the next global tournament in 2015, is also marked by the spirit of pragmatism – indeed, he is more of a pragmatist than a romantic, despite the great deeds he performed as a wing of the highest calibre. This is no longer at odds with the French way of doing things. To my mind, the romantic soul departed rugby in that country years ago. Saint-André's success in his first tournament will depend largely on the desire of his players to front up in all five games.
Finally, we come to renaissance England. The interim coaching team under Stuart Lancaster have done their utmost to establish a culture of honesty, simplicity, humility and hard work: foundations of any successful organisation. In the same spirit, several players have been quoted as saying they want to change the way they go about things at Test level. Here, then, is a chance for them to put their substantial monetary rewards somewhere in the vicinity of their mouths. If there is a lack of experience in the squad, there is also a refreshing air of youthful energy and enthusiasm.
Much will depend on results in the first two games, both of which are away from home. Anything might happen. There is, by general consent, a need to plan for the longer term – a need for a new strategy for England rugby, a new vision. Will the media and the governing body keep this in mind and hold back from overcritical reaction in the face of short-term setbacks? Now, there's a question. And I think we all know the answer to it.
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