Peter Bills: Sean Fitzpatrick comments could haunt him

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The Independent Online

So Sean Fitzpatrick doesn’t believe the skill levels in the 6 Nations Championship have been good enough, thus far. He may be right. But we are entitled to ask for clarification here. Good enough for what and for whom?

Presumably, the former All Blacks captain had in mind rugby in the southern hemisphere and the standards that will pertain at the Rugby World Cup later this year. And when you look at a lot of teams in the 6 Nations, certainly Wales, Ireland, Scotland and of course Italy, it is undeniable that a quantum leap is required to envisage those nations going as far as the semi-finals.

Good enough, for sure, to get out of their pools as runners-up, but likely quarter final fodder for the big boys? Maybe.

Yet it is worth making the point that this is very early in the rugby year. No nation of sane mind would want its team to be hitting its peak about now, in February. Not with the Rugby World Cup not even starting until September.

And I suspect we shall know a great deal more about the qualities England and France may bring to the World Cup party after this Saturday’s meeting of the two at Twickenham. If this is indeed to be a potential Grand Slam decider – and, in France’s case, with only Italy and Wales left to play, the latter in Paris, it would seem this game will be crucial in determining whether the French win a second successive Grand Slam – then let us see the quality of the fare provided.

Is it not possible that we shall see a barn-storming affair at Twickenham, a match of such quality that even the southern hemisphere nations are forced to sit up and take notice? After all, England produced something of the sort in destroying Australia last November with an outstanding demonstration of the attacking possibilities afforded under the new law interpretations.

There are two other issues worth considering at this point in time. The southern hemisphere’s Super 15 season kicked off at the weekend and, with one or two exceptions, was largely a damp squib.

The Melbourne Rebels, Danny Cipriani, Gareth Delve et al, reminded us that Australia hardly have enough quality rugby players to fill four Super rugby teams, never mind a fifth. When you have to import players like Greg Somerville, the ageing ex-All Black prop, a couple of ex-Rugby League players and guys who never quite made it in northern hemisphere rugby, then you are faced with an uncomfortable truth.

The only reason for the Melbourne Rebels existence is commercial profit. There isn’t likely to be any decent rugby worth watching from the latest Aussie franchise this season.

In South Africa, the experienced Blue Bulls, reigning champions, just about survived a roaring second half comeback from the John Mitchell coached Lions in the second half in Johannesburg. But it was far from a convincing display by the Bulls. And in Durban, the Sharks and the Cheetahs produced a desperately poor game.

Only in Auckland, where the Blues beat the Canterbury Crusaders, was there any real quality on display. So inferior skill levels in the 6 Nations? It isn’t just in the northern hemisphere we’re seeing this problem, Sean.

The other matter of huge relevance to world rugby this year and the World Cup is the onerous length of the Super 15 competition. It began last Friday, February 18 and the final is on July 9. A couple of weeks later, the Tri-Nations starts, and when that is finished the World Cup is nigh.

This looks to me like a schedule from hell for the southern hemisphere’s finest. What sort of state are the likes of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Kurtley Beale, Victor Matfield and certain others going to be in at the end of that long list of commitments?

Be careful what you say about the teams of the 6 Nations, at this early stage of the year Sean. Those comments could come back to bite you around late October as the World Cup builds to its climax.