Old virtues can survive test-tube tournament

Players and supporters will rely on traditional enthusiasm to cope with non-sensical rule changes and new format
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The Independent Online

The shock of the new can be too shocking by half, as European rugby may well discover over the next two months. As if six new captains, three new coaches and one entirely new diner at the top table of the northern hemisphere game were not enough to be going on with, the expanded Six Nations community has also been lumbered with a raft of new laws, most of which will confuse the hell out of the players and further torment a panel of put-upon referees who are already about as popular as an escalope of veal at a vegan dinner party.

The shock of the new can be too shocking by half, as European rugby may well discover over the next two months. As if six new captains, three new coaches and one entirely new diner at the top table of the northern hemisphere game were not enough to be going on with, the expanded Six Nations community has also been lumbered with a raft of new laws, most of which will confuse the hell out of the players and further torment a panel of put-upon referees who are already about as popular as an escalope of veal at a vegan dinner party.

As for the supporters, well, no one in authority could care less about them, as long as they keep turning up.

And turn up they will, in their tens of thousands. The undeniable, indefinable magic of the oldest international tournament in world rugby ensures that it will once again survive the worst excesses of those who govern it. The smoked salmon and Chablis set will be out in force at Twickenham on Saturday, just as the red-scarved boyos will spend their weekend in Cardiff boozing their way from the Old Arcade to the Millennium Stadium and back again. Even Murrayfield, that well-known spectator-free zone, will be heavily populated in the first week of March, when Scotland take on France in their first home game of a peculiarly structured campaign that sees the reigning champions on the road in three of the first four rounds.

Yet there is something distinctly odd about this inaugural Six Nations.

Listen to Allan Hosie, the chairman of the Six Nations Committee, and you would think this Italy-enriched tournament was more sacred than the Turin Shroud. At last week's launch in London's Victoria and Albert Museum (as someone rather cruelly pointed out, an appropriate venue given the number of ancient relics in attendance), Hosie used the word "great" in referring to the competition almost as often as Muhammad Ali used it in referring to himself.

In which case, why on earth take the jewel in European rugby's crown out of the throne room and into the laboratory? No other governing body on earth would use its most valuable asset as a test tube, but then, the International Rugby Board is out on its own and away with the fairies when it comes to doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their decision to experiment with hopelessly convoluted scrummaging, line-out and tackle-ball modifications in front of umpteen million television viewers, rather than in some suitably low-profile game between Bedford Extra Firsts and Old Muckyduckians, is pretty staggering even by IRB standards.

They would not have been quite so culpable had they chosen to implement rule changes that might have made a lasting contribution to the well-being of the international game: a complete ban on body armour, for instance, or an immediate end to all tactical substitutions. Both steps would free up tight, ultra-defensive matches: without body armour, the tackling would be less ferocious - just one JPR Williams per side, rather than 15 - while a no-subs decree would increase the number of tired forwards in the final quarter of a contest and give the backs some time and space in which to strut their stuff. Sadly, the IRB are more interested in whether a line-out jumper should be lifted by the thighs, the shorts, the ankles or the earlobes.

All sorts of nonsense has been spoken about the Six Nations recently: for instance, those Rugby Football Union types who are busily accusing the Premiership club owners of ruining England's international chances by insisting on a suicidal fixture list are the very same people who want the international championship shifted back to the end of the season, when the players would be even more cream-crackered than they are now.

There's logic for you.

Thank heaven, then, for the people who made the old Five Nations what it was and promise to do the same for this bigger, more exotic and less insular version: the blokes on the pitch and the men, women and children in the stands. There could be 200 new laws in force when England square up to the bristling Irish in south-west London this weekend, but they would not stop the Lawrence Dallaglios and Keith Woods of this parish eyeballing each other at every set-piece and tearing into each other whenever they catch a glimpse of an unprotected rib cage.

"Passion, pace, power, panache and pride," says the BBC in its advertising for the tournament. Had they needed a sixth "p", they might have added the word "professionalism", for it takes a true professional to rise above his post-World Cup fatigue and do another bit for his country. But no Six Nations competitor would dream of analysing his own motives for putting his body through yet more purgatory. This championship, above all others, is blessed with its own magnetic field, and the attraction is irresistible to all who venture within its range.

So who will get their heavily-taped hands on the £55,000 solid-sterling silver trophy? France, probably. And you can bet your bottom lire that Alessandro Troncon and his Italian freshmen will finish further away from the object of their desire than any of the ex-Five Nations seniors. But that will not matter, as long as the Azzurri escape humiliation. Their time will come, as it came to Scott Gibbs and his fellow Welshmen on that famous day at Wembley last April.

SIX NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP - CHRIS HEWETT'S TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE

England

The red rose battalions are more vulnerable now than at any point since 1994, when Will Carling's inexperienced side played three consecutive Five Nations matches without scoring a try and eventually conceded the championship to Wales. At the end of last year's World Cup, Clive Woodward's choice was both stark and simple: he could either fast-track the best youngsters by way of building for the 2003 tournament, or stick with the old guard in the hope of landing some silverware. In the event, circumstances have forced him into treading a fine line between the two.

Inexperienced out wide, uncertain in midfield and badly disrupted in the second row, England will do well to win their home games against Ireland and Wales. Italy should be a banker away, but the visits to Paris and Edinburgh may be too much for them. If the back row clicks, they might finish second. If Dallaglio and company misfire, it could be embarrassing.

Scotland

No human resources, no crowds, no money, no domestic structure worthy of the name, but, perversely, plenty of hope. Ian McGeechan and John Leslie are the new main men, and it is difficult to think of two people better equipped to continue the good work of Jim Telfer and Gary Armstrong, whose end-of-century heroics last season will forever be the stuff of blue-shirted legend. Scotland have the big boys, England and France, at home this time, and that in itself will make them major players. Besides, there are islands of rare and unspoiled quality dotted around that shallow pool of theirs. Leslie and Gregor Townsend are the best inside backs in the championship, Glenn Metcalfe the most adventurous counter-attacking full-back, Tom Smith the most technically proficient loose head, Scott Murray the most elastic line-out jumper. Sometimes, small can be very beautiful indeed.

Ireland

Can Keith Wood cut the hot stuff as a captain, as well as locate his jumpers at the line-out, scrummage like a Trojan, hit more rucks and mauls than the rest of his pack put together, make all the tackles and all the yardage, score all the tries and drink all the beer? If the answer is in the affirmative, Ireland could go from World Cup pratfallers to Six Nations sensations. Wood is the single most inspirational performer in British Isles rugby; in the wider European landscape, he is matched only by Abdel Benazzi of France. He has strong men around him - Clohessy, Wallace, O'Kelly - and know-how out wide, where Brian O'Driscoll is a Lions outside centre in the making and Kevin Maggs is playing out of his socks at No 12. It is all down to the middle five: if Warren Gatland gets his back-row balance right and Ronan O'Gara brings his Heineken Cup form to the Test arena, the season will have an emerald glow about it.

Wales

Still the most passionate of all European rugby nations, still the most deserving of any kind of success and still the least able to fulfil its promise. Graham Henry has talked a pretty sensational game since moving from Auckland, the city of a thousand sails, to Cardiff, the city of a million excuses, 18 months or so ago. What he needs to do now is ensure that his Red Dragonhood get out there on the pitch and actually play one. Wales have a back division to die for - so many powerful runners, so much pace and exuberance - and Neil Jenkins will kick goals by the gross. But when push came to shove in the World Cup, all the hype was exposed as so much bull and bluster; despite the Ginger Monster's pendulum-like swings of the most precious right boot in the world game, he and his countrymen came up well short. Chris Wyatt will need some help from the rest of the tight five if the Welsh are to finish in credit.

France

The most destructive scrummagers in the world? Yes. The most dangerous, uninhibited and magically unorthodox threequarters on the planet? Definitely. Will they win the Grand Slam with their eyes shut? Er, probably not. The World Cup semi-finalists will surely win the first Six Nations title, but their trip to Murrayfield on 4 March may prove too awkward by half. They will not be relishing this weekend's little rumble with the Welsh in Cardiff, either, for there is a strange fragility about the Tricolores as soon as they board the team train at Gare du Nord. But with Bernard Laporte pulling all the right strings and world-class performers such as Castaignÿde, Califano, Tournaire, Benazzi and Dominici ripping up trees by the forest-load, they have far too much going for them to lose more than once. Expect the French to pocket the silver pot with eight points from a possible 10.

Italy

For the sake of the championship - and, far more importantly, for the future of rugby in southern Europe - Italy must win a game in this tournament. They know what it is to beat three of the competing nations: they have done for the Irish on no fewer than three occasions, taken France in Grenoble and cracked the Scots in Treviso. But they are in a desperate state; disheartened, disillusioned and dishevelled after three-figure defeats by both South Africa and New Zealand last year, they make their Six Nations bow with a new coach and a new captain, but no guarantee of a new mindset. A serious hiding from the Scots at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome on Saturday could persuade the Roma-obsessed and Lazio-loving citizens of the Eternal City that rugby is nothing more than an eternal turn-off, which would be a desperate blow to the new competition's credibility. Worryingly, very worrying.

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