Running talent will put life into Lions

Clutch of Six Nations youngsters emerge to give selectors rich pickings for next year's battle with Wallabies
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To put it mildly, the red rose army under-achieved in Edinburgh on Sunday: the only person left standing by 15 Grand Slam-hunting Englishmen confidently expected to run the legs off the hapless Scots was a distinctly chilly member of the royal family dressed in high heels and a tartan skirt.

To put it mildly, the red rose army under-achieved in Edinburgh on Sunday: the only person left standing by 15 Grand Slam-hunting Englishmen confidently expected to run the legs off the hapless Scots was a distinctly chilly member of the royal family dressed in high heels and a tartan skirt.

But it was ever thus. Eight short weeks and 15 matches into the new, inclusive Six Nations era, it is a blessed relief to report that European rugby remains predictable only in its unpredictability.

Take France, for instance. The Tricolores were meant to win the championship with their eyes shut, but they over-egged their own omelette by nodding off completely at all the wrong moments. The Italians, on the other hand, were written off as decline and fall material, regardless of the fact that they had not yet risen. Thanks to Stoica, Martin, Dominguez, Troncon, Moscardi, Bergamasco and De Rossi, all of whom established their championship credentials in the most decisive fashion, they asserted their right to dine at the top table and are seriously threatening to cook up one or two feasts of their own next season.

The Celts, meanwhile, did precisely the things Celts were put on this earth to do: that is to say, excite and exasperate. The Irish had quite a season - hopeless, adequate, inspired, majestic and wasteful, in that order - while the Welsh and Scots reacted to their respective eligibility scandals by winning games they had no obvious prospect of surviving. There is nothing like a king-sized helping of public humiliation to summon the warrior spirit and set the pulses racing. Those dodgy birth certificates worked wonders.

But where did this ridiculous, mad-cap kaboodle leave British Isles rugby in the global scheme of things? Strange to relate, given the latest failure of the English powerhouse to deliver the right goods at the right moment, the big picture looks rather encouraging. Put bright young brat-packers like Rhys Williams, Shane Williams, Chris Paterson, Brian O'Driscoll, Iain Balshaw and Jonny Wilkinson in the same back division, as the Lions selectors may well be tempted to do in Wallaby country next summer, and you have the richest collection of running talent to emerge from these islands in very nearly 30 years.

All of the above are 21 or younger, all of them full of attacking testosterone and free of fear. The Williams boyos from the far bank of the Severn are typical of the breed; they are slightly built, whippets playing a bull mastiff's sport, but they are lively enough in mind and body to back themselves against the muscle-bound heavies who have taken possession of the sport since the monster of professionalism reared its many heads. Shane Williams' attempted chip and chase against Italy at the Millennium Stadium, a move he concocted while standing with his back to the opposition, was the statement of an artist. So too was his namesake's glorious stampede through the Irish hordes in Dublin last Saturday.

A specialist backs coach as special as England's Brian Ashton, who must surely be included among the tactical think-tank in Australia in 14 months' time, would have an absolute ball with this bristling, make-it-happen generation. Indeed, the selectors will have options coming out of their ears: add the established Test hands - the Matt Perrys, Austin Healeys, Gregor Townsends and John Leslies - to the junior choice, and visions of Gareth, Barry, Gerald and JPR come sweeping in from 1971. Exciting times? No one should doubt it for a minute.

Unfortunately, things are not quite so rosy at the sharp end. The Welsh can scrummage, but none of the other home nations have much to write home about in the bump and grind department. As for the line-out... well, England and Wales should give it up as a bad job. Keith Wood, the original "Scud", would still be advised to forget darts as a potential sporting alternative, but the Irish captain has long been surpassed in the ineptitude stakes. Phil Greening's throwing at Murrayfield on Sunday was very nearly as bad as Garin Jenkins' performance in Dublin 24 hours earlier. If the two of them fought a duel, they would probably shoot their respective seconds.

Thank goodness, then, for Steve Brotherstone, the unheralded hooker from that well known Scottish club, Brive. His accuracy under pressure in the Calcutta Cup game was something else, and there is no obvious reason why his injured first-choice rival, Gordon Bulloch, should come swanning back in for the opening Test against the All Blacks in New Zealand this summer.

Brotherstone began the campaign as Scotland's No 3, but as Ian McGeechan, the national coach, so eloquently pronounced during the build-up to Sunday's finale: "Sometimes, a player can create a whole career out of 80 minutes of rugby." Brotherstone may well be proof positive of that particular truth.

That England were the team of the championship remains self-evident, despite the wet-weather walloping they received at Murrayfield. They touched new heights of interactivity, especially when protected by a doctrinaire referee with a whistle in one hand and a rulebook in the other. It was then, when the opposition were unable to interfere with the ball on the floor, that the Hill-Back-Dallaglio triumvirate looked and played like the finest loose trio in the world game. If the use of Healey as an all-singing, all-dancing, all-court virtuoso was fascinating at worst and deeply rewarding at best, Greening was equally effective in the looser games, although his disappearance during the Edinburgh dog-fight raises a question mark over his value when the solids hit the air conditioning, as they will on the high veld of South Africa this June.

Happily, there are no question marks over Italy's value to the burgeoning game in Europe. They have lost Massimo Giovanelli and, unless he changes his mind under pressure exerted by the odd black-suited Sicilian, Diego Dominguez, the two men largely responsible for the Azzurri's progress with the strange-shaped ball. But they have gained something infinitely more important: a competitive tradition of their own. The Italians are on board for the duration, and they intend to enjoy the ride.

Chris Hewett's Team of the Six Nations

15 M PERRY (England) A greater work ethic than the average Trojan, more precise than a Swiss clock. If next year's Lions are going to flourish in the southern hemisphere, they will need some defensive iron. England's full-back is positively ferric.

14 A HEALEY (England) The Leicester Lip promised to do his talking on the pitch and despite the fact that rugby is compressed into 80 minutes, and is therefore hugely restrictive in terms of the Healey vocabulary, he was as good as his many words. Unique.

13 B O'DRISCOLL (Ireland) The best Irish midfielder since Mike Gibson? At the risk of sounding blasphemous, all the evidence points in that direction. O'Driscoll is a Yeats of a centre, a Beckett of an attacking runner. The player of the tournament, without a doubt.

12 M CATT (England) John Leslie's interminable struggle with his own body denied the championship its most influential inside centre, but Catt's belated arrival in his optimum position filled the gap. More at peace with the world than he ever was at outside-half or full-back.

11 C DOMINICI (France) Missed much of the Tricolore campaign, for which he will be eternally grateful. Nevertheless, Dominici sent a surge of attacking wattage through the early games against Wales and England. The whole of Gallic flair in one tiny frame.

10 D DOMINGUEZ (Italy) Played his last international match in Paris on Saturday and demonstrated in one 80-minute sitting why Italian rugby has been built in his image. Everyone talks about his kicking game, but it was his bravery in defence that set the standard.

9 P STRINGER (Ireland) The Dawsons and Troncons are at home in the tap and run environment of big-time union, but Stringer is a throwback: a scrum-half who can pass the ball off either hand at something approaching the speed of sound. Nostalgia in rugby boots.

1 P ROGERS (Wales) Rogers has been doing the business for two years now and still hasn't been nobbled, which suggests he really is the best loose head on the circuit. Tom Smith, the Scot, is also high class, but came through too late to challenge.

2 K WOOD (Ireland) He cut a sorry figure after the thumping by England, but you can't keep a good man down. That familiar mix of manic energy and piratical lunacy enabled the totemic Irishman to reassert his status as a world-class performer.

3 D YOUNG (Wales) The Welsh captaincy can be the most toxic of poisoned chalices, but Young worked a miracle by taking hold of a side humiliated both by England and the eligibility scandal and leading them to late-tournament victories over both Celtic rivals.

4 S MURRAY (Scotland) Every inch a Lions lock. The Scottish Saracen's new-age athleticism marked him out as the pick of the modern do-it-all second rows, but there was also some old-style blood and guts about him, too, not least against the English.

5 S SHAW (England) Too nice to be a second row, he is the temperamental opposite of Garath Archer. But Shaw delivered big time during the tournament, not least with his faultless handling in the kind of areas that make most locks feel agoraphobic.

6 M LESLIE (Scotland) A fine No 8, but a blind-side flanker by instinct. Leslie is one mean piece of work, a canine New Zealander who learned his rugby the hard way and fails to see why the soft Europeans should have it any easier.

7 M BERGAMASCO (Italy) One of the great back-row talents over the last couple of decades, Bergamasco has the mark of the warrior stamped on his forehead. His bravery ensured that his forehead took many other stampings, but not once did he bat an eyelid.

8 L DALLAGLIO (England) The Italian Stallion found himself pulled up at the last by the Scots, but he galloped through the rest of the tournament like a Gold Cup winner. One of the few stone-cold certainties to start next summer's Tests against the Wallabies.

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