Wales have a new Barry John - yes, another one - in the ghostly shape of James Hook; Scotland have unearthed a back-row unit fit to lace the boots, not to mention the drinks, of the hard-living Jeffrey-Calder-White triumvirate, even if both current flankers are incapacitated; Ireland, those masters of bits-and-pieces rugby, suddenly find themselves whole, armed with a team capable of winning a first Grand Slam in almost 60 years. And what is it that England bring to the party, exactly? Plenty of nothing. They are bereft, benighted and bamboozled. "Long may it continue," say the Celts as they pour themselves another stiff one to toast the world champions' discomfort.
Yet something is stirring deep in the English undergrowth, and it is the Irish who hear the rustling most acutely. Shane Geraghty's father hails from Co Mayo and did not cross the water until he hit his mid-teens. His mother has Irish ancestry going back generations. And yet. When the men in green shirts came knocking on the young outside-half's door a couple of months back, they left empty-handed. Geraghty's decision to throw in his lot with the red rose army may just prove the tipping point in fortunes between the two nations, fortunes that have been loaded in Ireland's favour since early 2004.
"I thought about it long and hard," he confessed this week, a few days after being named in England's 33-man squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. "There was a big choice to be made, one that would shape the rest of my rugby career, so I sought advice from the people I respect. One of them was Mike Catt, an inspirational figure for me for as long as I can remember. He said: 'Look, you're very young. Young people want it all, and they want it now. But be patient, think it through very carefully and don't jump until you're sure.' I took his advice and chose England. I'm as certain as I can be that I've done the right thing."
Ireland could rue the day they let Geraghty slip away, and rue it soon. Ronan O'Gara is playing the best rugby of his life, but this year's World Cup will most likely be his last. What happens a couple of years down the road? Come to that, what happens if the increasingly authoritative Munster goal-kicker breaks down before, or during, this autumn's global tournament in France? It is possible to argue that the Irish would prefer to lose Brian O'Driscoll, or even Paul O'Connell. O'Gara is priceless because he has no understudy worthy of the name.
By contrast, England have outside-halves of international potential coming out of both ears. Toby Flood of Newcastle has already played Test rugby. He is 21. Ryan Lamb, the exuberant Gloucester stand-off, has more than a touch of the Stuart Barneses about him and can be expected to push for a full cap within the calendar year. He, like Geraghty, is 20. Danny Cipriani of Wasps, a player heavily favoured by the new national head coach Brian Ashton, is younger still at 19. England, traditionally a land of hulking great locks and pug-ugly props, has not possessed such playmaking riches in living memory. Handled properly - and Ashton is brilliant at this sort of thing - they will soon boast a batch of No 10s that the All Blacks themselves might envy.
To judge by Geraghty's eye-catching Heineken Cup performance against Ulster last month - he appears to have it in for the Irish, one way or another - he has as much chance as any of his rivals of emerging as head boy. Catt, who played alongside him that day, described his colleague as "miles ahead of other 20-year-olds" and precious few of the travelling Belfast contingent were of a mind to disagree. Geraghty (right) scored a try, created another, played a significant hand in a third and did not miss so much as a single beat with his kicking, either off the tee or out of hand. What was more, he took it upon himself to "boss the game", as the coaching fraternity like to put it. Anyone prepared to tell the likes of Seilala Mapusua what he ought to be doing is either supremely confident or has a first-class honours in rank stupidity. Geraghty is not stupid, by any stretch of the imagination.
"That was the biggest game of my career," he said. "It was my first Heineken Cup appearance, I was playing at 10 rather than in the centre, Ulster were very serious indeed about winning the match and there was a bigger-than-usual crowd at the Madejski Stadium. The previous season had been pretty disappointing - I injured both ankles and shoulders and struggled for continuity - so it was a relief to come through a major fixture knowing things had gone well. Mind you, it was a different story when we played the return match with Ulster at Ravenhill the following Friday. People say it's good experience, performing in a situation as challenging as that one, but try as I might, I can't think of too many positives. They gave us a beating, I'm afraid."
Born in Coventry, he is the product of a rugby-centric family environment. One brother, Kieran, plays at National League One level with the home-town club; another, James, was mad keen on the game until his body rebelled. "He dislocated his knee, he dislocated his ankle, he has a plate in his leg," said Geraghty. "He's more interested in becoming a lawyer now, and I don't blame him." Packed off to Colston's Collegiate School in Bristol, a union nursery of considerable standing, he featured in a strong side boasting Tom Varndell and Jordan Crane, both of whom are making their bones at Leicester. Unsurprisingly, Premiership talent-spotters were quick on the draw, most notably those from Bath.
"I had a meeting at the Recreation Ground with John Connolly and Michael Foley [the Australians now in charge of the Wallabies]," Geraghty recalled, "but somehow, it was the idea of joining London Irish that really attracted me. Conor O'Shea was there at the time, and I had a lot of faith in the set-up he'd put in place. Also, Mike Catt was leaving Bath for London Irish pretty much at that moment. That was a big thing for me. I always looked on Mike as a favourite player, and the prospect of learning from him excited me."
Any other heroes? "Jonny Wilkinson, of course. What can you say? He took outside-half play to another level with his kicking and tackling and organisational skills. For No 10s of my generation, he's ... well, you know."
When Geraghty joins the Test squad for a Six Nations training camp on Monday week, old Jonny Whatsisname will be there too. Wilkinson has not worn an England shirt since the night he dropped some goal or other in Sydney and is still a long way short of match fitness after suffering kidney damage in early November - the latest in a catalogue of injuries that might have had the Holby City scriptwriters wondering if they were over-egging the pudding. Still, his very presence will send some electricity pulsing through the training sessions. Much to Geraghty's delight, Catt will be there too.
"As soon as I received the news about the England call-up, which I found difficult to believe, Mike sent me a text message," he said. "It went along these lines: 'This is just the beginning, because the hard work starts here.' It's so reassuring to know that people like that are making an effort to give me the best advice." Did he seriously have no inkling at all? "I think my parents hoped I'd get picked for the England Saxons team, but I had no expectations. I knew the two squads were being named, but I had no intention of sitting around waiting for news. I went shopping with my girlfriend instead, and while we were out, Brian Smith [the London Irish coach] phoned to tell me I was in. I assumed he was talking about the Saxons, but he said: 'No, you're in the main party, with Catty.' Even then, I wasn't sure he had the right end of the stick. I took some convincing."
Ashton says Geraghty can "play a bit", which is his idea of the ultimate compliment. There again, he says the same of Flood, and as the latter picked up caps before Christmas, he is ahead of the field in terms of the Calcutta Cup with Scotland on 3 February. London Irish have more going for them than Newcastle, however. They are beginning to gather momentum in the Premiership, and their Heineken Cup status gives Geraghty two high-profile games, against Toulouse this afternoon and against Llanelli Scarlets next week, in which to state his case for a place in the XXII for Twickenham.
"Mike told me one other thing in his text," he recalled. "He said: 'Focus on what you're doing at club level, because it's the things you've done with London Irish that have put you in the England squad.' He's right. I haven't run into what they call 'second-season syndrome' yet - I've only played six or seven Premiership games at outside-half, so it's a bit soon - but if I get lazy and stop working, I'll pay the price. People will soon get used to what I do, so I'll have to bring something new to my game as often as I can. If I concentrate on doing that, other things will fall into place."Reuse content