On the day Alessandro Troncon gave a new meaning to the phrase "dead leg" - semi-crippled by a career-threatening knee injury, the Italian captain is now running again with the benefit of knee ligaments taken from a corpse - two-thirds of the international coaches bound for the front line of the 2004 Six Nations' Championship could be heard lamenting the massed ranks of walking wounded certain to miss the opening round of matches. Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall, Lewis Moody, Tony Marsh, Mauro Bergamasco, Gonzalo Canale, Geordan Murphy? You would win a few seven-a-side tournaments with that little lot.
Even at this late stage, nine days before opening fixtures in Paris and Cardiff and 10 before England's world champions face Italy in Rome, the likes of Sir Clive Woodward and Eddie O'Sullivan have little idea whether such key figures as Matthew Dawson and Brian O'Driscoll will make it to the start line. Troncon may be doing better than expected with his cadaver's cruciates - "It was originally a six-month injury at best; now, we think he might be fit for the game with France later this month," said John Kirwan, the Azzurri coach - but the casualty lists are growing all around him.
The price of a World Cup held in northern hemisphere time? Definitely. But while the tournament in Australia last autumn took away top-notch talent with one hand, it gave added lustre to this latest Six Nations with the other. As O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, argued in characteristically analytical fashion at yesterday's launch in central London, there is good reason to suggest that European rugby is now stronger than anything the not-so-beautiful south can offer.
"I made the point to Clive when England won the World Cup that while it was a great moment for him and his team, it was even greater for the northern hemisphere," O'Sullivan said. "I meant it, too. England's success didn't happen by accident. It happened because the major rugby playing nations in Europe have developed outstanding competitive structures and, as a result, come on in leaps and bounds in terms of international performance. I have no doubt that the Six Nations is stronger than the Tri-Nations" - the annual southern hemisphere competition involving Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - "because this tournament has more light and shade, more scope and, it seems, more spectator interest."
Woodward, a passionate supporter of Six Nations rugby, was in full agreement. "This is the number two tournament in the game, second only to the World Cup," he pronounced, with the authority of a man utterly secure in his own knighthood. "I think we have moved ahead of the Tri-Nations on every front, including the playing side. The way I see it, a Grand Slam is as hard to win as a World Cup."
If that last comment seemed to be stretching the point just a touch, it is worth recalling that Woodward won the World Cup at his second attempt, yet needed half a dozen goes at the international championship before hitting the jackpot. England's performance in Dublin last March, when they won the Slam with a 42-6 victory fit to lay before the most discerning of power-rugby connoisseurs, elevated their confidence levels to such a degree that the subsequent summer tour of New Zealand and Australia became a can-do operation, rather than the usual shot in the dark.
"If we're brutally honest with ourselves, we won the World Cup without playing to our potential," said Lawrence Dallaglio, freshly restored as England's captain and looking every inch the part. "We played better rugby before the tournament, not just in Wellington and Melbourne but also at Lansdowne Road, where we really found ourselves. Now, people will be looking to find themselves against us. If I was playing for any of the other five sides in this competition, I would want a piece of the world champions. These next few weeks will be hard for us, because everyone will want to claim the first victory over the world champions. Would defeat be a disaster for us? It will be big news when it happens, but we'll deal with it."
By effectively gerrymandering the fixture list to ensure a France-England finale in Paris on the evening of 27 March - the kick-off time of 9pm local time really does take the biscuit - the broadcasting community, led by the BBC, have left themselves hostages to fortune once again. A year ago, they bleated about the box-office lunacy of pairing the two most powerful nations in the first round of matches rather than the last, only to find that Ireland posed the most serious threat to English ambitions. Given the state of French morale, something similar could happen this time.
"Let us hope these people are wrong once again," said O'Sullivan, with one of his knowing smiles. "In all seriousness, I think there is an issue here. Most of us would like to be playing our rugby at 3pm on a Saturday, but we understand the realities of life from a broadcasting point of view. There again, a 9pm kick-off would have me climbing the walls. You need to bring a degree of sanity to the situation, surely."
Sanity? In a game where a national captain is preparing to hare around the rugby fields of Europe with a dead man's ligaments in his body? Do not hold your breath.
SIX NATI0NS' CHAMPIONSHIP WHEN AND WHERE THEY PLAY
14 France v Ireland (2.0) (Stade de France, Paris)
Referee: Chris White (Eng)
Wales v Scotland (4.0) (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff)
Referee: Donal Courtney (Irl)
15 Italy v England (3.0) (Stadio Flaminio, Rome)
Referee: Andy Turner (SA)
21 France v Italy (2.0) (Stade de France, Paris)
Referee: Alan Lewis (Irl)
Scotland v England (5.30) (Murrayfield, Edinburgh)
Referee: Pablo Deluca (Arg)
22 Ireland v Wales (3.0) (Lansdowne Road, Dublin)
Referee: Joel Jutge (Fr)
6 Italy v Scotland (1.30) (Stadio Flaminio, Rome)
Referee: Nigel Whitehouse (Wal)
England v Ireland (4.0) (Twickenham)
Referee: Paul Honiss (NZ)
7 Wales v France (3.0) (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff)
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Aus)
20 Ireland v Italy (1.30) (Lansdowne Road, Dublin)
Referee: Kelvin Deaker (NZ)
20 England v Wales (4.0) (Twickenham)
Referee: Andrew Cole (Aus)
21 Scotland v France (3.0) (Murrayfield, Edinburgh)
Referee: Scott Young (Aus)
27 Wales v Italy (2.0) (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff)
Referee: Mark Lawrence (SA)
Ireland v Scotland (4.0) (Lansdowne Road, Dublin)
Referee: Nigel Williams (Wal)
France v England (8.0) (Stade de France, Paris)
Referee: Alain Rolland (Irl)
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