Test window allows southerly wind to blow away cobwebs

Chris Hewett senses potential for an epic Six Nations contest as a result of recent meetings with the superpowers of the Tri-Nations
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The Independent Online

Somewhere around the mid-point of Sir Clive Woodward's eight-year stretch as England's head coach - a long stint in anyone's language, if never a leisurely one - the Six Nations Championship slipped below the Heineken Cup, and perhaps even the Zurich Premiership, in the affections of the union code's rank-and-file supporters. Why? Because it had all the unpredictability of international rugby league when the Australians are in town. In other words, the outcome was about as cliff-hanging as a general election in a one-party state.

Somewhere around the mid-point of Sir Clive Woodward's eight-year stretch as England's head coach - a long stint in anyone's language, if never a leisurely one - the Six Nations Championship slipped below the Heineken Cup, and perhaps even the Zurich Premiership, in the affections of the union code's rank-and-file supporters. Why? Because it had all the unpredictability of international rugby league when the Australians are in town. In other words, the outcome was about as cliff-hanging as a general election in a one-party state.

England or France, France or England. You paid your money and you made your choice. If some eternal optimist in Ynysddu or Ynysybwl risked a crumpled fiver on a Welsh victory over either of the big two, the local bookmaker was unlikely to lose a night's sleep fretting about impending bankruptcy. The real interest, such as it was, centred on the newcomers from Italy and their chances of finishing somewhere other than bottom - hardly the stuff of sporting legend.

The 2005 jamboree is but a couple of months away, yet in terms of epic potential it is light years beyond anything the European game has witnessed in the professional era. The events of last month have breathed new life into an old dog of a tournament, to the extent that Ireland - yes, Ireland - are thinking in terms of a first Grand Slam since the last Ice Age. Wales, bless them, will confront England in Cardiff without requiring a collective change of underwear during the anthems - hell, they may even win the game - while the French, so gifted in so many areas, will embark on their five-match sojourn wondering quietly to themselves whether they can possibly finish in the top half of the table.

Only the autumn "Test window" could have thrown back the curtains, let in the breeze and blown away the cobwebs in so comprehensive a fashion. So many assumptions were exposed as arrant nonsense, so many theories exploded.

The SANZAR countries were tired and bored and under-strength, apparently? Please. The Wallabies, as good at winning matches on the road on their bare behinds as they are at dominating all-comers in Brisbane or Sydney, were magnificent at Twickenham on Saturday; the All Blacks lit fires all over the northern hemisphere with a free-running approach that took no account of underfoot conditions; the Springboks had their moments, and might have had a whole lot more had they not been diddled out of a possible victory by some desperate refereeing in Dublin. No one need worry about the superpowers of the southern hemisphere, whatever the stage of their season. They can look after themselves.

Argentina, another southern hemisphere side according to the dictates of geography but located somewhere in outer space as far as the isolationists of the Tri-Nations community are concerned, cannot really look after themselves, because they spend 12 months of every year in financial Queer Street. Agustin Pichot's team are quite something, none the less. Given some decent preparation and the rub of the green they would, on current form, stand a realistic chance of making the last four of a World Cup. So, too, would Ireland. The dying of the light in the Pacific islands remains heartbreaking, but at the very top end, the union game is expanding rather than contracting.

As per usual, the Australians are utterly dismissive of the Six Nations festivities to come. "I think I'll still be watching the cricket when that's on," said the Wallaby coach, Eddie Jones, at the weekend, milking his team's victory for all it was worth. "I watch quite enough rugby as it is, and as our Super 12 tournament will be kicking in just then, I'll be concentrating on the day job," said the captain, George Gregan, in equally superior tones. But the two of them protested far too much. They know, as all right-thinking rugby folk know, that a truly competitive European championship is the best annual show in international union, and they are as jealous as hell.

Along with the All Blacks, the men of Ireland were the big autumn winners. Their forwards, overrated for some years with the exception of a second row to die for, finally stood firm on the big occasion and choked the life from the Springboks. Reliable at the set-piece and equipped with a genuine turn-over specialist in the vulturish shape of the new flanker Jonny O'Connor, they provided plenty of ammunition for Ronan O'Gara, Shane Horgan and Brian O'Driscoll. If the cutting edge was not quite at its optimum, the blade was at least sharpened. They will spend Christmas cogitating on the fact that they are favourites for the Six Nations title.

And England? Not bad, not bad at all. Andy Robinson is clearly the right man in the right job, appointed at precisely the right stage of the red rose cycle - a conclusion drawn not from his team's unexpectedly ruthless dismantling of the Boks 10 days ago, but from the composure and togetherness they showed in overturning a 15-point deficit against the Wallabies last weekend. The Twickenham regulars had no right to expect such resourcefulness from an unfamiliar team experimenting with new combinations in virtually every area, but they got it anyway. If the Irish are in a position to secure a Slam come the spring, it will be over Robinson's dead body.

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Winners

Ronan O'Gara (Ireland, outside-half)

A choker no more, O'Gara answered the last questions about his big-match temperament by kicking Ireland to valuable victories over a Springbok side chasing a first Grand Slam of the home nations in more than 40 years and an Argentinian side fresh from a convincing win over France. A Test Lion in 2005? Quite possibly.

Graham Rowntree (England, loose-head prop)

It is good for the soul to see a one-club hero re-establish himself as an international performer after years of knock-backs and kicks in the teeth. Rowntree is a diamond of the rugby age - unfailingly approachable, positive and honest as the day is long. His top-drawer display against the Springboks was no more than he deserved.

Jake White (South Africa, coach)

The Springboks did not hit the heights, but White has put the South African game back on track. Did not deserve the political hassle he received over his selection to face England, but handled it with dignity and was rewarded with the sight of two black players, Bryan Habana and Solly Tyibilika, making their marks on Test rugby.

Losers

Schalk Burger (South Africa, flanker)

Burger won everything and gained nothing. Annointed as international player of the year by virtually every organisation in the game, he was penalised off the face of the earth by referees in Cardiff and Dublin, and exposed in all his youthful naïveté by England. By the time he reached Murrayfield, he was out on his ear.

Henry Paul (England, centre)

Will we see his like again? Not if the England coaches have anything to do with it. Paul suffered the humiliation of early substitution against Australia, a strategic withdrawal if ever there was one, and is hardly likely to feature in the red rose midfield when Jonny Wilkinson returns to fitness. A great talent, probably lost for good.

Bernard Laporte (France, coach)

Laporte had to be persuaded to stay on after his side's limp World Cup semi-final, and while his side completed a Six Nations Grand Slam last spring, he must be wondering once again whether he made the right call. If the loss to Argentina was wounding, the capitulation against New Zealand was immeasurably more painful.

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