AJF O'Reilly: Perfect stage for an England encore

Saturday 14 February 2004 01:00

Being the next big act on stage after a quite wonderful World Cup in Australia, I might suggest that this year's Six Nations tournament has lost some of its standing. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The game of rugby football received an enormous fillip from the World Cup, and the best team won: England. The crowning of Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson's second placing as the most popular and prestigious sportsmen in Britain in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year confirms this. It also confirms something unthinkable 20 years ago - that rugby should have such an important part to play in the life of our islands. Almost a million people turned out to watch the procession of the England team as they wended their way through London to a triumphant finale in Trafalgar Square.

Wilkinson's acceptance of the Personality of the Year award was a model of grace, humility and quiet class. In a nutshell, he was the perfect rugger man.

Rugby has also received a great boost in Ireland through the fine performance of its team (particularly the one-point defeat by Australia), and all in all, the team performed to a level that will make them a serious contender in this year's Six Nations' Championship.

The World Cup also heralded the return of Wales as a potential force. Their display against England in the quarter-finals confirmed they can attack with speed and verve, and they could be a real power in the championship this year.

Scotland were like the curate's egg - good in spots - but again, on their day, can beat almost any team in the championship.

The French flattered outrageously, only to deceive outrageously against England. It can be argued that the conditions, with heavy rain, favoured England, but the defeat of the French pack was comprehensive. England scrummaged so well that they forced the French back row to stay down in the scrum, and thereby removed the most potent attacking weapon from the French armoury. Frédéric Michalak, the fly-half, missed two early kicks, lost his confidence and became a pale shadow of the player who played against Ireland. My final impression of the French was in their third-fourth place play-off against New Zealand. It was dismal, and a French side playing to that standard would be beatable by at least three of the other five countries in the Six Nations.

As always, we get back to the potential winners of this year's championship which must surely be England. Forget the fact that many of their side - Neil Back, Jason Leonard, Mike Catt and Richard Hill - are in the last-chance saloon, playing and hoping that they do not get injured in the twilight of great careers. If they don't last the distance, though, then the rest of the squad, led by Lawrence Dallaglio, who was positively epic in the semi-final and final of the World Cup, have enormous strength and depth.

Add a fit Wilkinson, the player who has added superb play-making skills to his wondrous gift as a kicker, and you have a team that will score at least 15 points per game without scoring a try. Wilkinson's drop kicking with his left and right foot was one of the truly superb recollections of the World Cup.

So, far from taking it away, the World Cup has whetted one's appetite for the Six Nations, which will pit a fine Irish side, a variable but gifted Scotland side, a reborn Welsh side, a problematic French side and a staccato Italian side against what should prove to be the winners - England.

It's all to play for and I can't wait for it to begin.

Sir Anthony O'Reilly is chairman of Independent News & Media, publishers of The Independent

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