Monday, February 07, 2005

The Six Nations

It is testimony to the enduring appeal of the Six Nations Championship that five of the six nations still have the whole Championship to look forward to with starry-eyed optimism. At this point, none are happier than the Welsh, who beat the English in Cardiff for the first time since 1993, having beaten the English in Cardiff with metronomic frequency for the thirty years before that.

The English themselves remain confident, assuring themselves that Gavin Henson poxed his penalty in the dying moments of the Welsh game and that the Zurich Premiership is the best in the world. The French know that while they were putrid against Scotland they still won, and can expect a sharp improvement once Messieurs Betsen and Magne return to active service. The Italians were able to draw some comfort from what must have been a heartbreaking loss for them from the fact that if they had made the kickable penalties and the one drop goal they spurned Italy would have ended Ireland's Grand Slam dreams first crack out of the box. Ireland are happy that Italy did not in fact end the Irish Grand Slam dream first crack out of the box. Scotland? Well, the purple is always bonny on the heather in the springtime, and that's something, isn't it?

Scotland not getting hammered in St Denis and Ireland not getting martyred in Rome were the two best results that could have been hoped for by the Irish on a Grand Slam campaign. Ireland coasting by Italy and the Scots getting pasted in Paris could have led to a false sense of security in Murrayfield, and anyone aware of the history of Irish rugby should be very wary of travelling to Edinburgh with anything other than grim Calvinist foreboding in their breast.

At time of writing I don't know what the story with the injuries to the Irish centre pairing is, but it's reasonable to presume the worst. Ireland are therefore looking at missing both salt and pepper from their bag of chips, making for rather bland and greasy fair indeed.

The tempting option would be to revert to type while O'Driscoll and D'Arcy recover, and play a ten man game such as Italy played against Ireland to such good effect. The problem there is that Ireland of 2005 are differently constituted, and have been relying on élan in the backs to scorch past the opposition, and paper over any cracks as might exist in the boiler room. Miserably, that élan is chiefly invested in O'Driscoll and without him, the centre combination of Maggs and Horgan is rather static. The difference between silk and sackcloth, if you like.

This places a considerable burden on the pack, which suddenly looked old and tired against the vibrant and hungry Italians. Irish rugby fans have assured themselves all season that while we are stretched in terms of depth at half-back and prop forward, we are blessed with riches in the back row of the scrum. This proved to be fallacious, and, after his rather surprising omission from yesterday's Roman holiday, if Johnny O'Connor does not have to pack a kilt and sporran along with his toothbrush and teddy bear this weekend the situation is even more critical than we could have imagined.

Presuming that O'Connor does arrive and provide some long-promised bite, Ireland, even with the reduced midfield of Horgan and Maggs, should still havet too much for Scotland. Matt Williams' long and loud complaints about officiating in Paris got very tired very quickly and were France to offer him a rematch I suspect he would have much more material for the composing of pibrochs than he has already. Scotland are extremely limited, and it's hard to see how they would be able to punish Ireland sufficiently to restore the lustre to their proud old stadium. As long as O'Gara keeps making his kicks and keeping Ireland ticking over, that should be enough to edge Ireland past Scotland and give them two weeks off before the arrival in Dublin of everyone's favourite former Imperial Power.

That Imperial Power is in for a good test at Twickers this coming weekend when the French come to town. A France with Betsen and Magne restored to the flanks of the scrum and with some even vaguely functional half-backs should be able to step up a few gears from that depressing display on Saturday, but Twickenham is a hard place to visit and Andy Robinson, a former trencherman himself, must be sorely tempted to return to the traditional English virtues of bully beef. Their pack might miss their leader and inspiration, and the entire back row that won the World Cup, but we're still talking about big strong men here. As Robinson looks to the post World Cup era, he might revert back to basics and the ten man game that led England to the professional era in the first place. It won't be pretty though.

The most fascinating of the weekend games will be Wales' visit to Rome. After twenty years of misery the Welsh are strutting once more and it will have been a strong man indeed that was not moved by the occasion in Cardiff on Saturday evening, not least when Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins and Aled Jones led the singing at the start of the game. But one of the advantages that not having a rugby tradition will give the Italians is that the notion of Wales does not mean JPR, Gareth, King John or Cliff Morgan. It means Free Willy, and it's only after much gesticulation that you get it through to them that Wales is a nation. Of sorts. However, John Kirwan will have noted the kind of pressure that the English pack were able to exert on the Welsh for long periods on Saturday evening, and he knows that sort of squeeze is what his men do terribly well it indeed. It will not be an easy thing at all for the new hero of Welsh rugby, Gavin Henson, to shave his legs prior to the post-game banquet when he finds Signor Bergamasco's teethmarks all over them.

The tournament remains wide open. We are lucky indeed to bear witness and enjoy.