Six Nations Preview

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as dead-eyed brickies in Cricklewood). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain, and our columns will be re-produced on the blog on Fridays.

It’s that time of year again: Hooray Henrys braying in the finest hostelries of Dublin 4, sour-faced Welsh fans complaining their team didn’t win by enough, and Cedric Heymans and Clement Poitrenaud in the smoking area of Coppers late on a Saturday night. It’s the Six Nations.

And it’s a fresh-feeling version of the old tournament as well – it seems pretty open, and all countries are well on the World Cup 2015 trail (well, all except the usual suspects, Ireland and Scotland) with their cycles into the second year. France and England in particular look much improved from last year, when the Welsh rode their World Cup 2011 semi-final all the way to a third Grand Slam in seven years. Yet it was low-quality fare in general – only the Taffs will have been content with their form.

Now, let’s look forward to the next five weekends of John Inverdale-filled fun. We’ll start with the French. Phillipe Saint-Andre has now begun to put his stamp on the team, having stated that it was time they “switched generations” – the Servats, Bonnaires and Yachvilis are out and the likes of Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga and Maxime Machenaud are in. The most visible change is, of course, the rebirth of Freddy Michalak.

It’s seven years since the flawed genius last electrified this tournament and, it’s safe to say, he owes it – what a feeling of unfinished business he must have.  England grabbed the November headlines with their stunning victory over New Zealand, but France were the best in Europe – they hammered an Aussie team that wiped a purple-clad England, and ground down a fine Samoa team. They’ll probably lose in Twickenham (plus ca change) but win the tournament, with Wesley Fofana the star of the competition.

Speaking of Twickers, the red-blooded, upstanding chaps in the white jerseys have a nice look about them. Stuart Lancaster is now full-time in the job and their squad is sprinkled with exciting youngsters that might just light up their home World Cup in two-and-a-half years – Joe Launchbury, the Vunipolas (Mako and Billy), Freddy Burns and Manu Tuilagi for example. They still struggle for consistency, which is to be expected, but won’t see too much to fear. A win in Dublin looks an ask, but four wins would constitute a good tournament. And the performances will surely be better than the abominations against Scotland and Italy they produced last time. England are serious contenders and look like they will be right through to 2015.

Unlike Ireland.

The IRFU’s amateur-era blazers are saddled with a coach who is one loss in Wales away from being the lamest of lame ducks. Finishing a largely-disastrous 2012 on a high, Declan Kidney is into the final few months of his contract and Ireland are six months away from starting our World Cup cycle – is it any wonder we flatter to deceive when we get there?

This is make-or-break time for Kidney; he badly wants a new contract, but it is time to show if he can lead this team in the right direction. Post-2009, Ireland can’t seem to break a pattern of one-off performances and maddening inconsistency.

The feelgood factor is at least reasonably high after an autumn in which a team shorn of its older generation of leaders tore Argentina apart. But can Ireland overcome the twin distractions of Brian O’Driscoll being stripped of the captaincy and Jonny Sexton leaving for Racing Metro?

Memories of Ireland’s lacklustre starts in recent series and three desperate losses in a row against the Welsh mean we can’t be confident about getting a win in the Millennium, and until Ireland beat France, we remain unconvinced the team has the mental strength to do so. We’re forecasting three wins and another curate’s egg of a tournament. It won’t be enough to save Kindney, so it’ll be back to the coaching drawing board 18 months after everyone else.

Speaking of the Welsh, it’s hard to know what to make of them. After looking chock-full of Lions this time last year, it’s hard to pick their starters this time out. Rhys Priestland is injured and inspirational captain Sam Warburton should be benched on form.

Worst of all, they’re missing their five (five!) best second rows and ironclad blindside Dan Lydiate. And yet – even missing all of the above and Lions coach Warren Gatland, they could get their act together. They have a solid front row and giant, skilful backs, but Rob Howley doesn’t fill us with confidence – three wins, and discontent in the Valleys.

As for Italy and Scotland, we cannot get too excited. Jacques Brunel has the Azzurri playing some silky stuff while making progress. But until they find some half-backs of passable quality, all their grunt is in vain.  Scotland replaced Andy Robinson with the serially unimpressive Scott Johnson after Tonga felt their sporrans in November and, despite the wooden spoon playoff being in Murrayfield this year, we think (and hope, for Sergio Parrisse’s sake) the Italians will do it.

Of course, this is a Lions year, which adds an extra dimension. Four years ago, Ireland had an unprecedented number of tourists as St Ian McGeechan tried to bring the Munster spirit, and half their team, to the tour. This time last year, the Lions-in-waiting team was festooned with Welsh, but they have the most to lose –the likes of Warburton, Mike Phillips and even George North could easily play themselves out of test contention.

It’s the English who look to have most to gain – any of the aforementioned nippy youngsters, plus Danny Care and Chris Robshaw could all be on the plane by Easter if they bring their recent club form to the white shirt. Robshaw is even a potential captain, even if he may not quite have the pace for the hard Australian ground. The hope, of course, is that the likes of Sean O’Brien, Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and O’Driscoll hit enough form to join already-on-the-plane Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Sexton and Rob Kearney.

So then, France to win it all, but no Grand Slam and no Triple Crown, with Scotland at the bottom – you heard it here first!

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  1. I know, I’m crazy, but I think Ireland has a shot at the Slam, solely because of the way the fixtures fall. Wales A first, great time to play them, they’re playing someone at lock nobody’s ever heard of, a great chance to start well. The easier (mentally, for Ireland) home game first v England. Win both those, and Scotland away should be negotiated. Then, France at home is effectively a Grand Slam game.
    Normally, we play the France home game first, and lose it! 2009 being the exception, but I think winning in Wales could be the kickstart that beating France first up in 2009 was.

    Saying all this, even if Ireland do win the Slam, I still wouldn’t be sure this would mean we should retain the coach!

    • Dave W

       /  February 1, 2013

      If we get a Grand Slam, which isn’t beyond the realms of possibility, we will keep the coach. That would be a bad thing for the next WC, and it makes it hard to fully get behind the team.

      Thankfully, the torn feeling will likely be irrelevant, given that we’ll likely be beaten by England, France and possibly Wales, depending on how our backrow do. Gut says France to win the thing outright.

      • Dave I understand your point but it breaks my heart to think that people mightn’t get fully behind the team. I understand the Declan Kidney experience has been a rollarcoaster with a mainly downward trajectory coupled with a few tantalising peaks but I hate this idea that the team losing would be for their own good. Given the committment and passion we demand from the players and (even if we don’t always agree with them or for that matter like them) coaching staff, I hope for many great and wonderful things. Wins, Triple Crown, Championship, Grand Slam, you name it.

        I know this could be viewed as naievty or a lack of long-term thinking on my part but when it comes to the national team, no matter how many times I feel let down, they’re still my boys & I want the world for them. The idea that real or educated rugby fans will want them to lose in order to oust Kidney doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not in any way putting this all on you, it’s a sentiment I’ve heard from other quarters.

        Kidney is an issue, but for me the single biggest problem in Irish rugby is the need for reform within the IRFU itself. That seems to be where we’re missing a decent overall management structure & are still bogged down in the amateur era. I want to see change at the top first.

        I think when people spend as much time thinking & talking rugby as we do here sometimes we can lose sight of just being a fan. I want a Grand Slam, for myself and the other supporters but for the players too. I believe it’s possible too. And the long-term consequences can go fuck themselves.

      • Amiga500

         /  February 1, 2013

        I hope for a grand slam and Deccie having the good grace to step down.

        No chance… but I can dream.

        While I might fervently wish for Deccie to be vanquished… I know full well when that ball kicks off on Saturday, I’ll be screaming for the lads. So will everyone else despite what they say.

        The difference will be post final-whistle, in the event of defeat, the usual degree of disappointment from myself will be very much tempered with the fact an incompetent coach will almost certainly be shown the door.

      • DaveW

         /  February 1, 2013

        Kate, I know where you’re coming from. I really hate the way that I feel in this case. The fan inside me wants me to win every game and hopes that we do. But the realist inside me believes that Kidney going will be better in the long run, and if it turns out that we need to do badly in this 6N to do well at the next WC, well… I won’t like it, but I’ll take that hit. And it’s nothing to do with being “real” or “educated”, I’m definitely not the latter anyway. Amiga puts it well… I’ll cheer them on, but I won’t feel as bad as I normally do if we get a hiding.

        You make a very good point about demanding standards (in terms of passion and committment). If I can’t bring myself to fully want my team to win … how can I complain if the players don’t do the same? I suppose that’s the difference between me as an amateur (non-paid) fan and the players as professionals. Not that that’s an excuse on my behalf. I can’t help feeling the way I do.

        Who knows… maybe Deccie will have an epiphany after watching Heaslip, Zebo and Gilroy tear Wales apart and he’ll start being a lot more progressive and take a few non-injury forced risks every once in a while. But I doubt it.

  2. jojo

     /  February 1, 2013

    I think a lot of people will have this sentiment on this forum. I don’t want kidney getting another contract on the back of a 6N win. If only the IRFU had the balls Ulster had when they got rid of McLaughlin

  3. zdm

     /  February 2, 2013

    This all stems from the fact that Irish professional rugby is being run by a group of men who, while entirely passionate and committed, are still a group of amateurs whose only qualification is that they are “good rugby men”. What I wouldn’t give for the IRFU to appoint a pro to run the pro game – imagine if Kaiser Humph or someone of his calibre had Carte Blanche over Irish pro rugby.

  4. Folks, we’ve been as critical of Kidney over the last three years, but if he can deliver another grand slam, then of course he gets a new contract, presuming he wants one. We’ve one grand slam in the last 60 years, I cannot believe people would be so blase about another one that they’d temper their celebrations because the coach isn’t their type of figgie pudding.

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