Six Nation Preview: The Joy of HECs

Part 2 of our Six Nations preview looks at what the HEC has thrown up, and how this might have a bearing on the international sphere.
It’s been an extremely positive tournament for both Scotland and Ireland. Scotland have their first quarter-finalist in 8 years and this has got to be good news for Robbo. For a start, he will have some players on the field who know what it takes to win close games, a facet of performance in which Scotland fell notably short in the RWC. True, Edinburgh weren’t exactly in the Pool of Death, but you still need to beat the teams in front of you – 2 away wins laced with cojones are positive signs, as is the try count – 17 – more than Scotland have managed in the last four Six Nations put together. In addition, the team is largely Scottish, and is well-marshalled by Greg Laidlaw at 10 – a position where Scotland have failed to find consistent leadership of late.
Ireland, in turn, have an unprecedented 3 quarter-finalists, with one guaranteed semi-finalist and the press full of breathless talk of a Munster-Leinster final. It’s all positive then, right? Possibly not. The contrast between and confused bumbling in the green shirt and the sure-footed confidence in the blue/white/red shirt has grown starker and starker since 2009, and, despite a decent RWC, it’s not clear anything is changed. Ulster are marshalled by the accents of Bloemfontein as much as Belfast, and Munster and Leinster operate to disparate gameplans. Talk is emerging of a new style and clearer attacking strategy, and it would want to, because Ireland frequently look an uneasy, confused hybrid of the two. The squad announcement was a flat affair, and there’s been little sense among the rugby public that Ireland can capitalise on the provinces’ dominance.

For England and Wales, the HEC did not augur well. England’s RWC squad was backboned by players from Leicester, Northampton and Bath (16 out of 30 including Thomas the Tank Engine, drafted in for Ted Sheridan). All 3 suffered merciless and record-breaking beatings at the hands of Irish provinces this year, which has given rise to hilarious hand-wringing in Blighty. Ackford thinks the solution is more English teams (no, really), Barnesy has started touting the Pro12 as the model, and Cockerill has pointed his pudgy fingers at the salary cap, referees, injuries, the heavy Christmas programme, the Catholic Church, Dick Cheney and the euro.
All that aside, what looked like a new-ish broom swept in by Stuart Lancaster has already turned into a damage limitation exercise – the HEC has left English rugby’s confidence dented, and it needs to find its pride again. Even Harlequins have stumbled. Confidence will likely stay dented right up until Chris Ashton
belly-flops his way to 3 tries against Italy, when they will be prospective world champions again.
The Welsh had exactly the opposite problem after NZ – how to temper expectations (not their strongest suit, it must be said). However, the regions have done a pretty good job for Gatty and co. The Scarlets produced a signature performance in thumping the Sinners in Franklin’s Gardens, but failed to follow through, losing 3 of their last 4 games in circumstances where a team with belief and a pack would have won at least 2 of them. NKOTB Rhys Priestland has been de-scoped from the 10 slot in favour of bearded has-been Stephen Jones and the marvellous young backs (Scott and Liam Williams, JJV Davies, George North) have been successfully neutered.
The Hairsprays didn’t expect to capitulate so rankly in Biarritz on the last weekend, although double losses to Sarries and a draw with Treviso had snookered them before the off. Cardiff qualified, but only as a runner-up, and made extremely heavy weather of an easy pool. Anything less than a severe thumping at the hands of Leinster in April would be considered progress after a measly 9 tries in 6 games – against 2 sides determined to throw the ball around like confetti (Edinburgh and Racing Metro) and 1 of the worst sides in the HEC (London Samoa). It looks like positive momentum lost, but then again, the Welsh national side has never fed off the regions. They’re a curious side whose performance can go any which way, depending largely on what mood they’re in. It might not matter that much.
For France and Italy, it was all a bit … meh. Of the 6 French sides, only 3 bothered – Toulouse (group winners), Clermont (group winners) and Biarritz (narrowly pipped for a knockout place, and began looking more menacing after the Harinodoquy-Yachvili-Traille spine was bedded back in for the later games). The other 3 sides used the tournament for practice – either backline moves (Racing Metro) or scrummaging (Castres, Montpellier). The Top 14 will always be a priority for French sides (despite their lack of connection with their fan bases, Gerry), and HEC success is a pleasant side-dish in most cases. It’s hard to know what impact this all will have on the national side – not much we suspect.
The Italian sides were a curates egg. The positives came from Treviso’s home form and their willingness to play a more rounded brand of rugby – no longer can you go there and rely upon your scrum breaking even and your kicker to kick 80% in order to win. On the flip side of that, Aironi regressed from last year. No-one expected miracles, but they beat Biarritz last season and were generally niggly at home. This time around, they got fed an eighty-burger (thank you Demented Mole) by the Clermont reserves, and the only success, such as it was, was denying Leicester a bonus point in the Zafanella. One hopes that Italy will take more from Treviso’s performances, and make it a proper Six Nations.

The Corpse is Twitching

Scottish rugby has been the sick man of Europe for the last few years.  The dismal Six Nations results, the awful rugger, the demise of the Borders, the piddling attendances and the lack of playing numbers – the feeling that Scotland will be passed out by Italy has been coming for a while now.  Sure, each of the other Six Nations have endured fallow patches, but none are as sustainedly concerning as Scotland’s.

The recent World Cup only appeared to confirm this.  The Scottish pack manned up fairly impressively, and refused to let the big, brutish fellows from Argentina and England bully them, but Lordy, their attacking play would have disgraced a half-time rugby minis match.  The simple act of passing a ball across a pitch at chest height appeared to be beyond them.  Following that, the news that leading light and poster boy Richie Gray was off to Sale – Sale! – next season was another body-blow Scottish rugby could ill afford.

But if Scottish rugby is dying, then at least there’s a twitch in it yet.  Glasgow and Edinburgh have surprised with their results in the Heineken Cup, while Glasgow are also going well in the Pro12, currently sitting in third place.  Indeed, Edinburgh have a real chance of qualifying for the HEC quarter finals – they sit on 13 points after three wins, jointly top with Cardiff, having slayed the Blues in the Scottish capital in Round Four.  Glasgow’s chances of qualification are slim, as they have the small matter of Leinster to contend with, but have nonethless performed admirably with two wins and a draw so far.  They were, admittedly, drubbed in the RDS, but these things can happen.

So where has it all gone (sort of) right?  In Embra’s case, they have one thing that Scottish rugby has lacked for eons – a genuinely threatening outside back.  Flying Dutchman Tim Visser has 13 tries already this season, three of which have come in the Heineken Cup.  He’s a similar sort of player to George North, a big, strong, quick wing, who uses his long go-go-gadget arms to great effect; he has one of the best fends in the game.  He gives them a focal point for their attack, which has plundered ten tries in four HEC games so far.

A cursory glance at the Rabo Pro12 points scorers table reveals a  Duncan Weir of Glasgae comfortably in the top spot and Embra’s Greig Laidlaw in fourth.  Weir is only 20 and a bit funny looking for a fly-half (let’s just say he’s in the Andy Goode mould of physique) but he has been racking up points at a solid rate.  Ruaraidh Jackson is now back from injury and on his case, but this can only be positive news.  Further good news for Glasgae has been the return of one Lamont (Rory) from Toulon, and imminent return of the other.  It at least partly offsets the desertion of Max Evans and Richie Gray.  For Edinburgh yesterday there was more good news, with two promising 10s, Harry Leonard and Gregor Hunter, signing new contracts.

The question is: can these good results (and positive vibes) be transferred to international level?  Predicting a Scottish revival is a risky business: the Guardian boldly predicted they’d finish second in last year’s Six Nations and ended up looking rather foolish.  The trouble is, they simply cannot score tries, and have a tendency to freeze on the big stage (see last year’s non-performance at home to Wales).  It’s instructive to note that Edinburgh’s match-winning try against Cardiff in the Heineken Cup was created by a scorching break by Nick de Luca.  de Luca has long been touted as the solution to their ills but we are still waiting to see him produce a performance of note at international level.  Unfortunately, Visser doesn’t qualify until the summer tour, so that rarest of breeds, the Scottish try, may not be spotted for a while yet.