Gatland hopes everyone can move on the with promise of some tasty Six Nations dishes
France v England has top billing on opening night in what looms as a heavyweight eliminator
The Six Nations captains (L-R) Sergio Parisse of Italy, Chris Robshaw of England, Sam Warburton of Wales, Paul O’Connell of Ireland, Kelly Brown of Scotland and Pascal Pape of France. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The great and the good of the RBS Six Nations, and the coaches and captains too one might add, assembled as they do each year in the plush surrounds of the exclusive Hurlingham Club in Fulham for the annual launch of the tournament yesterday.
Through the curtains of the various media rooms was the rather incongruous sight of heavily populated croquet lawns, as far removed from the 15 thunderous collisions over a seven-week period which begin on Saturday week.
France v England has top billing on opening night in what looms as a heavyweight eliminator for this season’s tournament, prompting Phlippe Saint-Andre to remark: “We don’t start with a starter, we start with les rosbeefs. We start with the main course.”
Meanwhile Wales and Ireland will be more heavily fancied to win at home against Italy and Scotland to set up their collision in round two on the second Saturday at the Aviva Stadium. Familiarity having bred an element of contempt as well as respect over the years in these Irish-Welsh affairs, through repetitive meetings at Celtic League and European level as well as crunch Six Nations encounters, not forgetting a World Cup quarter-final.
By dint of being bulk suppliers, admittedly Wales supplying more bulk than Ireland, especially come the decisive third Test, on last summer’s Lions tour, this added to the frisson between the two.
Already this is being billed as something of a grudge match between the Wales and Lions coach Warren Gatland, and those Irish players he discarded from the third Test, namely Jamie Heaslip and, of course, Brian O’Driscoll. A nation felt wronged and inevitably Gatland was asked about it for the umpteenth time, he answered politely if, inside, wearily.
“It’s easy for me to ignore it, it’s whether you guys in the press do. I read what was said on the Late, Late Show,” he added in reference to his appearance on the RTÉ show.
“A lot of people are trying to make a big thing of the Irish situation, but at the end of the day I made my decision, and I just keep saying to people it’s just a matter of opinion and that’s what it is.”
“It doesn’t mean we didn’t question ourselves and whether it was the right decision. People who tried to turn it into an anti-Irish thing: I’m incredibly indebted to Irish rugby and the opportunities they gave me. Starting off in the club I knew among the four regions, coaching Connacht and then gave me a chance as a 34-year-old to be an international coach.”
“I look back and I’m incredibly grateful to the chances that Ireland gave me. I’m really looking forward to going back. It’s going to put an extra twist on the game, people are going to try to make something out of it as they always do.”
He repeated the story about the two men’s exchange of Christmas cards. “I think a couple of weeks ago Brian had given me a Christmas card after the Downing Street Lions thing, and Donnacha Ryan rang me up and asked me to send Brian a Christmas card, which was a bit of a joke from the Irish boys.
“So I sent him a Christmas card, and I wished him well for his family for Christmas. And I did ask if he had any influence to try to make sure that the Irish fans didn’t boo me too much at the Aviva Stadium. I meant it as a joke. It’s water under the bridge now and hopefully everyone can move on.”
First up though, for Ireland, are the Scots, against whom Ireland memorably imploded when contriving to lose a game they had dominated for long stretches by 12-8 in Murrayfield, marking the end of Ronan O’Gara’s career and the beginning of the end for Declan Kidney’s reign as coach.
“I thought their form in the autumn, there was some really good quality rugby there,” admitted Scotland coach Scott Johnson, whose successor Vern Cotter will link up with the Scots next Tuesday as part of a slightly hands-on reconnaissance mission.
“The old campaigners are back. They threw everything at us bar the kitchen sink in the first half last year, so we just closed the door on a few opportunities and took ours, and that’s what we’re speaking about when saying being in the competition.”
“This will be a really fast game. This will be a really good game of rugby to watch guys. Hold onto your seatbelts here, because both sides will have good intent, there’s no doubt. And I think with Joe at the helm there’ll be good intent and it will be a fast-paced game. Bring it on. That’s good.”
History has taught us that the French usually win post-Lions’ Six Nations, having won the Grand Slam in 2002 and 2010, as well as the championship in ’06 when recovering from an opening day defeat in Murrayfield.
But France were wooden spoonists last season, lost to New Zealand and South Africa in November, and during the course of a repeated lament about the tug-of-war between the French club game and Les Bleus, Saint-Andre pointed out that, for example, not one member of his 40-man squad is first-choice kicker for their club – a role normally the preserve of overseas players – as well as reeling off a dozen World Cup finalists with 60-70 caps or more who have retired since then.
Johnson also bucked the perceived wisdom. “Tough one. History tells you that after Lions tours, look at France. That’s the usual mantra. It’s slightly different this year in that it was a successful Lions tour. Guys are coming back very buoyant in that they’ve had success. That puts a different view of the Six Nations. You’re coming back and you’re quite positive about the rugby.
“From what I can see there hasn’t been the normal massive injury off the back of a Lions tour. Listen, I don’t see a Grand Slam here. I see upsets. I see a really competitive competition. It will be a points’ differential winner, that’s who I think will win.”