Wales seek three in row in wide-open championship

Ireland will be striving to bring their performance against the All Blacks in November to the Six Nations

Wed, Jan 29, 2014, 10:30

It’s back. Unlike the Tri-Nations, it may not scale the heights of the ridiculous quality evident in the South Africa-New Zealand showdown in Johannesburg and the November window reaffirmed the well established global pecking order between south and north.

Yet despite one Friday night and three Sunday games, the sense of occasion generated by thousands of visiting fans to each of the 15 games jam-packed into five weekends will match the sense of history and rich variety which invariably comes with the world’s oldest rugby tournament.

Yet again, it’s wide open too, which helps. France lost the favourites’ tag when they lost their inspirational captain Thierry Dusautoir, who is a loss to the tournament as well, but at 5/2 third favourites they are only fractionally behind the bookies’ joint favourites, Wales and England at 9/4. Ireland are at 11/2, Scotland at 40/1 and Italy at 200/1.

Ireland are entitled to be contenders on the basis of their performance against the All Blacks last time out, and Joe Schmidt accepts that the display should add to both Ireland’s confidence and the air of expectation. Bring it on, says the New Zealander, for in addition to changing the way Ireland play akin to his time at Leinster, he is also endeavouring to change minds along his native lines.

“Expectation is good. I wouldn’t be a fan of being the underdog and I think sometimes people get very comfortable with the underdog tag,” he adds, without specifically mentioning Irish teams. “I think it’s really important to be comfortable being favourite.

“It was one of the things at Leinster, there was a little bit of a mindshift where the players became comfortable if they were favourites and if they were expected to win. It almost gave them more desire to make sure the expectations were met. Hopefully the All Black game can spur a bit of that, plus the disappointment can be channelled into increased effort and concentration to deliver the sort of performance that can make us competitive.”

However, as he also points out, time was when the autumnal window was a reliable yardstick, but compounding the sense of unpredictability, not any more. So it was that France went unbeaten through November last season against Australia, Argentina and Samoa, went into the Six Nations as hot favourites and finished with the wooden spoon.

Meanwhile, Wales lost all four November tests to extend their losing run to seven, then lost their opening game at home to Ireland. They responded by winning their next to retain the title with a stunning 30-3 dissection of England on the final weekend.

So it is that France, instead, come into the 2014 Six Nations having lost to New Zealand and South Africa in November, thus having won just two of their last 11 tests – at home to Scotland and Tonga. So it would be typically illogical and French if they won this year’s tournament.

History has also shown us that France invariably win the Championship in the season following a Lions tour. This has been the case on each of the last four cycles, with France claiming a Grand Chelem in 1998, 2002 and 2010. They also won the title in 06 when rebounding from an opening defeat to Scotland in Murrayfield by winning their next four games.

There was a nice moment at the Six Nations launch in London last week when the post-Lions theory was put to French coach Philippe Saint-André. He drew one of those exasperated, very French expressions he tends to do – raising his eyebrows and puffing his cheeks – as if to say “welcome to our world”.

“Because of the Lions, those guys play more games than normal but for us each year the players are like this. All the guys finish the season at the end of June in New Zealand and all are players have four weeks holidays and at the end of July play friendly games.”

That said, they do have three games at home and their last four Grand Slams have come with this biannual itinerary. A dozen members of their World Cup finalists having retired in quick succession; there has been pain before, admittedly, signs of gain in their performances against the All Blacks and South Africa, if primarily founded on French fire and brimstone rather than French elan.

Les Bleus ought also to have benefited from four games against the All Blacks since last year’s Six Nations. Buttressed by an injection of promising Stade Français forwards in tight-head Rabah Slimani and lock Alexandre Flanquart, their pack will be led very much from the front by Pascal Papé.

Such were the demands and lack of access to their frontline players last year that Saint-André likened it to a 100-metre race except that his team were running over 110 metres hurdles. This year, for the first time, his match-day squad of 23 were absolved of Top 14 duties last weekend (unlike Johnny Sexton and a quartet of Welsh players) and so will have been in camp for a fortnight come opening night.

As Saint-André noted, the Six Nations menu has served up les rosbifs for the French entrée on opening night. With a two-week build-up, they may well have one big, emotional performance in them, with les rosbifs the perfect inspiration, although there is more pressure on them to win this game at home.

They have probably the tournament’s best centre in Wesley Fofana, but even if they beat England, one wonders if they have the fitness levels and the quality, especially at half-back, to go all the way.

They had turned to Castres outhalf Rémi Talès (28) as much due to lack of alternatives as anything else, but he will miss at least the opening match against England through injury. Saint-Andre will no have to choose between the untried Jules Plisson, or Francois Trinh-Duc, who is back in the panel. Nor do Jean-Marc Doussain or Maxime Machenaud have anything like the zip and threat of the Montpellier scrumhalf Jonathan Pelissié.

If England win then, with Ireland and Wales due in Twickenham in between trips to Edinburgh and Rome, they will be brilliantly placed. They have won four of their five games in each of the last three seasons, only Wales denying them Grand Slams in the last two campaigns. They are further down the rebuilding road under the popular Stuart Lancaster than France.

They will be big, strong and physical across the pitch, will have solid set-pieces, will be defensively obdurate and hard to break down, with a heavy emphasis on retaining possession within 10 or five metres of the recycle. They will kick their goals and they will score tries.

They play a brand of rugby that is probably good enough to win one or both of this and next year’s Six Nations, but it won’t win them the World Cup on home soil unless they take more risks in possession and add more of a creative spark somewhere in the 10-12-13 axis, where the defensively impenetrable Brad Barritt is something of a signature selection at inside centre.

The November games highlighted how much tight test matches are decided by this X factor. As with Quade Cooper in Australia’s win over Wales in the Millennium Stadium, say, the primary difference between England and the All Blacks at Twickenham were two brilliant offloads out wide by Kieran Read and Ma’a Nonu. Great players, it’s true, but England need also to add that range and mindset.

Wales and Ireland will be strongly fancied to beat Italy and Scotland at home on the opening weekend, thereby setting up the big collision of the second weekend at the Aviva. Yet Italy have won matches in each of the last four seasons and last season scalped France and Ireland at either end of the championship, while in addition to beating Italy, Scotland also took down Ireland, as they did four seasons ago.

Reflecting Heineken Cup form, Scotland might possibly be better equipped this time around. Italy’s summer and autumn results suggest they have not carried on last season’s eye-catching progress under Jacques Brunel and, while they have added much more of a running string to their bow under the Frenchman, their scrum appears to have been slightly disempowered. They have also placed a sizeable amount of trust in the unproven Tommy “Tomasso” Allen.

Scotland will be similarly obdurate and dangerous if given a whiff. They will also have a big pack, a goal-kicking general at scrumhalf in Greig Laidlaw and have added cutting edge in recent times with Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Sean Lamont and now Dougie Fife in the back three despite the loss of Tim Visser and Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar in midfield.

Last season’s haul of seven tries was their highest in six years – yet they drew a blank against South Africa and were restricted to five Laidlaw penalties against Australia – suggest try-scoring may again be a problem.

When it comes to game-breakers capable of changing a game in a moment or two, Wales are again probably best equipped, what with George North (the likeliest match-winner in any squad), Alex Cuthbert, Scott Williams, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips and Toby Faletau.

The exodus to France is increasing and, in addition to losing Ian Evans to suspension, there are doubts about the form, match hardness or wellbeing of several key men, be it Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton, Phillips, Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

Yet when they pitch up for work in that Welsh jersey, none of that ever seems to matter. They also have the carrot of becoming the first team in the history of the Championship to be declared outright champions three years in a row, something that not even the halcyon heroes of the 1970s ever achieved.

They do tend to grow stronger as the tournament progresses, but the flip side of that, as Ireland proved last year, is that it’s better to run into the Welsh earlier rather than later. Ireland, too, have their question marks, not least the absence of Seán O’Brien, who simply does things and gives his side a forward, gain-line momentum that no one else can match.

This places a greater emphasis on the importance and health of Cian Healy, who will need to bring his Leinster form into the tournament given he’ll be an auxiliary back-row carrier as well as a prop.

Equally imperative is the wellbeing of Paul O’Connell, one of Ireland’s greatest sporting leaders, who arrives in prime nick with plenty of matches under his belt, and Johnny Sexton.

If he is revitalised by working with Schmidt and in more familiar surrounds, then operating outside two contrasting in-form scrumhalves, Ireland will have the best outhalf in the tournament. End of.

Granted, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls are losses, Bowe for at least the opening two games and Earls for the duration. Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy are short of matches after injury, in stark contrast to being the wingers in form and in situ at this point a year ago, but Ireland are relatively well stocked here.

It also has to be said Brian O’Driscoll has not been his usual influential self in recent times. But aside from being hugely in credit, O’Driscoll is a proven big-game player, while his sheer presence for his final campaign could awake the Aviva from its customary slumber and create a momentum almost of its own.

Given how last year panned out after Ireland’s opening day win in Cardiff, in this regard, while this biennial itinerary is Ireland’s less preferred (not since 1972 have they won in both London and Paris), starting with home games against Scotland and Wales affords every opportunity to generate momentum.

It remains to be seen whether the performance against the All Blacks was a one-off product of shame and fear borne out of the preceding defeat to Australia and the history against the All Blacks, but Ireland scaled heights above all other Six Nations pretenders that day.

Ireland, akin to France, are capable of one-offs whereas producing over five games in seven weeks is an altogether different ask. But if they reproduce the same carrying into contact, the same accuracy by the next player or two to the breakdown and thereby apply the same tempo, they have every chance.

A six-day turnaround after the Scottish game is unhelpful, but Ireland will be at home and a whole of host of players besides O’Driscoll, be they Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Healy or Rory Best, ought to be additionally motivated individually.

That second-round meeting looks pivotal for both countries and quite possibly, Ireland and Wales have the best head coaches. Merely by dint of being back-to-back champions, Wales are more deserving of favouritism than anyone else, but Ireland are a sporting wager.

In the heel of the hunt, it would be a surprise if come the final weekend that all three matches have a relevance towards deciding this year’s winner.

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