Optimism abounds as oldest rugby tournament kicks off


Like the Heineken Cup, the imperfections of the Six Nations can also be its beauty

So it’s back, the oldest rugby tournament in the world (dating back to 1882) and the annual European jamboree that is the Six Nations. Great days, nights, weekends, social occasions and television events, and perhaps even potmarked by some great rugby as well. As ever, optimism abounds – well, kinda – only for the near certainty to prove true; namely that the majority will end up disappointed.

The bookies make France marginally favourites over England, with Ireland marginally ahead of Wales, which reflects autumnal form albeit with the caveats that France travel to their Twickenham graveyard and Ireland visit Cardiff.

Insomuch as one can say at this juncture – all of them losing frontline players even since the squads were initially announced in several cases – with their greater squad depth, France and England can absorb the inevitable additional hits more readily.

A rebuilt France also have the best squad, best team and best form, after a run of four wins, including an impressive November hat-trick over Argentina, Australia and Samoa. Similarly, Ireland and England come off big wins over the All Blacks and Argentina, both of whom were at the end of long years and, in New Zealand’s case, the winter vomiting bug had swept through their squad earlier that week. That said, it’s doubtful Ireland, for one, would have swept through a wilting All Blacks in such manner.

Wales may have ridden their luck a little (every Grand Slam-winning team invariably has to) in winning a non-vintage Six Nations last season, but it is too trite to dismiss them on the basis that they have lost their last seven test matches.

In three of their four defeats to Australia they were denied wins with the last play of the game.

They will make do and mend in the injury-ravaged second-row, have options to account for Dan Ludiate and apart from the stricken Rhys Priestland will pick a stellar, first-choice backline. Most significantly, Adam Jones is back.

In effect the Six Nations has been a two-tier tournament for much of its existence, and not since 2007, when Italy had the temerity to beat both Scotland and Wales, have either they or the Scots scaled the dizzy heights of fourth place.

In every season since then, the Six Nations has usually been a four-way contest between Ireland, France, England and Wales, which also happens to be the title roll of honour in the last four years. Given the form of the Italian and Scottish brace of regions in the Rabo Pro12 and Europe this season, where their frontline players are mostly congregated, it’s hard to envisage that changing.

The appointment of Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan adds interest to the Scots, who will be big and direct, but although Italy travel to Murrayfield on the second Saturday, they have much the better November form.

The flip side of all this is that one of the big four has to finish as low as fourth, a statement of the blindingly obvious, but one worth remembering. So it was that France and Wales (three times) have finished fourth since Ireland did so in 2008.

In other words, the lines between first and fourth can be very fine indeed, and even outside a team’s control, such as an itinerary of three or two home games, even the timing of kick-offs, or injuries to key players, or officials’ decisions.

But, like the Heineken Cup, the imperfections of the Six Nations can also be its beauty.

It is not quite a league, in the proper sense of the word, nor a knock-out competition, though in saying that only once in the last 16 years has a country won the title after losing their opening game.

Hence, viewed in that light, this Saturday’s first game, at the ungodly, TV-dictated hour of 1.30pm, is something of a title eliminator; indeed akin to a light heavyweight eliminator for the right to have a puncher’s shot at the two heavyweights.

Ireland go into Saturday’s game as marginal, two-point underdogs, and will probably be something similar when big bad England and mighty France (whom Ireland have beaten once in the countries’ last 13 meetings) come to town.

The November form of France and England is superior.

Nor does the form of Leinster and Munster carry quite such the same lustre of recent times, while so much of Ulster’s progress is built around some class imports.

Indeed, the province’s line-outs have creaked, while the strength of the Ulster and Munster scrums are partially founded on exceptional tight-heads from New Zealand and South Africa.

Unlike the bigger squads of England and France, Ireland could not take too many hits on the injury front. Most of all, perhaps, woe betide Ireland if Mike Ross doesn’t stay healthy.

There have been the distractions of the captaincy handover, the Jonny Sexton transfer saga and the ongoing discussions regarding new deals for Rob Kearney and Cian Healy. The IRFU really will have to try and resolve these issues sooner in the seasons.

That said, while Leinster players will have been the most disappointed when they came into camp on the night of their pool exit, not only are Seán O’Brien, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney relatively fresh after missing the November series, the Leinstermen might actually be even hungrier for silverware.

The itinerary may not be France’s favoured one.

Three of their Six Nations’ Grand Slams and four of their five titles have been in even years when hosting England and Ireland. But this schedule also has uncanny echoes of the exception in that sequence, in 2007.

On that St Patrick’s Day, as on this year’s final Saturday, Ireland kicked off first in Rome and in front of an estimated 17,000 Green Army (ah, them were the days) ran in eight tries in a 51-24 victory to set France a target of victory by 24 points at home to Scotland, albeit ruing a decision to keep looking for tries when conceding a turnover and a last minute seven-pointer to Roland de Marigny.

With most of the Irish squad watching from the foyer of their Roman hotel, sure enough a try from Elvis Vermeulen at the death for Les Bleus secured the required victory margin in a 46-19 win; France taking the title with a points’ difference of +69 to Ireland’s +65.

As Irish rugby fans can readily testify from the last round of Heineken Cup matches, kicking off last can be a decided advantage, all the more so at home.

In what could well be a non-Slam year – Eddie Butler for one tipped a four-way tie on six points – at any rate a two-way or even three-way tie on eight points is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

In which case France could well have the ace in the hole.