Friday 1 February 2008

Overcoming those World Cup Blues


Put simply, this years Six Nations has the potential to be the tightest contest ever produced since the competition expanded to include Italy. The key phrase this year is 'rebuilding'. Every team in the tournament under achieved to some degree in the world cup (apart from England) and all are looking to start afresh with an eye towards the next world in four year's time. With tht in mind there has been a considerable shake-up not only in coaching staff but personnel too. Some countries have stuck to their old guns in the desperate hope that they will rediscover their form that was sadly lacking back in Autumn whilst others have bitten the bullet and draftede in a whole raft of young talent in a desperate attempt to wash off the murky stains left by a poor world cup. The net result of all this inter-squad activity (or lack thereof) with the return of a whole host of veterans looking for redemption after the world infused with unknown youth players makes this years tournament the most open I've ever seen from the off. There are so many untried elements entering the contest this year that it has the potential to be the most random six nations ever.

France
The Frogs have led the way, as long time coach Bernie Laporte, long accused of killing 'French' style rugby has left his job in charge of France to work for the French government. In his place new coach Marc Lievremont has retained only 11 of Laporte's charges from the world cup and has been given full licence to return France to their old style of play (think 'chaos theory' in rugby form). The terrifying thing about the French team is that unlike the other nations, the French 'veterans' or experienced players are for the most part hilariousy young. Unlike other teams in the tournament the French need not fret over development of young talent en masse. They just need to find some more to compliment the young players that have already shone on the world stage. As usual the pack is big and powerful, but without Pelous and Ibanez. With regards to their opening match against Scotland they have a virtually unknown (to me anyway) front row and a very young second row parner for new captain Nallet. If that front five works (and they'll be put to the test by a typically robust Scottish pack) the French could be a shoe-in to just walk away with this tournament. Their backline is world class, and their back three are electric although Heymans could be a liability at full-back.
If the youth step up and play well, France could do very well. They aren't helped by a tough opening weekend away in Edinburgh but if the Frogs come out of Fortress Murrayfield with any kind of win, they could prove unstoppable.

Player to watch: Winger Malzieu

England
Once again the hopes of England's rugby team lie solely on the shoulders (boots?) of one man. If Wilkinson plays badly, England do badly, if Wilkinson is injured, England implode. The Poms come into this years six nations with pretty much the same gameplan they left last years with. A forward dominated game focussed on a monstrous front 5 couple with a lumbering back row and supported by an absolute pack of retards filling numbers 9 and 11-15. The good news for England is that they uncouvered new, and potentially competent, players in the back row like Rees etc and should they get enough game time they will truly shine in this years competition. As I've already mentioned the tight five is big, heavy, slow and outside of set piece, useless.
Unfortunately there is still a very good chance of England somehow winning this tournament. Obviously they will be buoyed up by their world cup exploits and maybe Ashton will turn out to be a coaching guru. But I doubt it. His selection for the first game served to highlight the problems with English rugby in a stroke. Moody, big fast but ultimately stupid flanker whose tendency to give away idiotis penalties far outweigh his ability as a loose forward. And then Flood and Tindall in the centre. I feel sorry for Jonny boy. If you've ever wondered why he kicks so much, theres your answer. What about Tait? Or Hipkiss? I kind of hope England get trounced by Wales just to force Ashton to pick a lighter, faster, livelier team instead of this crowd of donkeys.

Player to watch: Winger Strettle (if he ever gets the ball)

Wales
New coaching staff, Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards. I approve. Wales have no need to bring in much newbies this year as they are still in a kind of development stage. Their squad is just entering the peak of its collective career and they boast one of the best backlines in the entire six nations. From 9 to 15 this team has class, creativity, pace, power and crucially, depth. The Leek-eaters are fortunate enough to have two number tens that Eddie O'Sullivan would gladly give his left nut to have as well two world class scrum halves to compliment them. Their centres Parker, Shanklin and Henson are beginning to come into their own and this year could see them truly stamp their authority on the international stage. And out wide it just gets ridiculous... Jones, Williams, Morgan, Byrne, Thomas, theres probably more I can't remember but my point is theres a lot of em.
Gatland's arrival should add a bit of composure to a pack that specalise in the loose and disrupting more traditional packs at every given oppurtunity. I've no doubt Wales will look to continue this policy of organised mayhem as it suits their backs but with a bit more structure at set-piece to secure ball. This is mainly (and has been for a while now) the front fives problem. Wales have had a tenacious back row for years now, if they could get their tight forwards singing off the same hymn sheet they'd be on fire. The return of the vets Thomas and the Ginger Monster Martyn Williams as inspirational talismans to player and fan alike leaves me thinking that this squad is capable of anything. An away game against a big England pack is a dauntng obstacle but as the likelihood of a grand slam this year is small even a close defeat would be good for the Welsh. Just as long as they don't get trounced..

Player to watch: Out-half Hook

Scotland
My dark horse of the tournament. England and France at home this season. Could lightening (and rain and thunder) strike again as it did two years ago? In his first year in charge Hadden led Scotland to huge upset wins over the travelling French and English teams in Murrayfield and if he can achieve a similar feat this year Scotland have a real sot at the title. Away games to a potentially out of form Ireland team and Italy shouldn't worry them and their games against Wales are traditionally close-fought affairs. Like the last couple of years this Scottish team is built around a powerful engine room upfront. They have a big front five and their lineout is one of the best in the tournie. There have been some major changes in the back row as Taylor (injury) and Hogg have been dropped to be replaced by Callum and Barclay, two unknowns at this level. For Scotland to get anywhere these boys will really have to step up onto the international stage with a bang. Hadden's success so far as hinged on the hard hitting White coupled with the rampaging Taylor and Hogg. If this new back row fails to ignite the Scottish team they could flounder.
Behind the scrum there are new faces as well; Henderson and De Luca comprise a traditional big and heavy/small and jinky centre flanked by Walker and Webster on either wings with Rory Lamont(able) at full-back. Controversially Hadden has dropped Paterson to the bench and has selected Parks at 10 instead of the inform and infinitely more creative Godman. This is a back line that has been growing in confidence and ability or years now and although the loss of the other Lamont(able), Sean could be costly, there is a lot of potential in that Scottish backline to take some pressure off their pack. If the Scottish back row can play its usual rampaging part and the backline is able to get motoring behind their big pack this Scottih team can go places, dark horses

Player to watch: Scrum-half Blair

Italy
Italy are getting used to this top fligt system quickly; under-achieved in world cup so in with a new coaching staff. And Nick Mallet, the former Springboks coach, is not a bad man to hire. Other than a change in the front office this Italian team is essentially the same as the one that played in the last world cup. Unlike the other countries Italy simply do not have the luxury of cutting vast swathes of underperforming players. Their team is one of the more familiar looking ones released for this weekend, the only names I didn't recognise were the new hooker Gilhandrini (or something) and the new scrum-half ... (I don't remember his name but it probably sounds like a pasata sauce). Anyway it is a testament to how far Italy have come that they are no longer a back of randoms but that their team is comprised of instantly recognisable names from across the plains of European club rugby.
For the Mafia to do well, and believe given the openess of this years tournament they could do VERY well, they will look to bully their opponents around up front before unleashing what has become of the most explosive backlines in European rugby. Last year Mirco Bergamasco set the six nations alight. Along with centre partner Canale he will be loking to do the same this year. Bortolussi, Robertson and Dallan are a back three as good as any in the competition and are willing to run ze ball from anywhere.
No matter how well their backs play Italy's success always rides on that big pasta loving pack of theirs. As usual they'll have a monstrous front five who are eerily moblie in the loose and extremely dangerous at lineout time, Dellape and Del Fava being arch-poachers of opponent's ball. Behind potentially the best frnt five in the tournament are the potentially the best back row in the six nations. Mauro Bergamasco, Josh Sole and Sergio Parrise. These guys are IMMENSE and incredibly iprtant for Italy. They carry, they tackle, they steal ball, they are everywhere. All three possess a phenominal work rate and if they can stay healthy (Parisse and Begamasco were both injured earlier in this season playing for Stade) they add an icredibly potent weapon to the Italian's arenal.

Player to watch: Number 8 Parisse

Ireland
Amidst all the talk of underachieving at the world cup the Irish rugby team stood out as THE example of a teams shortcomings on the big stage. Three triple crowns and four runners up slots in the four six nations tournaments prior to the world cup seemed to mean nothing as the most succesful Irish side in history crashed out in the group stages. The worst performance by an Irish side at a world cup ever. Now it is true that of the two teams that made it out of Ireland's group; France beat New Zealand went onto a semi whilst Argentina turned out to be the revelation of the entire world cup, losing their semi to the eventual winners South Africa before humiliating France again in the third place playoff for good measure. That still doesn't excuse a woeful Irish performance against Georgia and Namibia. Where France and Argy Bargy posted cricket scores Ireland scraped by. The Irish died with a whimper in France, broken and humiliated.
So naturally here we are with the exact same coaching staff and the exact same squad that lost to Argentina in our last world cup game, what could possibly go wrong? As though the IRFU's decision to retain steady Eddie wasn't bad enough O'Sullivan has rubbed salt into the gaping wound left by thw world cup debacle by sticking steadfastly by the same players that messed up in France. His initial dropping of the inform Leinster players Gleeson and Jennings I could take. But his decision to start the Easterbunny at 6 is mind boggling. Here is a player who has captained Llanelli to their worst Heineken cup finish ever (conceding 50 points at home on the last day), in the twilight of his career (and in clear decline) who our illustrious coach thinks desevers to start ahead of younger players who have been consistantly better than him? This is a cancer that has spread throughout the Irish team. The Italian coaching staff must be loving this; an old man at 6, a 6 playing 8, a hooker who has literally just returned from a neck injury, a full-back on one wing, a centre on the other.
Eddie's decision not select players like Jackman, Heaslip, Fitzgerald, Kearney etc shows a distinct unwillingness to select players based on form and given the rebuilding nature the other teams have adopted; a dangerous unwillingness to blood new players on the big stage. He is crippling Irish rugby. I have no doubt that this team can perform as it has in the past but that is beyond he point. O'Sullivan must seriously think about shaking up his selection policy; not simply to blood new players but also to remove this aura of complacency in the Irish squad. My brother showed me Eddie's team from his first six nations game in charge back in 2002. It is the EXACT same as the team this Saturday save for all the players that have retired.
The phrase floating around the six natins this year is 'rebuilding', apparently in Ireland we're still frozen in post world cup shock

Player to watch: Pray that Easterby gets injured

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