Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Story So Far...

Two-fifths of the way through the Six Nations and with the third round looming on Saturday seems as good a point as any to stop and take stock of what the various nations have achieved so far in the competition and where each one looks to be heading during the remainder of the championship.

I guess the first thing to note is that, as yet, I'd say no team has really made a compelling case to be installed as favourites to win the 2008 championship. This may all change this weekend, of course, where an emphatic French victory in Paris would make it difficult to bet against them but, as many pundits forecasted before the tournament started, for the moment the title race really does appear to be wide open this year, with only Italy and Scotland looking to be completely out of contention.

Looking at the progress of each team so far:

FRANCE: - "Gloriously bonkers" is how I've previously described new France coach Marc Lièvremont's approach to this tournament, but somehow it's worked and, with a game strategy based around making the most of the potent talents of Cedric Heymans and Vincent Clerc, he has almost instantly re-invented the joie de vivre for which French rugby is best remembered. It looks like weaknesses in the front row could end up being France's undoing, but Lièvremont's willingness to blood new players must be a huge encouragement for French rugby fans. If the French pack can overcome the English forwards in Paris this weekend they'll start to believe that a Grand Slam is on the cards.

WALES: I have to say that the Welsh performances to date have been incredibly difficult to assess. Credit is due for the way they clung on for dear life in the first 40 minutes at Twickenham and then pulled themselves together sufficiently to apply pressure on England in the second half. That England then completely folded under the pressure is something the Welsh couldn't possibly have planned for but will have surprised and delighted Messrs Gatland and Edwards nonetheless. The routine win against Scotland also told us very little, other than the Hook-Henson-Shanklin midfield axis is in good working order and that Martyn Williams is a class apart. Gatland's main challenge now will be to get the tight five and lineout working to a level that can cope with what Ireland, France and, indeed, Italy have to offer.

ITALY: The performances of the Italian pack have been of no surprise whatsoever in this Six Nations. A dodgy lineout aside, the forwards have been their usual beligerant, magnificent selves with Sergio Parisse, in particular, a standout performer. What's been more surprising is that the Italian midfield have also looked more than reasonable, despite the lack of any sort of kicking game. The next phase for Nick Mallet is to find a fly half who can run a game - Andrea Masi is a trier but he's no number 10 - and a half decent back three. On present form they will give the Welsh and French forwards a tough time in Cardiff and Paris respectively and stand a great chance of defeating Scotland (again) in Rome.

SCOTLAND: Oh dear. Frank Hadden must have hoped that Scotland would kick on from a respectable Rugby World Cup campaign but so far his team has looked clueless. Yes they do all look a lot bigger but are finding that merely being muscle-bound is not enough. There are some decent enough players in the Scottish pack - Hines, Barclay, White etc - but the pack as a whole lacks traditional Scottish mongrel, while any backline featuring Dan Parks and Andy Henderson is never going to create enough chances at this level. Tough times ahead for the Scots - and it's looking like a win over the Sassenachs in pouring rain at Murrayfield is the best they can hope for (again).

IRELAND: The Irish will be encouraged by their second half fightback in Paris but I'm still not convinced that there aren't serious problems in the Irish camp. Something just isn't clicking and they look like a team desperately searching for an identity. Conservative Eddie has made changes to his team, but it's obvious that these changes go against his instincts and he simply doesn't look comfortable with his decisions. Nevertheless, the changes (for example the introduction of Heaslip and Jackman into the forwards and playing Trimble in the centre) might just have refreshed the Irish campaign sufficiently to bring respectibility to this campaign. The home match against the Welsh will be key, leaving a trip to Twickenham (which holds no fears for the Irish) as a possible championship decider.

ENGLAND: And finally to England. I've commented at length already on the English campaign so far, a campaign marred by insufficient preparation time and a ridiculously long list of injuries but also compounded by poor selection and a distinct lack of cojones on the part of Brian Ashton. In this week's Sunday Times Stephen Jones urges Ashton to pick a big, mean ugly team to grind out a victory, any victory, in Paris this weekend, claiming that the idea of development should play no part in English thinking. All very well, but what if (like the 2005, 2006 and 2007 Six Nations campaigns) we adopt this policy and still lose? What will we have gained? Perceived wisdom has it that, to be successful at a World Cup, it's important to have a core of experience runing through the squad, but how on earth will England be able do that if the young inexperienced players who are widely acknowledged to be England's future are not given game time now? When will they be blooded - in New Zealand in June? God help 'em. A stuffing in Paris might be the best thing that could happen to English rugby at the moment, forcing a strategic re-think and an "out with the old - in with the new" approach.


Nursedude said...

Hi Flanker, I agree, that I would like to see England give the youngsters a shot in Paris. Better there than Eden Park. Italy has to feel a little unlucky to be 0-2 after their forwards played pretty well against Ireland and England's pack. The Italians must be half-toying with the thought of bringing Dominguez out of retirement to be their number 10. In the end, I agree that if France wins against England this weekend, I think France's chance of a 6Nations/grand slam are very good...although if Wales and France can meet in Cardiff on the last weekend both being undefeated...that would create some kind of atmosphere in the Milleneum Stadium. If-and it's a big if- the Welsh can survive their trip to Ireland this weekend

Nursedude said...

My bad, Wales plays Italy THIS weekend. I mean when Wales plays Ireland on March 8th.