Mike Ross's fitness is the key for Ireland in a Championship that looks short on quality, says Brendan Fanning
The Six Nations council met in a Heathrow hotel last Tuesday afternoon. Same timing as always, just ahead of the Championship, and with most of the usual suspects. And like many of those get-togethers, they had a fair idea before it started how it would end.
In the wake of the frozen pitch fiasco in Paris last season, where gross incompetence by the home union turned the jewel in the crown into a pointy hat with a big D on it, there isn't quite the same comfort about the Championship now. So there is more heed given to suggestions of fundamental change than previously. This doesn't mean we get change overnight, but the process has a chance of success.
So the reps in London last week knew that we wouldn't be kicking off the 2013 Six Nations with bonus points on offer, but there is every chance that in 12 months' time that's just what will happen.
Indeed that decision may well be taken when this group next gets together, in April. By then we could have a variant of the system that operates in the European Cups, both Heineken and Amlin, and the Super 15. Or it might get thrown out altogether, which would be a slap in the chop for England and Ireland who are united in their support for change.
The resistance is based on the lazy man's favourite maxim: if it ain't broke don't fix it. So what, you should skip getting your car serviced and run it till it collapses in a heap?
The Six Nations may not be broken – and certainly is not broke – but for sure it needs recalibration. Bonus points may well be useful in improving that balance, not least because they would probably inject some excitement into the last two rounds with the prospect of the extras to transform the table. And, as we know from the Heineken Cup, the tension created by a team chasing a bonus in the last quarter can turn a dull run-in into a hectic pursuit.
It's worth recognising however what they won't do: transform the quality of a tournament that has been lacking for the last three seasons. Bonus points might get the try aggregate up – in 2012 it was six down on the 51 scored the previous season – but don't bank on it. And don't for a minute believe that a new reward system will transform poor rugby into shop-window stuff.
Firstly, the Six Nations' sides are firmly rooted, as always, behind their southern hemisphere rivals. Of the 20 Tests played in Europe during November, only seven were won by the home teams. And of those seven, three were against Tier 2 nations. So we're not talking here about the best in world rugby.
Secondly, if you want to improve the quality then you need to develop basic attacking skills. Like passing. Next you must give defences less time to negate those skills.
Not long after the Six Nations council wrapped up their meeting last week, IRB referees' manager Joel Jutge sat down with the coaches to throw some light on what is expected over the next seven weekends. This is the annual poker night where the coaches try to get some advantage without showing their hand.
Jutge impressed on them the need to wrap the game in a prettier package. The theme was, 'We're all in this together folks,' and that he would be telling his referees to mow down jaywalkers who slowed the traffic around the ruck, and to tow immediately those who park in the wrong place.
That trend is already under way, and it has manifested itself in all competitions in a mix of seamlessly supplied ball, and clogged stuff where sometimes daft decisions are made by referees against tacklers for not rolling away when they have more than 120kgs sprawled all over them. If Joelie wants to make a positive impression here – and his European refs' manager Donal Courtney has left him some work to do – then he should deal also with those first to arrive at the scene of the crime: the support player and the poacher.
Whether you are out at a schools cup or club game this afternoon, or watching the LV Cup on the telly, tune into the actions of those who answer these descriptions, and ask yourself are their first actions positive or negative. Marvel at the number of times poachers start by bridging with their hands on the ground, beyond the ball, and then start harvesting it like a combine on a rare, sunny day. With virtually all of their body weight on their hands it is wholly illegal, unfair as a contest, and a blot on the landscape Joel Jutge wants to paint.
He meets his referees this week, and if he tells them to blow negative action out of the water, and be lenient on positive actions that go wrong – it's a whole lot easier than you think – then very quickly we'll have a tournament with better quality.
Even so, the punters are more excited that usual, which is typical of a Lions year. In this country the excitement turned to apoplexy when news of Jonny Sexton's departure broke on Friday. It's easy to associate leaving to play club rugby with the end of an international career, but that clearly isn't the case. Calm down then.
By tomorrow morning, and the start of Test week, you will feel a rush of confidence among fans who see England and France coming to Lansdowne Road, where they will be greeted by Declan Kidney's boy band, and infer great things up ahead. The infusion of youth does it every time.
Consider the natural gas of a back three comprising Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy; the hunger for success of Sexton, who will be more determined than ever now to prove his worth; the scavenging of the fearless Peter O'Mahony; the top-of-the-range form of new captain Jamie Heaslip. Throw in killers like Seán O'Brien, accomplices in Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy, the industrial carrying of Cian Healy and the selfless leadership of Rory Best. Feeling a bit intoxicated there?
Sober up then. That's all predicated on the team going forward. And if Mike Ross gets injured and Ireland have to endure a game with even a moderate number of scrums, then the show is over.
Last November, the IRB took the natural step of bringing the Six Nations into line with club competitions where the squad size allows for two props on the bench. If you had two tighthead props of international quality this is great news, for immediately it obviates the fiasco that unfolded in Twickenham last season when Ross went off injured and the unfortunate Tom Court had to slot in. And he was unfortunate, for it was like being handed an exam paper with all the questions you dread.
The emergence of Dave Kilcoyne, who has exactly the attitude and youthful exuberance that Kidney badly wants, pushed Court to the ignominy of benching for the Wolfhounds in Galway on Friday night. Court's form for Ulster, since being turfed by Kidney in November, has been very good. In the Sportsground, however, it looked quite the opposite. So Kidney will plough on with Kilcoyne and Michael Bent on the bench in Cardiff on Saturday.
On the limited evidence of what Bent has to offer there is nothing to suggest he can survive in the most unforgiving position on the pitch. Nothing at all. Pray then that he doesn't need to ask for forgiveness, for aside from the terminally unfit Declan Fitzpatrick there is no one else.
This may be exposed in Cardiff, where, despite their horrendous injury toll, Wales will be on the edge. Or we might get away with it until the next weekend when England arrive.
First up Wales will be desperate, which is the last way Rob Howley wants to be without Rhys Priestland. The relationship between the coach and Dan Biggar soured after the draw with Fiji in November 2010, following which the outhalf was parked out the back, and has played just three times since then. As for James Hook, it's as well he's making a great success of his club career in Perpignan for he is no more than a bit player with his country. Hook managed to play in four positions last year, starting just once. Against Fiji.
You look at Ireland and Wales and see two teams close to the
cliff's edge. For us, a cracking performance of attacking rugby against a tired Pumas team could be the start of something new, or an interruption of the recurring theme of Declan Kidney's stewardship: up for one, down for the next. If Wales fall off then it's a longer way down.
England see themselves as far removed from the edge of anything, other than greatness. A Scottish colleague told us last week of an Englishman who has offered him 10/1 against the away team in London. Was he sober? The average gap between the teams over the last six meetings is six points. Yet his confidence reflects how little respect the Scots have on the world stage. Scott Johnson has a reputation for winning players over early, and the Calcutta Cup would be the perfect place to start.
With Manu Tuilagi very doubtful – he has been ever-present for England after missing the opening two rounds of last season's Championship – Stuart Lancaster will probably end up without his main strike runner in midfield. Scotland's record in Twickenham is so awful (winless since 1983 and they've lost the last 11) that the home team will have to get something awfully wrong to lose. The path of least disruption would be to play Jonathan Joseph at 13; the conservative line would be to play Toby Flood at 10 with Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt in their club positions of 12 and 13. Lancaster is keeping his counsel on this one.
The pivotal game will come two weeks after their trip to Dublin when France arrive in Twickenham. Losing new fullback Brice Dulin from Castres is a setback for he looked handy enough through the autumn campaign.
Scott Johnson was slagging off England last week for going on about their injuries up front when they have massive resources compared to the other home nations. Well France are not far off them, with 26 teams spread between the Top 14 and Pro D2, you wonder how good they would be if they ever got sorted.
Philippe Saint Andre is going the right way about it. If he continues the rehab of Mathieu Bastareaud, and Wesley Fofana stays on his current trajectory, then the France coach will have the two most lethal weapons in the tournament. In which case all he needs is to get off to a flyer in Rome, where 50,000 fans is the target for each of Italy's home games. If the figures exceed that then we'll probably be enjoying a better Championship than normal.
And that would be a bonus.