Lancaster's understated approach should set alarm bells ringing
Published 05/02/2013 | 04:00
It would be stretching it to suggest the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown has lost its lustre, but certainly in recent years the Heineken Cup has closed the gap appreciably between club and Test rugby north of the equator.
However, on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, the jewel sparkled brighter than ever. It's not over the top to suggest that what we witnessed in Cardiff, London and Rome was the best opening round of action the Six Nations has ever produced.
The Rugby Championship (former Tri-Nations) may have the greater strength in depth and better playing conditions by far, but, when it comes to passionate, tribal Test rugby, the European equivalent is on a different level altogether.
Granted, the English were always in control of the Calcutta Cup clash at Twickenham, but the quality of some of their play, allied to the spirited (and at times skilful) tartan resistance, made for an encounter never less than interesting.
But London was in the ha'penny place when compared with what transpired in Cardiff and Rome. The beauty of competitive sport is that journey into the unknown – those moments when the result could swing either way.
A very close friend of mine, one steeped in sport, rang me immediately after the Welsh thriller to confess (unashamedly) to watching the match home alone but hiding behind the couch, so all-consuming was the drama in that final nerve-racking quarter. He was one of thousands riveted by the excitement and intrigue, as the purity of sport transcended everything else in life for a few hours at least.
Strange as it may seem, the best place to be in all of this is out there in the middle. Players in a crisis don't think, they do, but it is the manner in which they do that reveals everything about the make-up and mindset of any sporting group.
Declan Kidney, like all professional coaches, is pilloried from time to time. It comes with the territory but he knows and accepts that.
He seldom gets riled because he believes in what he is doing. He is honest and transparent with his players (even the disaffected) and it is because of that straight-up approach that his players are honest with him.
Some of the individual skill we witnessed in Cardiff was magnificent, but for me the real message was in that of the collective. A group of players wanting to play for themselves, for management and, most importantly of all, for each other.
That doesn't happen by chance. It is an environment created by a pragmatic and down-to-earth head coach – though form and results may vary, his humility remains consistent throughout and he deserves the kudos.
Unfortunately, many of the qualities we identify in Kidney are being imbued by Stuart Lancaster in team England right now. Already gone is the arrogant mob who sullied England's name at the last World Cup. It makes for the type of backdrop we don't want ahead of England's trek to Dublin.
We want brash chariots and self-indulgent try-scoring celebrators rolling into the capital ready for a fall – but even Chris Ashton's pig-ignorant swallow dive appears to have been parked for the arrogant act it is.
When the fixtures for 2013 were released, the third series of games, specifically England v France on February 25 at Twickenham, marked for most the key to unravelling this championship.
Now, just one game in, it appears that emphasis may have shifted and been brought forward a fortnight to Dublin.
No championship, Grand Slam or Triple Crown will be won at the Aviva, but, almost certainly, for one or other, hopes of winning the title will be buried in what promises to be the biggest auld enemy fixture since Croke Park 2007.
It's probably not the week to say it, but I really like the way Lancaster is going about his business as head coach and bringing with him an air of decency to a side and its supporters who consistently provide the ammunition for every other to want to beat them.
England's stay in Dublin will be underscored by a ruthless desire to beat Ireland out the Lansdowne Road gate, just as they did in the Grand Slam decider back in 2003.
Neither we nor they would want it any other way. It's what makes the fixture so special and why, for every Irish rugby player since time immemorial, if you're blessed with Irish blood and lucky enough to be of the standard, it's the one you want to play in and win.
In Cardiff, with backs to the wall, systems went out the window and we defended from the heart. When teams dig that deep they learn so much about themselves and about each other.
To that end, if early prognosis is correct and injuries to Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D'Arcy, Mike Ross, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney are superficial, then there is no deliberation necessary – Ireland must start the same XV again.
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