Championship's tight margins offer little room for expansion
Italy competitive? Free-flowing rugby? Not in this Six Nations
Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00
When the Italian Federation released their statement last week that they were giving up on entry to the Magners League, its impact on the rugby world was minor. Given what they were being asked to pony up, the chances of it ever coming off were remote.
But with the start of the Championship on Saturday in Croke Park, where Ireland will beat Italy yet again, the missed opportunity will be better illustrated.
Yes, this is the biggest and best rugby competition in the world, where often you don't know who will win it until the last day. Always however you know that Italy will be contenders for its weakest link.
Their access to Celtic rugby wouldn't have changed that overnight, and indeed it may have done nothing in the short term even for Celtic rugby, but if you consider the Heineken Cup to be a jump too high for Italian clubs going from the poor standard of their domestic competition, then consider the scale of the climb to international level.
Moreover, rugby in Europe relies in the main on the economies of UK and France to power its finance. It is simplistic to think that involving a third force, with a population of 60 million, will automatically turbo-charge that engine, but if the IRB had rugby in that country as one of its top priorities, it might lead somewhere positive.
So Italy's good days in the Six Nations will continue to be blips on the screen, and consequently the picture won't be what we want. Did it cross your mind watching them take on New Zealand in the stunning setting of a full San Siro in November, that it was a different planet to what we witness every year in Stadio Flaminio? A planet worth visiting, but getting there seems as far away as ever.
So they will rock up to Croker bristling with aggression and every time Paul O'Connell's pal Romain Poite awards a scrum Declan Kidney will breathe in and pray for the best. It will be painful for Ireland but they will survive because they have more tools in their box. Nick Mallet's mob have a hammer and nothing else.
When you put it like that it casts a different light on Warren Gatland's fears that other teams may do to Wales what Australia did in the autumn. At the official Six Nations launch last week, he bemoaned how the Wallabies had kicked the ball to death -- 100 per cent more kicks that Wales -- while the home team had tried to play rugby. Wales lost and Warren wondered why he was bothering trying to play a style of rugby that is not only natural to Wales but good for the game.
At least he has the capacity to change gear, unlike Italy. Gatland, with Lee Byrne back in harness for the second round, and top quality footballers in Stephen Jones and James Hook available to him, can play the cannonball game if he wants.
Marc Lievremont began wrestling with the same issue after New Zealand had unloaded on France to the tune of 39-12 in Marseille in November. You may remember it as 'candy from a baby' stuff as the All Blacks picked off the French when they started chasing the game too early. And France continued to chase. Lievremont's reasoning is that not only did it not make sense to try and shut up shop against New Zealand but the only way for France to play the game is by giving the ball some air. Their counter-attacking display against Ireland last season was a classic illustration of that. How did they not win that day?
The likelihood is that Lievremont will fill his backline with huge men who can withstand aerial bombardment and also carry the ball at pace: Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu on the wings, with Yannick Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud in the centre, would comprise a frightening payload. Even if he opts for the shorter Vincent Clerc, what he loses in height he gains in speed.
Counter-attacking should be easier than this time last year because referees are catching on to the number of chasers who pursue kicks from an offside position. In time we might see it necessary for all players to retreat once the ball is kicked from behind them (currently it's only those in a 10-metre radius of where it lands) and if so it will give more space for the catcher to run the ball back.
Already in the Heineken Cup we've seen some more willingness to run it back, but in a five-game programme there isn't a lot of room for error, and the pressure is palpable from day one.
Nowhere will this be more acute than in England. The country that has brought us Andy Farrell and Lesley Vainikolo now presents Shontayne Hape. How is it that the biggest rugby-playing nation in the world, with more than twice the numbers of the rest of the Six Nations combined, can't stock its own team with players who have come through their own system?
The prospect of England failing in the Championship as badly as they have done in the Heineken Cup is not good for business. Well, not for Martin Johnson's business. Maybe it's their league system where the stress of avoiding relegation induces passionate but low-risk rugby; maybe it's that their conveyor belt of talent -- finalists in the last three U20 World Cups -- end up in this competition and don't develop. Or maybe it's that they have too many non-England qualified players in their own system.
It will be interesting to see what kind of rugby England play under this pressure and it would be great to think that someone could do as Spain did in the European Championships two years ago and play winning football by being positive and creative. But pressure makes people clam up, and moreover football is much simpler than rugby and has suffered nothing like the same number of dramatic shifts in tactics because of law changes.
Nor does it have anything like the same number of stoppages. And we may well see the penalty count go up further, at the scrum and breakdown. Referees will be under pressure in this Championship to award penalties at the scrum instead of getting involved in a series of re-sets. And at the breakdown they are being told to ref with safety in mind, and that lifting players off their feet -- which is a drill every player practises every week -- is to be whistled.
This is more bad news for the Italians. The smashing and rolling out of players at the tackle is something they do more aggressively than anyone else. If suddenly a swat team of referees is all over it you can imagine how it will work out. Hard times ahead.
2010: THE FIXTURE LIST
Saturday, February 6
Ireland v Italy, 2.30
England v Wales, 5.0
Sunday, February 7
Scotland v France, 3.0
Saturday, February 13
Wales v Scotland, 2.0
France v Ireland, 4.30
Sunday, February 14
Italy v England, 2.30
Friday, February 26
Wales v France, 8.0
Saturday, February 27
Italy v Scotland, 1.30
England v Ireland, 4.0
Saturday, March 13
Ireland v Wales, 2.30
Scotland v England, 5.0
Sunday, March 14
France v Italy, 2.30
Saturday, March 20
Wales v Italy, 2.30
Ireland v Scotland, 5.0
France v England, 7.45