Saturday 25 March 2017

Celtic cousins rub each other up wrong way

The rivalry between the Irish and the Welsh has become cranky of late, says Eddie Butler

Who will captain England? Some say it is not important, that you pick the team and then the captain. That works if there are unit commanders throughout the side. But England are seriously inexperienced. Besides, isn't Sam Warburton important? Paul O'Connell?

The relaunch of England in the Six Nations is obviously a major theme, if only because it gratuitously provides an opportunity to relive yet again those glorious World Cup moments of misbehaviour in New Zealand and have a chuckle. For many years to come, shot glasses will be clinked to Queenstown's Altitude Bar and all who flew through that night.

England's fresh start and Scotland's capacity to stall it will keep us busy. There may even be a line or two on France v Italy, the opening game in Paris on the first Saturday, with its two new coaches, both French: Philippe Saint-Andre and Jacques Brunel. Saint-Andre presumably will be trying to steer France out of the shadow of the World Cup mutiny, a player protest against his predecessor, Marc Lievremont, that made England look like the choirboys of the tournament. Or maybe he will be trying to tap into the juices of that insurrection and recreate the force that carried France to within two points of victory in the final.

Brunel will try to recapture a special Italian spirit, the fervour that carried Nick Mallett's team to victory over France in Rome last year. Now what a moment that was, and what calmness was displayed by Mirco Bergamasco, turned by Brunel's predecessor into a place-kicker, in landing five shots on target. In his inaugural selection Brunel left the younger Bergamasco brother out of the squad. Mauro is back but Mirco has gone.

But third things first. Perhaps the most alluring fixture of the opening weekend is Ireland v Wales in Dublin on the Sunday. The two countries are often bracketed together in some Celtic cousinhood, allies against the interests of countries blessed with more money and greater playing numbers.

This may well be the case in the corridors of rugby politics, although it has been said the only people who trust a Welsh-Irish alliance less than the rest of the rugby-playing world are the Welsh and the Irish themselves. On the field there is little love lost between them. By tradition it is a healthy rivalry; of late it has been cranky.

Somehow in the Celtic League, the Welsh regions and the Irish provinces are often feuding. Deep down, the Welsh still resent the creation of their four professional teams, the Blues, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets, colours and creatures that have been painted over the names of the nation's rugby cities and towns. Spectators are as rare as dragons and ospreys in Wales. What would bring them back? Deeper down, the Welsh still yearn to play against the English.

Ireland have only recently begun to give the Celtic League their all. But they are very thorough, once sold on the need for full attention. And not only in Celtic company, but in Europe too. Leinster, Munster and Ulster -- with Connacht below, the sprung mattress to cushion any fall -- were as naturally delivered to the professional game in Ireland, and as wholeheartedly supported by existing fans, as the Welsh regions were cobbled together as a quick fix in a time of financial woe, and ignored by the public. Quick fix, not a long-term investment. It brings bitterness to the Welsh sub-international game, particularly when pitched against the Irish, who could not have had a more honeyed template.

For evidence of sourness, how about the head-to-head between Gavin Henson and Brian O'Driscoll in the Grand Slam showdown of 2005, a duel that went the Welsh player's way on the day? Or the reception for Henson the following season when he came off the bench, a battle of wills comprehensively won by the Dublin crowd?

Such sourness may well have been diluted by time and the lack of an alternative. An Anglo-Welsh league with the towns playing as themselves -- oh to hear Neath, Pontypridd, Bridgend and Pontypool once more -- remains a fantasy in the minds of the deranged. But the resentment was fuelled when Warren Gatland, forced out of Ireland by a coup, became coach of Wales and could not help but fire a few arrows at Ireland and in particular at Eddie O'Sullivan, who replaced him.

The darts were returned, it should be said, with interest and Gatland may have learned a lesson. And when Declan Kidney replaced O'Sullivan the sparks may have settled for good. Kidney is no hothead. You could set fire to the Shannon with a match before Ireland's coach would provoke a dust-up. But once again the scratchiness of Ireland-Wales won't go away. The Six Nations encounter of last season in Cardiff was decided by the Mike Phillips try that should not have been, because the ball thrown quickly to the scrum-half by Matthew Rees was not the one that had been kicked into touch, and broke law 19.2(d).

And Ireland were not exactly thrilled to be beaten by Wales at the World Cup, although on that quarter-final occasion in Wellington they had to take it on the chin. Sometimes the fires of vengefulness are best stoked by having been soundly beaten last time out.

More will be known of selection and deselection after the squads' trips to Limerick and Spala in Poland respectively. But note the differences already: Declan has no more than 24 in his mind already; Warren has 34, including Henson. Ireland must begin life without O'Driscoll; Gav at the Aviva -- Gaviva. Now that would be worth a clink of the shot glasses.

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