Tony Ward: Friday night fever giving Six Nations added dimension
Published 06/03/2010 | 05:00
So it's the calm before the storm, or so we hope, as the Six Nations takes a second break before turning into the frantic final fortnight. France lead the way and, much though we wish it were different, they look set to stay the course and land the Grand Slam.
England's record on French soil in recent years suggests that Martin Johnson's men are capable of going over there and doing a job, which would give Ireland a chance of retaining their Six Nations title on points difference.
Bear in mind that when England run out for the final game of this year's tournament, they will be chasing a third success in three attempts at the Stade de France, and a fourth straight victory over the French on all grounds. However, I cannot for the life of me see how it can happen.
True, the beauty of sport is in its unpredictability, but all rational evidence in the three games to date suggests that it will be Les Bleus cutting loose and 'Les Blancs' on the receiving end of a severe hammering.
Like almost every other nation, few things motivate the French like cutting the English down to size. Throw in a Grand Slam that's theirs for the taking and I think the passion of the evening speaks for itself.
The pre-tournament feeling was that the France v Ireland game would determine the ultimate outcome and that in effect is how it has panned out. On the evidence of that comprehensive French win, allied to victories over the Scots and Welsh on the road, I don't think anyone can deny Marc Lievremont's men their place at the top.
Despite losing their way in the third quarter in Cardiff, there is now a real feeling that this French squad is on course to make a serious World Cup assault in New Zealand in 18 months' time.
They may not yet be the finished article but, from what we've seen so far this year, they are certainly the best-positioned of the northern hemisphere nations.
They at last have realistic combinations at half-back and centre to see them through. Scrum-half Morgan Parra and out-half Francois Trinh-Duc bring sensible direction where it is needed most, and where they have patently lacked the necessary control in recent times.
In midfield too, they have put together the most powerful and most effective pairing in world rugby. Yannick Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud provide meanness in defence and momentum in attack. Provided that 'tinkerman' Lievremont tinkers no more, the Grand Slam is theirs to lose.
Ireland have two tough games ahead against the Welsh and the Scots if we are to win the Triple Crown and finish runners-up in the championship.
Confidence, which was dented in Paris, has been restored following the victory at Twickenham, where we produced what was for me the most complete team performance of the Kidney era.
No doubt Warren Gatland will be up to his usual mindless nonsense ahead of the first of successive Croke Park Celtic showdowns. However, the force is now with Ireland to emerge top of the four Home Unions and Italy at least.
The Welsh should pick up a final-day victory over the Italians in Cardiff but England could come a cropper in Edinburgh and Paris over the final two weekends, taking third position based on points difference.
At the bottom of the table, Italy, with that all-important (pre-tournament target) win over the Scots secured, could still finish last, should the Scots take the Calcutta Cup and the Azzurri lose their remaining games, which are both away from home.
From an Irish perspective, this would represent a pretty reasonable championship return given the 'even-year syndrome' -- i.e. away to France and England. Much though the French lesson hurt, the flip-side sees a reality check for players and supporters alike. It is timely and that in itself is no bad thing.
The other issue is the experimental Friday-night game, with France and Wales facing off for the second season running last weekend.
Having been at both games, I have to say that despite the degree of difficulty in getting away from the grounds post-match, the evening kick-off does bring an added dimension to what is already a spectacular, tribal tournament.
With three games on each of the five weekends, I suspect that the time is fast approaching when Friday night followed by Saturday and then Sunday afternoon will become the norm.
I did prefer the old Saturday afternoon three o'clock schedule, but this is a different world with different demands making the maximum number of bums on TV seats the 'bottom' line.
I know it is also related to the winning start to this year's tournament, but there were more French supporters in Cardiff on Friday than I have ever experienced for the fixture there before. The match in Paris last year generated the biggest TV audience for a game in France -- approx six million -- while TV audiences throughout the other countries (the UK, Ireland and Italy) made it the second largest of all 15 tournament games.
On that basis, and given it is the richest annual rugby tournament in the world, I think it fair to say the evening-time experiment will be deemed a success.
Watch out, because I have little doubt that in the not-too-distant future, Friday night Six Nations rugby in the Aviva will be coming our way.