Friday 20 October 2017

Heavyweight opening clash promises to set the tone

Scotland have also re-discovered their freedom of expression, with out-half Finn Russell a benchmark for the new Caledonian spirit. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Scotland have also re-discovered their freedom of expression, with out-half Finn Russell a benchmark for the new Caledonian spirit. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Nothing like a Gatland grenade to get the lumbering beast that is Six Nations on its way.

After the cringing niceties of last week's launch, this week is when the talking stops and the action, mercifully, starts; Warren Gatland and Wales can always be trusted to turn up the noise.

So much so that England, echoing Munster of old, are training with loudspeakers drowning out their sessions, in preparation for an explosive Friday night atmosphere in the Cardiff cauldron.

Wales have already struck the first psychological blow; it is their speciality.

Yesterday morning, an email dropped in our inbox proclaiming an "exclusive" announcement from the WRU; in essence, it was a declaration of war, the first shot across the bows as England prepare to tentatively cross the Severn.

Such is the soaring self-confidence in Wales - their rugby folk know of only this and the severest form of melancholy, both of which can often afflict on the same afternoon - that they named their side 48 hours of schedule.

To paraphrase a popular GAA trope of our time, what do you think of that Stuart Lancaster?

Would that the embattled England coach could afford the luxury of his counterpart; at last count, he has 13 players in casualty and he is already on the back foot.

Electricity

That the sides play each other in the World Cup - albeit at Twickenham - adds an extra charge to the electricity coursing through Cardiff, as if it will be needed.

Ireland are defending champions but the opening game of the championship will prove pivotal in deciding the occupation of the Six Nations trophy that currently resides in Dublin.

Those old faithful chums, Messrs Mo and Mentum are key to a championship that resembles a long, hard slog from winter into spring but at once, especially if the opening game is lost, represents a sprint to an ever-hastening finish line.

Joe Schmidt's side are championship favourites, natch. Their overly skinny 15/8 is followed by England (2/1) and Wales (3/1); yet Wales are three-point favourites for Friday's clash.

All of which reminds us that this championship retains its ability to surprise even before a ball has been kicked, even though on the surface so much of it represents an immoveable monolith.

In terms of championship contenders, however, this is in effect a Five Nations championship, if not, perhaps, four; Italy remain miserable no-hopers (500/1 in a six-horse race is a sporting travesty), while Scotland's 33/1 is reflective of nostalgia rather than hard-nosed realism.

The latter may bloody noses but they have no chance of lasting the pace in a bruising seven-week contest.

Ireland's price will inevitably harden when they dispatch Italy on Saturday; then it will be the annual case of trying to second-guess the French national mood as they prepare to defend a decade-long stint in Dublin where they have lost but once.

France project a microcosm of the championship's often violent mood swings, where form is often trumped and class is just as much mocked.

Recent results can hint at this spring's outcome but not always accurately definite it. For example, this is the third time that Ireland enter a championship on the back of a 100pc winning record in November tests.

They were runners up to England in the 2003 Six Nations, while in 2007 they were second-placed finishers, losing out by a points difference of just four after an agonising St Patrick's Day wait.

Other sides to have had 100pc winning records in previous autumns were England, who won two titles and claimed second between 2000 and 2002, while France won a Grand Slam in 2002, and the title outright in 2005, after flawless Novembers.

On the flip side, they were unbeaten in 2012 but had their worst ever finish in the championship just months later when they propped up the table.

In contrast, two of Wales' three Grand Slams, and one of France's, have been won in years directly after World Cups; few expect a Slam this year when the championship precedes the global extravaganza.

With Italy, France and Ireland occupying one pool next September - and Wales and England jostling in another - many will be tempted to project forwards rather than stay in the moment.

The championship is not always a barometer to World Cup success.

In 2003 England took won a Grand Slam and then went on to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy in Australia the following November; third-placed France took fourth.

Ireland were runners-up but were knocked out by France in the quarter-finals on the world stage.

Four years later England finished third in the Championship but made it to the World Cup final only to succumb to South Africa. France had taken the title but then only finished fourth in their home World Cup.

Last time out, England were again champions but they were beaten by France, who had finished runners-up, in the quarter-final. France in turn went on to lose to hosts New Zealand in the final itself.

Ireland, who had finished third, ahead of Wales by points difference, were in turn beaten by the Welshmen in the Wellington quarter-final.

The Six Nations remains a unique animal, however and, from Friday on, all that matters is each 80 minutes, with an average crowd of 72,000 and 190 countries taking live pictures while €350m pours through multiple coffers throughout.

We can only hope the rugby does credit to the gripping drama.

While Schmidt has expressed his desire to portray a more enigmatic nature to his side, England may be forced to do the same, while Scotland, under Vern Cotter, have also re-discovered their freedom of expression, with out-half Finn Russell a benchmark for the new Caledonian spirit.

Taciturn

Gilded by five wins from seven, Schmidt's former boss is a taciturn figure unlike the publicly genial figure presented by Schmidt, but their professional approaches are a mirror image of the other.

Naturally, Scotland's task is hindered by the lack of quality which has been a perennial feature of their game since professionalism; not since the 1990s have the Scots been a potent force in the championship but, like the Italians, they can bloody the nose of the heavyweights.

Confidence is rising within most of the nations; Wales and England will slug it out on Friday and, while defeat may not be fatal to either's ambition, it will be difficult for the losers to re-assemble with difficult second-week fixtures to come.

Neither heavyweight will land a knock-out blow; it is far too early. But the opening bell will signal one hell of a 15-game tussle; each one as intense as the last.

And, most probably, the winner will emerge on points, with Ireland seeking an early fillip in Rome.

Irish Independent

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