‘Can Ireland summon the same desire and hunger as they showed last year?’
Published 02/02/2010 | 15:26
A similar degree of luck with injuries and desire to succeed are the key to Ireland’s hopes writes EddieO’Sullivan
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics"
Mark Twain attributed this quote to the 19th-century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, yet the phrase was never found in any of Disraeli's works and really only came to prominence years after his death.
Whoever coined it, though, would have been well aware of just how misleading statistics can sometimes be when trying to frame history.
The Six Nations championship is a case in point. We are now facing into only the 10th episode and, in its history, there have been six Grand Slams won in nine years. This is extraordinary.
France and Wales have both won two, England and Ireland one each.
In the non-Grand Slam years, France won two championships, England one. In other words, the French have been Europe's No 1 team in that period on four occasions, almost half of the Six Nations played. In any man's language, that translates into an expression of dominance.
But consider this.
France have won 34 out of 45 Six Nations Tests in that period, the exact same figure as Ireland. In other words, France and Ireland have accumulated precisely the same number of championship. points since 2001. A total of 68. Now that's not easily reconciled with the respective images the two countries have, traditionally, had in world rugby.
France -- swashbuckling, innovative, romantic, the ultimate purveyors of running rugby -- have scored 126 tries in their Six Nations history. And gutsy, spoiling, Garryowen-kicking Ireland? Just seven fewer. Yes Ireland have averaged over 13 tries in every tournament.
England have been the great enigma, though. Averaging almost 17 tries per championship, their statistics suggest they have been the great entertainers of Six Nations rugby, which, of course, we all know they haven't been. The only Grand Slam to their name is that claimed by Clive Woodward's World Cup-winning team of 2003.
Of course, you could say that they blew another handful on the way, so it becomes difficult for them to shake off the 'underachiever' tag that has dogged them historically.
Now Wales have their own idiosyncrasies when it comes to the Six Nations. They may have those two Grand Slams, but their tendency is to do one of two things: shoot the moon, or shoot themselves in the foot. Actually, if you take out their 10 wins of '05 and '08, Wales have won a paltry 10 games in the seven other championships. Hardly inspiring. Despite their bravery and ability to occasionally upset the odds, Scotland's record is pretty abysmal. They have a total of just 13 wins to their credit, an average of a little over one win per season.
What's more, they have scored the least number of tries in the Six Nations, just 52 over nine championships. That's one fewer than Italy. Despite their dominance over Ireland for almost 20 years in the '80s and '90s, Scotland have only beaten Ireland once in Six Nations rugby, in the delayed foot-and-mouth game in Edinburgh back in 2002.
Italy have, of course, been the whipping boys, winning just five games thus far in nine championships.
So, whither 2010?
Ireland are entitled to be favourites or thereabouts, but can we summon the same hunger for success that was so palpable last year? Or, just as pertinently, will we be as lucky with our injury profile?
It is generally accepted that had we lost Brian O'Driscoll at any stage of last year's championship, it is unlikely that Ireland would have landed the Grand Slam. We probably paid that very price in 2007 when France came to Dublin for the inaugural rugby international at Croke Park.
These are the things that a coach cannot legislate for; keeping key players healthy for the duration of the tournament.
That aside, there will be concerns about the Irish scrum this season. It creaked a little through the autumn and the same frailties have been evident at provincial level recently. That will be a worry for Declan Kidney.
Then there is the fixture list. Playing France and England away always makes for a particularly difficult season. Traditionally, Ireland's best chance of a Grand Slam is when we have those two in Dublin. Away victories over France and England in the same season are, frankly, as rare as hen's teeth. It's a big ask.
So, a lot of planets have to align for Ireland to win back-to-back Slams.
That said, we shouldn't forget that Munster and Leinster are top of the European tree at the moment, with Ulster unlucky not to be in the last eight with them. There is serious experience in this Irish squad, a squad -- remember -- that went undefeated through 2009.
My view is that France, as always, will provide us with our biggest hurdle. They have four teams through to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and their season may hinge on whether or not Marc Lievremont, is still 'experimenting' for RWC 2011. Lievremont has had the luxury of using the last two Six Nations to fiddle with his team, given licence by the French Federation to plan towards the next World Cup.
No other coach in the tournament has been afforded that latitude and, after two years, this experiment should be showing some results in this Six Nations. If it isn't, the French rugby public might be less than appreciative.
I felt that there were signs in the autumn of France beginning to rally. Some of the rugby they played, though losing to New Zealand, would be very ominous for everybody if replicated in the championship. I think much now depends on Lievremont's sense of priorities.
England will flatter to deceive; difficult to beat at Twickenham, but unlikely to put five winning performances together. The Guinness Premiership has been cruelly exposed in the Heineken Cup, with only Northampton squeaking into the quarter-finals as the lowest seed.
From where I'm sitting, it's a long road ahead for Martin Johnston.
Who knows what Wales will produce? Having talked themselves up in the autumn, as their coach is apt to do, they delivered little. I suspect there are big questions to be answered this spring in the Principality.
As always, you have to wonder whether the gun is aimed at the moon or their foot. I'm not sure even they themselves can be confident of the answer.
Unfortunately, Scotland and Italy are destined to prop up the bottom of the table once again. They may achieve the odd upset, but stringing together a series of championship wins will simply not be possible, given the quality of opposition they face.
Frankly, it's difficult not to see Ireland and France fighting it out for overall victory. The statistics suggest that Paris (one victory since 1972) is a pretty unrewarding place for Irish rugby teams. So France definitely have the advantage.
But statistics don't win rugby matches. They don't even write good history.