Sunday 23 October 2016

No clear-cut favourite in this unruly tangle

None of the sides are exactly where they want to be for contest that can upset the best-laid plans

Eddie Butler

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

France coach Guy Noves is not expected to be able to revive his team's fortunes immediately Photo: Reuters
France coach Guy Noves is not expected to be able to revive his team's fortunes immediately Photo: Reuters

It may seem heartless at this time of fresh starts to recall the day in early October when England departed the World Cup, but the crushing 33-13 defeat by Australia, on top of the 28-25 loss to Wales the Saturday before, are served up only as stark contrasts to the mood in England now.

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What a bleak time the autumn was for them, and yet how purposeful the camp seems to be now. The tone has been set, both firmly and entertainingly, by the new coach Eddie Jones, and reinforced by his born-again captain Dylan Hartley.

A new coach, promoting a harmony of adventure and traditionally robust English virtues; a captain who represents atonement for sins past; a squad bursting with desire to make England strong again, from the young Ollie Devoto and Paul Hill to the irrepressible James Haskell - who took the great debate over the numbers 6 and 7 (and all fractions in between) and slapped it with "What a load of tosh" - show that England are back on their marks.

There is, of course, the matter of playing. They could not have a more testing first encounter, away at Murrayfield. Scotland have frustrations of their own: their World Cup exit to Australia - "I'll take it to my grave," scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw has said -and the failure of Glasgow to make the last eight of the Champions Cup.

In charge of the ignition of this fuel of frustration is Vern Cotter, who would be as contained as Jones is expressive. He was, however, moved to talk after Scotland suffered their 34-16 defeat to South Africa in World Cup Pool B: "I think the score was a fair reflection of the game. We were dominated in the contact area and we struggled to move forward. We don't seem to have the confidence to start well. It will be something that will definitely be talked about."

Scotland conceded 33 and 35 points in their next two games, but more strikingly scored 36 and 34. If contrasts count for anything, the difference between the Scotland that couldn't cross the line in unopposed training in times before Cotter and the side of today couldn't be greater. The coach understands the Six Nations now and he knows his players. Disciplined fury, as the England captain knows so well, is an elusive blend, but Scotland may be as close under Cotter to distilling it as they have been since 1999, when they won the title on points difference.

What wouldn't France give for a few ounces of either ingredient? They played at the World Cup without fury and without control. For all the majesty of the All Blacks in their quarter-final, France were abject. The end of Philippe Saint-André's coaching stint made Stuart Lancaster's departure look like a ticker-tape parade through Trafalgar Square. France are in a grim place. Even the mighty clubs, whose autonomy prevents the national coach from having optimal access to the top players, are not the force they once were, taken aback by the energy and togetherness of Saracens and Exeter.

Guy Noves has gone from being the servant of 35 years at Toulouse (13 as a player and 22 as the coach under whom they won 10 French championships and four European Cups) to the position of national coach, but there is not much expectation in his country that he will be able to light a fire immediately. He has left Mathieu Bastareaud out of his squad, but France for several seasons have lacked stamina up front and authority at half-back - that is, their problems started a long way before the ball ever reached their blaster in midfield. That said, if Noves, the former wing who turns 62 the day before France open their Six Nations at home to Italy, selects one of his Toulouse protégés, the 21-year-old Yacouba Camara, in the back-row, it would be a valiant start. Camara is a prodigious talent, so light on his feet for a wing-forward who stands at 6ft 4in. Thierry Dusautoir, now retired, was equally prodigious, but as a tackler and a short-range workhorse runner. Camara is long-range and graceful. . . and may find the Six Nations a terrible shock to his systems.

Even Graham Henry, back in 1999 when he was greatly redeeming Wales, found the tournament unlike anything he had come across. It has its faults - it tumbles all too readily into a frenzy that overwhelms quality - but it still has its power to move, and that includes coming as a rude awakening to the senses of the uninitiated.

Ireland are the back-to-back champions of this unruly tangle. Nothing will surprise Joe Schmidt, but there's no escaping the sound of dissatisfaction from the four provinces. There are debts and there are doubts, especially now that Ireland have joined Wales in having no teams in the Champions Cup. Just as in Wales, however, the national camp offers a refuge from the woes of the feeder system.

Warren Gatland has long been able to take the dispirited and the out-of-form and rebuild them in the Vale of Glamorgan. Considering it was once known as the Jail of Glamorgan, it offers surprisingly recuperative therapies. Wales need to rebuild their set-piece if ever they are to fulfil their coach's wish to play with a little more adventure. If the scrum and lineout can hold firmer, is it time to shuffle the back-row four of Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, so that Tipuric starts rather than comes off the bench?

Ireland need to find a new group of leaders on the field - and not just the admirable Rory Best, their new captain. They must replace the retired Paul O'Connell and the injured Peter O'Mahony. Can Robbie Henshaw become the player outside Jonathan Sexton who helps set an unerringly high rhythm of play?

So Wales or Ireland? Whoever among them that settles their issues on the first Sunday in February in Dublin may determine the destiny of the title. But on which side? It is much easier to predict that Italy will prop up the table, still waiting for the ingredient that will make them rise. Sergio Parisse cannot do it on his own, magnificent as he is in his defiance of logic.

A third successive win for Ireland or a fourth title for Wales under Gatland? This is no time for timidity on any front. A new four-year cycle starts. The northern hemisphere must be bold. So, um . . . Wales.


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