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Referees could be law to themselves

THE Welsh manager Alan Phillips is talking positively about the quality of pork in Poland but is keeping an eye on Warren Gatland. "Mustn't let him get bored, see," he says of the coach about to embark on his fifth Six Nations with Wales. "He can go an interview too far and that's when he may say something daft."

Gatland seems happy enough, doing the rounds at the launch of the championship at the Hurlingham Club in west London. Perhaps he is enjoying a day break from Gdansk and the snow that is keeping his team off the pitch. Perhaps he is just feeling good about the game, even if he must face Ireland in Dublin in a state a bit shy of optimal.

Shane Williams has retired and Rhys Priestland, Gethin Jenkins, Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris are injured. Danny Lydiate's ankle and Jamie Roberts' knee make them doubtful starters and Huw Bennett will probably drop to the bench as Matthew Rees returns at hooker. Wales will be eight down on the starting XV that beat Ireland in the quarter-final of the World Cup.

Since that hot spot in Wellington Wales have lost three times, to France in the semi-final and to Australia twice. The Welsh regions have generally lost -- the Blues apart -- in the Heineken Cup. That is a lot of losing and prompts a lot of questions. Will James Hook be given a chance to atone for his poor series of games in New Zealand? He has been playing at 10 lately, even if Perpignan remain at the wrong end of the French Top 14. Can Ashley Beck carry his Ospreys form into the Welsh camp and, from there, into a partnership with Jonathan Davies in the centre? Do Wales have to worry about losing Roberts when they have Scott Williams?

Gatland, by picking Gavin Henson and the 18-year-old wing Harry Robinson in his first, fat squad, seemed to make the point that the form of the four Welsh regions is irrelevant. By going to Poland again he seems to be putting as much distance between his players and home. He trusts only what happens in his camps, and if the pork is good -- and Adam Jones fit -- Wales may yet be successful again. Ireland's approach seems very different. They have come to terms with life without Brian O'Driscoll. Leinster certainly have and there is a case for Fergus McFadden and Gordon D'Arcy in the centre. Keith Earls against Northampton looked equally at ease with the notion of stepping into O'Driscoll's boots.

Earls or McFadden; Donnacha Ryan or Donncha O'Callaghan starting in the second row? Jonathan Sexton or Ronan O'Gara at outhalf? Has Andrew Trimble forced his way in through his form for Ulster? Those may be the selection choices for Declan Kidney. He will have suffered worse headaches. Otherwise he can line up the team that looked pretty good until they faced Wales -- a team, as Paul O'Connell has warned, that will be out to put the record straight.

If, on the other hand, you want to see the irresistible influence of the individual, Biarritz are a different outfit altogether when Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy are playing. Of course, they form a mini-team of their own at 8 and 9 but, whatever else they are, they are indispensable.

They also bring a certain restlessness with them and were spiritual leaders of the French World Cup mutiny. Marc Lievremont wanted France to play with a greater audacity; Yachvili and Harinordoquy espoused the Biarritz way: territory before adventure. The differences simmered for ages before the factions divided irreconcilably in New Zealand. Only France could be both rubbish at all stages and unlucky at the last not to win the World Cup. Philippe Saint-Andre, France's new coach, has decided to stick with the mutineers. Anything could happen and will. If Ireland are guaranteed to be strong, France are certs to be extraordinary.

But for the sake of the tournament, it is dispiriting to see no changes in the directives coming from the IRB's bunker of authority to the referees. They will be applying zero tolerance to the same tackle and breakdown areas they thought they were targeting in New Zealand. Having done their worst at the World Cup, referees were forced into arbitrating by predetermined dictate, rather than by common sense; referees have been given every opportunity to mess up the Six Nations.

Anyway Italy may brighten up the championship at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on the second weekend for no other reason than England being there. On every level the champions are up against it. They have been unlucky with the fixture list, with a pair of away games to welcome Stuart Lancaster to international competition. He is a caretaker coach and one cannot say that the RFU, in announcing the appointment of the headhunters to find a successor -- and by the way Stuart can apply if he wants to -- have tried to encourage his dreams.

The only help came from Andy Robinson, who once knew how unpleasantly warm the coaching seat of England could become. Now Scotland coach, he applied "arrogant" to a few England players on the occasion of their defeat of his team at the World Cup, the word presumably advanced only after some serious work on the measurement of the threat of backfire against the value of stoking Scottish grievances.

There seems to be a feeling that the chances of having the English front five make him regret every syllable of every jibe are much reduced either because England are committed to a less formidable style or through the simple lack of enforcers. It could be that England are going through a period when the style of the Premiership does not marry with progress in the Heineken Cup, never mind the international game. Given the intolerance of the officials and the caution that accompanies every brand new start of a four-year cycle, this could be a Six Nations for cruelty before brilliance. It will not be boring and with luck nobody will say anything daft but it could pass off with counting the victims rather than hailing great deeds. Observer

Sunday Indo Sport