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Six Nations: New questions to be answered


In the fallout from the less-than-stellar performance of the English clubs in the Heineken Cup, Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby Ltd, suggested that the format of the competition was unfair.

It needed to be merit-based, he said, so that the top eight from the English Premiership, the French Top 14 and the Celtic/Italian Pro12 should comprise the 24 teams in Europe each season. Simple as that.

As a straightforward exercise in picking the best from the three feeder leagues, it's hard to argue with that position; harder still if you are walking in McCafferty's shoes and paid by the Premiership clubs of whom eight would gain automatic entry. And if it was just about a competition for the top 24, then that would be that.

It isn't, however. It's about a pan-European competition with designs on spreading the power base to make a stronger Europe, on and off the field. The top 24 model applied on last year's finishing stats would rule out the Italians altogether. Great. Let them go back to their crap domestic league and forget forever the notion of making them stronger and developing the massive opportunity that is the Italian sports market.

It would also have left us with one Scottish team. If the game in that country has been going through a crisis which seems longer than our current recession, cutting off half their base from European competition would push them over the edge.

At first you mightn't notice that much difference, aside from removing the ugly spectacle of Aironi being annihilated by a reserve selection of one of the bigger hitters. Before long though you could find that it had become a virtual four-country operation, with the Scots clinging on only because the size of the competition allowed their only team to enter.

Pretty soon the damage would filter up to the international game. You'd see the Six Nations become a competition so lopsided that broadcasters and sponsors and supporters would view it in a much darker light. And with that the most successful competition in the rugby world would have a great big hole in it.

We have had four winners of the Six Nations in the last five years. At this year's launch, new Italy coach Jacques Brunel said that his ambition was for his team to be contenders within two seasons. Crazy? Perhaps, but not as far-fetched as it would be with no Italian teams in the Heineken Cup.

In two weeks Italy will break new ground by hosting England in Rome's Stadio Olimpico. When they brought the All Blacks to the sold-out San Siro in 2009, it was not only a fantastic spectacle, but required some remarkably lenient refereeing at the scrum by Stuart Dickinson to see the All Blacks home 20-6.

Yes, there is a danger that this move is coming late for Italy. Just as they were past their prime when at last the door opened to them in the Six Nations in 2000 -- in the mid-1990s they were at their peak, and it was a height beyond Ireland's range -- their go-to men have been gone-to a few times too often. Brunel is faced with a steep climb trying to replace them.

So there is the prospect of Italy packing them in against England and Scotland and, if the results go south, playing in front of swathes of empty seats thereafter. It is a 72,600 capacity venue, and the optics of it being half-empty wouldn't be good.

The upside however is glorious: a competitive Italy playing before big crowds and raising their profile in a

country with a population of over 60 million. Getting to that point will only be achieved when Treviso and Aironi become more accustomed to competitive rugby from one end of the season to the other, which is what the combination of Pro12 and Heineken is now offering them.

It is because their inclusion in Celtic rugby followed 10 years after the admittance to the Six Nations -- the Celtic League didn't start until 2001 -- that they have made so little impact on the tournament. Maybe we should be looking at it another way, that having Ireland and England as the only un-ticked boxes on their Six Nations to-do list is an achievement in itself.

It is barely conceivable that they will sort out the Irish end of that double this season. For Italy, there was a thoroughly depressing vibe to the shellacking they got in the second half from Ireland in the World Cup, a ruthless reaffirmation that the gap between the teams was opening instead of closing. And that was at the point when Italy were at their hungriest, looking to give Nick Mallet another day out.

The unanswered questions for Ireland are not about selection. Declan Kidney will pick Keith Earls at 13 and Jonny Sexton at 10. Certainly he is right about the latter. As for Earls, his best rugby for Ireland has been on the wing, where Tommy Bowe is a shoo-in on one side and Andrew Trimble is beating down the door on the other. Mind you, Trimble was doing the same thing in the World Cup and it didn't get him very far. Fergus McFadden looks the best option at outside centre, but expect to find him on the bench.

Rather the question we want answered is how the new order of Less Kiss and Mark Tainton, now front of house, will work out. There are times on tour when you'd have come across Tainton and think that to be a kicking coach must be either the handiest/least satisfying gig on the planet. You might think this rich coming from a Sunday journalist. When Donal Lenihan was managing Ireland he would frequently say that the life of a Sunday hack struck him as the most leisurely pursuit possible. And we in turn would look at Tainton and think we were under the cosh.

Suddenly, he has gone from having a limited role and strict time slot in training with perfectionists who always looked like they knew what they were doing anyway, to having a much wider brief with an even wider audience who will be demanding all sorts. Ireland's attack has been, at times, woeful over the past three seasons. Tainton won't be expected to turn Ireland into a try-scoring machine overnight but he has to make them harder to figure out for opposing defenders.

Or rather, himself and Kiss and Kidney have to do it. And perhaps Mervyn Murphy, their excellent video analyst, as well? Maybe we have just read this wrong but there is a coaching-by-committee feel to how Ireland will play with ball in hand, for it's not clear exactly who has responsibility for this area now that Alan Gaffney has moved on.

That it needs urgent attention was cruelly highlighted by Wales in Wellington four months ago. Ireland had it put up to them twice over their five-game campaign in New Zealand: first by Australia, who they blew away with extraordinary intensity; and then by Wales. We have all banged on about the shallowness of that performance. Ireland sang their party piece; Wales yawned and said they'd heard it before, and would we not have another one? Of course we didn't, but if we did how would Wales have reacted?

We wonder sometimes did Warren Gatland take it for granted that Ireland would not have an alternative if their marquee runners were cut down coming out of the traps. Or if he thought they would then reach for something else. Expectations are high here because the players have labelled the World Cup as a missed opportunity -- from which you can only infer that they had stuff they didn't use, otherwise they emptied the locker -- and because Kidney and company make up the most experienced coaching team in the competition.

Look at England for example. We read on one website last week how they were about to pick a squad to take them through to 2015. Eh, how is that then? Their current coach is contracted until March.

It is extraordinary how Stuart Lancaster is being asked to shape their future when in two months he might be part of their past. Straight away he has cleaned out some of the old guard. Top of that list is Nick Easter, who comes across as, at best, unreconstructed. His demise has been flagged as the end of an era for the Harlequins number eight, and in a way you can see why a new coach might want to start the load-lightening process by turfing out Easter. If Lancaster runs with Chris Robshaw as captain and number eight he will be putting an industrial load on a player who will be out of position.

It looks likely the coach will start with Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs. One player with no form is a risk; two is an almost blind punt. If it goes wrong next weekend against the Scots, who will be foaming at the mouth after the World Cup meeting, then he can hardly chuck them off the flight to Rome. Of all the coaches in this Six Nations, Lancaster is in the tightest corner.

In Paris, Philippe Saint-Andre will restore structure without coming across like Bernard Laporte. Unlike Lancaster. he has both security of tenure and strength in playing depth, and, critical if you want an explosive start, a short injury list.

Warren Gatland by comparison is hobbled. He took his boys off to Poland last week, in the hope of rekindling that pre-World Cup spirit. Back in his Ireland days he had to be convinced of the benefits of eastern Europe and its cryotherapy chambers. Ahead of New Zealand however they got through a phenomenal workload over there, and its benefits were as much psychological as physical. Wales went into the World Cup believing they were fitter than everyone else.

We'll see how they feel about themselves when they come to Lansdowne Road on Sunday. Games on the first day of the week are not great for business, and make life harder for those lucky enough to have work on a Monday morning. Still, the business is thriving. And so long as Mark McCafferty's masterplan is kept on his desk only, it will continue that way.

Sunday Indo Sport