Monday 22 January 2018

The race to win Six Nations is by no means a phoney war

Former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan insists it's 'silly' to claim championship is less important in a World Cup year as he laughs off notion that teams might hold something back

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's World Cup preparations would be best served by a strong Six Nations showing
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's World Cup preparations would be best served by a strong Six Nations showing
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

At last week's Six Nations launch, Warren Gatland hinted at a coach's impulse for secrecy come the dawn of a World Cup year.

"You don't want to show everything," he smiled, intimating that Wales might, as he put it, "keep some things back" in last night's championship opener against England at the Millennium Stadium.

The two countries clash again at Twickenham on September 26 in perhaps the most treacherous of World Cup groups.

So, for Gatland, the temptation to depict this Six Nations as some kind of phoney recital seemed irresistible.

But to those of us carrying veteran World Cup victim status (ie, having covered the inaugural tournament of 1987), the idea of countries shadow-boxing in February for a game scheduled to take place seven and a half months later seems whimsical in the extreme.

We refer, remember, to a time when - in northern hemisphere rugby at least - the recipient of an international cap was still a full decade away from introduction to the quirky concept of team nutritionist.

Famously, the food was so bad in Dunedin's Travel Lodge that much of the Irish team's "fuelling" for what would prove a clumsy arm wrestle against Canada at Carisbrook was done in a local fried chicken outlet. Back then, heavy beer consumption wasn't seen as indiscipline so much as essential therapy.

And here's the thing. Ireland have since set about tackling a World Cup year from just about every angle imaginable, yet our failure to crack the tournament endures.

Slapstick

Virtually nothing about the game here today is recognisable from that slapstick expedition undertaken 28 years ago, apart, of course, from our ongoing struggle with the quarter-final ceiling.

So what should Joe Schmidt do?

This is the first World Cup year to dawn with Ireland as defending European champions, and there is a palpable sense that the draw offers a real possibility of extending our involvement to the last days of the competition.

But our opening two Six Nations opponents are also both billeted with us in Group D for the autumn tournament. If Gatland feels Wales ought to keep some secrets for later, should Schmidt be playing poker too?

The question scarcely merits the dignity of an answer.

In Six Nations history, Ireland have won just two Championships outright. Between 1940 and '99, we were solo Five Nations champions on six occasions. That's eight outright titles in three-quarters of a century.

So an opportunity to play charades in spring? Forget it.

For the IRFU, this Championship is bread and butter business that no national coach will ever be allowed downgrade into something akin to a glorified training camp.

To be fair, Gatland was probably being mischievous, indulging in the kind of psychological jousting that had him name the Wales team so unfashionably early for last night's heavyweight collision in Cardiff.

If Schmidt and Ireland will be unequivocal in their desire these next two months to win games as distinct from set mental traps, chances are that Wales will be every bit as clear-eyed in their thinking.

Come September, after all, who can say what personnel will be available to any coach piecing together his World Cup squad? Planning from this remove doesn't cast much light of value on October.

Ireland's relationship with the competition is, it is true, a curiosity. Of the seven World Cups played, we were all but jolly travellers at the first three (albeit Gordon Hamilton's try in 1991 did, briefly, trigger a Dublin earthquake).

Then came Lens in '99 and a defeat that, to this day, remains crystalised in the national consciousness as a 13-man lineout bouncing endlessly against great husks of Argentine granite.

"Phase upon phase of nothing," as Brian O'Driscoll recalled in his autobiography, 'The Test'.

By 2003, expectations were radically different. After losing a straight Grand Slam shoot-out to England at Lansdowne Road in the spring, Ireland won warm-up games against Wales, Italy and Scotland by an aggregate of 98 points.

They then avenged the Lens defeat against Argentina before succumbing to a single-point defeat against hosts Australia in Melbourne. Quarter-final eviction followed against France, after which coach Eddie O'Sullivan was pilloried for suggesting that Ireland had had "a very, very good" tournament.

The media ire was a measure of the changing co-ordinates for Irish rugby.

Under O'Sullivan, Ireland's remarkable Six Nations consistency (three times they fell one victory short of a Grand Slam) fed an impatience for World Cup progress.

By '07, that impatience turned ugly when a team that had been cruelly denied the Slam by Vincent Clerc's late try in Croke Park nose-dived at the autumn tournament. Such was the fall-out, a Genesis Report was commissioned.

Triple Crowns, it was now clear, could no longer register as any kind of consoling balm.

In 2011, Ireland seemed finally to have cracked the World Cup riddle when victory over Australia eased them into the quarter-finals as group winners. But Declan Kidney's boys then fell to Wales, an opponent Ireland had beaten in nine of their previous 12 outings.

So, from the wintry misery of Dunedin in '87 to the 'paradise town' of Terrigal in '03, the industrial estate of Bordeaux in '07 or the breath-taking beauty of Queenstown four years ago, Ireland could not change the World Cup outcome.

From finishing one off bottom in the Five Nations of '91, '95, and '99 to being pipped for Six Nations titles ('03 and '07), our World Cup story always concluded on that same, under-whelming page.

To O'Sullivan, there is no great mystery to solve here.

While accepting that a certain "psychological barrier" might be building for Ireland at a World Cup, he is unequivocal in his view that a good Six Nations still offers the best path to a successful autumn challenge.

"Look, there's certainly nobody hiding play-books this week in preparation for the World Cup," he smiles.

"Bottom line, if you come out of the Six Nations on your knees, you then face a job of trying to rebuild confidence.

"The Six Nations is the last tournament before the World Cup where you can actually win something.

"So the idea that it loses some of its importance in World Cup year is silly.

"Look at England and Clive Woodward in 2003. If they hadn't beaten us in that Grand Slam decider, they probably couldn't have won that year's World Cup. After so many past failures to win a Slam, their World Cup hopes would probably have been cooked.

"If they didn't beat us, how on earth could Clive convince his team that they could go Down Under and take care of two southern hemisphere giants to win a World Cup? He couldn't have!"

O'Sullivan suspects that this Six Nations Championship presents five of its contestants with precisely the same imperative, all programmed simply to go "hammer and tongs" for victories.

The exception, he suggests, is France. Given that some of Philippe Saint-Andre's squad still had Top 14 obligations last weekend, the broader French view seems gently philosophical about this Six Nations.

In other words, the team that pitches up in Dublin this day week will not do so with quite the same burden of expectation sure to follow them into a Cardiff re-match next October.

O'Sullivan, currently coaching French second division side Biarritz, says that this mentality should not, however, be confused with ambivalence.

"I would just say that there's a little less pressure on Saint-Andre for now because of the impression that he is coming into this tournament with one hand tied behind his back," he says.

Morale

"But he won't be hiding the play-book either. He'll still want to finish as high up the Six Nations table as he can because of what that will do for French morale.

"Because if they can do well in these circumstances, they'll probably feel they could go on and win the World Cup if given enough time to prepare.

"Put it this way, if France come to Dublin and beat us, that will be a worry. Because France will be better in the World Cup.

"If we can't beat them at home, how are we going to beat them in October when they're properly locked and loaded?

"That said, I believe that Ireland genuinely scare France now. We haven't beaten them that often over the years but our record against them is getting better. Remember, they haven't won a Six Nations game against us now since 2011."

O'Sullivan suggests that the Dublin game against England and the subsequent visit to Cardiff will be Ireland's most challenging. He sees England coach Stuart Lancaster as being under particular pressure to deliver a Six Nations title that could nourish their desire to be considered authentic World Cup contenders.

For Schmidt, the aspiration must be simply to sustain momentum. Following up the Six Nations triumph with a perfect autumn series has pushed Ireland to a ranking of No 3 in the world. Maintain that into October and it will be a challenge trying to suppress the latest wave of World Cup optimism.

"We're now at a point where the holy grail is reaching a semi-final," says O'Sullivan. "It doesn't seem to be the winning of a Championship anymore. But come out of the Six Nations smelling of roses and it's definitely in your favour.

"You certainly don't want to come out of it dragging your ass. I mean we came out of the '07 Six Nations disappointed not to have won a Grand Slam, but we were in a great space too.

"Given that chance again, I'd like to think we'd take it."

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