Monday 23 October 2017

Ireland to be wrecking ball in wild, jumbled Six Nations

Reason may not play a major part in wide open tournament, writes Eddie Butler

Rarely the case, there is a certain logic to the Six Nations this season. England and France, the two biggest and richest rugby countries in a sport that demands size and cherishes wealth, are in rude health.

England's last game was a seismic victory over the New Zealand All Blacks and France went through the autumn undefeated, with wins over Australia, Argentina and Samoa.

England have the advantage of three home games, starting against Scotland, while France are on the road for three games. Any notion that the first, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, does not carry the same menace as trips to the north should be set against the last result, in 2011: Italy 22 France 21. It was the sort of game that will be held under the noses of the French players, like smelling salts.

Perhaps they are already fully alert, having combined invention, especially against Australia, and resilience, particularly against Samoa. But they do have to travel to Twickenham, for the Saturday evening kick-off of the third weekend. It sounds cosy but this is the dangerous crossing of the championship, the grand centrepiece featuring the pair of favourites. But will it be?

By then, England will have played Scotland at home and Ireland away. Victory in round one should be a routine affair, but it will be harder for England to play well against Scotland than against New Zealand, who, as always, held out an invitation to play.

Scotland will not be coming south with generosity in their master plan. It will appeal to Scott Johnson's sense of cheek to be given no chance. He knows that a game based on good kicking and even better chasing is very much in vogue. Scotland's second- and back-rows, with Richie Gray and Kelly Brown experienced harriers, are ready-made for frustrating their betters.

England want to cultivate a more positive game, a next stage when the territorial, tackling game presents them with turnovers. There was a moment when Ben Morgan or Thomas Waldrom seemed poised to deliver passes out of the tackle and give England a launch pad from the back-row. But it seems they were then analysed by opponents and brought to a standstill. No harm done, as long as others could take advantage of the space afforded to them by the marking of the No 8s. But the wing-forwards – nobody carries more than Chris Robshaw – are not so inclined to charge and pass. Charge, yes; pass, not so likely.

It means the onus is on the midfield to create space for others. And here Manu Tuilagi was a revelation against New Zealand. But the centre has an ankle injury. There are reasons – as logical as the ones that put England on course for a successful campaign – to preach caution when it comes to their prospects. And yet caution is the one thing they cannot fall back on. How sweetly jumbled it can all become.

Nowhere, of course, is more jumbled right now than Wales, proud winners of the Grand Slam in 2012 and not so proudly coming at 2013 on the back of seven straight defeats. In truth, form does not seem particularly relevant when it comes to Wales. They won a Grand Slam in 2008 from a state of 2007 World Cup mutiny.

To go from hapless to all-consuming is a Welsh speciality. It is not necessarily to be recommended for those on medication, but it's just the way it seems to be in Wales. Win at home to Ireland on the first day and they could be off again. Supply the wings – and you can take your pick from any of the following: George North, Alex Cuthbert, Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Eli Walker – and it will be accomplished in the most thrilling manner.

But go the other way in Cardiff, through lack of line-out possession from an injury-ravaged second-row, or by any of the countless ways Wales have contrived to lose of late, and they face three away games in a row: France, Italy and Scotland. Logically, and given that the only back-to-back Grand Slams they won were in 1908 and 1909, it really should be a season of this other way.

Ireland have England and France at home, which sets them up as the wrecking ball of the championship. Not that they see themselves as mere dashers of the hopes of others. But it somehow fits into the scheme of taking reasoned argument and shredding it in the Six Nations, that the side in contention to win European prizes at one level – Ulster and Munster in the Heineken Cup and now Leinster in the Amlin – may have to settle for unpicking the dreams of the fancied, without converting them into a clean sweep of their own in the old annual international championship of the continent.

Does that make sense? If not, good. The Six Nations is no place for computation and reason. May your passage through February and March be wild. My stab at a winner: France, on points difference, with no more than three wins out of five, the same as England, Wales and Ireland.


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