That tournament is back. The one that last year meant the beginning of the end of Declan Kidney and the start of the rebuilding process. Last year the Welsh failed to flatter and then flattered to deceive by winning the tournament, running over England in the last match. The French floundered, the Scots finished third and we lost to Italy.
This year the Scots look atrocious, the French look better and we find ourselves thankfully and thoroughly around the corner we needed to turn.
The tournament kicked off with Wales beating Italy in what appeared to be a routine victory by an underperforming team. England and France clashed heads with France snatching victory at the very end, and Ireland fixed some bugs in their second half performance and went on to win against Scotland. Many things were said about many aspects of round one, and then before we knew it we were faced with round two, and match one meant the arrival of the Welsh in Dublin.
‘Drico’s revenge’ was thrown around as we waited impatiently for what was expected to be a clash of two great teams, but we were both disappointed and elated. Ireland did not let this develop into a contest at any stage. The scoreboard ticked over, Sexton cleverly found the corners dare I say like O’Gara of old, and Peter O’Mahony led the way up front, winning both the ball and the award for the most possessed yet refined player on the pitch, replacing AA Roadwatch as Ireland’s leading breakdown service. We wanted a clash of the titans and we were given fifteen men doing a job over another fifteen with terrifying precision. And we loved it.
This match was the defining point of Joe Schmidt’s era, New Zealand last November I hear you say? Maybe for forty minutes, but that was a one-off, trust me. The heart shown by leaders like Paul O’Connell and the wounded Brian O’Driscoll was inspring and the aerial dominace of Andrew Trimble and the two Kearney brothers was mesmerizing. Every player in green went about their day as if an unspoken agreement had been made between both teams that the home side would dominate every breakdown, every collision and every set piece with mechanical precision. At the front of the line out, Jamie Heaslip seemed ten-feet-tall, and the ten-foot-tall man at the back, Devin Toner, ran around the pitch like the world class second-row we expect him to be.
After the game, Rory Best stated that Ireland had a tacit objective of revenge for Brian O’Driscoll’s omission from the Lion’s third test in Australia. It’s this unity and focus that we have to attribute to Joe Schmidt, as he did the exact same job with Leinster. We must also state that Ireland have only conceded nine points so far.
On the other side, you can’t underestimate how bad this is bad for Wales, as their victory over Italy was toothless and their performance at the Aviva was heartless. Have Gatland’s tactics of ‘we’re bigger than you’ finally lost their potency? Has the simple answer to a basic question been found? I think so. Wales at the moment don’t just seem out of form, they seem out of ideas. When teams rush up in their defensive line and read the skip pass to the battering ram that is George North, what else can they do? I don’t know and I don’t think Warren does either.
Elsewhere the English have trundled on. New guns like Mike Brown, Luther Burrell and Billy Vunipola have continued the tradition of doing the basics well and being bigger than the opposition, but at no point has the team outweighed the individual in terms of performance. This is the eternal struggle of English rugby. I don’t see any reason to fear them when Ireland go to Twickenham on the 22nd, chasing a Triple Crown. Owen Farrell has constantly proved to be the spoilt child he is, with daddy watching from the sidelines, and I think teams will start to target him in future games, predicting his capitulation under pressure.
France have also kept the wheels turning. Their last gasp victory over England was hardly deserved, as they could be said to have performed only in the first and last ten minutes. Their new prodigal son at centre, Gael Fickou (19), who got them out of jail in round one, seems to have serious staying power on the international stage. Louis Picamoles has gone about his job with understated potency and work ethic, popping up all over the pitch. French media has compared him to ‘the type of man who won La Révolution by wielding a pitch fork and an undying sense of self-sacrifice for La République.’ That is considerable praise.
The Italians have been typically Italian; so much effort but so little reward. In round two they put up little opposition as Picamoles, Fofana & Bonneval put tries past them as France ran out 30-10 winners, and their aforementioned round one defeat to Wales gave us little hope for a Risorgimento. Sergio Parisse has of late been named Robocop, for his consistent work rate and efficiency, but even Robocop needed back up, and Sergio has none. However he may have a new hero in his ranks, as Michele Campagnaro (20) was kept quiet by France, but made a name for himself on his international debut against Wales, scoring two tries and hopefully representing the new generation of talented Italians that have grown up in the professional era. Tommaso Allan at out-half seems overrated though.
Then there’s the Scottish team.
Scottish rugby is in such dire straits that I believe it threatens the prolonged existence of the Six Nations. In their first two matches they’ve played like they want to be metaphorically relegated. Their pitch is a shambles, their passing is atrocious and their game plan is non-existent. Against both Ireland & England they aimed to out-muscle the opposition with consistent forward ‘pick-and-gos’ but when the opponents had the answers to this, they were dumbfounded and gave in to heavy defeats, morally and numerically.
They cannot go on like this. New talent needs to be blooded and new coaches with more clever tactics need to be hired. There’s only so much a rousing anthem and a sense of patriotism can bring you.
So far, I have high hopes for Ireland, little hope for Italy, and I hope to God that the Scottish can contribute something, anything in fact to make it a six team tournament. I look forward to the remaining nine fixtures, and if you love good rugby, you should too.