Like a massive egg-shaped meteor ominously spinning towards Earth, European rugby’s gala event, the RBS Six Nations, is almost upon us. Last year was when the fires of a Welsh dragon caused the assorted foliage which represents England, Scotland and Ireland to wilt, the French cockerel to crow and the Italians to retreat, again. Twelve months on how things have changed; the Welsh are in the grip of a crisis, England managed to dethrone the All Blacks and Scotland, well, they’re still Scotland, alas. It is shaping up to be quite the contest.
Beginning with matters domestic, Scotland are in yet another state of transition. After the worst international showing ever was capped with the whitewash that was the Autumn Tests Andy Robinson took leave of Murrayfield to be replaced by Scott Johnson, in the interim at least. Yet tellingly the gruff Antipodean has perhaps cast some light on what Scotland’s strategy might be. Paraphrasing the coach, he said he could not give a rat’s posterior what perceived experts thought about the team’s play or any crushing score lines which might be delivered by their rivals. Scotland have nothing to lose this time around. The youthful pre-tournament training camp which was summoned had ten new faces in it. If ever there was a time to throw caution to the wind this was it. Kevin Ferrie, rugby correspondent for The Herald described the tournament ahead as one of “uncertainty”. We wait with bated breath to see its outcome.
Scotland’s first opponents are England, who seem to be on the up. It would appear by having the audacity to beat New Zealand that they upset former Scotland and Lions coach Jim Telfer enough to cause him to decry them as arrogant. Billy Twelvetrees, anointed as the creative spark for England in the middle of the park, preferred to say that they have “belief” in their abilities. I feel Telfer may have been somewhat curmudgeonly in his appraisal for England do have the incredibly level-headed Stuart Lancaster orchestrating things. That Northern sense of thrift and his Scottish ancestry will surely temper any giddy bravura from what is the most talented England side for quite some time.
While all seems rosy in the English garden, the daffodils and leeks of the Welsh allotment are somewhat distressed. The Welsh were irresistible at points last year; simpler times it would seem when George North was king and Warren Gatland could do no wrong. However, the latter’s departure to prepare the Lions for their forthcoming tour has caused the squad to look somewhat flaccid and lost and are currently on a seven match losing streak. Mike Phillips and Sam Warburton have called on the Welsh to remember 2012, but amid accusations of sloth amid the general malaise around the camp there is the sense that this may be a tricky year. They play host to the Irish who under Declan Kidney have been stalwarts in the international arena for the past decade or so. A recent interview by Brain O’Driscoll suggests this might be the last hurrah for a lot of this squad, so they could make an impact, perhaps as dark horses. As the old guard depart, a new and exciting bunch of players, reared from the Ravenhill school of rugby in Ulster championed by Argentina’s tormentor Craig Gilroy look ready to step up, so it should be a relatively painless transition.
Alongside the men from Twickenham, the French will provide their usual verve and panache when making their play for the trophy. After dispatching Australia, Argentina and Samoa in the autumn the French are a mix of the old and new, with former captain Thierry Dusautoir being recalled alongside Frederick Michalak and Maxime Machenaud being kept on following a successful autumn. They begin their championship in Rome against Italy. The lazily written off Italians have slowly been improving since managing to defeat Scotland at Murrayfield and France in Rome in recent years, and last year’s showing in the snow in illustrated that they can provide a robust test, packing a punch in the forward area. As ever though, avoiding another wooden addition to their cutlery drawer will be the objective.
However, as Kevin Ferrie, who is old enough to remember when the Six Nations was the Five Nations before the Italians were invited in advised me, it would be only a fool who would attempt to predict what is a notoriously tricky championship for any side to win. As a result I would merely suggest that you find a corner in one of St Andrews’ many fine watering holes, sit down, gather your supplies and watch the fireworks commence.