The 2008 6 Nations draws to a conclusion this weekend and it’s been a strange old affair. Rebuilding was the name of the game after the World Cup with some targeting a fresh start, others aiming for redemption. In the main this has resulted in an awful lot of caginess, some serious stodge, flashes of brilliance but all in all no real narrative running through the tournament.
It is therefore hard to know what to make of this 6 Nations as a whole. Indeed it could easily have been a contest where the victors were merely the least incompetent, the team who deserved to lose least, rather than the team who deserved to win most. Prior to round 4, there was talk of one of the most closely fought and exciting championships in years. And then the whole thing fell flat on its face with 3 seriously poor games.
So thank god for Wales. Without them the competition so far would have been bereft of excitement and have become one long, rather tedious chore. But they have been a revelation. It is a testament to them that the Irish, despite having rediscovered some form, felt that the only way to beat them was to make the game as slow and tedious as possible. That the tournament will be won by the one team who has been prepared to set a solid platform and utilise it with ambition and pace should be a cause of celebration and a lesson which others will hopefully heed.
The three games in the final week of the tournament all have very different subplots. Wales and France are battling it out for glory, England and Ireland for redemption, Scotland and Italy for pride. These factors will have a profound effect on the ways in which these games are played. If you want to see exuberant, care-free, running rugby this weekend, I suggest you go and find a local league game and steer clear of BBC1, at least until 5pm when Wales play France.
Many players are playing for their international futures and 3 of the coaches are fighting to save their jobs. We saw in the latter stages of the World Cup what pressure can do to a team and how it can restrict the game as a spectacle. But while the matches may be hard work at times, they will never be anything less than compelling as the mental and physical battles unfold.
Italy v Scotland – 1pm
Italy and Scotland’s World Cup encounter was mind-numbing and there is little to suggest this game will be any different. On that occasion the carrot was a place in a World Cup quarter final; this time it is to avoid obtaining an extra wooden implement to add to their already-overflowing cutlery drawers. In its own way, this is just as motivating.
It is a crucial game for Frank Hadden. After the progress of his early days in which made Scotland competitive again, he has proved unable to push on and graft new dimensions on to his team. A championship with only a single victory, albeit over England, could spell the end of him.
Nick Mallett is coming to terms with having to do much with little and, while he is under no pressure himself, a first winless championship for Italy since 2005 would be a big step back for the Azzuri. They will fancy themselves against Scotland who, while on a high after last Saturday, are almost defined by their inconsistency.
England v Ireland – 3pm
At Twickenham, I would love to see Brian Ashton release the shackles and allow his team to run free. Sadly, confidence and morale is so low that it would be extraordinary for this to happen. This must surely be Ashton’s last game – many were saying that getting to the World Cup final would be the worst thing to happen to England and so it proved as spineless decision makers at the RFU took the easy decision and retained the status quo. Even if England win on Saturday, they will surely not make the same mistake again.
Ireland become more of an enigma by the game and they produced one of the most bizarre tactical displays I have ever seen in Dublin. Despite the performance of their backs against Scotland, O’Sullivan decided that the only chance Ireland had was to beat Wales exclusively up front. Except that Wales’ pack is vastly improved and Ireland’s is not really that good.
This is a clash of two teams at a very low ebb and if one of them can get into the lead then the other may struggle to come back. The exciting sub-plot is Cipriani against O’Gara, a contrast in style, attitude and experience.
Wales v France – 5pm
Wales against France is the undoubted highlight of the weekend. Wales have ability, confidence and momentum and are playing a balanced yet attractive brand of rugby. Marc Lievremont appears to have had an epiphany, at least in the short term, with the realisation that you need a pack and a platform in order to play the all-court game he is pursuing. This could well be a very different France team to that which we have seen so far and will possess the hardness they have lacked.
Wales have demonstrated what can be done with a talented pool of players allied to firm hands at the helm. Gatland and Edwards have driven their men forward with dynamism and assurance, qualities ostensibly lacking in the likes of Ashton, Hadden and O’Sullivan.
If the occasion doesn’t get to everyone, it could be a classic being as it is a clash of two teams who are at their best when they put as much pace on the game as possible. However Wales at home for the Grand Slam will be very hard to beat.
So what do we think?
Will everyone be cheering for Wales for the Grand Slam or cowering at the prospect of the close harmony singing which will be drifting over the border? Will Ashton or O’Sullivan save themselves? And who will be left holding the wooden spoon? What are your thoughts?
by Stuart Peel