You are never blasé about Six Nations

12 February 2017

How would France do in the Six Nations championship with Joe Schmidt in charge? That was an interesting hypothetical posed to me ahead of the Six Nations championship.

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For context, here are two more questions: Where do the French rank among the six countries, and how many of their squad would make a Best XV from this season’s 6N squads?

That would ultimately dictate the length of time it would take Joe Schmidt to turn things around. Even if he was at the helm, I don’t see they could be successful before 2019?

One of France’s likeliest candidates to muscle in on a selection alongside the best of what Warren Gatland will have available to him this summer is centre Wesley Fofana, but he is unavailable for the tournament.

I also like Gael Fickou and Remi Lamerat, but as ever the French dilemma is not the dearth of talent, it’s the absence of structure and discipline.

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The Top 14 has its unique traits, some of them very good. But its poor disciplinary parameters are grossly out of kilter with what’s going on in the rest of Europe. There’s no possible way the players can have the temperament to curtail their indiscretions under strenuous test conditions.

The Top 14 clubs are talking about improving those deficiencies, but it’s no more than talk at present. It has to be coached and re-coached and when there are 40 players in each squad, and the level of rotation is so high from week to week, it is next to impossible to get the necessary stability and core working group in the squad on the same page at the one time.

I admire the French in many ways – they’ve never given up their indigenous core – but all the other teams have international staff bringing their own positive influences to the group. The French are French. The coaching staff, S&C, medical. I am not saying that’s a bad thing, but it is different.

The core problem is the ruck. In the Top 14, the rucks are such a shit-fight, they are simply not conducive to the fast game all the leading clubs in Europe have embraced.

That comes from the top down – the game in France has to be refereed differently, the ruck policed better. Otherwise, where will Top 14 French players get to practice the intensity that Munster, Leinster, Wasps and Saracens can play at? The only French team working assiduously on accuracy at ruck time is Clermont, where Jonno Gibbes is opening eyes and ears.

I don’t know how much the French really buy into a game-plan either. They have ideas but not enough faith in concrete strategies in terms of religiously sticking to it. They will try to play an offload game and stay up in the tackle. Their philosophy is to take the initiative and win the collisions. Schmidt could help so much in this regard.

Maybe the new FFR president Bernard Laporte will change things. He is a fan of the Anglo-Saxon way. He acknowledges there are different ways of doing things.

The president and Novés wouldn’t, by any means, have been singing off the same hymn sheet before Laporte assumed high office. There is no love lost between them, back to the days when Laporte was in charge of France, Novés coaching Toulouse.
There has been talk Fabien Galthie is waiting in the wings if Novés does not progress Les Bleus in 2017 so there is added pressure on the veteran to put a spring in the step of the national side.

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One thing though is already evident with Laporte as president: there will be massive emphasis put on the French national team, and that means interesting times ahead for French rugby.

Novés has opted for another new nine-ten partnership with Bordeaux’s Baptise Serin making his tournament debut tomorrow at Twickenham. With Clermont, Camille Lopez always looks assured, but not so much in the nation’s colours. It isn’t a half-back partnership that inspires and one that may struggle to deal with the cauldron of a Six Nations opener.

I’d be hugely surprised if France trouble England tomorrow, even with all the injury problems Eddie Jones has had to contend with. Of Ireland’s Six Nations opponents, I rank France fourth behind Scotland, England and Wales – considering the schedule.

Schmidt in charge of the French? Wouldn’t that be such an interesting project. They are so passionate about rugby I’d love to see how a proper, structured approach would pan out with them. A really detailed structured approach…

Seventeen years ago? It can’t be. Your international debut is like no other moment in your career. I struggle to remember games from a few weeks back, but there is still perfect clarity there for me from that game at Lansdowne Road against Scotland in 2000.

Every time Ireland- Scotland comes around, it triggers seminal memories – whether that be the debut under Warren Gatland or my last appearance in 2013. Seventeen years ago Ireland trained in Greystones, and we stayed in the Glenview before moving into the Berkeley Court on the Thursday night. The night before the game, Claw used order pizza and Coke for the team room. Think about that now. Dominos and a can.

Donal (Lenihan) was the manager, and though we were club colleagues and fellow Cork men, he was the school principal and I was the student. He had that legend’s aura. It was quite formal – there were no buddies like there’d be now with him.
It might sound very obvious, but I was uncontrollably nervous the day of the game. I couldn’t imagine any of the other players being so shaken.

Primarily because of the kicking thing. Winning a first cap is one thing but the prospect of kicking a penalty in front of 50,000 people at Lansdowne Road, wondering ‘can I do this’ elevates it onto a whole other level. It was a bloody blur.

Seventeen seasons on, Paddy Jackson is running the table for Ireland tomorrow. He’s been in green at Murrayfield only four years ago – the day of my final international cap. It was an ignominious farewell but I can laugh at it now. Of all the players in rugby capable of a decent cross-field kick, I’d put myself up there.

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But I produced one of the wonkiest, mankiest efforts the Six Nations has seen. I caught it on the inside of my ankle, almost down by the ligament. It went horribly pear-shaped, took a wicked bounce, there was hesitancy (and surprise) on our side in dealing with it, and Scotland won the penalty which decided the game. I missed the subsequent touch which drove the final nail in the coffin.

Whether it was that game, or the Scottish debut 17 years before, I can’t ever remember being blasé about the Six Nations. When young lads like me dream about playing for Ireland, they dream of the Six Nations, and those dreams are nourished if you’re from Munster by Ginger McLoughlin, by Moss Keane, Gaillimh’s try against England, Michael Kiernan’s drop goal, Lenihan captaining the team, Bradley and Ralph Keyes as half-backs.

The opening day of this season’s renewal presents two cracking games in England and Scotland. Wales are a match for anyone in Cardiff and they will get the good start they always need by playing Italy. But everyone else is energised by Scotland-Ireland and England-France.

Guy Novés will have France in the best possible state because he’s had the luxury few of his predecessors enjoyed – two full weeks with the squad. But they won’t better England.

And Ireland? Resources are stretched to a degree but facts are facts: Glasgow provide 16 of the squad, and they’ve fallen to Munster three times this season. Indeed some of Scotland’s bullishness is puzzling. Stuart Hogg coming out saying they’ve had too much respect for Ireland in the past?

They should have every respect for Ireland because their record against Ireland is dismal. This is the first time Glasgow has ever qualified for the Champions Cup quarter-final, and they’re talking like they’ve won the competition.

I hope Ireland haven’t fallen into the trap of overestimating what they have to do. It will be tough but you can’t ignore Scotland’s record in this competition – since 2000, they’ve only achieved more than two wins once (2006) in subsequent campaigns.

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