Rebuilding for World Cup 2011
This year's Six Nations is as much about testing new players as getting good results. Each coach will select his squad bearing the next World Cup in mind.
By Brent Pope
International rugby has become like the Olympic Games – after every World Cup teams enter a rebuilding phase for the next four years. New coaches are appointed, senior players retire and younger players are tested. Anticipation for the Six Nations rises in a World Cup year as teams reach their pinnacle – particularly for Ireland in 2007 where rugby was on a high after winning a Triple Crown and two great Autumn campaigns against Southern Hemisphere teams. There was a feeling that Ireland would have its best ever year at the Six Nations and later, at the World Cup.
There is not the same hype or excitement about this year's Six Nations. For some teams it has almost become a testing ground for new combinations of players. Pieter De Villiers, Fabien Pelous, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jason Robinson, Gareth Thomas, Mike Catt, Serge Betsen, Raphael Ibanez – these stalwarts of the game have retired. France, Wales and Italy have new coaches, England has a relatively new coach in Brian Ashton.
The emphasis for these nations is on rebuilding and to pick an obvious winner is difficult. France have a good chance. They have a great depth of players and have a good scrum, which proved in the World Cup to be crucial in the modern game. France didn't do as well in the World Cup as they hoped to, and like Ireland, they will want to recover and try to win the Grand Slam. But they also have new players to test and a new set of coaching staff who don't have much time to prepare.
The emphasis for England is different. Having reached successive World Cup finals, Ashton has more latitude than Eddie O'Sullivan to experiment with younger players such as Danny Cipriani. But England will also try to achieve a more consistent record than they have had in past seasons. England will still have confidence and momentum from 2007, but consitency is important for them to do well this year.
Warren Gatland is coming in as Welsh coach at a difficult time. Public disquiet at the decline of Welsh rugby in recent years puts him under considerable pressure to get results. Wales could do well under his direction – sometimes a new coach injects a new enthusiasm into a side. Wales no longer has the quality of players they had in previous years, but they will be competitive.
Italy slipped out of contention in the World Cup again after some good performances in last year's Six Nations. They have a new coach in Nick Mallet who will bring more toughness to the side. However, neither Italy nor Scotland will perform well this year. Both teams have deteriorated recently, mainly due to resources.
Scotland can be deceptive – at full strength and playing at home they are a tricky side. With Edinburgh doing well in the European Cup they might fancy their chances. Man for man there would not be any replacements between Ireland and Scotland. Such comparisons don't always translate into results – coaching, conditioning and team spirit contributes. But in most instances, comparing man-for-man the ability of two full strength teams allows you to predict the winner. Scotland play above their collective talent at home – but Ireland play Scotland in Croke Park this year.
Ireland must have a good season to try to recapture the form they showed during last year's Six Nations. Eddie O'Sullivan will aim to win at least a Triple Crown, possibly a championship or Grand Slam to muzzle his detractors. Ireland will expect to win the three home games against Italy, Wales and Scotland. With France and England rebuilding, Ireland can take an away win and there are realistic hopes for a championship win.
Eddie O'Sullivan is in a difficult position as far as selection is concerned – a self-imposed predicament. Had he done well at the World Cup he would have greater latitude to experiment at the Six Nations. Playing lots of new young players in the Six Nations might be publicly welcomed, but if he loses, there will be renewed calls for his resignation. The Irish public demand results emphatically and directly.
On the other hand, if he plays the old reliables who didn't perform at the World Cup and they don't perform again this year, he's in trouble. So I think it is important that Ireland deliver strong performances at home and then he can have a look at the other games.
If the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) has given Eddie O'Sullivan any remit, it will be to return good results and show that the World Cup was just a blip. The IRFU don't want a sport that was on a high 18 months ago to fade away; first and foremost, they will want to regenerate some confidence in Irish rugby.
Ideally I think Eddie O'Sullivan should make more use of the bench. Eddie must look to the next World Cup. Several key players for Ireland will be in their early to mid-thirties by the next World Cup – physiology dictates that these players will not be as fast and dynamic in 2011 as they are now. Ireland must try to introduce new players, to nurse them into the international standard of rugby for the future.
Subtle changes to how the international game is being played will probably be seen in the Six Nations, and unless referees take a collective stand in rewarding attacking teams, what was seen in the World Cup will recur this year. The World Cup final was a poor spectacle of rugby. There was too much emphasis on the high kick in that game and throughout the competition. While Argentina did brilliantly, that was their pattern – first to kick ball, second to kick it high and test full backs. England and South Africa did the same.
There was also a greater emphasis on defence. Rugby was always about possession but I have noticed in recent years that some teams perform better off the ball than with it. South Africa proved that they could hold England at bay in the World Cup final.
Defences are flat now. The team in possession can be at a disadvantage depending on the stage of play and position on the pitch. As soon as the referee turns his back in the modern game, players sneak up on the outside, making it difficult for the ball to get across the gain line. The International Rugby Board are looking at distancing defences from the attacking team. That will give the number eight more latitude to break off the back and give the centres more room to be creative. This rule will not apply before the Six Nations – it will be tried out in the Super 14 this year – but referees should agree to penalise flat defences and instruct touch judges to marshall it a lot more strictly. Teams that are good enough to gain and hold on to possession should be rewarded, not pinned out of the game.
Partly because of the flat defences, the line-out has taken over from the scrum as the best provider of good quality ball to the backs. For the team taking the line out, the defence is back ten yards, albeit often flat in defence because they don't expect to win the ball. But there is a greater advantage for a defensive team who challenges the line out and wins – the opposing back line is standing deep in anticipation of possession, giving the other side the space to run with turnover ball. Munster nearly perfected this in their final group game against Wasps. This area of the game could be key for Ireland who have the second row players capable of disrupting opposition line outs.
France, Ireland and England will be the top three of the championship with Wales mid-table followed by Scotland and Italy. If Ireland can spring a surprise on France in the second game, they have every chance of winning outright.