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Hell Hath No Fury

Hell Hath No Fury

Adrian O’Farrell is back and he is putting his reputation on the line with his predictions for the 2008 RBS 6 Nations. Exclusive to Supporters Club members, Adrian is a regular correspondant for the club.

One thing’s for sure – in the shadow of a Rugby World Cup that ranks alongside Sonia O’Sullivan’s collapse in Atlanta and Mick McCarthy’s Macedonia experience as the most disappointing let-downs in the history of Irish sport, there’s no shortage of incentive for the Irish squad as we approach this 6 Nations tournament.

Collectively and individually, there are reputations to be re-established. The encouraging news is that some of these are in the throes of re-establishment, while there is overwhelming evidence that the majority in the World Cup squad have confirmed that they did not become bad players overnight.

There can be no more glaring example of this encouragement than Ronan O’Gara, whose performance at the weekend in Munster’s magnificent win over reigning European Champions, Wasps, was one of his finest in a career not exactly shy in the stellar display department.

O’Gara was the sufferer-in-chief at the World Cup, his performances as below par as the L’Equipe report was below the belt in both substance and timing. He has grown into an immensely strong mentality and home comforts have undoubtedly helped the recovery process.

The Heineken Cup has been a neat tonic for the Munster players and a mixed one for the Leinster contingent. However, Ulster are dealing with a massive hangover that will require all of Matt Williams’ Dr. Feelgood powers to recover from – though initial signs from the Gloucester match suggest this can be done.

This is one of the most open 6 Nations in several years, with each nation having a significant question mark over them. Bookies’ favourites are France at 11-8, but Marc Lievremont has taken an extremely sharp scalpel to the World Cup squad. With Pelous, Betsen, Dominic and Ibanez retired and Jauzion, Marconnet, De Villiers and Milloud out injured, there is an extremely thin look about their leadership. Omitted are other mainstays in Poitrenaud, Marty, Mignoni, Thion, Harinorduquy, Nyanga, Martin and the hairy beast himself, Chabal. Throw in Michalak, who is down in South Africa, and that’s some seventeen players ordinarily in the frame who won’t be playing against Scotland.

While the French are, of course, the only country in the tournament that seem able to do this kind of thing and get away with it, there are no guarantees. With a young and untested coaching ticket in Lievremont (who has had less than one season in the Top 14) and Emile Ntamack, France could be anything this season and on that basis probably don’t represent good value at the bookies.

Scotland will fancy their chances of lowering the Tricolour at Murrayfield on day one of the tournament. They have beefed up considerably and will be buoyed by the efforts of Glasgow in particular, and Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup. With England also travelling to Murrayfield they will see this as a season full of possibility.

England need Brian Ashton to be brave and authoritative this season. The apparently democratic nature of their World Cup campaign needs to be shelved so that a young team feels their coach knows exactly what he wants to do. This should be to play with the width that he is noted for, as he has a plethora of young attacking backs at his disposal. However, he has already given signs that of conservatism in opting for grunt over skill. The preference for Tindall over Hipkiss or Allen; Vainikolo over Simpson-Daniel indicate that footballing skill counts for less than brute force. For a side whose chief difficulty is fluidity, it will worry the informed England supporter. The litmus test of what style he will play comes in the decision at outhalf and centre. If he goes for Wilkinson and Tindall (as is likely) ahead of Cipriani and Tait, then expect more of the same from the Yeomen.

Wales offer one of the real curiosities of this 6 Nations, with the new coaching ticket of Gatland, Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards reprising their Wasps triumvirate for the Three Feathers. For all their famed willingness to move ball, the Welsh failings up front ensured they only managed 7 tries last year – joint lowest with the attack-shy Scots – while finishing second from bottom on points difference from Scotland. Gatland’s history has been one of making his teams harder to beat in short order, but he’ll need to do more than that to make a genuine impression on the tournament. With two teams in the European quarter-finals there is a rising optimism in Wales. Martyn Williams has come out of retirement to help the cause, but the overall impression is that they lack the front five to open team. The Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones makes them his favourites to win the tournament, which should be enough to convince those considering a punt on them to keep their money in their pocket (especially at a rather miserly 8-1).

Italy also feel a surge of optimism. Having secured their best ever finish last year with two wins and fourth place, more competitive performances in the European Cup and, in Nick Mallett, a new coach acknowledged as one of the best in the world, they have much to feel good about. However, they didn’t make the desired impression in the World Cup and lost their big game against Scotland and have lost a coach that understood them and improved their performances consistently in Pierre Berbizier. Some old faces are gone in the persons of Alessandro Troncon, Roland de Marigny, Paul Griffen and Fabio Ongaro while the familiar look and style will be upheld by genuine forwards such as Castrogiovanni, Dellape and Del Fava. However, unless Mallett surprises us all, they simply don’t have the talent to do more than push the big guys for the first sixty minutes by keeping it to an armwrestle.

Where does all of this leave little old Ireland? Funnily enough, for all that there has been much negative comment about the settled nature of the squad, this is probably the one thing that may just give them the advantage. Where there are genuine question marks over all our opponents bar possibly Scotland (who are limited in ability anyway), the only real question mark over Ireland is whether or not the World Cup represented an ongoing problem or a spectacularly bad one-off. The evidence available suggests the former rather than the latter. Yes, there are doubts about whether O’Driscoll and D’Arcy can recapture the sublime form of a couple of seasons ago, but they hardly represent a weakness. Yes, Paul O’Connell is out, but that hasn’t exactly stopped the Munster pack from dominating teams. Yes, Horgan is out, but his form over the last season hadn’t been great anyway. These guys have shown themselves to be at their best when being counted out. They have massive personal and collective incentive to silence the doubters and that is what I take them to do.

Three home wins would appear to be the minimum requirement versus first Italy, then Scotland, then Wales. The key match will be away to France in the second match. There is a reasonable chance that an untried France will come a cropper in Scotland in their first match, which may be a good or bad thing. I would expect a comfortable win at home to Italy followed by the mother and father of all battles in Paris. If we can come through that, then all bets are off.

Well, if you had followed Ireland through the ’80s and ’90s, then you too would have a streak of optimism that isn’t easily doused!