New faces, old foes
January 25, 2012
France's Thierry Dusautoir, Wales' Sam Warburton, England's Tom Wood, Ireland's Paul O'Connell, Italy's Sergio Parisse and Scotland's Ross Ford strike a pose ahead of this year's Six Nations © Getty Images
Europe's latest failed quest to lift the sport's biggest prize was finally condemned to the history books with the official launch of this year's Six Nations.
For some, the agony experienced in New Zealand is best forgotten although England's travails are likely to continue to repeat on them for some time to come like a bad Bluff oyster. The pain experienced by both France and Wales will be a little more acute having come so close to glory while regret will be the over-riding emotion for Ireland, Scotland and Italy having failed to produce the goods when it mattered most. But it is all history now with the latest battle for northern hemisphere set to offer players, coaches and fans the chance to move on.
That process is already underway with a host of fresh faces gracing the palatial surrounds of the Hurlingham Club in London that once again played host to the Championship's glitterati. The absence of the likes of Martin Johnson, Marc Lievremont and Nick Mallett left a sizeable void on the Six Nations landscape and left the room a little light on charm and eye brows but the introduction of England's interim head coach Stuart Lancaster, new Italy boss Jacques Brunel and his countryman Philippe Saint-Andre at France's helm brought a freshness to proceedings although it is yet to be seen if the same can be said their respective teams.
Unsurprisingly Lancaster faced the most intense scrutiny having accepted what some saw as a hospital pass last month. Winning the Six Nations was not enough to save his predecessor and Lancaster's honeymoon period appears to be over with doubts suddenly filling column inches that until now have offered praise. That growing pressure failed to make an impression Lancaster who evidently has little time for his critics. His unstinting focus remains on dragging England out of the gutter. To his credit he has vowed to do it his own way and promised no side under the former school teacher's tutelage would deserve to be labelled arrogant.
Lancaster has also declared his intention to apply for the full-time position with the recruitment process set to run parallel to his side's Championship campaign. Instead of diagrams and hi-tech presentations, Lancaster's application will be played out on the Six Nations stage - a disadvantage some may say but not the man himself who is clearly happy in his coaching skin.
Brunel was a little less bullish on his debut as one of the Six Nations' leading figures having served as former France coach Bernard Laporte's assistant for six years. He stepped into the likeable Mallett's formidable boots post-World Cup in what was a widely questioned appointment but went some way to winning over his doubters by setting his sights on the Six Nations title within two years. On reflection, his headline-grabbing proclamation in November may have been lost in translation with the former Perpignan coach now hoping to be a mere title 'contender' - maybe a little wise considering he has inherited a side has registered just 8 wins in 60 Championship clashes.
Brunel could have been forgiven for resorting to humour when discussing the challenge of turning perennial Wooden Spooners into champions. Instead, it was Saint-Andre who chose to lighten the mood as he contemplated launching a Championship assault with a side he has only spent two days with and will wave goodbye to tomorrow as they return to the cut and thrust of the Top 14 just a week away from their Six Nations opener. "I will cross my fingers," he said of the nerve-shredding weekend ahead before later throwing his arm around his skipper Thierry Dusautoir. "We have not had any arguments yet," he joked of their burgeoning working relationship.
It appeared a little infectious with Ireland coach Declan Kidney opting to see the lighter side of an injury that will sideline Brian O'Driscoll for the duration of the Championship. "There must be some nice cushioning in that No.13 jersey," the soft-spoken coach declared when noting how well it has fitted O'Driscoll for a decade or more.
Wales coach Warren Gatland was also at it, smiling as he recalled his own experiences of the cryotherapy chambers 'favoured' by his squad and the need for a night time curfew. Even Scotland coach Andy Robinson's verbal grenade launched towards England's trenches at the weekend failed to go off with a bang. The former England boss followed it up with a veiled threat, vowing to "use every emotion" come their Murrayfield showdown - a sentiment echoed by his captain. And Lancaster was not about to let his big day be spoiled by a throwback to a previous regime.
New captains also took a bow with some a little more accustomed to the honour than others. Step forward Munster talisman Paul O'Connell, tasked with deputising for O'Driscoll as Ireland skipper, and Scotland hooker Ross Ford, charged with leading his side after team-mate Kelly Brown was struck down with a serious knee injury. England's new captain is also set to join that contingent when he emerges from Lancaster's leadership nursery with the speculation set to end on Monday.
Even given O'Connell's classy pedigree having led the Lions with distinction in 2009, this trio were in the shadow of their continental rivals. France captain Thierry Dusautoir and his Italian counterpart Sergio Parisse towered over those present in more ways than one just as they have done on the international stage for much of their careers. Both will no doubt be key players in the destiny of this year's title and they oozed experience and assurance under the media glare. "We expect to win," was Dusautoir's almost chilling insight into his side's target while Parisse, who is relishing performing at his side's new 82,000-capacity Stadio Olimpico home, was equally forthright in laying down the law to his side. "If we beat England and lose our other matches is that really progress?" he asked eloquently in what is his third language.
Thankfully there are no translation issues when it comes to the Six Nations. It's universal appeal and unfailing ability to deliver should ensure another feast of memories to treasure and torment in equal measure. Let battle commence.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.