Stage set for Six Nations Championship kick-off
January 31, 2008
"My head tells me this should be England's year but Ashton might just be the most nervous of all the coaches this weekend." John Taylor previews the Six Nations
The story of the 2008 Six Nations could well be the tale of six coaches.
With three countries under totally new management, two with everything to prove and only one a work in progress the focus on the dugout will be every bit as intense as the spotlight on the players.
France, Wales and Italy all have new coaches after World Cup campaigns that were disastrous at worst and disappointing at best and the new men have approached their first matches in charge in completely different ways.
For Marc Lievremont, the young blood controversially chosen to take over from Bernard Laporte in France, it is very definitely a policy of a new broom sweeps clean. He has done the decent thing and kept it private but there is no doubt he has told most of the old guard they are past their sell-by date and it might be a good time to announce their retirement from international rugby.
Rebuilding is obviously top of his agenda and he is in a hurry. There are only six survivors from the World Cup and there will be four new caps including both props (although injuries probably forced his hand there) and Francois Trinh-Duc, a 21-year-old fly-half. It's a brave call.
Lievremont is obviously a gambler because he has not even covered himself by going for experience among the 'remplacements'. There are two more potential debutants including a scrum-half on the bench and two others who have three caps between them.
The signs are he is going for a big physical impact up front with a return to more traditional French back play behind.
Warren Gatland, the pragmatic New Zealander who has picked up the baton in Wales, has barely had time to get his feet under the table. His priority was to get the right coaching team on board and persuading his old Wasps colleague Shaun Edwards to team up with him alongside Robert Howley is a real coup.
Persuading Martyn Williams to reverse his decision to retire is also a smart move.
Perhaps because he has had so little time he has taken the unprecedented step of picking 13 Ospreys in his starting XV - a pretty brave decision because, although they are the form team in Wales, they are hardly all conquering.
Too often in recent history Wales have run some pretty attacking patterns only to be undermined by exposing their soft underbelly and shipping easy points when they have stretched themselves too far - look no further than the Fiji disaster - so expect to see Edwards' trademark, aggressive blitz defence in evidence right from the start.
Gatland's long term task, though, is to transform the front five and that will take time.
The weight of expectation on Nick Mallett's shoulders is nothing in comparison. The urbane Anglo-South African takes over Italy in the knowledge that even one victory will be considered an achievement despite their most successful Six Nations campaign ever last year.
Alessandro Troncon, their talisman and driving force at scrum-half has finally had to call it a day, they have not had a fly-half who can control a game since Diego Dominguez retired and their outstanding second-row Marco Bortolami is out injured.
Eleven of his starting XV are based abroad which is why he has drawn parallels with the achievements of the Argentines based on a small group of dedicated players bucking the odds. If anyone can pull it off Mallett can and rest assured there will be a smile on his face whatever happens.
The work in progress is Scotland. With their domestic game in chaos Frank Hadden has done a remarkable job. The World Cup was ultimately disappointing but he transformed the physical preparation of his players in the three months before it began and there is a new confidence in their own ability which is starting to translate into their skills as well. Interesting!
That leaves the two coaches with everything to prove. Eddie O'Sullivan might have a new four year contract safely locked away but his position will be untenable if Ireland play as poorly as they did in the World Cup.
I still believe they would have won the Grand Slam last season if Brian O'Driscoll had been on the field for 80 minutes in the French game but within six months they had lost all their power and spirit.
They still have a potentially potent back division but they need the sort of forward fire Munster have recently rediscovered (even without Paul O'Connell) to get back on track.
Rumours of rifts within the camp will quickly resurface unless O'Sullivan can quickly re-establish the team spirit that has always been the hallmark of Irish rugby. Fortunately, he has the perfect start - Italy at home - to ease into the new campaign.
It is crunch time too for Brian Ashton. He has gone from 'Coco the Clown' to the 'wise old sage' who should have been given a long term vote of confidence before the World Cup began as far as the English pundits are concerned - incredible! Now he has to deliver, there are no excuses and he does not have a four year contract.
He has by common consent the strongest pool of players to pick from with all the right ingredients - power up front, power and pace in the back-row, power, pace, and skill in the backs and the right mix of youth and experience to make it all gel.
There is also the confidence factor - England did get to the World Cup final.
My head tells me this should be England's year but Ashton might just be the most nervous of all the coaches this weekend.
John Taylor also hosts the all-new Scrum.com Six Nations Podcast - Click here to listen!