Six Nations Comment
Spoiling for a fight?
January 24, 2013
The Six Nations captain pose on the eve of this year's battle for championship glory © Getty Images
Your favourite armchair, home cooking and Bryan Habana's contract at Toulon all provide significant levels of comfort but clearly none can match the soothing powers of the Hurlingham Club in London.
The Six Nations heavyweights descended on the private sports club once again to light the fuse on what is sure to be another fierce championship battle but struggled to muster a spark between them. There was little rabble-rousing to be found anywhere with smiles and laughter the order of the day. Perhaps it was luxurious surroundings of the venue that rendered the coaches and captains as soft as the furnishings? Or maybe they were just happy to be granted some shelter from the Baltic conditions outside or perhaps their minds were occupied by the promise of a hearty lunch courtesy of the tournament sponsors - either way, no one was in the mood for fighting talk and animosity was noticeable by its absence.
These events are often ridden with clichés and are crying out for a character to break rank and offer a little more than the predictable sound bite previewing a competition still a couple of weeks away. There was often standing room only when former Italy coach Nick Mallett was in attendance, so compelling and generous was the forthright ex-Springboks boss was with his verbal offering. Rugby's loss is South African TV's gain. His absence is still felt but in interim Scotland coach Scott Johnson, the media hordes rightly saw potential.
Most Australians, by their very nature, are not short of an opinion or two, especially when it comes to sport and Johnson is no different. He is no stranger to the Six Nations having previously worked as an assistant with Wales, nor is he averse to airing his views and he did not disappoint his audience although he made an effort to keep himself in check.
"Despite what people think, we are going to turn up to this game. We aren't going to cancel it," insisted Johnson when presented with his side's record against England at Twickenham where the Scots have not won for 30 years. "We are the poor little boys on the block and we are happy to go in as the poor little boys on the block. But rest assured, come game time we may not be a poor little boy." England's headline-grabbing injury woes also got short shrift. "Long injury list? That just leaves you with another 40,000 players to pick from! It's a sad story."
Rivalling Johnson on the charisma stakes was his France counterpart Philippe Saint-Andre who complains English is a consistent struggle for him but somehow still manages to answer every question almost as eloquently as those more familiar with the language. Asked about the new lease of life enjoyed by Frederic Michalak since his return to France and the national side last year he answered as only a Frenchman could. "A fly-half is like a good French wine. The older you are, the better you are." Saint-Andre's captain Pascal Pape is not so au fait when it comes to English but equally quotable. Asked about his proficiency in the language he replied: "Very s***."
Putting them both to shame in the linguistic stakes was Sergio Parisse. Not only is he one of the best players in the world and married to a former Miss France, the Italy No.8 can choose - if he so wishes - to converse in Spanish, Italian, French or English making him even more indispensable as a captain. Add to this an ability to talk a good game. "It's no longer good enough for us to play well, to be improving and be involved in good matches," he said. "We don't have fear of any team in the Six Nations and we want to confirm our progression by winning matches."
There could be no doubt as to who was the happiest person in the room. Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip could not have appeared more delighted had he scooped the EuroMillions jackpot and broken through 100,000 followers on Twitter. "I'm buzzing," he enthused, admittedly fuelled by double espressos. His coach, a little more jaded having sat through a few more of these events, just sat back and watched the firework fizz. That's not because he had nothing to say - far from it.
Suited and booted - the Six Nations coaches pose ahead of the opening fixtures in this year's championship © Getty Images
Quizzed on his future beyond this year's Six Nations at which point his current deal with the Irish Rugby Football Union expires, he delivered the kind of quote normally the preserve of philosophy textbooks - or maybe Irish bars. "A fella told me once that 'if you want to make God laugh, tell him what you're doing tomorrow," he said. It may not have been Brian O'Driscoll's 'a tomato is a fruit' but was infinitely more fathomable.
Wales enter this year's championship as defending champions but have since slumped to seven straight defeats with that general malaise appearing to extend to interim head coach Rob Howley - or perhaps it was the constant questions about the influence of his boss Warren Gatland who has stepped aside to concentrate on his British & Irish Lions duties. Either way, the result was a yawn-inducing variation on the 'one game at a time' approach. Both he and his skipper Sam Warburton looked in desperate need of a pick-me-up or perhaps a little spell in a cryotherapy chamber?
You would have thought that if anyone needed to keep a lid on things it was England coach Stuart Lancaster given the manner in which is side dispatched world champions New Zealand in their most recent outing and that's just what he did. Just as a line was drawn under England's World Cup woe at the start of the Lancaster era, the victory over the All Blacks has been filed away. "What has happened in the past doesn't define what happens in the future," insisted Lancaster. It is a phrase that you imagine could easily have been lifted from one of the leadership textbooks of which he is an avid reader.
Thankfully the same goes for events such as these. Expect things to get a lot more uncomfortable for the leading protagonists in this year's Six Nations in the next few weeks.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.