It is not quite Michael Bublé telling us it is a new dawn; a new day; a new life, but it is the start of something and we are, it must be said, feeling pretty good about it.
The 6 Nations starts on Saturday and already we are in danger of running out of superlatives. The most vivid and malleable word to be used in reference to this year’s tournament is one that stands out in the biting cold and tells us that we should all prepare for the unknown.
England, Italy and France are all under new management. The approach of the teams will be different, we are told. Frenchman Jacques Brunel has drastically changed the look of Italy’s backline and has made some telling recalls in his pack. The message coming from the Azzurri is one of consistency of performance, rather than claiming one big scalp and four uniform losses.
In France a back play idealist, le Goret, ‘the pig’, Philippe Saint-André, has tried to tie down a French squad and relieve them of their uncertainties. No longer will there be the bizarre flitting and changing within France’s ranks. Marc Lièvremont’s tombola has been impounded and the style set in stone. He has even made – gulp – sensible selections, picking combinations of players familiar with each other.
France could be more harmonious and they had the quality to outplay New Zealand in large parts of the World Cup final when they were said to be out of synch with the coaches. One can only guess at how they will perform now that everyone is bouncing with joie de vivre. On paper this team is head and shoulders above the rest, but then when do France ever stick to the script, uh?
As for the Auld Enemy, under the guidance of a man who has thus far done everything right in the eyes of the press, it is an overhaul. England have been torn down. Gone is the spectre of Wilkinson. Gone are the troublemakers Care and Armitage. Supposedly gone are the airs and graces, the feeling of entitlement. This team is young, in many cases inexperienced, but it is also said to be hungry.
They may not have a chip on their shoulder, but they have a point to prove. A lot of points, actually. They must show themselves deserving of success. They must show humility and dedication to the Rose. They must defend a title. They must play with purpose.
Stuart Lancaster, portrayed as the modest fella enamoured with the spirit of rugby, is trying to bring on youth whilst also handing fringe players later on in their career a chance that they may well have earned long before their selection. Some of the players who let everyone down once temptation fell in their way abroad are reinstated, but they are surrounded by less of an accommodating staff and more of a ‘Team England’ rather than ‘Team Superstar’ atmosphere.
Speaking to an English journalist on Tuesday he said he shared the plane home from New Zealand with the team. When he saw them fooling around and strutting up and down the plane he wanted to say to them “stop this. You’re not as good as you think you are”. Now, though, this ‘arrogance’ is said to have been drummed out and if this squad can tap into their talent and hone it then – by St. George! – they may still get there.
It is a steep learning curve, though, and right now these newbies have the privilege of playing this tournament with little pressure on them, despite how pressured the 6N environment is. Could they click in time?
With Wales and Ireland it is more of the same. These two did battle in the World Cup and Wales triumphed. Little has changed since then, bar some injuries. No O’Driscoll, maybe no Roberts. No Gethin Jenkins, maybe no Lydiate or Priestland. However, these familiar foes seem to be retaining their style, outlook and most of their personnel.
Wales have even kept the preparation method of travelling once again to the ice chambers. Ireland have let their senior player group look after the squad as always. Wales slot like-for-like players into their team as Gatland is always keen to reward youth. On the other hand Ireland maybe haven’t taken any risks in selection, but why would they? Their pack picks itself and their form back three are on the pitch. Earls will be scrutinised at 13, but anyone replacing the Brian O’Driscoll would be.
One difference during this tournament could be that Gatland talks a little bit less and Kidney is told to talk up a little bit more. Both of these teams will be comfortable in their own kit, though, and know what needs to be done to win games. If defences stick when they face off then tries may have to be extravagant. Both are capable of that…
Then, good friends, there is Scotland. Optimism arrived on schedule last week. Will it be returned to sender by Monday? Every year is proclaimed our year and the truth is that you can never tell. Topple England and we have a run at creating something. Narrowly succumb to our nemesis and we face scrapping and snarling as underdogs for the whole tournament.
There is a chance there to play with style and turn over some established teams, as well as the new look England. The support at home will be fierce. More fierce than it has been for a long time, it must be said. The good will is infectious. Saturday should be a cracker, but even in the dull games every 6N fixture is engrossing.
This year the event should be stupefying. We are in for a busy few weeks!
Stadium: Twickenham. Twickers. Rugby HQ. The home of rugby. Expect Nike and roses everywhere if you visit.
Coach: Stuart Lancaster. He has brought much needed change to England, and he may even be afforded the luxury of time in the role. Can he make England believe again?
Captain: Chris Robshaw. An all action flanker. Not an out and out openside, but he will be thankful for the opportunity on the World stage. He will be the cool head in an inexperienced pack.
Star: Despite reportedly being a menace on tour and said to be caught up in his own hype it is time for Chris Ashton to put his head down and work for the team. If he is unselfish and works hard he could well prove the difference in some games.
One to watch: Jordan Turner-Hall will come off the bench and is a natural and talented centre. Unlucky not to start he could shine on such a stage. He is also given a chance because there is no Tuilagi-esque whirlwind of attention around him. He is a professional and he can let others play great rugby.
Stadium: Stade de France. Sometimes a graveyard. Sometimes your eardrums will burst and you won’t care because it’s France, it’s partisan and you have been assimilated by the mob.
Coach: Philippe Saint-André. Tasked with instilling discipline in more than one sense. May renege on his roots and play rugby by numbers, but his squad are so good they could still do that with style. Will France lose what I call their ‘Frenchicitie’?
Captain: Thierry Dusautoir. The Dark Destroyer. He is so painfully talented and wonderfully abrasive that he confuses me into hiding behind the couch. He single handedly beat New Zealand in ’07 and dragged France to the ’11 final kicking and screaming. He makes you proud to be French, even when you aren’t, and may have a cape on under his bleu.
Star: Look up. That guy.
One to watch: Wesley Fofana is debuting against Italy and he may just be the one to look different and exciting, despite playing in PSA’s new disciplined shape. Shouldering through and turning and popping all as he runs fast. He could be the devastating inside to Rougerie’s usual forceful bash.
Stadium: The Aviva Stadium has been accused of lacking atmosphere in warm-up games, but this is the 6 Nations. When ‘The Fields of Athenry’ is belted out it doesn’t matter where it is because Ireland are playing well.
Coach: Declan Kidney sometimes looks like he should be wearing a lab coat, but the soft spoken man knows what works and he is in tune with his players. They march to his beat and are pretty darn happy about it.
Captain: Paul O’Connell stands in for the talismanic Brian O’Driscoll but he has a few fans himself. He reminds me of the Undertaker from WWE. He’ll boss the lineout and run the ugly lines for the good of the team. He can club his way onto the front foot and is fearfully respected by his peers.
Star: Without BO’D it may well fall to Jamie Heaslip. He’s addicted to that tryline. Loves a score. Fast, strong and smart, he will snaffle a few points from the number 8 position.
One to watch: He’s an experienced international but I cannot shake the feeling that it is Andrew Trimble’s time to shine. I’m putting a fair bit of dosh on this kid to score some tries.
Stadium: After council disputes and pleas for work to be done to it the Stadio Flaminio is getting a facelift. In the meantime Italy will be calling teams to the Stadio Olimpico, also in Rome. It may not have as much charm or character, but Rome is Rome. Everyone will be falling about having a good old time, regardless.
Coach: Former Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel comes in making subtle changes and looking like he is desperate to be holding a pipe. More calculating than Nick Mallett, perhaps.
Captain: Sergio Parisse. No more needs said.
Star: em… Super Sergio.
One to watch: Make it a hattrick…? Apart from him…. toss a coin. Masi is a tidy footballer and Barbieri is a talented front foot flanker.
Stadium: Murrayfield. EH12. Roseburn. The car park is reopened, too. Expect the two home games to have that nostalgic feel everyone loves. Beers out the boot of the car, blue everywhere and a sense of excitement hanging in the air.
Coach: Andy Robinson. A man Strokosch described as “the most competitive” he’d met. Can he finally deliver on his promise?
Captain: Kelly Brown went down playing for Saracens, so the responsibility was bestowed upon Ross Ford. He has a pretty nifty support group, too. Could be a chance for him to grow into the brilliant player he has fleetingly hinted at.
Star: Richie Gray gets all the attention. He is a camera man’s dream, all highlighted and gigantic…
One to watch: The noise from the fans is that Lee Jones on the wing is a stroke of genius. He is causing a few flutters and the odd tizzy. In space he or Max Evans can scuttle with the best of them and with his dislike of kicking he will be on the hoof a fair bit. Wind him up and let him go.
Stadium: The Millennium Stadium rocks and rolls with the very best of them. Do you like singing?
Coach: Warren Gatland is outspoken, assured and driven. This Wales side is in his image and he’ll be damned if he will let anyone challenge it. Also fond of mind games. DO NOT TAKE HIM ON IN A STARING CONTEST.
Captain: Warburton is just wonderful, isn’t he? He hits with his face. He carries like a flying sledge hammer. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that a human body can break. If Gatland needed someone to volunteer for scientific experiments “For the good of Wales” this kid would have his hand up first. Think of a bomb disposal expert running around a park.
Star: Toby Faletau showed in the big games in the World Cup that he was capable of moving Heaven, Earth, Narnia and Mordor to get to that white line. More than impressive on the run.
One to watch: Bruiser George North may make a bit of an impression in this tournament as he runs lines off of Jonathan Davies and chases lofted kicks. I will not be alone in hoping he runs right at Rougerie at some point… Take that for a Large Hadron Collider.