The colours are beginning to gather and swirl. Or at least in my head they are. And this year, there is a freshening up of if not the hues or emblems then certainly some of the imagery. Ireland swap perennial likeable erratic celtic scurrying for stolid consistency. England go skinny-dipping into a brave new brick-pond. Wales – dashing and smashing Wales – seek quietly desperately to do what they just did once more. France try fundamentally to get a grip, Italy to get a win (again) and Scotland… Scotland gathers once more into a determined huddle with a rare degree of authentic belief. This much at least suggests itself from the recent announcements of 6 Nations personnel.
On balance it seems great; a feistily competitive tournament awaits; an even one perhaps, where England may have been transformed from the Great Boring Shadow over the affair into The Real White Fluffy Bunny of Hope. Ideally.
Or where Wales accept the challenge of doing that thing all over again and do, whilst breaking down the walls of tradition through being majestically/counterintuitively pragmatic in order to win. Or where Scotland really really actually actually do beat people they threaten to beat on paper, following their allegedlyinfact real progress. And these are just the obvious shifting gems in my own particular admittedly Brit-centric kaleidoscope.
I’m actually guessing England’s necessary evolution will stereotypically not feature some flamboyant casting off of the recent dull iron. The talk of youth and the manifest rejection of Tindall/Banahan and arguably Easter points to a healthy injection of pace and flexibility, with the newboys Farrell and Barritt for example looking suitably geared up to facilitate that requirement.
Yet talk really is cheap when it comes to the international level; particularly in reference to ‘playing a more expansive game’. Getting notably duffed up in the first ten by a politically motivated Scots back-row might throttle back rose-tinted English ambition pretty sharply I sense. And more specifically, if Lancaster does go for Hodgson Farrell Barritt(?) as 10-12-13, half of England as well as all of Scotland will be initially concerned with how they cope, never mind how they play.
Hodgson has been widely admired as a top and consistent performer in the Premiership but am I alone in wondering whether he has the temperament or (go on, say it) The Bottle to boss things on an international stage? Particularly one that specifies Murrayfield first-up. His nature and my memory of said nature suggests otherwise.
But such is the lot of the 10. Current expectation, history and some large hairy geezer all bearing down…
Unquestionably though, the ability or otherwise of the English to reinvent themselves into a modern/competitive/fit for purpose top level international side is clearly going to impact on the destination of the 6 Nations trophy. Not particularly because any of us expect them to win it but because they have, as they say, players.
But do they have a team?
Wales have different pressures. A near-magnificent Word Cup adventure; a coaching triumvirate in Gatland/Edwards/Howley that gathered them then to a collective peak of confidence and execution, now needing to do that most challenging of things – rinse and repeat. Dangers of expectation and of maintenance; maintaining that spirit; maintaining intensity without shackling that glorious expression; maintaining composure when suddenly Faletau/Warburton are getting knocked back. Defending without distraction when every fibre screams out for release. And maybe most pointedly, plastering over cracks where key players should be.
I have a hunch that Priestland, perversely, may find life in the 6 more testing than it appeared at the World Cup. His chief attribute seemed then his general coolness – the boy making no claim to threaten the exclusivity of King John and his mercurial followers in the national out-half slot. He succeeded in being effective without sparkling and I wonder how that key balance – territory versus terrorism? – will play out this time.
Hook is surely a bigger talent, but one flawed or compromised or perceived to be, following the occasional interception of a killer pass. Given that much of the gut-churning tension generated by test matches inveigles its way into the heads/hearts/feet/hands of the number 10’s, the pulse of the Welsh side will calm or quicken according to the quality of will and the steel shown by Priestland or by Hook. Because – in one of their bigger calls? – the coaches have dispensed with the doughty Stephen Jones. May youth and imagination prosper.
The Irish fascinate me. Not just through their capacity to produce the world’s finest and most rewardingly sustaining drink – although many a thesis could be written to conjoin Guinness and creative genius – and then link that dubiously to numbers 4 to 7/possibly 8 on a rugby pitch. (I’m not going there, quite.) But Ireland have been and do remain a threat mostly(?) when the O’Connells to the Heaslips seem possessed of an electrically charged, patriotically driven fury. Then low-centred centres have relentlessly exploited newly-exposed soft-centres. That is still likely to be the Irish Way.
To be more specific, there are times when the Irish carry irresistibly – when the pick and go is developed into a carousel of green violence few can resist. O’Connell will be selflessly but in every sense leading this charge; as skipper and as totem for that special kind of focussed but physical examination. Ireland do have quality in the backs – witness the omission of Luke Fitzgerald – but a certain BOD has often been the baton-carrier into the lethal phases, has he not?
It strikes me that Bowe in flight is a classy but a pretty rare sight in recent times because of this sniping midfield obsession; one which works fiercely but historically only intermittently, often off the back of a roaring home crowd. Is this, I wonder a reflection of the lack of ubertalent as well as a mark of the propensity for world-class defiance?
So I am fascinated by the onward roll of a part-green part-gold generation; which despite its relative consistency has spikes of over and underachievement. Which of these Irelands, these Wales’s, these Englands will actually turn up?
My opening gambits. As such they are hardly exhaustive – and I do intend to take on the Scots and the rest more forensically later. But with kick-offs so invitingly, so deliciously approaching, it does feel good as well as appropriate to be all mouth and no action for now.