The French must be bawling. Slumped on the fields of Alsace ou Normande, bitterly weeping out their heartbreak. Gawping in the cafe-bars of Biarritz, over the affaire discombobulatingly cruelle. Who could have foreseen it; the day when the English – Les Anglais! – usurped them as the great enigma of 6 Nations rugby? When the lily-whites, the ros-bifs actually actually appeared more difficult to read than the magnificently, enigmatically opaque Bleus. When England from 9 to 15 were that ludicrously French phenomenon, the Unlikely Lads. Or worse- the Unknowably Untested Lads. Or the Godknows What Will Happen Lads. But such is the current, anti-intuitive scenario.
France, of course are still reassuringly in pieces. Some bits toweringly, even tempestuously brilliant – Harinoduquy? Dusautoir? Whilst others others skulk and feint too easily in the traditional allegedly gallic manner. They are, therefore yet again likely to be consistently inconsistent, despite the swapping of guard following Lievremont’s departure preceding a comparative calming of the perception of changes perpetuelles. (If my taking of diabolical liberties with the French language offends, please send your complaints to P Idgin, Two Veg Row, Hampton le Cobblers, Dorset.)
For the arrival of Philippe Saint Andre – and his selection of a 30 hommes squad – seems to have been relatively quietly appreciated and indeed commented upon in rugbygossville. Notable picks are Beauxis, the Toulouse pivot and the returning Poitrenaud and Nyanga. Elsewhere the Yachvilis and Parras and Vincent Clercs give the thing a spookily familiar, if not (ever?) trusty look.
But when this is a side that recently featured in the World Cup Final, why wouldn’t it look familiar? What’s to be gained by too much faffing, now the Fiddle-Meister-in-Chief Lievremont has disparu? The fact that his charges were possibly the most unlikely and almost unbelievably ungraceful (and therefore unpopular) French side in memory that somehow woke up to find themselves in a WCF is interesting rather than seminal. They were actually shambolically crap; but they almost made it. Like France would. Now they must add structure and consistency to the engagingly, maddeningly French stuff. So there won’t be too many changes; unless Saint Andre can fashion some conviction and some unity; in which case they might win the thing at a canter.
Scotland have surely no chance of winning the tournament. Certainly not with just the two home games – England and France? Their contribution to and competitive streak in the tournament is, to their credit, gathering but the retirement of Paterson leaves them further adrift in the putting points on the board stakes, does it not? For all the recent highs – the heartening resurgence vol. XXlV – it just appears that that minor detail (execution from the backs) eludes them. I do not discount the achievements of either Edinburgh – sitting pretty ‘midst the Heineken Cup Quarters elite – or Glasgee – sitting pretty pretty in the pro12 – but who amongst the back division is actually going to score?
Ross Ford is a mighty and a proud wee leader of men I’ve no doubt, and the famed back row in particular may yet marmalise (in particular) the soft centre of their first, momentarily white-suited opponents. But the quality they have at 9 and 10 is rarely matched outside. Consequently the Cussiter/Blair/Parks axis either has to really make something very new happen, or energise the loose forwards towards more than the occasional or moral victory.
Andy Robinson – a man treated poorly I suspect by both players and officials at Twickers – knows all this and is no doubt icily smouldering for a win against the English first up. That’s certainly do-able. Given the genuine all-court progress Robinson has led, plus the inevitable key Mel Gibsonian roar of the sporran-touting masses, Messrs Hodgson/Farrell and co might be forgiven for pooping their Calvin Klein’s at the prospect. The Scots may not need any backs to win that one; which may be just as well. Paterson is scheduled to take a fond adieu in one of those cringingly orchestrated ‘farewells’ that pro sport does these days; before kick-off; against the English. He, like us, just won’t know which way that one will go.
The Italians, under new coach Jacques Brunel mirror some of Scotland’s shortcomings, only maybe in a hall-of-mirrors kindofaway. They are at times, more weirdly inadequate, especially as they approach the opposition 22. If they ever do. Cruel? Perhaps. But the Azurri, who battle bravely and with some efficiency at scrum and at breakdown – where the likes of Castrogioavanni and Parisse and to a lesser extent Bergamasco deny smug notions that they are there to make up the numbers – are… short of numbers. Numbers 10 to 15 typically. And maybe 4, 5, 6. Ish. Consequently, the feeling and the likelihood remains that they can’t quite compete. Not in more than one or two games. Not really.
There have been times when those of us who love the game and rate the Italian zest for it have chorused endlessly on the subject of kickers. The lack of which has been absolutely key to preventing the Roman hordes from further, more rewarding pillage. (Remember they did beat the French in Rome last time out.) The chronic shortage of place-kickers in particular has de-empired them before the legions have been dispatched. I have myself, on many occasions, volunteered to step up at time of need, having struck successfully for Italia on many occasions – I kid you not – in the Thunder Bay and District Midwinter Soccer League. (‘Nother story- let’s leave it.) I wouldn’t, believe me, have missed. Not like that.
Now, again, the question may be How To Stay In Touch with those who are just that bit better, that bit more likely to ‘execute’. Whilst watching another convincing flurry from scrum to about halfway, I, for one, will be wishing our Italian brothers well.