Thursday, February 01, 2007

Six Nations Preview: Who Dares Stand In Our Way?

Prior to the formality of picking up the Six Nations trophy and the mythical garlands of the grand slam on Paddy's Day in Rome, the organisers of the tournament have laid on five preliminary matches for Ireland to fulfil before the party begins.

Here we look at the wretches who are lined up to be crushed under the heel of mighty Erin....

WALES (Sunday Feb 4th, Millenium Stadium Cardiff)

Bow down you coal-mining, sweet voiced dwarves!
The selection of Simon Easterby in the pack ahead of Neil Best was explained through reasons twofold: a) he plays in Wales and therefore doesn't mind the smell so much, and b) he's a fine tall fella who's good in lineouts (even though Best is only an inch more diminutive).

We can be pretty damn sure then that Eddie O'Sullivan plans to silence the Millenium Stadium mid-Land-of-my-Fathers through the boot of Ronan O'Gara into the corner, followed by the grinding of maul on the back of lineout supremacy. The avoidance of broken play - Wales' preferred modus operandi - until domination is won up front will be the theme of the day.

A capital plan it is too. By hopefully notching scores through the aforementioned forward rumbling and perhaps a few penalties borne of Welsh frustration, we will hope for the Welsh to get all panicky and start throwing the ball around off inadequate set-pieces; by the time our backs get the ball in their hands, they will be merely gilding the lily.

Aaargh, the male voice choir is weakening our powers with their rousing chorus!
Best laid plans and all that. With the wobbliness of Munster's scrum against Leicester a few weeks back, it's a little rich to assume forward dominance over anyone in this tournament.

Wales will attempt to attack this perceived weakness - they'd be mad not to - and, if Gethin Jenkins gets a heave on, watch Ryan Jones postively gulp down the Irish halves. And if Rory Best and his jumpers get it wrong in the line-out, we could be exposed to an open gunfight. With a balance of the guile and cleverness of Stephen Jones, James Hook and Dwayne Peel and the power of Gareth Thomas in the Welsh backs, we might be eating daffodils in jig time.

FRANCE (Sunday Feb 11th, Croke Park)

Back to your quasi-socialist economic basket-case state, Froggy!
As the team who initially punctured Ireland's 2005 Grand Slam ambitions, it understandable to greet France's arrival with furrowed brow and a modicum of caution.

However, the single factor which makes this an unlosable game for Ireland is not on the pitch, but rather around it: Croke Park. This match is such a hugely anticipated and culturally seismic occasion for the Irish that I fully expect France, like a Vichy border guard spying a swastika, to stand graciously aside.

I am basing this supposition on two things: Biarritz did likewise when confronted with the reality of the emotional weight behind Munster's Heineken Cup bid last year, writ large on the Cardiff big screen at a crucial juncture of the final. When those pictures of O'Connell St. in Limerick were broadcast, the Biarritz players could clearly be seen mouthing to each other: "ah, un grand passion" before shrugging in admiration and chucking the game.

Secondly, the French have made it clear that their attentions are focused totally on this autumn's World Cup, and no amount of Six Nations victories will compensate for the opprobrium they will face at home if they host the tournament in as ramshackle manner as they did their autumn internationals. Hence rotation, experimentation and another win for Ireland.

But then again, a year ago the Irish scrum was obliterated to the point of farce in the first half in Paris, leaving Ronan O'Gara trying to use the ball while practically on his backside.

What's to say that won't be the case again? Sure, Ireland responded on that occasion with Almost the Greatest Comeback Ever, but the French had moved onto the petit fours by that stage.

France have named Milloud, Ibanez and De Villiers in their front row for this weekend, the same three that played in Stade de France last year. Ireland name Horan and Best instead of Corrigan and Flannery from that game, which is just a slightly more than negligible improvement.

True, unsettled in the half-backs - the French give Pierre Mignoni and David Skrela the 9 and 10 shirts on Saturday in place of the more familiar twosome of Freddie Michalak (injured) and Dmitri Yachvili (benched) - there's no guarantee that the French will be able to punish us. Then again, behind those two are the experienced and dangerous likes of Yannick Jauzion, Cristophe Dominici and Clement Poitrenaud, who, like Kerry's footballers, will enjoy the open spaces of Croke Park.

Tomorrow: the hapless Jocks, perfidious Albion and the pizza-munchers. Or Scotland the Brave, England's Glory and Forza Italia. You choose.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Tom and I love the picture of Alfie you tagged onto the top of the post. Bet he isn't so happy today with his last six nations lying in ruins.

I'd love to get you into our tipping competition, if you have a minute drop by:

9:38 a.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Heard the news about him this morning and wondered had I cursed him with that photo...

10:57 a.m.  

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