Six Nations kicks off with plenty questions

PAUL CULLY
Last updated 12:41 02/02/2013
Sam Warburton
Getty Images
ON THE CUSP: From a sure starter, to battling for selection, Sam Warburton needs a big Six Nations to stay in the Lions frame.

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It is apt in this year, a Lions year, that the Six Nations kicks off this weekend with a famous Lions voice ringing in many ears.

Jim Telfer, the straight-talking Scottish coach immortalised in the 1997 documentary Living with Lions (excerpts of which are reproduced on YouTube, for those without sensitive dispositions), did not miss many targets in an interview this week in which he described the English as ''arrogant'' and the Welsh as fundamentally ''lazy''.

The rebuttals from London and Cardiff have been quick, categorical and predictable. It's wonderful Six Nations stuff - the tournament is built on these very perceptions, old prejudices and rivalries.

But it was another observation from Telfer that really piqued interest. ''I attended a Lions dinner in Edinburgh recently,'' Telfer said. ''Andy Irvine, the Lions manager, spoke about all our world-class players. I thought, 'Who are they? What are you talking about?'''

Telfer may be prickly but he is no fool. England's famous victory against the All Blacks in December has puffed out northern chests, but the Home Unions that make up the British and Irish Lions played sides from the Rugby Championship 19 times last year and won just three, and just one away from home. Lions coach Warren Gatland will be watching the Six Nations and praying his big players, those who can be world class, stand up, and quickly.

The outlook did not look as uncertain 11 months ago. Then, the Welsh - under Gatland - had collected a grand slam after an impressive World Cup and appeared set to provide the core of a compelling-looking Lions squad that would be filled out by the Irishmen who had manhandled the Wallabies at the World Cup, the best from an improving England and a smattering of Scots.

A captain-in-waiting, Sam Warburton, had been pencilled in and the vital No 8-No 9-No 10 axis looked like it would simply be lifted from the red of Wales into the similar Lions hue.

Now, Warburton is under pressure to justify selection at No 7 for his own country, while England captain Chris Robshaw is being championed as the Lions' answer at openside (an outcome David Pocock and Michael Hooper might not altogether be opposed to).

Another mark of how how things have changed was Gatland's decision in December, that Shaun Edwards, his long-time lieutenant and defence coach, would not be required on Lions duty.

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That role went to England's Andy Farrell. It was unsentimental - possibly at some personal cost - surprising, flexible and pragmatic. It certainly would have killed off any notion in the players' minds there was such a thing as a certainty when it comes to Lions selection.

So there will be more than Six Nations points on offer when the hostilities begin with Wales hosting Ireland and England welcoming Scotland.

Some reputations will be enhanced, others damaged. Farrell may not be the last time Gatland turns towards the red rose and away from the red dragon, although it is prudent to hold back on handing the English too much praise just yet. The London papers do a fine job of that on their own.

Besides, the Scots should come at them with some heat and the Irish with tongs straight from the furnace in Dublin a week later. There is a possibility of a reality check for Stuart Lancaster's side. But let's not be churlish about it.

If England, as the bookmakers suggest, do finish as the best of the Home Unions, they will deserve a healthy representation in Gatland's squad. It was with adventure, accuracy and belief, as well as muscle, that they put the All Blacks to the sword.

That victory will not be lost on Gatland, who separately must be gleeful his mischievous, divisive suggestion the Wallabies release their best players for the Lions warm-up games has been picked up with such enthusiasm by the Australian Super coaches.

The standings on the Six Nations table will not be the entire story. If Gatland's job was as straightforward as picking a form Six Nations team, the coach would barely be needed.

Any committee of experts, or well-meaning fools, could do that. Gatland's job is to select the men who will get the job done in Australia in June, not in Europe in February. There are good players and there are Lions. It is these selections, the ones Gatland makes on instinct, that will define the tour.

There are many possibilities, some more intriguing than others.

Former Crusaders winger Sean Maitland, who has burnt a few Australian defenders with his pace in his time, will make his debut for Scotland at Twickenham, seeking not only to impress his new country but also Gatland.

The man who gave Maitland his Crusaders debut is Robbie Deans and he grew up in New Zealand with a cousin called Quade Cooper. As a story, it is almost too good to come true, but this is a Lions year and the drama is just beginning.

Six Nations fixtures

Sun, Feb 3 Wales v Ireland, 2.30am England v Scotland, 5am

Mon, Feb 4 Italy v France, 4am

Sun, Feb 10 Scotland v Italy, 3.30am France v Wales, 6am

Mon, Feb 11 Ireland v England, 4am

Sun, Feb 24 Italy v Wales, 2.30am England v France, 6am

Mon, Feb 25 Scotland v Ireland, 3.30am

Sun, March 10 Scotland v Wales, 3.30am Ireland v France, 6am

Mon, March 11 Italy v England, 3am

Sun, March 17 Italy v Ireland, 3.30am Wales v England, 6am France v Scotland, 9.30am

- Sydney Morning Herald

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