‘The putative heir or the actual king’: Ireland and France think they’re the world’s best – the Six Nations opener could settle it
Louis Armstrong was asked once: ‘What is jazz?’
His reply: ‘Man, when you got to ask what it is, you’ll never get to know.’
Of all the annual Test tournaments in rugby, the leader in indefinable passion and mystique is clear.
Round One (Ireland at France):
The 2024 Six Nations Championship starts with the final that wasn’t. France hosts Ireland in Round One.
Yes, the old tournament has adopted bonus points so that a close loser who scores four tries wins two bonus points: as good as a draw. But a Grand Slam winner gets three unique points.
Both teams believe they should be the best in the world, now and in the next World Cup. If Thomas Ramos had been awake for his quarter-final and the best ruck cleaning team in world rugby had rolled the oldest Kiwi off the ball in the other quarter, this might have been the World Cup’s final chapter.
This weekend the big blue six-time champions (and 2013 wooden spooners) host the hungry green five-time winners (never sixth place) in Marseille, allowing the Stade de France to get an Olympic face lift.
Coach Fabien Galthie has reacted to his side’s bitter loss to the Springboks by preaching squad mindfulness, naming a likable forward as captain to replace his grim half-back boss, and will continue to draw up attack arabesques to pursue what he sees as virtuous combat, whilst his blunt force trauma coach Shaun Edwards will hold the doctrine of kicking the fornicating ball when the parabola is in their own effing half.
On paper, Galthie has the better, bigger athletes and merely needs to harness that power and pace to win the opener and have Greg Alldritt emerge as a better leader (if not the better player) than Antoine Dupont.
Anthony Jelonch is also gone, but there is no lack of loose forward replacements in the squad. Francois Cros fills in ably, joining Charles Ollivon and Alldritt in a big mean trio. Paul Willemse is likely back to form an engine at scrum and lifting duo at lineout with the other Paul, Monsieur Gabrillagues.
If Andy Farrell’s team, led by a new fly-half and an old grizzly loose forward of their own, drops the first match to France’s frontrunners, it will be a long climb to retain their 2023 championship crown.
France is only favoured by three or so points: otherwise known as a kick in the last few minutes.
On that issue, Ireland’s loss of their clutch marksman and the pin inside their attacking wheel (Johnny Sexton) could be bigger than France being without their number nine, as Ramos takes the tee for France.
Sexton’s erstwhile successor has played less than five minutes of Six Nations rugby, and nobody knows if he is the putative heir or the actual king; and the opener is in the Velodrome, a place I found to be even louder than the Stade de France, with roofs shaped like a frog’s arse, creating a swirling wind and sound.
France overplayed in their exit match against South Africa: ignoring the danger of the “lost ball” as they chased attack-first dreams and a knockout blow versus a champion with an iron chin. Still, their first half burst of energy might have put any team except the Springboks (or Ireland) away within an hour.
Ireland has a big beefy lock in young Joe McCarthy, who could allow Farrell to load his bench with fleet Josh van der Flier (he can shift canny Tadgh Beirne to blindside flank and O’Mahony to openside for fifty minutes) and perhaps even have six forwards in reserve to not be overwhelmed by French power.
The best matchup in the best match may be Peato Mauvaka up against Dan Sheehan at hooker. Mauvaka played an hour of exquisite, near perfect rugby in The Quarter-final: a standoff against peak Eben Etzebeth, breaking the line, playing nine, offloading, hitting all jumpers, steering the maul, and finishing.
Sheehan is among the most fluidly athletic tight forwards in the world and will want to grow further.
The wobbly World Cup lineout will have been the manic fixation and jeremiad of assistant coach Paul Jeremiah O’Connell. Odds are it will be more solid and pushing Beirne to loose forward with long Caelan Doris at the back means Ireland have five targets and five long lifters.
But in the main, Ireland and France will stick with continuity, intent on showing their Cup exits were one-offs and the plans for 2024 to 2027 are well in hand.
The Irish have not named a bolter; not even an uncapped player is in the squad (Jordan Larmour may have a chance to be the comeback player with Mac Hansen out).
The feeling on this opener is that both coach-and-captain duos are throwbacks determined to show last year’s failures were anomaly. No big decisions or cuts are made: the mindset is to go harder with harder captaincies and make modest shifts at game manager.
In his last novel, ‘The Winter of Our Discontent,’ John Steinbeck had his main character Ethan Hawley muse in a manner I can imagine Farrell sonorously muttering to himself on dark days:
“It has been my experience to put aside a decision for future pondering. Then one day, fencing a piece of time to face the problem, I have found it already completed, solved, and the verdict taken. … It’s as though, in the dark and desolate caves of the mind, a faceless jury had met and decided. This secret and sleepless area in me I have always thought of as black, deep, waveless water, a spawning place from which only a few forms ever rise to the surface. Or maybe it’s a great library where is recorded everything that has ever happened to living matter back to the first moment when it began to live. I think some people have closer access to this place than others: poets, for example.”
I would exchange “scrumhalves” for “poets.” Bonjour, Maxime Lucu. This is your time.
Division One of the Six Nations is decided on weekend one; unless it is a draw. I predict a draw.
Round Two (Twickenham Rebrand):
In Division Two made up of three teams from the United Kingdom, things will have started spicy in Cardiff (Scotland v. Wales in Round One).
Thus, England and Wales will run on to the cabbage patch on the tenth of February with the hosts surely fresh from putting Italy to the sword and the visitors happy to spoil the home match. This will be the Test of the Round.
Steve Borthwick has put a personality transplant on the team with Jamie George the leader, anchoring an all-comedy front row with wry Dan Cole and overstated Joe Marler. George is in charge of a new playlist for DJ Twickers, presumably tunes to make cranberry chinos chair-dance, suede loafers tap faster to the craft beer queue, and waxed coats wave more freely.
When I remember my times at Twickenham for Tests involving the Sweet Chariot, I think of Oscar Wilde’s descriptions of ‘London Models:’
“On the whole the English female models are very naïve, very natural, and very good-humoured. The virtues which the artist values most in them are prettiness and punctuality. Every sensible model … dresses neatly. Nearly all of them live with their parents and help to support the house. They have every qualification for being immortalized in art except that of beautiful hands. The hands of the English model are nearly always coarse and red.”
Unfailingly true still, but of investment bankers in the stands, singing spirituals without irony.
England’s pass mark in this tournament is to finish third: the Bronze Bombers will have ballers Freddie Steward, Eliot Daly, Tommy Freeman, Henry Slade, Fin Smith, George Ford, and the inspiringly-named Fraser Dingwall (veteran of ten England squads and a fine Saints captain, but so far not able to break through the Tuilagi-shaped hole into regular caps) on the pitch, anchored by “just the pass, please” Alex Mitchell and “run first, think later” Danny Care at the base.
It is hard to see them knocking off either of the Top Two, but they should have enough swagger to keep the rest of the Celts in line.
Wales’ sad-eyed Warren Gatland has gone with a youth movement. A young lock is rarely a good captain because there is still so much to learn at that position, but here is his young Dafyyd trying to emulate Jac Morgan for unlikely young generalship.
In the press, writing a column for The Telegraph, Gatland has struck a sour note which is in harmony with the Welsh gloom in general.
He has railed against the shape and law of rugby, both de jure and de facto, protesting the role of the kicker in rugby, he who gave us the thrilling Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny show, but his real problem is George North and Josh Adams are the only backline veterans in the outside channels, with Aaron Wainwright a poor man’s Taulupe Faletau and a tired Will Rowlands the mainstay in a depleted pack.
Much will depend on Tommy Reffell’s play on the deck, along with Nick Tompkins’ swerve.
In truth, Wales is the Home Nation most concerned with avoiding the Wooden Spoon, even if Scotland cannae be comfortable, either.
There is every sign that England can overwhelm Wales and make the barristers dance in the aisles again. In fact, they must: this match in Round Two looms large as a benchmark for Borthwick’s progress.
For Wales and rugby in Wales, this decade is a trial, a tribulation. Their brightest star chose to run post patterns in Miami, wearing sticky gloves and a South Beach smile. Their old guard is gone south, with only North a reminder of happier times. 2024 is what we call a character test.
Don Miguel Ruiz, the Mexican shaman who adapted Toltec wisdom to help the world be a happier place wrote the nagual The Four Agreements: be impeccable with your words (or speak with integrity and say only what you mean), don’t take anything personally (nothing others do is because of you, so be immune to the opinion of others), don’t make assumptions (express what you really want), and always do your best (your best will change from moment to moment).
Deep in the Welsh chest are great warriors who can defend their pride with these sorts of truths. Be clear, be precise, keep heads down, listen only to the hearts of other warriors, win each moment you can, and just do your best in each moment.
As anyone knows, Wales would love more than anything else to wreck the Twickers rebrand.
Round Three (The Calcutta Cup):
Scottish pride is routinely dented in World Cups and their fragility after one or two big wins is also one reason Six Nation leaders are sometimes undercooked in the Cup.
The “Pool of Death” was feared mostly because of Scotland being thought of as the clear fifth best team in the world, but they were not. Not at all. The Pool of Death was the Pool of Life.
In any other top team, the routine Scottish demise would be cause for abject depression and Gregor Townsend would have been sent packing. But not in Scotland. The chairman gets the axe and the Toonie-and-Finn vaudeville act persists.
Netflix is profoundly grateful for Scotland’s place in the Six Nations because their writers could finally find actors willing to deliver their cheesiest lines. The Scots love to laugh.
As Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton stated in the mad wee film ‘Trainspotters:’ “People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shit which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not f—- stupid. At least, we’re not that f—- stupid.”
The Scots rebound and the reason for their rise is always one match: The Calcutta Cup.
This year, it is in Edinburgh and I will attend, fully expecting Scotland on a six-match losing streak suddenly flip the switch, find chip space behind England’s defensive line, arrow passes to nowhere for Huw Jones, Kyle Steyn, and the Afrikaner Android to run on to and for Blair Kinghorn to offer more flexibility and brainpower than hair-on-fire Stuart Hogg when big matches were on the line.
Now, Scotland can catch France cold at Murrayfield in Round Two after overcoming their Cardiff Curse and then this Calcutta Cup would transform into their biggest Six Nations match ever (sorry, that was merely a Full Contact overhype).
But Rory Darge is perhaps the least convincing captaincy pick; almost as if Toonie is still keeping Finn on a leash.
Fourth place is the pass mark for Scotland, but stealing the bronze from the English would be the ‘exceeds expectation’ grade.
No matter what, this clash with England appeals as a likely humdinger of a match.
Round Four (the Impossible Dream):
Scotland goes to Rome in March, wary of the Ides. This is the great chance for Italy to win in the Six Nations this year and set up a final round battle in Cardiff to avoid the spoon.
Scotland was the last team to finish sixth besides Italy: 2015.
Italy’s winning percentage (22%) against Scotland is the highest of their Six Nations matchups.
Italy has strong players, in Paolo Garbisi, Sebastian Negri, Ange Capuozzo, and Michele Lamaro, but do not exit smoothly, get caught in shootouts, and win the highlight packages instead of field position.
New coach Gonzalo Quesada was a languid 486-point kicker for Argentina (he would have despised the kick clock) and perhaps can teach his team kicking is not a cardinal sin.
Italian rugby, with strong young bullish players and an idealistic anthem, reminds me of the first page of Miguel de Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote:’
“Down in a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to recollect, there lived, not long ago, one of those gentlemen who usually keep a lance upon a rack, an old buckler, a lean stallion, and a coursing greyhound. Soup, composed of somewhat more mutton than beef, the fragments served up cold on most nights, lentils on Fridays, eggs and collops on Saturdays, and a pigeon, by way of addition, on Sundays, consumed three-fourths of his income; the remainder of it supplied him with a cloak of fine cloth, velvet breeches, with slippers of the same for holidays, and a suit of the best homespun, in which he adorned himself on weekdays.”
Italy spends fifty or sixty million euros a year, boasts the best kit and the loveliest supporters outside of Portugal, has spent two dozen years in the Six Nations, winning twelve of 105 matches played, and is still ranked twelfth in the world.
This year, again, they will dream the impossible dream, fight unbeatable foes, bear with unbearable sorrow, run where the brave dare not go, and try to reach the unreachable star.
But if Benetton’s form can translate into Test rugby and Quesada’s smarter style can beat Scotland in Rome; suddenly silver cutlery beckons for the soup instead of wood.
Round Five (le Crunch):
The last match of this year’s Six Nations is France versus England and if the fates, bonus points or draws have allowed, it will decide the tournament. We can all hope.
England has the depth and style to trouble a France under pressure.
France is on a mission to civilize rugby (or corrupt it, it is unclear as with all things in France).
This would be a fitting finale.