Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global

FEATURE How the Six Nations opener meets Einstein's parable of quantum insanity

How the Six Nations opener meets Einstein's parable of quantum insanity
4 months ago

There is no gainsaying The Fates – men dream; destiny laughs – but fair play to the Six Nations for doing its level best to make amends; namely, gifting us – first up – the France-Ireland showdown we were all dreaming about three months ago as a fabulous, final flourish to the Rugby World Cup. No? Maybe it was just me, then.

And yet, it’s an odd one. Usually, when you’re opening your Christmas presents – and the Six Nations does bear an almost spooky similarity to the festive season – you start by unwrapping the socks and the 10-piece combination screwdriver set and you save the bottle of Ardbeg Wee Beastie Islay Single Malt until last. But in this year’s Six Nations, we’re getting the ambrosia for openers and, I won’t lie, it’s a touch disconcerting. Wouldn’t happen in our house.

But it’s a tantalising start, not least because we’re in the cockpit of Marseille on a steamy Friday night. Not much beats an Eden Park haka, especially when it comes drenched in flashbulbs and rinsed in dry ice but, no question, La Marseillaise sung in Marseille is a comparable laxative. What’s more, Ireland being packed off to France is like asking the body to return to the scene of the crime while it’s still warm, all of which makes for an immediate and incendiary test of the green team’s Grand Slam credentials.

Ireland player ratings

Snarling flanker Peter O’Mahony has been named Ireland skipper in place of the retired Jonny Sexton (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

Andy Farrell’s signature selection for this year’s campaign is his plump for captain. It oozes continuity or, to put it more simply, it’s one fiery, hard-as-nails, potty-tongued, over-my-dead-body skipper – Peter O’Mahony – replacing another – Johnny Sexton. You wouldn’t want to play Ludo with either of them. Farrell, of course, could’ve gone for a potentially longer-term option – a James Ryan, perhaps a Garry Ringrose – but evolution is his Six Nations watchword. And, you have to say, given Ireland’s recent record, it’s logical enough.

But there are crêpe-hangers who – as crêpe-hangers are wont to do – see things differently, the counterargument being that Ireland are missing the bigger picture; to wit, yet another World Cup quarter-final pratfall which demands the team – like James Bond’s dry Martini – should be shaken, not stirred. Outcome bias or are Ireland, as one naysayer put it, “making the same mistakes and expecting different outcomes”? Either way, it’s not often a coach as astute as Farrell ends up featuring in the same argument as Einstein’s Parable of Quantum Insanity.

Co-captains? I’m not so sure. Gregor Townsend reckons the Darge-Russell ticket will “bring different strengths” but if one says ‘heads’ and the other calls ‘tails’, it may take 10 minutes just to sort out which team kicks off.

France, like Ireland, have demons to ditch and, again, like Ireland, are a totem pole short (and if you think Antoine Dupont’s a handful in the 15-a-side game, imagine the havoc he’ll wreak in Sevens.) But there’s also no Romain Ntamack, no Gabin Villière and the hugely influential Anthony Jelonch is sidelined with a knee injury. Thibaud Flament is also on sick parade and the mighty Emmanuel Meafou misses out in Marseille. There are boots the size of Barnsley which need filling in the deuxième ligne.

But few teams boast quite so many quality spare parts as the French. You lose the Toulouse talismen from your three-quarter line and you’re forced to lump it with four guys from Bordeaux-Bègles? How on earth will they cope? Indeed, the likes of Maxime Lucu, Mathieu Jalibert, Jonathan Danty, Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud, Louis Bielle-Biarrey and Thomas Ramos are going to leave even the stiffest defences reaching for the Diazepam; like standing under an elephant, sooner or later you’re going to get hosed.

Townsend Russell Jones <a href=
Scotland verdict” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Fences have been mended between Scotland co-captain Finn Russell and head coach Gregor Townsend (Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images)

The breakdown, you assume, will decide things in Marseille and watching serial burglars such as Julien Marchand, Danty, Tadgh Beirne and Bundee Aki robbing each other blind will make for an exquisite bunfight, so best wishes to referee Karl Dickson. This, incidentally, is a Six Nations when 15 matches will be whistled by 15 different referees – there are fresh faces everywhere across this tournament – including Andrea Piardi who’ll become the first Italian to take charge of a Six Nations fixture. Buona fortuna to him and to all officials everywhere.

Scotland, like France and Ireland, have a nasty, unsightly itch to scratch and, you’d fancy, a one-point win in Cardiff on the opening weekend will offer more of a balm than four long months of ointments, emollients and oil-based moisturisers. Granted, the biggest stuffing they took at the World Cup came from the initial draw but the Six Nations wouldn’t be the Six Nations unless Scotland were ‘the dark horses with a point to prove’.

Co-captains? I’m not so sure. Head coach Gregor Townsend reckons the Rory Darge-Finn Russell ticket will “bring different strengths and styles of leadership to the table” but, then again, if one says ‘heads’ and the other calls ‘tails’, it may take 10 minutes just to sort out which team kicks off.

Roadkill at the World Cup, Italy urgently need to fortify their forwards and reboot the sense of self-belief.

More relevant – and more absorbing – is the relationship between Townsend and Russell, which has at times been somewhat Burton and Taylor, only without the 68-carat diamond and the lipstick on the ceiling. Don’t ask. This year Russell insists he and Townsend are “back on the same page” but then he told Netflix, “Gregor’s got his ideas, I’ve got my ones but I’m the one on the pitch.” It’ll be enthralling to see how this circle gets squared.

Wales, unquestionably, are ‘in transition’; there is no kinder way of putting it. Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Ken Owens, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny have ridden away; Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake are crocked; Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe are in Japan and Louis Rees-Zammit has gone transatlantic. All Warren Gatland needs now is for Josh Adams to take Holy Orders and Aaron Wainwright to head back to Cardiff City and his cup will finally run over.

Typically, the coach is breathing fire – “write us off at your peril” – while also conceding it’s “almost like starting again”. Both could well prove to be true. But, constricted by circumstance, what other option does Gatland have? “My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, excellent situation, I am attacking,” said Marshal Foch at the Battle of the Marne, an ‘all-in’ stroke of genius which famously jammed a stick in the spokes of the Schlieffen Plan. Whether a similar strategy will outfox Scotland – or anyone else – will make Wales a five-game fascination.

Italy this year are – at once – the only team to retain their captain and the only team to introduce a new head honcho; the couth, multilingual Gonzalo Quesada – he speaks eminent good sense in four different languages – replacing the likeable but luckless Kieran Crowley – “I’m too old for this s**t”. Roadkill at the World Cup, Italy urgently need to fortify their forwards and reboot the sense of self-belief. The fixture list does Quesada few favours but at least he gets to start building in Rome, although, as history suggests, that may take more than a day.

Fin Smith
Fin Smith has helped steer Northampton Saints to top spot in the Gallagher Premiership and 10 straight wins in all competitions (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

All of which leaves England; the one European franchise to make the last four of the World Cup, albeit via a run of fixtures no Scot would have recognised. The big news is Maro Itoje’s gone for a symbolic new haircut. I’m told it’s a ‘high and tight’ – hair isn’t my strong point – although given this is a perfect description of England’s tactics in the World Cup, perhaps Maro’s radically briefer barnet doesn’t quite herald the Brave New World the Red Rose supporters have been long hoping for.

A Faz-less England? We are thinking The Unthinkable. Finding a pair of broad shoulders to slip on the No 10 shirt may not be too much of a head-scratch – one George Ford plus two Smiths, Fin and Marcus, adds up to three genuine options – but replacing Owen Farrell’s elemental, competitive drive and searing example will be a leap. Jamie George is as hail-fellow-well-met as they come but the man can’t do it on his own and England need to uncover leaders right across the pitch.

You could hear the negativity. I want Twickenham to be a positive place… a happy environment. Last year, it wasn’t.

Danny Care

They also need to sharpen up their connections (a) between the gameplan and the players and (b) between the team and the supporters. If whoever starts at fly-half doesn’t get handed a pattern which suits his style, why bother picking him? And if the team can’t get the sullen Shires dancing in the West Car Park, they’re going to start losing their customers. Danny Care watched last year’s Six Nations from the stands. “You could hear the negativity,” he said. “I want Twickenham to be a positive place… a happy environment. Last year, it wasn’t.”

So, who’ll win it? The bookies reckon it’ll be France for the title – 13/10 – Ireland for the Triple Crown – 11/8 – Damian Penaud as top try-scorer – 4/1 – Thomas Ramos as top points-scorer – evens, for heaven’s sake – and no Grand Slam for anyone – 11/10. Not much value there in a very tight market.

Gregory Alldritt to be player of the tournament – 6/1 – sounds a bit more like it but Ange Capuozzo – at 200/1 to be the leading light – enters the fray with my round pound in his pocket. You’ll find more meat on a mayfly but the kid’s a killer, assuming someone can supply him the bullets. Enjoy, everyone.


Be the first to comment...

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free