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The denouement of the 2023 Six Nations rugby tournament is upon us. Six burning questions fuel the mind, from the bottom of the log to the top.
How far gone is Wales?
One of rugby’s proudest lands, soaked in origins and feats of yesteryear, is staring at hitherto unimaginable ends. One thousand caps and ten Lions have only produced three tries in three rounds. Warren Gatland goes to Rome the underdog for the first time in Welsh history.
Wayne Pivac lifted the trophy two years ago, but now Wales is only clinging to avoiding a wooden spoon. Player strikes give more drama than attack strike moves on the pitch. Near the end of perestroika Soviet auto apparatchiks were allowed to visit Japan’s gleaming robotic factories to learn about assembly. After a week of mind blowing tours, the top bureaucrat from Russia asked his counterpart from Japan privately: “Tell me the truth. How far are we behind? Ten years? Five?” The answer was damning. “You are forever behind.”
There is no forever in sport, but it does feel as if a loss to Italy by Wales this weekend dooms the visitors to their worst year in history, just as their Celt cousins are rising. Can the pride of the blood of the old rugby saints in the valleys and lost in the mines revive this woeful team to faded grandeur?
How vital is Ange?
Ange Capuozzo is the ‘it boy’ of rugby; his brilliant pace matched only by the vibrancy of his hair. Is it between him and Marcus Smith for best Six Nations lid? Or does Romain Ntamack take the cake and eat it too?
Ange is a brilliant package of vision, speed and courage. The Rolling Stones have re-released their old song to be about him. But Ange’s shoulder is gone. Italy has relied on deep scoring moves from scant ball, with Ange playing the role of a young Willie le Roux as ‘red’ zone No. 10, except Italy launches from the ‘pink zone’ (the 10 metre line). Now we will see if Paolo Garbisi can carry the freight without Ange’s skill.
Is Twickenham still a graveyard for French ambitions?
It’s been about 15 years since France won a rugby match in London. 2023 has not started well for the world number two side, favoured to win the World Cup at home.
Another loss, particularly if Antoine Dupont continues to shine less than brightly on attack, and the age-old doubts about French mental strength will re-emerge in L’Equipe, players’ heads, and the salons of Toulouse. England under Steve Borthwick has returned to a harder version of itself, something resembling the early years of Eddie Jones when the player corps was Lancastrian and Borthwick himself was whipping the pack into Leicesterian shape.
With two rounds yet to play, England is already three tries scored up on 2022’s total (8). Not that the total will soar. One imagines Le Crunch will not be wide open. The sides have deep ancestral enmity; not faked. This is one of those Tests where you would draw quite a lot from the performances. Where is England? How far can they go? This weekend will give us a clue.
Did France peak too soon?
Usually a question reserved for Ireland, it seems more apt for our French brethren. In 2022, France forgot how to lose. Many of their players (Greg Alldritt, Dupont, Gael Fickou, Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Anthony Jelonch, Jonathan Danty and Damian Penaud) were in consideration for everyone’s World XV. But in 2023, the squad has stuttered, slumbered and slept walked through three rounds. One senses Fabien Galthie demanding a clear statement at Twickenham. It is all good to downplay pre-Cup results, but France is and has always been a confidence team, in need of being a frontrunner, and a loss would dent their minds. First, Dupont needs to find the seams. Second, the pack cannot be sluggish in the second half. Third, the midfield must punch. Finally, long kicks are great if they are put in the wrong place, but Freddie Steward is always in the right place.
Is Scotland going to make Pool B deadly or not?
We are fond of predicting which pool is lethal, and Pool B is designated as it this time: South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Tonga in the deep end. However, flash forward to October and it may seem overblown as Ireland and the Springboks easily progress. The plot twist has to be Scottish. Paint me as sceptical as David Hume here: I see Scotland in a dogmatic slumber; they ‘Kant’ overcome their physical deficit against the Boks and Ireland is just a lot better. But here is a great chance for Gregor Townsend to convince himself and his team that Gray can beat Green when it matters.
Is Ireland able to improve?
Clinching the Six Nations is possible this weekend, which would allow Ireland to rest or relax a few old hands, but Andy Farrell and Paul O’Connell seem manically aggressive at all times. One fancies they have given themselves only a B-minus thus far. Yes, the lineout is fizzing, but the scrum won’t please them yet, and whilst transition defence has been stout, first phase has not always looked solid. This is a new sort of Ireland; they will want to smash Scottish dreams of parity.