It was not so long ago that the world viewed the playing numbers and the wealth of England and sighed. Soon the English would be unbeatable. But here rugby stands, 17 years on from when it turned professional, with England apparently there for the taking by Italy.
Quite how England managed to marry serial misbehaviour by their players across New Zealand with terminal malfunction on the bridge of the mother ship, the Rugby Football Union in Twickenham, will probably remain as mysterious as the name of the mole who passed their secret World Cup report to The Times.
This self-destruction will help the new England coach, Stuart Lancaster, because he doesn’t have to say a word. If England aren’t inspired to put a few things right, then they really are in trouble. Lancaster can concentrate on the technicalities of selection and style. As coach of the England B team, the Saxons, he stressed the virtues of rapid delivery of the ball and continuous support.
There will be opportunities for new players like Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt to move England forward, and there is a sense of daring, but Lancaster has chosen – with a selfless disregard for his CV – a very inexperienced squad. And time, to say nothing of a load of determined Scots this weekend, is against him.
Scotland, the perennial non-scorers of international rugby, stand yet again on the brink of bursting forth. If only they could convert what they start – through second row Richie Gray, their entire back row, or Sean Lamont and Graeme Morrison outside – into completed moves, they’d rack up the points.
But a half-break never seems to produce a quick pass, and support runners seem to lose track of the ball-carrier. Scotland somehow surge and lose momentum at the same time. And yet they could be a single pass away from cutting loose, which gives them every reason to fuel up and start all over again.
Philippe Saint-André, once a bullish wing for Montferrand and France, and then a single-minded coach with Gloucester, Sale and Toulon, is the new coach of France. In his Six Nations squad is the sensation in the centre for Clermont Auvergne, Wesley Fofana, who has an uncanny ability to chase and catch high kicks.
The rest of his French cast, however, looks ominously like the mutinous crew that turned their back on Marc Lièvremont and decided to do the World Cup their way. And who nearly pulled it off, losing 8–7 to the New Zealand All Blacks in the final.
Does Saint-André go with their snarling flow and try to tap into their uniquely hostile spirit? Or does he coax them out of a player-driven style of caution and propose something a little more comforting for those in search of elegance? Goodness knows, but Dimitri Yachvili at scrum-half and Imanol Harinordoquy at number 8, the governors of Biarritz, are unlikely to surrender power easily.
Wales come into 2012 buoyed by their World Cup form, if not their results. Their insistence on sticking to a game of risk seems to chime with the referees’ encouragement of a game of high tempo. Shane Williams has gone, but Leigh Halfpenny is flying. Slightly less elusive is Adam Rhys Jones, the most important player in the pack. With their tight-head fit, anything is possible for Wales; without him, possession dries up.
And beating Ireland on scraps would be impossible. The team that Wales knocked out of the World Cup have recovered – all bar the injured Brian O’Driscoll. But the loss of the Irish talisman seems to have invigorated others, with Fergus McFadden, Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe jostling to wear the number 13 shirt, and Eoin O’Malley waiting in the Wolfhounds squad. Ireland’s great fear of having no strength in depth has evaporated.
Three of their provinces are in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, while Connacht did their bit by beating Harlequins. The form of Leinster, Munster and Ulster matters, because the feeder system works harmoniously for Ireland. The interprovincial rivalry is as intense as any internal contest for prizes can be, but it serves the collective cause. Ireland begin the Six Nations fuelled by their feuds, united by their excellence and lumbered with my tip as eventual champions. They will take some stopping as the cycle starts all over again.
Eddie Butler is a BBC rugby commentator and rugby correspondent for The Observer
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine published on 31 January
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