Stuart Barnes: The Six Nations' obsession with results over performance will count against Europe's best in the 2015 World Cup
Last Updated: 27/01/14 12:34pm
Wales: How will they approach the 2014 Six Nations?
The Six Nations is upon us. Never mind the quality, it's all about the results. That has been the essence of this tournament for so many years. Anglo Celtic rivalries, Franco Italian; all the matters to the supports of these nations is the final score on the day, the final position in the table.
The narrowing of ambition is the enemy of excellence however and for those nations with serious intentions towards the 2015 World Cup, the intense obsession with the next result rather than the next performance will likely count against them when the World Cup arrives in England.
The aspirations of the six countries should not be the same. Realistically Scotland and Italy are not going to win the World Cup they are probable quarter finalists at best. And so for these teams, every international is as important as the next. Three wins for either of these sides would represent a triumphant campaign and, quite frankly, to hell with the future and the World Cup.
But the scenario changes for the other four nations, all of whom have the capacity to make a World Cup semi-final and you know what they say once a team reaches the semi-finals. There is so much talk about Wales trying to become the first team to win three outright titles (before 1994 the title was shared rather than decided on points difference).
It would be a fine achievement but an achievement on the local scale. While Wales has been dominating the European tier of test match rugby it has been utterly embarrassed by the record of results against the big three. Warren Gatland may have won two Grand Slams and a title but nothing but constant defeat against both the All Blacks and South Africa and the one paltry win against the Wallabies is not the return of a world class team; and here is the dilemma for Wales.
Do they wear the blinkers and continue with the power, pace and pure physical presence that has taken them to the top of the European game or do they risk a little experimentation now and then to prepare for matches against teams that are a physical match for them?
If they can sustain their first forty minutes produced against South Africa, Wales will be tough to beat but will they set themselves up for a crack at the big three next year. There has not been much variety in the Welsh sledgehammer approach. Maybe it will be enough to see them to Six Nations history but it will hinder their 2015 hopes unless there is a subtle change or two to the way Wales play.
Mix and match
The greatest European team of the century is the England one which won the World Cup in 2003. It did experiment in Six Nations matches and blew games it really should have won. The game at Wembley against Wales and a howling stupid performance in the wind and rain of Edinburgh spring immediately to mind but the best lessons tend to be those that hurt. In taking risks, in pushing the boundaries of what they could and could not do, England learned how to beat the best.
The fact that their only Grand Slam was achieved in a World Cup year is no coincidence. Winning a Grand Slam or a title is special; winning a World Cup is on a whole other level; winning the former does not always equate with performing well in the latter.
England and the other nations are desperate for wins but most important of all for the World Cup hopes is finding their best team and squad and giving key men as much chance as possible to get the test match game time on the clock to help players find their way through the pressure that intensifies when the game goes to the next global level.
Any players that are not definite starters should be tried and tested alongside those who have yet to be given the chance to prove their worth. The debate is exemplified at fly-half where Owen Farrell has strong test match credits and mighty mental strength but question marks over whether - at the highest level - he can keep leading England to victories against the elite. In Cardiff last season and in Toulouse recently there were hints that on the back foot his physical inspiration works to less or no effect. Could George Ford steer a team better on the back foot? He should be tested, this is a team still in experimentation stage and to close the eyes and stick with what feels safe at a certain (and lower level) will hinder future hopes.
The New Zealand tour is no place to fairly assess test match rookies and from autumn onwards England simply MUST keep winning and build an aura around Twickenham. That leaves NOW as the last chance to take a few risks. Clive Woodward won a World Cup because he understood the acid test for World Cup contenders came when the best teams and not the most popular tournament was at stake. Stuart Lancaster should grasp that fact and not be afraid to shuffle his squad.
The Six Nations comes around once a year. The odd defeat will be forgotten soon enough but a World Cup in your own country? None of these players or coaches will ever have such a chance again. Cold logic says the best chance is by dismissing the unthinking cliché that claims each test to be as important as any other and admitting some games - Wales and Australia in the pool stages of the World Cup for a start - are infinitely more important than others.
Ireland, under Joe Schmidt, looks to be the likeliest team to embrace the lesson. The former Leinster head coach took a hammering in the Irish press when the side were thrashed by Australia but his side were always readying themselves for a crack at the All Blacks. One week later they came so close to glory. Schmidt, shrewd and confident, will formulate a passage for Ireland through the tournament with one eye on the World Cup.
As for France, they should be thinking ahead but their results in 2013 were so bad that, unlike the three aforementioned teams, they need to rebuild their momentum as soon as possible. France are a quirky side and Philippe Saint-Andre an emotional soul but the basics of beating teams has to be restored before they can play the role of sage rugby union scientist.
A Grand Slam would be great news for France, it would revive a nation getting used to losing. As for Ireland, Wales and England, no side will sniff at a title or Slam but as far as the World Cup goes the next Six Nations performances are the ones that count. Winning, as ever, means plenty but in this year of all years it most certainly does not mean the world.
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Dear Stuart, I find it infuriating when referees do not pick up on Adam Jones binding on the arm, I can honestly say I cannot remember a single scrum when he has bound on the shirt and remained bound on the shirt. Before the new srum laws Jones used to grab the opposing props tricep and roll his elbow inward to destabilise and collapse the scrum, now because you have to bind first (if the refs on his side of the scrum ) he binds on the shirt then changes to the tricep grip once engaged. If the opposition prop is getting the better of him, he simply belly flops, drops the scrum giving the ref the impression of "just a slip" I cannot believe he is so revered whilst every scrum he is kidding the ref.
STUART REPLIES: Matt, If you are right, and Adam Jones has been the sport's arch conn for years, can you not find it in your heart to respect his craftiness. As scrums are partly the art of fooling the referee (due to the mentality of northern hemisphere coaches in particular) his results alone make him a heck of a man to have on your team.
Stuart, this QF line-up all but highlights how Irish clubs seem to be getting things right while hanging onto key player (SOB). Why are we seeing the Welsh clubs still feeling the pinch in Europe when they have as much quality as the Irish clubs. It leads me to think, money while being what the Welsh/English want, its the priceless thing of heart & guts that money cant buy and what the Irish sides have an abundance of...Agreed? They should focus on getting some soul (Leicester sure do) into the club rather than money!
STUART REPLIES: Adrian, money is a factor but not THE factor. What it has become in England especially is THE excuse. English and Welsh club/provincial rugby simply lacks the quality to compete with the regular success of Ireland - which has plenty of money but an awful lot more than that. When the answer is spouted with such certainty and so often - i.e. money is all that has stopped English clubs since Wasps last won in way back when, you know something is up.
Hi Stuart, considering Racing Metro's poor European and domestic form would Johnny Sexton's position as starting 10 for Ireland be in considerable jeopardy? Based purely on form shouldn't Paddy Jackson be fly-half of choice in Ireland? Similarly in Wales would Jamie Roberts and Lydiate not be under intense pressure to hold onto starting places?
STUART REPLIES: Adrian, international selection is a matter of class and form. If you have plenty of proof of class in the bank it takes longer for current form to weigh against you. On form I would not pick Johnny Sexton but I's definitely pick him for the first few games if I was Joe Schmidt. The same applies to Jamie Roberts who like a fair few centres through the decades has a knack of producing for country what he cannot deliver on a weekly level for club. Dan Lydiate is the interesting one. His form has dipped and a return to it might be crucial or otherwise to Wales's hopes given the importance of their power and technique at the breakdown.