Will the northern hemisphere’s big boy international outfits provide us with as much to talk about in 2012 as they did in 2011? Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson will be watching with bated breath…
So there I was on New Year’s Day, doing my regular radio slot on UK sports radio station TalkSport and discussing 2011’s rugby goings-on, when it really struck me. What a mental year it was for northern hemisphere rugby, both in the UK and here in my adopted home of France. And with the Rugby World Cup dominating headlines in both countries I had a box seat to watch two of the craziest campaigns ever undertaken in the history of the competition.
France were so bad in the early stages of the tournament in New Zealand that there wasn’t a single soul in the country who believed Marc Lièvremont’s hapless team would be doing anything other than catching the first plane home at the end of the Pool stages. That the French turned things around, made it all the way to the Final and would have been World Champions after a brilliant performance were it not for some totally inexplicable refereeing from South Africa’s Craig Joubert, really is the stuff of fairytales.
The way France rolled out the red carpet for their returning ‘heroes’ with a civic reception and wotnot in Paris certainly gave this foreigner the opportunity to crack a wry smile. Despite all the flag-waving and back-slapping this was, let’s be honest, a country that had gleefully indulged in the most vicious character assassinations of both Lièvremont and his senior players for weeks on end, both in bars up and down the land and in the pages of the snotty and self-important press. Everyone loves a winner, eh? Even if France didn’t win.
The nation of England, on the other hand, seemed intent on slaughtering a side that clearly didn’t perform to anything like their potential, but who nonetheless made it to the quarters and lost to the eventual losing finalists France when one ever-so-slightly wayward pass at the end of the first half could have completely changed the shape of that game. It’s true that some of the players didn’t exactly help their cause with off-the-field behaviour that was both silly and juvenile. But rest assured, that wasn’t the first time that English rugby players have been silly and juvenile off the pitch. It’s just that back in the day the press didn’t feel they had a moral obligation to report it. Given the standards of behaviour exhibited by a relatively large number of the gentlemen of the national press as exposed by the recent phone-hacking scandals, it seems a bit rich to see the tabloids hiding behind the idea that they are somehow upholding moral standards by reporting on rugby players who never set themselves up as role models in the first place. But maybe that’s just me...
To a northern hemisphere rugby fan, New Zealand’s victory in the Final was frankly little more than a sideshow to the main event of watching France and England doing their own crazy things.
Of course such shenanigans have inevitably led to changes, the results of which we’ll see for the first time in the forthcoming Six Nations competition. Marc Lièvremont had always said he’d be slinging his hook after the World Cup and he he was true to his word. His replacement as France Head Coach, Philippe Saint-André, got his own brush out pretty quickly and swept the existing backroom staff clean. The former Toulon boss has enlisted Toulouse man Yannick Bru as his forwards guru, with Biarritz boss Patrice Lagisquet as his backs coach. Both men will be on board for the Six Nations, but will only leave their club posts to join the French Federation full time at the end of the current season.
England, too, have found themselves with a new coaching team in place. After a due period of reflection Team Manager Martin Johnson decided to get his coat. The interim coaching team put in place features Head Coach Stuart Lancaster, Backs Coach Andy Farrell and Forwards Coach Graham Rowntree and we’ll see exactly what changes they make when the Six Nations squad is announced on January 11.
With all of the northern hemisphere outfits competing in the Six Nations at the very start of a four-year cycle that culminates with the 2015 World Cup in England it should be a fascinating tournament. The questions it tosses up are many. Will the countries be looking to lay down a marker by picking a squad that’s capable of winning the competition? Or will they be going hell for leather to blood youngsters who will need to have gathered plenty of experience before the next World Cup? With Lancaster and Saint-André being joined by a third new coach, the Frenchman Jacques Brunel at the helm of Italy, it’s damn near impossible to predict what’s going to happen. But if the 2012 RBS 6 Nations provides as much madness as the 2011 World Cup did, then we should all be in for a treat. Sport has a glorious way of renewing itself all the time. And at the start of a new year my appetite for rugby remains as strong as ever. So as they like to say in boxing circles, let’s get it on!