CASTRES, FRANCE – Pundits beware, the final weekend of the 2014 Six Nations coincides with the Ides of March and therefore comes with few certainties.
Or, to steal the almost unintelligible words of Donald Rumsfeld back in 2002: “There are known knowns – things we know that we know. There are known unknowns – that is to say, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – things we do not know we don’t know.”
It’s a long way from Shakespeare. But you get the point. Or, maybe, you don’t.
We know, or are at least sure to the point of knowing, that Italy will, unless something goes spectacularly wrong for England, win the wooden spoon. Last week, they were worth more than the 46-7 scoreline against Ireland suggested. They tackled their hearts out in Dublin, but ran out of puff in the face of a joyous, Brian O’Driscoll-inspired Irish team.
We know that England will have to be wary in Rome. Italy’s Captain Indomitable Sergio Parisse is set to return for the final Six Nations run-out of 2014 having missed the Ireland trip and – in fullback Luke McLean and their two young wings, Leonardo Sarto and Angelo Esposito – the Azurri have a back three to, if not fear then at least treat with the greatest respect.
But we also know this England side is good, and has the potential to be very, very good. With Manu Tuilagi back in the squad for the first time in a year – he’s a bench-warmer and could even put in an appearance on the wing, if Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees continue to impress in midfield – the nucleus of what could be a very special England team will line up at the Stadio Olimpico.
So, we know – or at least are almost definitely pretty certain – that England will, for much of Saturday afternoon at least, sit at top the Six Nations’ pile. What we don’t – cannot – know is whether they will be there when the final whistle blows in Paris several hours later.
We know that Wales’s hopes of a record third consecutive Six Nations crown ground to a shuddering halt in what even the most diehard Welsh fan would have to admit was a one-sided affair at Twickenham last week. It was their second defeat in this year’s Six Nations, following their 26-3 humbling in Dublin last month.
We know both Wales and Scotland feel a little hard done-to by the refs. Wales believe prop Gethin Jenkins has been unfairly singled-out after his third sin-binning in six Tests for scrummaging offences. Scotland, meanwhile, think their penalty count in this Six Nations, which stands at 51 after four games, is a little harsh, and have written to the organisers seeking clarification as to why they are being penalised.
We know that this is Scott Johnson’s last match in charge of Scotland, before he hands over the reins to current Clermont coach Vern Cotter in the summer.
The Australian has been criticised for some of his team selections, but insists that his choices have been intended to help the new coach plan for the World Cup next year.
And we know Wales will be without Toulon-bound fullback Leigh Halfpenny, who will miss the rest of the season after dislocating a shoulder making a try-saving tackle on Luther Burrell at Twickenham. But we also know they have 11 other British Lions in the side, and there’s close to no chance of them wanting to leave the Millennium Stadium beaten for a third time in this Six Nations.
We know therefore, or as near as dammit is to swearing know, that Wales will win in Cardiff, despite Scotland’s self-proclaimed improvements in the tournament. The Scots had the beating of France in Edinburgh last weekend, but couldn’t close out the game. They were humbled by England and Ireland, and just beat Italy in Rome. A win in the Valleys is on the far side of unlikely.
What we don’t know is the margin of the predicted Welsh victory. But it could be big.
We know that Brian O’Driscoll will step out at the Stade de France in the emerald Irish jersey for the 133rd and final time. Adding his eight Lions’ caps it will be his 141st international appearance. We also know that the best centre in world rugby will want to sign off a remarkable international career with one more Six Nations title to his name. To do that, he’ll have to find a way around France’s blunt instrument Mathieu Bastareaud, but he’s faced better, if not necessarily bigger centres before. He should come out on top of that little challenge.
Given he came of age with a hat-trick of tries in Paris in 2000, the last time Ireland won in France, it’s somehow fitting he should sign off at the same venue.
Only… We don’t know how much is left in the old man’s tank after his emotional man-of-the-match performance in Dublin last week, or if he will be able to add to his 46 tries for his country. Expect to hear the roar from Stade de France in downtown Manhattan if he does cross the French whitewash.
We know that Leinster battering ram Cian Healy has recovered from an ankle injury and will play on Saturday. And we know rumours of a rift in the French camp are circulating. Prop Nicolas Mas stormed out of a press conference on Tuesday after a journalist asked whether the team was playing badly on purpose.
But we also know that France have claimed the Six Nations title in every year directly following a Lions tour, and – astonishingly given their form – remain in contention for the title this time heading into the final weekend.
And we know that history is against the Irish. To win the Six Nations title for the first time since the Grand Slam year of 2009, they have to win in France, something they have only done four times since the Second World War and just once since 1972.
In fact, in their last 14 encounters, Ireland’s only victory anywhere over France was on that astonishing day in Dublin back in 2009 when O’Driscoll (who else?) and Gordon D’Arcy had the Irish daring to believe their first Grand Slam in 60 years was within reach.
What we don’t know – no one could possibly know – is if there really is method in this French team’s madness. Ireland’s assistant coach Les Kiss claims there is. He called it, with typically wonderful Irish lyricism, “a dishevelled place of chaos”, but argues that a meticulous “forensic” examination of the French approach reveals a gameplan designed to look shambolic but that actually offers plenty attacking options.
He warned, in particular, against dismissing the ‘world class’ Yoann Huget and his back three partners Brice Dulin and Maxime Medard.
And if you believe that, you’ll also believe that France will beat Ireland by a big enough margin to claim the 2014 Six Nations title.
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