One week before France, favourites for this year's Six Nations, replete with some of the world's most talented players, faced Scotland in Edinburgh, and 20,000 tickets were still available. The magic of the international tournament lives on in column inches and most nations involved, but its power is wilting in Scotland.
Rugby is fading north of the border. The crowds for the Heineken Cup have been pathetic and the ease of tickets for France reinforces the point. It makes Frank Hadden's job the toughest of the lot - not just his team performing and winning but acting the surgeon and keeping the game alive in that country.
Yet with victories being the easiest way to re-inject a shot of life saving nationalism, he continues to talk of performance before results - and with good reason. He is not just dampening down optimism, that has long fled Scotland, but he asserts an older truth that many fans and most national based media refuse to accept - that the one precedes the other.
Scotland, short of the power France and England can bring to the game, has to perform at their best and with originality to pull the big boys apart to win games. It was the same with Wales last season. Performance was put first on the agenda of Mike Ruddock and with it came a Grand Slam.
To pursue the win without the quality of performance is impossible unless a part of a team's game can be so superior that the overall game plan can be ignored. At Six Nations level, France and England have just that power but pre-tournament, the noises from the usually conservative English camp is bullish. Andy Robinson is talking a far more positive game. When we see the centre combination selected for Wales we will know if it is real or political talk.
The only side that has been relatively downbeat in the build up has been Ireland. Eddie O'Sullivan has been reiterating the step up from Heineken Cup to international rugby. So too some of his most creative players, a case of playing down expectations after the flourishing wins of Leinster and Munster last weekend or O'Sullivan's refusal to see that attacking rugby is possible at any level. I would have thought he learned this lesson against New Zealand last autumn - we shall see.
Rugby lovers will be anxious to see if Ireland has loosened its ridiculously rigid structure because it has a back line capable of scaring any team anywhere. They should make life hard for Pierre Berbizier next week, if they move Italy around. This is a game where Ireland and O'Sullivan cannot be judged on anything other than quality of performance. In Ireland's case, that equates to efficient ball winning and intelligent and ambitious utilisation of the back line.
If Ireland, along with England, France and Wales, are serious players on the world stage, results alone are simply not enough, not unless that team is at the peak of its prowess, which means it has gone through the `performance adjudged process and come through the other side capable of playing it any which way.
France are the nearest team to that state in Europe but they too have not reached their goals. This should be a tournament when they take a step towards them. SHOULD, not definitely will. That is the beauty of the tournament. Fingers crossed for a few shocks somewhere along the way and fingers crossed for some ambition from the coaches.
Stuart, How safe is Andy Robinsonâ€™s job? A Grand Slam would ensure survival but the standard is unlikely to be as low as last year with teams beginning to settle on units for the World Cup. Four out of Five with a significant expansion into the creative side â€” maybe? I think we also ought to recognise that the current crop of players is not as good individually as their immediate predecessors and therefore some of those units are creaking. Centre pairing for example and Martin Johnson will not be replaced as a player in the same way that Australia have still not replaced John Eales. What to you will be an acceptable 6 Nations England performance.
I touched on what should be acceptable for England in the next few months and, likewise, in the above column. Performances are the prime requirement. England's power may allow them to win Six Nations games in a style that would fail against the world's best. With improvement in performance comes results; four from five was my base camp but it has to be an 80% record achieved through a better balance from 1 to 15. You are right to point out that the current crop are not maybe as illustrious as their predecessors which is why, if they are serious about the World Cup in 2007, they should look at the emerging generation - players like James Forrester and Ben Skirving rather than an obsession with the granite graft of a back row composing Martin Corry and Lawrence Dallaglio (that would be a worst case short termist selection for next week.) As for Andy Robinson, he will take England through to 2007 unless England has such a poor tournament that he offers his own resignation. I do not see that happening.
Hello Stuart - I haven't said that since we briefly spoke beneath Robert Falcon Scott's memorial in Christchurch! I wonder if there is something important underlying the fact that attacking play was so successful in the Heineken yet is not espoused in the Guinness and The Celtic leagues. Is there something about league play that militates against risk-taking. I suspect that something similar may be behind the fact that in Association Football, the country with the strongest Cup tradition, for years, played the more attacking brand of football. This has now changed, even Man United becoming much more defensive these days. I've a feeling in my bones that there is something important here. Certainly, the Prem has become rather stolid fare of late.
Coaches will tell you that promotion and relegation mitigates against ambition. I see Rob Andrew was saying much that after Newcastle edged out Saracens on Saturday. Strange then that Harlequins, who were more conservative than any were relegated last season, while Leeds survived through attacking, bold rugby. Pragmatic rugby is a mix of control and ambition. It is pragmatic to attack defences. Watch the way Brian Ashton tweaked Bath's game and how it helped tear apart the champions, Wasps. I do not think it is a matter of league rugby but the cyclical nature of coaching. In fact, I think (maybe wishfully) we might soon be emerging from the dark ages of defensive obsession, guided by an attack minded All Black team.
As a welsh man, last years grand slam was a dream come true. I'm 27 years old and I've seen videos and heard people talking about how good Wales were with JPR and JJ Williams, Gareth Edwards, the list goes on but it was nice to eventually have something to shout about and be proud of on the rugby pitch in my life time!! I'm not for one minute comparing the great Welsh side of 20 odd years ago to the current one because there is no contest but how good do you feel this current bunch of Welsh boys are and do we stand any chance in this years 6 nations? Personally, I feel if we can finally get a result at Twickers after all these years, then I think Wales stand a good chance of maybe not winning the grand slam again but at least winning the tournament. Home advantage is a big bonus and as we have 3 games at the Millennium stadium in front of 72,000 mad taffs, I reckon we stand a very good chance!!
Tyron Ward, Hertfordshire
It is a big 'if' next weekend with some crucial injuries to Wales. Whereas France and England can absorb losses because of the depth of player base, Wales struggle - as saw in the game against Fiji at the tail end of last year. Also, England will not worry about reverting to a short- range power game to avenge themselves of last year. Andy Robinson should have learned lessons from Cardiff. It will be tough as will France, the best team in Europe, anywhere. I do not think Wales will win the title but that is not as important as stabilising the team after a worrying autumn. Three wins and some international class fresh talent unearthed would be a decent return this season for Wales.
Do you think that the front row cycle will continue to play out in the coming years? From the big bully packs, we then had the inspirational idea of wanting props that were more influential around the park, and now we're coming back to having a situation where if a weak prop is exposed, it can severely disable a team. As much as these monster props might be good at scrummaging and close-to-the-breakdown running, they seem to be doing the job of making sure the ball doesn't bobble out the back of rucks as often as possible. In the professional era, will there once again be a demand for better rugby players in the front row?
Andy Baky, Essex
We are in a cycle as far as front rows go - that is for sure. The mobile prop is a bonus, right now, the prime requirement for the two big boys is to provide a sure platform at the scrum for their team and disrupt opponents, ditto with lifting in the line out. If they carry well, all the better but weak technicians have no part to play in the immediate future. And just because a prop may be large and less than mobile, he can still play his defensive parts close to breakdowns and keep his hands to himself at rucks. Coaches and scrum halves can be his brain if his has disappeared beneath 270 stones.[/b]
Thanks again for your questions, keep them coming and enjoy the weekend,