Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport
Just when one wants to dismiss the Six Nations or the French participation in international rugby’s oldest and grandest tournament, the French do … well … they do the French thing and conjure up something magical.
French coach and former French scrumhalf Fabian Galthie has already gone to war with the most rousing of messages to the French rugby public. You can only imagine the mentality of the French on the eve of the match that could determine the winners of the 2019/20 Six Nations.
France hosts Ireland in Paris.
If Ireland wins, they win the competition. If France wins, they potentially win the competition, although the likely outcome then is that Eddie Jones’s England, tied on league points with France, will be the champions.
England plays Italy, who are the whipping boys of the Six Nations.
I love the Six Nations, although it really should be called the Tri Nations. England, Ireland and Wales are consistently competitive, Scotland produce the occasional cameo, Italy are a joke and France pitches up once every five years and plays that one game that has the world believing they will be world champions.
Sir Clive Woodward, he of England 2003 World Cup-winning fame, earlier this week declared France the 2023 World Cup winners on the basis of a 38-21 home win against Wales.
Forget New Zealand and South Africa. Forget Ireland and forget even Woodward’s beloved England, apparently it is all France.
And, right in this moment, it is France, or at least it is Galthie.
France will either crush it against Ireland in Paris, on the back of Galthie’s rousing social media message, or they’ll get crushed on the basis of not being good enough to handle the expectation or an Ireland team that a week ago put 50 points past Italy.
Ordinarily, I’d say it will take a monumental effort in Paris to beat a French team armed with a social cause, which is to make all of France happy.
But the French players rely on emotion, passion and 80 000 stadium romantics who either carry them or condemn their every mistake.
French president Emmanuel Macron declared a second national lock, as of yesterday. The lockdown will last until the end of November.
Galthie’s Tricolours are the exception to those restricted in movement. The French have been allowed to play in Paris, but there will be no support at the ground.
The eloquent Galthie took to social media to thank the French public and to remind his players of their responsibility to the rest of the country.
‘We live in an ultra-secure sanitary bubble, but that doesn’t prevent players from being permanently connected with their families. We are no stranger to what’s going on around us, with people, friends, loved ones, craftsmen, farmers, caregivers, who are about to suffer, it shows even more the mission of the XV of France.
‘We don’t complain about playing in an empty stadium. Because we know that behind this empty stadium Saturday night, there are millions of supporters who will grow with the French team, waiting for a moment of sharing, to be pleased with them.
‘This is what will live in us in the coming hours, fulfilling this mission that makes even more sense with recent events. This is a chance to continue playing, we are aware of being privileged.
‘Our thoughts are with the kids who can’t play, all the amateur rugby that can’t play. We want to tell them to hold on. We will play for them. It’s this message that drives us.’
Ireland, you have been warned.
The romantic in me so wants France to win when their coach does a Winston Churchill, but Ireland will be too clinical and an empty stadium will align with an empty French feeling afterwards.
At least I hope so, because the thought of England being champions is nauseating.
Eddie Jones’s England, so emphatically hammered in the 2019 World Cup final by the Springboks, looked like a bits and pieces team in the tournament pre Covid lockdown.
But they have the luxury of playing Italy, who haven’t won a match in the tournament since their 22-19 away win against Scotland in Edinburgh in 2015.
Italy are hopeless and they shouldn’t be playing in the Six Nations, but there isn’t another team in the northern hemisphere good enough to replace them. For all the talk about Georgia, they took a 48-7 beating last week against a second-string Scotland.
England will win comfortably and we won’t learn much from their match. Wales and Scotland will double as a trial for selection to next year’s British & Irish Lions eight match tour of South Africa.
Scotland has been woeful in the last decade. Wales, since Lions coach Warren Gatland left, have been as woeful. The poor form of both teams makes for a contest on a weekend, but really the only contest will be in Paris where Galthie’s gladiators will either be great or god-damn awful.