By Alan Dymock
THERE IS one round of Heineken Cup and Amlin action left before the taut, stomach-churning charge of the Six Nations reaches us.
For international head coaches, picking a side is tough. It may be a case of picking up the casualties at the end of the Heineken and Amlin group stages and seeing who is fit to fall into the grinder again.
This is what each international coach will be looking for over the next two weeks.
Jacques Brunel, Italy
The former Perpignan coach may look like the lead police investigator in a dreary French drama but he has an acute focus and a drive that Italy benefitted from last year.
He knows Italy must hustle to victory and that pragmatism is only rewarded if points can be attained. The problem is that Zebre are so poor in every competition that they rely heavily on Luciano Orquera and Daniel Halangahu to get points.
Halangahu is not qualified to play for Italy, while Orquera’s record is not as good Kris Burton’s this season. In the last outing against Australia, Brunel plumped for Orquera. It will be a choice between this pair to see who guides the side, while Wasps’ Andrea Masi tends to slot in at fullback.
Brunel needs and depends on two men, more than these three, though.
If Italy are to stand any chance of snatching victories in this year’s Six Nations, Robert Barbieri (a try-maven of late) and Sergio Parisse must kept off the treatment table. Masi survived his game against the Dragons on Thursday. while Parisse is rested by Stade Francais. All eyes will be on Benneton Treviso this Sunday to see if Barbieri is spared.
Rob Howley, Wales
Howley has had a haunted look of late. The pallid shell of a scrum half has dragged himself around, hoping to frown his way to victory.
No more, though. The caretaker coach has a crown to protect and will know that he must inspire and fire. Beside him is also a newly refocused Shaun Edwards, who will not want for motivation after his perceived Lions snub.
So what do the beleaguered pair want? Well firstly, they will need Dan Biggar to keep slowly rolling towards the Six Nations.
Dan Lydiate is rumoured to be hobbling towards the big tournament, too, but they cannot rely on him and will see him until the latter rounds. Instead, Wales must look to the likes of Alex Cuthbert, who seems at home on the European stage, unlike many of his teammates, and Justin Tipuric and Adam Jones. To pull through, unscathed. Paul James may also play his way into a certain starting berth if he keeps receiving the praise he’s had at Bath.
Tavis Knoyle may be seen as an auxiliary, but he will want to look sharp against giants Clermont Auvergne, particularly as Mike Phillips will be dodging bullets throughout an Amlin fixture against Rugby Mogliano. Jonathan Davies need emerge unscathed.
Scott Johnson, Scotland
It was impossible for Johnson to ignore Johnnie Beattie with his form at Montpellier. So the coach will be on his knees praying that the No.8 pulls through an inexplicable stint on the flank against Toulon tomorrow.
Apart from this, Johnson is a hard man to predict. There is no real way of knowing what position he wants to shake up. If he sees Stuart Hogg as a 13 he might be looking at Peter Murchie at Glasgow to come on. If he wants to give Richie Gray a new international partner he might want to see Grant Gilchrist buckle down for Edinburgh on Sunday, and Glasgow Warrior Rob Harley is rumoured to be linked with a 7 spot, even though it is unlikely to be his position versus Northampton Saints.
With the retirement of Mike Blair, though, it is highly likely that Greig Laidlaw, who has moved back to 9 recently for Edinburgh, will be Johnson’s goal-kicking scrumhalf.
So, the decision facing Johnson is whether he picks an in-form Ruaridh Jackson or hauls Tom Heathcote all the way up to a starting spot. The decision could be made purely based on whether Heathcote gets a look in. Would a run-out against Romania’s Bucharesti be enough to get him selected? Unlikely.
Johnson will be hoping Jackson clings on against Northampton without scuppering himself. Otherwise an out of sorts Duncan Weir and a short on experience Heathcote will be tentatively wrestling over a jersey.
Declan Kidney, Ireland
The Ireland coach may be forgiven for ignoring others to watch Ulster for the next wee while. He has to decide if Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave and Paddy Jackson will join Ulster’s other illustrious names in the Ireland squad.
Kidney will possibly be turning off his phone. He will not want to hear bad news about Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald
Simon Zebo , Peter O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan may excel in this tough time, too, and Dave Kilcoyne may even thrive, but that phone will not be getting checked.
Connacht against Zebre? That is the kind of game where Mike McCarthy could get an innocuous hit…
Stuart Lancaster, England
His preparations for camp will be meticulous. He has a vast remit but in the secular surroundings of training, when he addresses his squad for the first time everyone will listen. Yet it remains to be seen whether defeating New Zealand during the Autumn Internationals was something that ends up making Lancaster’s job harder as he tinkers and tweaks a team that is still far from the finished article.
Of course, much of his tinkering depends on what is available to him. He must also not get sidetracked by results. Lancaster must look at them like the near-inevitable Sarries win against Edinburgh in the last round and see past Farrell’s haul. He must determine what shape he wants. Especially if Toby Flood is able to navigate the Tigers past Toulouse.
He needs his skipper to survive Harlequins’ trip to Biarritz, and the shape of his back three depends on how Messrs Brown and Foden and Goode fare in the air.
Philippe Saint-André, France
The larder is most certainly not bare for lucky Philippe.
We could rattle off a list of surprising and redoubtable performers in the Top 14, Amlin and Heineken this season but it would make us all sick from worry. All that is apparent is that Saint-André has Louis Picamoles, Freddy Michalak and Wesley Fofana ready to hit their straps.
With these performers primed it is now about Saint-André selecting a supporting cast. Not that regional coaches ever help much, here. He could call full back Jean-Marcellin Buttin into his starting XV, but Buttin does not feature against Scarlets. Will truck-sized Mathieu Basteraud excel against Montpellier after his MOTM performance last week? Can Yannick Forestier stand out in the front row against Ulster? Is David Attoub likely to put his hand up against London Welsh’s props? Will Wenceslas Lauret show himself good enough to bench after tangling with Robshaw? On and on and on…
If France turn up they could win the whole thing this year. This weekend is all about picking players for the Italian job.