Alex Spink: World Cup failure helping France and England turn tables ahead of Six Nations
The Mirror rugby correspondent says Champions Cup has helped same players humiliated in the autumn to rediscover the spring in their step
It should be a big deal.
Scarlets at Connacht, first playing fourth in the Guinness Pro12. Not to mention the clash of the capitals, Cardiff against Edinburgh.
Only the currency of the Celtic League, as it used to be known, has devalued this season almost to the point of mockery.
Having provided the European champions five times between 2006 and 2012, last weekend it failed to deliver a single quarter-finalist. Not one.
The might of Leinster, Munster and Ulster, with six Heineken Cups between them, failed to get out of their pools in the Champions Cup.
Less decorated forces, from Wales, Scotland and Italy, joined them by the wayside.
Remarkable, some would say, given that Scotland and Wales enjoyed significantly better World Cups than England and France, who between them provide the eight quarter-finalists in Europe’s premier club competition.
Perhaps, though, that is the point.
None of the Celtic nations were stung like England, the first tournament host ever to fail to reach the knock-out stages.
None suffered the sort of humiliation brought on France by their 62-point thrashing at the hands of New Zealand.
As England lock George Kruis put it:
“Falling short as we did in the World Cup was pretty tough to take and it is a memory that drives us on. We are hungry. Everyone is ready for the Six Nations.”
There is also the small matter of a new coach in Eddie Jones who suffers neither fools nor failure.
But Kruis’ point is well made and Jones will hope to reap the benefits in the coming weeks.
By contrast, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt have a bit of work to do to restore the spring to the step of Welsh and Irish players heading into international camp.
“The ideal scenario is that you want players coming in from teams that have made European quarter-finals,” Wales boss Gatland admitted.
“It is a lot nicer as a coach when players have come and are bouncing after doing well in Europe with their clubs for a couple of weeks. It’s a lot easier to deal with.”
Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac says the Pro12 should not be judged on the absence of quarter-final representation, instead blaming the drop in standard on “significant injuries to significant players”.
He shares the view of Wales kicking coach Neil Jenkins that an accurate conclusion can only be drawn in non-World Cup years.
That may well be a fair comment but rational argument has not spared England’s top clubs from criticism for under-achieving in recent years when the dice were loaded in favour of the Irish - with no qualification for Europe and hence a lighter workload for players - and the French, with playing budgets that the Premiership salary cap, supposedly, guards against.
For that reason let us not now downplay the Premiership’s historic achievement in providing five quarter-finalists, including four pool winners.
At Wednesday’s RBS Six Nations launch, Gatland said bluntly that he and his coaches would have to “deal with that past”, by which he meant the effects of the Pro12’s Euro failure on his players. The Celtic League needs to do the same.
This is a warning shot across the bows. Things ain’t what they used to be.