Magazine article The Spectator

Six of the Best

Magazine article The Spectator

Six of the Best

Article excerpt

What treats await this weekend.

An England Test match in the Caribbean; a north London derby in the increasingly fractious Premier League; and, joy of joys, at long last the Six Nations is back with three succulent games.

There's always an extra tang when rugby's European showcase is also the selection process for a summer Lions' tour. Long gone are the days when England felt they had a Godgiven right to the pick of places on any flight to the southern hemisphere -- now they might not have a single man in the starting XV against South Africa. All the more reason why the highlight of the coming week will be England taking on Italy.

Anyone who cares for rugby badly needs the Azzurri to do well. I like the way they play, and who cannot admire their stoic attitude to their (current) place in world rugby? Last year, in Rome's intimate Stadio Flamini, they ran England sweatily close; and those who know the secrets of that dark world say the Italian scrum could be the best in Europe. Their coach, Nick Mallett, is a formidable figure who guided his native South Africa to the longest ever sequence of victories in Test rugby at the beginning of this decade.

I expect Sergio Parisse fully to relish his Twickenham workout. The Italian captain is probably the best forward anywhere in Europe -- a ferocious tackler and a superb handler.

With Mauro Bergamasco, possibly at scrumhalf, and Andrea Marcato at No. 10, this could be a nerve-shredder for English fans. Of course, Italy need 15 great players, not a handful, and that takes time. But don't forget it took more than 40 years for France to win a title.

What does seem pretty certain is that Martin Johnson's England are looking beleaguered.

An out-of-form Toby Flood has been preferred to Danny Cipriani at stand-off (shame on you, selectors), and there was little sign in the run of heavy autumn defeats that England had the wit or panache to open up their game. …

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