SN Episode III: Revenge of the Six

Aaaaannd as the Six Nations returns once again to our screens, so awards return to my front page. Whilst the lowest-scoring of the three rounds of the competition thus far (a fact that pisses me off greatly), there was much good rugby played and I very much enjoyed seeing my beloved sport enjoying such quality time in the spotlight.

However, FRANCE didn’t exactly get things off to a great start on Friday night, their lacklustre display meriting only the Pfff, C’est La Vie Award (my apologies for the casual racism implicit in that phrase) for Not Giving A Toss. French rugby has always been a topsy-turvy affair, with ‘which France will turn up?’ being one of the most commonly posed lazy journalist questions in the game. Many a time very good French sides have let themselves down through overambition or (more frequently) ill-discipline, but seldom has such apathy as they displayed on Friday stricken the side. So far this tournament France have fed off their opponent’s mistakes, and despite a strong defensive line Wales gave France enough opportunities to do so again- but being able to capitalise on them would have required the French to a) not drop the ball every four and a half seconds and b) actually seem to care about crossing the whitewash. Jules Plisson seemed content to boot the ball back into Welsh hands every time it came his way, Fofana and Bastareaud in the centres were both all out of ideas, and only Louis Picamoles and Hugo Bonneval seemed to have any  ambition or go-forward. When Picamoles was yellow carded around the hour mark, with his side two tries down, it was the final nail in France’s coffin.

However, WALES‘ victory on Friday can hardly be considered as entirely France’s fault; the Welsh players acquitted themselves well enough to create and take advantage of their opportunities (when they themselves could be persuaded to take a break from the night’s apparent main event of dropping the ball at every opportunity), but a more significant contribution is what gains Wales their award: the 75,000 Man Overlap Award for Biggest Contribution from the 16th Man. The Welsh crowd at the Millennium stadium are rarely described as a quiet, conservative bunch- the venue is never at anything but capacity and the hordes of wild Welsh fans who fill it are some of the most vocal and passionate rugby has to offer. Even so, the atmosphere they created on Friday was exceptional even by their usual standards- even watching on TV, the way ‘Bread Of Heaven’ rang around the ground was enough to transport me 200 miles to the gates of the stadium itself, and one almost felt the roar generated at every Welsh half-chance was enough to blow over any unwary French defender. Before the match began, I would have put France as favourites- but when the crowd’s rendition of ‘Land Of My Fathers’ sent shivers down my spine, one felt that something was on.

A mention should, I feel, also be given to Alain Rolland, for whom the Wales-France game represented the end of his refereeing career. Rolland has frequently courted controversy during his time behind the whistle, being accused of favouritism to his mother’s country of France and famously dashing Wales’ hopes at the 2011 World Cup after Sam Warburton’s tip tackle. However, despite all this, there are few who would deny that he has always been an uncompromising referee, never afraid to make the big call or stand up for his way of doing things- a man who does not take s**t, always a good quality in a referee. His decision in this game to send off two props, not because he could pinpoint anything they had done wrong but more because they were ruining any chance the scrum had of behaving itself, was a typically ballsy yet wise decision, and one for which I felt he received insufficient praise. The man has refereed a World Cup final and been a huge presence within the rugby landscape for season after season- if a great player deserves a send-off at the end of his career then so too, I feel, does Mr. Rolland.

Anyway, back to the games. After a rather dull match on Friday, ITALY got us back on track with a more vibrant, exciting performance on Saturday, and one that won them the Moral Victories Get Old After A While Award for Least Deserved Losing Streak. Italy have played some great rugby thus far this tournament, and some of the most exciting too: from memory, they are joint second on number of tries scored and have been the side most willing to run the ball and do something interesting with it. Despite being officially bottom of the Six Nations table they are most certainly not the guaranteed easybeats of yesteryear- all of which makes their lack of victories to show for it all the more maddening. They have ran Wales too close for comfort, kept France under constant pressure throughout the first half of their match, and it took a last gasp drop goal and two excellent tries for Scotland to overcome a half-time deficit and snatch a win from under the noses of the Azzurri- a matchup that, after Scotland’s lacklustre performances so far this tournament, the Italians would have been justified in targeting for a win. They now face table-topping Ireland and England in consecutive weeks, and although a win against either would be a reasonably long shot it would take a braver man than I to bet against them. I’d like them to get one, at least, even as an England fan.

SCOTLAND played their part too in the entertainment, finally breaking a try drought that has lasted more matches than I care to count and in the process winning the Thumbs Up The Arse* Award for Most Entertaining Lineouts. In modern rugby, the lineout is probably the single biggest different between the game at elite and lower levels: whilst the latter tends to stick to the tried and tested unmoving two-pod structure, top-level lineouts are now intricate affairs involving lots of flashy loops, dummies and precision throwing. For rugby nerds like me, they are great to watch, but rarely have they proved quite so entertaining as Scotland’s on Saturday. Even at international level, there are usually a few simple calls reserved for when a team is under the cosh and wishes to be reliable rather than incisive, but in keeping with the carefree spirit of the game the Scots seemed to have left these at home. At every lineout players were flying this way and that, numbers constantly chopping and changing as they kept attempting to outthink rather than out-jump the Italians. And it worked; a team that has struggled at the lineout so far this tournament today found their groove, winning all of their own ball and even nicking the first two of the Italians’. As a Scottish fan, it was great to watch- more of that please.

*This is, by the way, exactly what I got told when I learnt to lift in lineouts

If Italy-Scotland provided the fast-paced entertainment for the weekend, then IRELAND‘s trip to Fortress Twickenham provided the thrills and drama. Whilst other matches were characterised by errors and the occasional flash of brilliance, here we had possibly the two in-form sides of the championship thus far playing close to their best in a desperately hard-fought, uncompromising encounter, two titanic defensive performances going up against attacking displays that would probably have yielded at least three tries apiece against any other side. In fact, it’s a miracle such a high-stakes game didn’t attract more foul play, but cheating is an integral part of the game of rugby and a vital skill in any successful forward. With this in mind, I congratulate Ireland’s Paul O’Connell on the award he won for his team- the Trained By McCaw Award for Most Well-Executed Bit Of Cheating. With his side pressuring the English 22, the smallest of gaps were beginning to appear in England’s defensive line- not enough for a break, but enough to show that only the smallest bit of leverage need be applied to create holes. And O’Connell provided exactly that leverage- standing up following a ruck, just a little bit of lazy walking was all that was required to block Joe Launchbury as he attempted to get to the next one. Nothing definite, nothing even that would stand up as evidence to the TMO, but it was enough to just make him a second or two late to defend the ruck- which, it transpired, was enough to leave a gap open just a few seconds longer. It was all Ireland needed- a simple draw-and-give, the kind of thing to bring tears of joy to the eyes of any age group coach, put Rob Kearney away for Ireland’s first try, giving them a 7 point cushion. Even if, in the end, it proved not quite enough.

When it comes to ENGLAND‘s performance, I’m spoilt for choice for potential award candidates. Joe Launchbury’s ability to be absolutely everywhere on the pitch at once would surely have won him a Man Of The Match award in any team that didn’t include Mike Brown playing like a man possessed, whilst (on a less positive note) Owen Farrell and Jonny May were close to picking up something related to Luckiest Avoidance Of A Card (after a truly dreadful ‘tackle’ on Dave Kearney in the first half) and Worst Butchering Of A Try (not, admittedly, entirely May’s fault- that he had defenders on him at all is thanks to England’s apparent inability to play with their heads up) respectively. However, I’ve eventually gone with the Donation To The NHS Required Award for Causing Heart Attacks Among Rugby Fans, after making me sit through an experience that I later described on Facebook as being ‘more tense than having a shotgun shoved in my mouth for 80 minutes’. Stuart Lancaster had said before the game that he anticipated a margin of only 3 or 4 points, and only once during the match did the difference exceed this. This left fans on both sides biting nails down to the bone throughout, neither side able to either establish a safe lead or be so far out of touch that victory wasn’t a tantalisingly dangled carrot. If anything, being on the reverse end of the scoreline was a worse experience to me; with England 4 points down prior to Danny Care’s try (the result of a characteristically superb piece of running by Brown), I was worried but not attempting to eat my own hands. For the scoreless 15 or so minutes that followed it… well let’s just say I’m not sure I breathed whilst there was a 7 on the clock.

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Gravity

At time of writing, I’ve just come home from watching Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s recent space-set thriller. And my immediate reaction can be essentially summed up in three words: holy f***ing shit.

OK, OK, I’ll fill in a bit; if you weren’t already aware, Gravity tells the story of a space shuttle mission gone disastrously wrong whilst in orbit, leaving just two survivors: George Clooney playing essentially a spacegoing version of himself as the suave, talkative veteran Matt Kowalski and Sandra Bullock as the inexperienced, depressive and perpetually scared Dr. Ryan Stone. With their craft destroyed, both are faced with the daunting prospect of trying to return to earth alive- without the luxuries of a ship, communications, equipment or much ability to control their own movements. And that’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers- indeed, I feel like the rest of this review may end up giving away a fair few details. However, since the main thrust of what makes the film such an experience is not contained within its plot, so unless you have a burning desire to see Gravity completely unspoiled you’re probably not going to lose out on much by reading on.

The result is something pretty amazing, but Gravity is not flawless by any means- I doubt any film ever was. I don’t know whether the story of former astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield getting thrown out of a Canadian cinema for shouting about the film’s inaccuracies at the screen is true or not, but if so I can see where he’d have been coming from- I am no astronaut, but I know enough about space to say that communications and spy satellites operate at completely different altitudes, neither of which are in the range depicted by the film, and that during re-entry there should not be random objects floating around the cabin like it’s in zero-g. Those are only the more obvious errors- the film does a grand job of delivering the general gist of a spacial environment, but had I so wished I could have spent the entire film pointing out minor inaccuracies or inconsistencies. But then again, I’m no astronaut- and besides, Gravity is hardly the only film to take some rather serious liberties with the laws of physics.

It’s not only in terms of its scientific accuracy where the film has flaws. Its characterisation is almost non-existent, the plot is as stripped-down and oversimplified as it could possibly be whilst still existing, multiple story elements seem decidedly contrived and the whole thing has precisely zero thematic complexity between the tried & tested ‘indomitable human spirit’ arc. But that’s all kinda the point. Gravity is not an actor’s film, nor indeed a writer’s- indeed I have a sneaking suspicion that Cuaron may simply have done three days filming, then locked himself in  a room with his cinematographer and CGI person for a few months putting together the rest of it. The result is nothing less than a jaw-dropping spectacle of a film, something genuinely amazing: to be honest, I’m not even sure that’s even a compliment. It feels more like a simple description of the film’s nature- even if this had been the background setting for something written by Ed Wood, the sheer amazement factor of how the film presents itself would still have left me sitting back in my seat mouth open like a goon.

I mean, just consider the visuals. Alone, they would be enough to make watching Gravity a special experience, capturing as they do both the scale and beauty of the view from space alongside the strange unreality that is sitting in a tin can hurtling at unimaginable speed thousands of kilometres above the surface of our mother earth. The film’s extensive use of CGI (because seriously, how else do you create an action set piece around a ****ing space station) is noticeable, but by keeping the visual style very consistent the film avoids drawing attention to it and maintains a highly immersive experience. Then there’s the cinematography; from the early outset Gravity sets a baseline for weirdness and confusion as a constantly moving, rotating camera reminds us of the nature of space, and the total lack of a reference frame that one has in it. There is no up or down- there is only ‘over there’, and when ‘over there’ is flying around madly as you tumble uncontrollably towards it, as happens frequently during the action set pieces, the whole thing gets decidedly disorientating. I’m rather glad I don’t get motion sick, or indeed scared of heights once the film decides to point out that space flight is, in fact, nothing more than falling very, very quickly.

But what makes Gravity really work is how it creates an atmosphere. The whole thing seems specifically designed to make space seem as utterly, utterly terrifying on all levels to make our hero’s struggle seem that much more daunting and amazing, and the film pulls off on that spectacularly. A key part of its toolbox is its use of thematic contrast: the huge, jaw-dropping visual spectacles that are the action sequences keep the danger and blind terror foremost in our mind, but are offset by the near-silent intimate moments that both give the audience time to process the beautiful insanity playing out in front of them and to remind us all that, surrounded by airless wilderness, ‘in space, nobody can hear you scream’. Cuaron deserves particular credit for his use of music in this regard- it’s one of those things you almost don’t notice, but every set piece is built up slowly, cranking up the tension, before launching into a booming orchestral inferno of noise as the action gets into full flow. And then- silence, save for our protagonist’s terrified breathing. I don’t think any film has ever made me feel a character’s emotion quite so much, and certainly none has done so to a faceless spacesuit.

Ultimately, I’m not sure me spouting words can really do the film justice- it’s one of those things where I could describe the entire storyline, down to the last scene, and it’d still be the barest shadow of what viewing the film in all its glory is. Just let me put it this way: Gravity is an hour and a half of watching people falling out of the sky through the most hostile environment in the universe amidst a chaotic firestorm of broken metal and machinery. And it is every bit as terrifying, jaw-dropping and downright awe-inspiring as that sounds.

Six Nations 2014: Round Two

Well, that weekend… happened. It wasn’t exactly a wall-to-wall festival of heart-pounding running rugby, but then again given the weather conditions, it was unlikely ever to be. Anyway, I’ve always said that rugby doesn’t need to be adrenaline-pumping to be compelling, so here we go with this year’s second round of my alternative awards ceremony.

WALES at least managed to produce a very watchable game when they took on Ireland, not that it was really their doing. In fact, that is the thrust of their award this week- the Silent Observer Award for Having The Least Impact On The Outcome Of A Game. Apparently, Wales had over 40% of the possession on Saturday, but I’ll be damned if I noticed at any point- from the starting whistle, Ireland were completely in control of every facet of the game. Wales’ success of the past few seasons has been built on momentum built through the forwards giving Mike Phillips quick ball and space to work with, but we saw precious little of that against Ireland- their one meaningful attack of the match, somewhere around the hour mark, ended with Peter O’Mahoney performing a fine steal on his own try line. Rhys Priestland was barely used as, time and again, Wales’ forwards took the ball in, attempting to build momentum that just wasn’t coming. Add to that the fact that Ireland’s kicking game kept them pinned in their own half most of the time, and the fact that they managed to score even three points seems almost surprising.

For their part IRELAND produced one of the most complete, controlling games of rugby I have ever seen from any side, earning them the Job Done Gaffer Award for Keeping Their Coach Happy. When coaching Leinster, new Ireland boss Joe Schmidt managed to turn them into one of the great powerhouses of European, and indeed world, rugby, and judging from his first two matches as national coach alone he seems on track to produce a similar success story. Having said that, many a great coach has found his plans hampered by his players’ inability to fully execute, and all credit must go to Ireland’s players for executing Schmidt’s well-thought out game plan with such ruthless efficiency. Knowing they would struggle to match Wales’ speed and intensity, they were instead content to choke the life out of their every attempt to play; Jonny Sexton was putting just about every ball that came his way into touch deep inside the Welsh half, and with the Irish lineout working like a well-oiled machine they were winning back possession more often that Wales were at all comfortable with. However, more critical was the way they controlled the ruck- the Irish pack, in particular flankers Peter O’Mahoney and Chris Henry, were on every Welsh ruck in an instant, preventing Wales gaining any solid ball and slowing their attempts to play the thing down to an unmanageable crawl. This tactic also won them good number of penalties (many of which had Welsh fans slightly unfairly howling at referee Wayne Barnes), and with their impeccably executed driving maul proving a potent weapon the tries had to come. It is a tribute to Wales’ defence that they only let through two of them.

SCOTLAND proved hosts to a more dour match during their Calcutta Cup clash on Saturday, although that can only partly be laid at the feet of their players. As such, Scotland’s award goes instead to their administrators and (surely long-suffering) groundsman, takers of the I Know Twickenham Was A Cabbage Patch, But This Is Ridiculous Award for Worst Pitch. To be fair, the Murrayfield pitch has had a lot to cope with recently- Britons nationwide can attest to how atrocious the weather has been over the last fortnight or so, and without a roof Murrayfield hasn’t had much of a way of coping with it. But the groundsmen at my home club have to cope with the same thing, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a professional rugby pitch look quite as bad as Murrayfield did after half an hour’s play on Saturday. Great brown scars seared the pitch, and every time a scrum broke up (as frequently happened given the conditions) a brown circle marked where it had been. Even during the teams’ warm up there were lumps of turf being torn away by players’ boots, and by the end of the match England’s shirts were so brown with mud one would be forgiven for thinking they were trialling a change strip. Such things are expected at a grass-roots level, but this is professional rugby for heaven’s sake. The SRU announced this week plans to redevelop the pitch by mixing in some artifical turf. I only hope it helps.

On to ENGLAND, who take home the Wait, Have We Met? Award for Inducing Deja-Vu. This is less to do with their play style, which was (somewhat necessarily) rather different from their flowing game against France- the English forwards continued to run at defenders in gleefully bullish fashion, Billy Vunipola once again proving particularly effective, but with Danny Care, perhaps wisely, choosing to slow things down a little and Owen Farrell having an off-day the English back division was nothing like as smooth or composed. No, the deja-vu comes from the pattern of their scoring; once again Luther Burrell and Mike Brown bagged a try apiece and their doing the double for the second week running is made doubly odd by the fact that these are the only tries either has ever scored for their country. Even more oddly, Danny Care (for reasons best known to himself) repeated last week’s feet of bagging a surprise drop goal from the base of a ruck, and even though Owen Farrell proved less accurate with the boot than last week he only ended up slotting one fewer shot at goal. It reminded me a little of Charlie Hodgson’s two chargedowns in two weeks a couple of seasons ago, albeit somewhat less surprising.

Finally we come to ITALY‘s clash with the high-flying French, where they were unfortunate enough to pick up the Lady Luck Apologises Award for Having Fate Conspire Against You. Italy did everything right- during the first half they were collected and effective, and their scrum (a formerly potent weapon that has declined in effectiveness in recent seasons) was working like a vice. Only Tomasso Allen’s poor day with the boot, not to mention their own moments of indiscipline, left them six points adrift at half-time, but as they trotted out for the second half it would have been a taken a braver man than eye to put serious money against them claiming a major scalp. Unfortunately, what then followed where ten minutes of some of the unluckiest rugby you’ll ever see a team suffer, with Italy making three tiny mistakes. Firstly Martin Castrogiovanni missed his bind upon entering a French maul, leaving Louis Picamoles unopposed and able to lollop over for France’s first try. Italy did all they could to catch him (and some would argue they had a defender blocked  who could have had Picamoles), but the damage had been done. Then, Tomasso Iannone (innocuously enough) chose to run inside rather than outside his opposite number Yoann Huget whilst returning to the defensive line after a French move- on the one occasion  when there was nobody to cover him and Wesley Fofana was playing scrum half. With characteristic opportunism, Fofana broke, left Iannone for dead and beat Luke McLean’s despairingly magnificent effort to cross for number two, just two minutes later. Another seven minutes of Italian pressure followed, and they were looking dangerous inside the French 22- before one wayward pass found the mercurial Fofana (again). Eighty metres, some superb Italian cover defence and two equally brilliant passes later, and debutant Hugo Bonneval was over for France’s 3rd- 21 points in 10 minutes. No team can recover from that, especially against the French- at least Iannone made up for it when he bagged Italy’s only try on the stroke of full time.

However, it wasn’t just bad luck working against the Italians- after an indifferent first 40 minutes, FRANCE finally pulled their socks up and showed the characteristic flair and opportunism that rugby fans across the world have come to know and love. They also restored some much-needed balance to this year’s competition, and in the process won the Can We Please Stop Talking About ’73 Now? Award for Keeping The Antipodeans Quiet. The internet is a wonderful thing, but it has the unfortunate problem of connecting everybody’s very loud opinions from the opposite side of the planet to one another. And when it comes to rugby, the antipodes are among the loudest- it is undoubtedly true that the Super 15 produces higher-scoring games than its European counterpart tournaments, but this is not an excuse for page after page of tirade against how terrible and boring and generally crap every game of rugby north of Darwin is. Unfortunately, the last few years of the Six Nations have only added fuel to the fire of these critics; the last two tournaments put together have produced scarcely more tries than the 2000 tournament alone, less than 40 apiece, and it’s high time the Six Nations produced some rugby to show that we northerners can play a bit. The first round produced 12 tries, a return to form at least, but after two dour matches on Saturday and a questionable first half of Sunday’s game, things were not looking good for the second round. But France, with their elegant attacking game, managed to set things right- eight tries for a weekend’s rugby isn’t an ideal outcome, but it’s a damn sight better than four. Let’s hope everyone else gets in on the act for next week.

The Six Nations 2014 Kicks Off

OK, I know I’ve been absent from this blog for a while, and the previously mentioned ‘project’ is still going ahead (currently standing at 13,000 words, hence why I’ve been so lax in my recent updates), but some things do not go ignored. And the Six Nations is one such thing: it’s that time of year again, and as Europe knuckles down for a month and a half of high-calibre rugby, I settle down for another five rounds of my alternative awards ceremony for the Six Nations matches.

The tournament opened in Cardiff, with ITALY the plucky visitors. Despite early setbacks, the Italians put in a good showing, good enough to earn the The Who Now? Award for Most Surprising Man Of The Match. This sounds a trifle harsh, so I should explain: Saturday’s MOTM award went to Italian centre Michele Campagnaro, and was well deserved. Not only did Campagnaro score both of the Italian tries, but he was continually making his presence felt throughout the match and made Italy’s back division feel like a proper outfit for the first time in many a long year. He was certainly deserving of Man Of The Match, but let’s bear one thing in mind here: this was a match won by Wales, in Wales, by one of Wales’ most settled and all-round impressive teams for many years, without too much in the way of nail-biting tension, and the arch-Welshman himself Jonathan Davies still reckoned that a relatively green Italian centre ended up on top of the pile. That, if ever there was one, is a damning indictment of just how badly Wales played to achieve their win.

However, we mustn’t have that: last year I was guilty of describing WALES as boring rather too often, and whilst I still stand by that opinion (to my mind the Welsh played about 130 minutes of actually good rugby in the entire tournament), I felt I should make an effort this year to stop slamming a highly successful side going for a record third successive title. To that end, Wales’ award concerns their opening score of the championship, which earned them the Upload Profile Picture Award for Moment Most Encapsulating A Team. After gradually building momentum during the opening phases, a sweeping move across the pitch was finished, after a neat inside flick from Jamie Roberts, by a bit of characteristic power in the Welsh back division- George North sitting Alberto Sgarbi down with a massive hit. Welsh forwards piled into the ensuing maul, showing the strength and physicality that has so often given them the edge over the last couple of seasons seasons. However, this Welsh side can be deft and skilful when they want to be too, and the try itself showed this perfectly: from the position created by the maul, Rhys Priestland sent a lovely grubber kick deep into the Italian 22. With his first act in international rugby, new Italian cap at wing Angelo Esposito came scurrying across to collect it, but rather than fall on the thing he let it bounce. Bounce it did, straight past the hapless Esposito and subsequently straight into the arms of the onrushing Alex Cuthbert, who flew across for the kind of ‘right place at the right time’ try that has made him a fixture in this Welsh side. If the Welsh are to make this year a historic one, they’ll need a few more of those moments than we saw on Saturday.

The French proved much more exciting hosts when they welcomed ENGLAND to the Stade de France on Saturday, and Les Bleus just nicked a frenetic, exhilarating encounter that could have gone either way- more of that for the rest of the tournament please. Although poor Jack Nowell almost earned an award for his rather accident-filled international debut, England’s award is in fact a collective one: the Not Again… Award for Most Frustrating Returning Habit. I refer specifically to a habit picked up during the autumn internationals, that of only playing for 40 minutes of the match. Whilst England played some great, entertaining rugby on Saturday, they started horrendously, conceding two early tries and going 16-3 down at one stage. It wasn’t until the half hour mark that Danny Care, who had England won would surely have been a candidate for Man Of The Match, revitalised his team, producing a constant supply of quick ball to keep his side moving and setting up England’s first try with a characteristic quick tap penalty. England began to capitalise on the tiring French, steadily building momentum: all told they scored 18 unanswered points between the 36th and 56th minutes, but outside this time they scored just 6.

FRANCE, however, were making the most of whatever opportunities came their way, picking up in the process my Find A Penny, Pick It Up Award for Most Opportunistic Play. Throughout the game, even during England’s slack phases, France were not given much opportunity to play: England controlled nearly 60% of the game’s possession and more than that in terms of territory. However, what little came their way they made the most of; new cap Jules Plisson set up France’s first try with his first touch of the ball (and, admittedly, not a little good fortune) and in spite of their lack of ball the French still equalled the English in terms of line breaks and were just one behind on the offloads tally. Perhaps the most telling stat, however, came from how they used their territory: England’s success rate on visits to their opponent’s 22 was less than 60%, but on just five trips beyond the English 22 metre line the French came away with points on four occasions. Every French try was in some way due to a small but exceedingly well-exploited English mistake, and it was almost poetic justice when, perhaps predictably, Yannick Nyanga capped a superb game by beating Mike Brown’s sole missed tackle all game and launching Gael Fickou under the posts for France’s third, game-winning try. Ah well, it was still a great match.

Sunday’s game wasn’t quite so exciting, Ireland welcoming SCOTLAND to the Aviva Stadium; to my mind, a quite beautiful piece of architecture characterised by its sleek, modern use of curves in both a structural and artistic role. Scotland, however, had no such modernism in their play style, and thus earned the Bring Back 1956* Award for Reminding Us Of Our History (*the actual Wombats lyric didn’t make sense, OK?). From the starting whistle it was quite clear Scotland had not come to Dublin with the view of playing fast, expansive rugby: they played rugby the old-fashioned way. The ball was played through the forwards, and from interminably slow single-pass phases at that- although flyhalf Duncan Weir did resist the temptation to kick the ball in favour of keeping the ball in hand, watching his body angles as he played revealed how much of the time he spent looking sideways at his runners rather than head up at the opposition defence.

I am a great advocate of the idea that it is (and always should be) possible to play good rugby in this way, but Scotland did not exactly provide a good advert for this. Their forwards, the rampaging David Denton excepted, struggled to make any dent in the Irish defence, and worst of all the Scots appeared to have included old-fashioned scrums and lineouts in their tribute to the days of old. Scottish lineouts were a lottery at best, the Scots losing more possession than they won, and at scrum time their front row were under all sorts of pressure. In the first half their rucking at least was enough to give them plenty of possession, but they made nothing of it and once the Irish were able to secure their own ball they started to run rampant. The resulting 20-point thumping was the least Scotland deserved after a shoddy performance

Before that, however, IRELAND won the dubious honour of the Natural One Award for Most Unlikely Unsuccessful Try (D&D reference!). As the game approached half time, Ireland were very much in the ascendency, leading by 3 and looking to increase that gap. And it looked like they would, too, when Jonny Sexton sold a wicked dummy deep inside his own half and beat five Scottish defenders cleanly before setting off up the pitch. Surrounded by defenders once again, he threw a superb long pass at speed out to the unmarked Jamie Heaslip to his left. Heaslip ran on, and went one-on-one with Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg.

Jamie Heaslip is 6ft 4, over 17 stone (nearly 110 kilos)  and one of Ireland’s most powerful and effective runners. Stuart Hogg is a little over 13 stone and is famous for being a lithe, sleek attacking player rather than a defensive brick wall. Five metres from the line, with Heaslip in space there should be no contest- at the very least, Heaslip could surely get an offload away to one of the Irishmen galloping up from behind. In fact, had Hogg made a more effective tackle he doubtless would have done: as it was, Hogg simply threw himself at Heaslip’s legs and succeeded in checking his stride. A try nonetheless looked certain, with nothing between Heaslip and the line, but as he stepped onwards past the prone Hogg a blue blur that replays subsequently identified as Max Evans came flying across and hurled himself at Heaslip’s torso. Heaslip twisted, reached out and deftly touched the ball down over the line- but not before, just a fraction of a second earlier, Evans’ heroics had dragged one of his feet across the touchline. 99 times out of 100, the try would have stood, but Scottish heroics proved just enough to keep Ireland out. For the next two minute at least, before Andrew Trimble crossed on the other wing and the Scottish slide began.