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.

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