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.