The Final Round (Six Nations 2014)

Saturday, March 16th 2014: the day the sun finally shone on European rugby (both literally and metaphorically). With firm pitches underfoot and glorious playing conditions, the final round of the Six Nations ended with an eye-watering 20 tries being scored as European rugby finally showed what amazing stuff it can produce given the conditions for it. One of the Six Nations’ most entertaining days, it was a great day of rugby for all (well, at least for those not wearing blue), and now, to wrap it up, here comes my final round of awards.

I feel like I may be repeating myself a little here with ITALY‘s award, but I still think it’s warranted-the Wax Lynchpin Award for Being So Badly Let Down by Just One Thing. For many years, Italy have been the Six Nations whipping boys, salvaging plucky wins against struggling sides whenever they can but never really looking like serious contenders. The perennial story was always one of ‘give their pack a back line to finish things off, and maybe we’ll get a good rugby team out of them’. Nowadays however, they have genuinely turned a corner- Jacques Brunel has selected a back division with strike runners of genuine quality, Michele Campagnaro has undoubtedly been the find of the tournament, and Luciano Orquera & Tomasso Allen find themselves in the position of being Italy’s first international-quality fly halves since Diego Dominguez. All in all, they have been transformed into a side who genuinely look like they belong on the world stage, but unfortunately, this has yet to manifest itself where it really counts- on the scoreboard, and it all comes down to the breakdown. The ruck is undoubtedly the single most important battle ground in modern rugby- games are frequently won or lost around them, and when you are as comprehensively unable to compete at them as Italy proved on Sunday, there is simply nothing a team can do. You control no possession, have no ability to affect the pace of the game, can’t build a territorial advantage, and essentially have nothing to do but exhaust yourself against an attack who can pretty much pick & choose how they want to attack you. The result was demonstrated quite emphatically on Saturday, as England ran seven tries past the Italians whilst the Azzuri themselves were restricted to one piece of lucky opportunism. Brunel has done a wonderful job getting Italy this far- now he just needs to complete the puzzle.

There are many awards I could have given ENGLAND after their display: some thing about aerial ability would have allowed me to wax lyrical about the English locks again, or I could have made mention of the (entirely deserved) third MOTM award this tournament for Mike Brown who looks set to win man of the series. Then there was their frenetic speed of play, and a sign of things to come after George Ford’s adroit little cameo to finish off proceedings, but really there was only one candidate- the Demon On The Dancefloor Award for Best Try Celebration. Props rarely go into a match expecting to cross the whitewash, and on the rare occasions when they do they are generally just lucky enough to be on the end of a sweeping attacking moves. They do not expect, as happened to Mako Vunipola on Saturday, to ease themselves up from a ruck and suddenly find the ball delivered into their hands with the line at their mercy. As such, Vunipola didn’t exactly have much time to mentally prepare himself for his little moment of glory, and neither did he have hordes of team-mates ready to congratulate them (they all being at the base of aforementioned ruck). Unfortunately for him, Vunipola didn’t quite realise his isolation until very slightly after beginning his unplanned try celebration, resulting in a truly beautiful compromise between celebration and playing it cool; a little penguin hop into the air, arms flailing by his side, followed by a rather embarrassed stroll away from the line. One feels that video may come back to haunt him over the rest of his playing days.

For SCOTLAND, however, the embarrassment was collective and continuous, after what must rank pretty highly in the annals of worst international rugby performances ever (as a proud Scottish fan, it pains me to have to say those words). Being a Scotland fan at the moment is a pretty trying task, but all credit must go to those brave souls who made the trip down to Cardiff and were forced to watch their countrymen… well, let’s just leave it unsaid. They are deserved recipients of the Loyal To The End Award for Most Committed Fans. At around the hour mark, Scotland were 44-3 down, having conceded six tries already and offering next to zero resistance, but the Scottish fans were not to be defeated so easily: as the BBC camera panned around, it focused on a small core of them, standing proud in their tartan and smiles on their faces. From the depths of their lungs and at possibly the last moment one would think pride in the blue jersey were warranted,  ‘Flower Of Scotland’ rang around the stadium for all to hear- a genuinely heartwarming gesture, and a great advert for the spirit of the game.

However, the scoreline Scotland conceded was not just because they played badly; Stuart Hogg must also take some of the blame, after his dismissal (after an uncharacteristic and frankly horrendous shoulder to the face on Wales’ Dan Biggar), whilst WALES must also take due credit for capitalising quite as spectacularly as they did. In doing so, they won my It’s Not Quite Rugby League But… Award for Best Advert For Making Rugby A 14-Man Game. Without Hogg’s reliable presence at fullback, there was a hole ever-present in the Scottish line, and Wales took full advantage of their continuous overlap. 14 men is, apparently, not enough to cover the full width of a rugby pitch properly, and without the Scottish defence pressurising them in any way, the Welsh were able to secure fast, reliable ball and unleash their devastating strike runners to amazing effect. North, Roberts, Davies and Co. ran rampant, throwing it around like the most wild & exuberant of afternoon kickabouts, producing a game that felt to watch rather like an extended highlights reel or YouTube ‘best of’ compilation. Now all they have to do is prove themselves against a team who can play rugby.

After an offside call on Taulupe Faletau put paid to a wonderful Welsh move featuring enough cross kicks and clever offloads to make Will Genia need to change his underwear, Wales were in the running for the Rugby Needs A ‘Because It’s Awesome’ Rule Award for Most Cruelly Denied Try. Instead, however, the award goes to FRANCE; in what ended up as only the second game of the championship where they actually played well (for which all credit must go to Remi Tales winning his first test start), they dogged Ireland throughout and put two tries past an Irish defence that has otherwise been tight as a drum throughout. And, at the death, it looked like they’d stolen it from right under their noses- pressurising the Irish line in the 78th minute at just two points down, some good phase play sucked defenders in in classic fashion before a wicked move swept the ball right and found Damien Chouly unmarked on the right to scoot over. To a Frenchman (and indeed any Englishmen watching- a French win and the championship was English), it was the stuff of schoolboy tales and fairytales, and there wasn’t a man or woman in the Stade de France not weeping tears of elation or heartbreak- except, of course, referee Steve Walsh, who immediately called for the TMO. Video analysis revealed that the crucial pass delivered to Chouly had gone forward, leaving the Irish ahead and worthy champions. Even if they did make a meal of it and lose the resulting scrum.

IRELAND making a meal of their victory was something of a running theme during their match on Saturday; after four rounds of calm consistency, it did have to be in the title decider that they decided it was high time to earn the Stress-Related Aneurysm Award for Unnecessary Tension. Much of this came thanks to the French deciding to show up and play some rugby for a change, but the fact that the Irish appeared to choke on the big occasion and virtually stopped playing for the last 20 minutes didn’t help. Neither did Jonny Sexton. The Irish flyhalf is, at least on paper, the best in the northern hemisphere, and whilst he’s not quite Leigh Halfpenny his boot is nonetheless a reliable source of points for his team. Not so this time round- at least 3 kicks that a club kicker would have regarded as sitters went sailing wide, keeping France far too close for comfort and Irish nails ground down to the bone. My own personal theory for why it went so close, however, concerns a certain Brian O’Driscoll- in his last ever international, he clearly wanted to go out on a big one (heaven knows he deserved to), so why not make it one the of the tensest and most dramatic games of his career? I mean it’s not like it’s the winning match of his final, and victorious, Six Nations anyway or something.

OK, I’ll admit the theory falls down a bit there.

Nations: 6. Round: 5. Twenty: FOURteen

It’s back! For some reason, this particular two week-long gap between Six Nations fixtures seemed an especially long one, and I was positively salivating at the prospect of a weekend’s rugby when Friday rolled around. So, without further ado, here are the awards.

Poor, poor ITALY. For so many years the whipping boys of the championship, condemned to scrapping for the wooden spoon in their desperate search for a weapon beyond a strong scrummage- and now, whilst playing some genuinely great, fluid rugby, a true professional outfit, they are takers only of the Are You Sure You’re Adding That Up Right? Award for Most Deceptive Scoreline. A casual glance at the scoreline of their game against Ireland, and indeed of many a slightly lazily written match report, would tell you the Italians were soundly thrashed on Saturday, and to be fair the Irish played very well- they were dominant at the breakdown, controlling the vast majority of the game’s possession and executing a number of excellent attacking moves that made them well worth each of their eventual six tries. But, rucking aside, the Italians scarcely put a foot wrong- despite their lack of possession forcing them to make an exhausting 208 tackles, their defence was solid as a rock for most of the game. When, during the first half, they were able to maintain some degree of parity with regards to possession, Ireland’s advantage on the scoreboard remained very slim, and they made the most of what opportunities they got- continually making probing runs and playing at a frenetic pace, their one try (courtesy of winger Leonardo Sarto) coming from a great piece of opportunism and an excellent solo run. One day, Italy will be a force to be reckoned with in this tournament. One day.

However, IRELAND‘s game on Saturday was only ever going to belong to one man: Brian O’Driscoll, who wins everyone’s In BOD We Trust Award for Outstanding Contribution to Rugby/Best Send-off. O’Driscoll has dominated Northern Hemisphere rugby for over a decade, and for most of his career has been the undisputed best outside centre in the world. Barring the World Cup, he has won just about every trophy going as a player, has captained his country through some of their most successful seasons in living memory and, as of Saturday, is the most-capped international player ever (current tally stands at 140). But to think of him merely in terms of numbers belies his true genius: blessed with a superb rugby brain and the silkiest of skills with the ball in hand, he can also tackle and scrap with the best of them and is one of the few players ever to play world rugby with no clear weaknesses or flaws as a player. Season after season, even has he has aged, he never ceases to confound defences and delight crowds with his imaginative and immaculately executed moments of pure rugby genius. His display on Saturday, his last ever home match for Ireland, was a typically sublime one, hard-hitting tackling combined with a dominant, controlling attacking display that directly made two tries and played the Italian back line like an instrument: one that would have deserved the eventual Man Of The Match Award had his entire damn career not merited it a hundred times over. As he fought back tears in the post-match interview, the crowd clapping and cheering in the final act of a wonderful farewell, one realised just how special he is as both a man and player, and just how badly he will be missed when gone.

Whilst the poignance (and, for that matter, result) of the Ireland game was heavily forecast, few would have expected to get such an entertaining a showing as they did from Saturday’s other match (well, half of it at least), SCOTLAND‘s clash against France. The two sides have both had troubled tournaments thus far, Scotland struggling to find their cutting edge and France simply failing to execute theirs, but in spite of the predictably atrocious Murrayfield pitch and a howling wind, Scotland were able to win my Who Are You And What Did You Do With My Team? Award for Least Characteristic Play. Scotland have been characterised for much of this tournament by slow and frankly unadventurous play that has rarely seemed to threaten an opponent’s tryline, but on Saturday they were able to produce one try (through Stuart Hogg) borne of uncharacteristic ambition through a well executed chip & chase, and another through a sublime bit of interplay, straight off the training paddock, that must have put a smile on Scott Johnson’s face as Tommy Seymour raced over. It’s a shame the entertainment didn’t have the grace to extend as far as the second half, but we can’t have everything.

Many pundits spent their post-match analysis asking exactly how Scotland, for all their first-half heroics, still managed to end up losing to a decidedly poor FRANCE side, but to my mind the answer is simple, and it earned them the Picking Quite A Moment Award for Best Timed Try. Early in the second half, France were in trouble; 14-9 down and struggling to create anything, Scotland were threatening their tryline with  a sweeping cross-field attack. With an overlap out wide, Scotland elected to throw a long pass that should have given their outside men at least a 3-on-2 and a probable try to finish France off. As it turned out, big mistake- that few seconds of the ball’s flight time was all Yoann Huget needed to latch onto the pass, outpace the Scottish defence and dive under the posts for the only try France ever looked like getting. It proved crucial, putting France back into contention and, with the Scottish attack starting to falter, keeping them within range in time for a final penalty to seal a French win. The Scottish fans may feel deservedly pissed off that they didn’t win that one.

However, all these matches were only ever going to be a warm-up for the veritable clash of titans that was lined up for Sunday: WALES vs. England. Last year, Wales denied a Grand Slam and stole a championship from under England’s noses- the year before that, some highly contentious moments in a desperately tight game gave Wales a victory that eventually landed them the Slam. England had a point to prove, reigning champs Wales had a reputation to uphold. In the end, however, 14 of Wales men hardly needed to have turned up, as Leigh Halfpenny proved himself deserved winner of the One Man Army Award for Biggest Individual Contribution. With Halfpenny’s metronomic boot, him contributing all of Wales’ points was hardly unsurprising, if not exactly desirable from a Welsh perspective, and given his prodigious skillset in other parts of the game his being their best player is also far from unheard of. However, when up against Mike Brown in the form of his life, to make even he seem merely good by comparison speaks volumes about the sheer quality of Halfpenny’s performance in an otherwise uninspired Welsh team- not a kick was missed, not a catch unfielded, not a gap left unprobed by boot or darting run in a virtually flawless performance marred only by how infrequently he was given the ball. However, perhaps in defence he was most significant- as Wales’ last line of defence he presented a brick wall to England’s (far too frequent) line breaks, frustrating them throughout the second half, and ended up dislocating his shoulder in the line of duty whilst stopping what would otherwise have been a certain try from England’s Luther Burrell- a man five inches taller and nearly 4 stone heavier than he. That injury has, unfortunately, ended his season, but his fine tackle in doing so saved many a Welsh blush and his overall performance effectively masked the countless other errors of his compatriots. Wales, and indeed the rugby world, can only hope his recovery is swift.

Last time out ENGLAND kept every one of their fans on the edge of their seat in a desperately tense encounter- this week it was merely the rugby historians among us who shifted nervously in our seats as England won the Don’t Mention The War Award for Coming Worryingly Close to Repeating History. Of all of Wales’ many victories over their Saxon neighbours, perhaps none have been more celebrated in recent years as their classic victory in 1999. England had been the tournament powerhouse, on course for a Grand Slam coming into their final game against the Welsh, and after two first-half tries they would appear to have had the game in hand- had Neil Jenkins’ metronomic boot kept the Welsh well within reach. Despite numerous line breaks, England had frequently struggled to turn their dominance into meaningful control of the scoreboard- and if we substitute the name ‘Leigh Halfpenny’ for ‘Neil Jenkins’ over the last two sentences, we have a pretty accurate description of Sunday’s match as well. In ’99, the half time gap was just 7 points- here it was but 5, and even though Wales could not, in the end, find similar heroics to win the game this year as on that famous day 15 years ago, it was enough to make me rather unnerved over my half-time pint. And when England, in the last few minutes of the game, elected to kick for the corner rather than take the easy three points, it raised a wry smile- at least this time round, the gap was more than 6 points.

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.

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.

I’m still here…

…and working on something. It’s taking a good chunk of time, but hopefully I’ll have it done some time in the early New Year. Either way, please excuse the current lack of regular posts.

Fighting Flab

In my last post, I underwent a scientific ramble upon the subject of fat, going into a little of the basic chemistry and biology of the whole business. However, what I did not touch so much on is the giant elephant in the room that surrounds all talk of fat in our modern world, and looks poised to become one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century- that of obesity and overweightness.

I am not, however, about to analyse obesity as a whole in this post, but instead intend to consider why attempting to counteract this, and the slimming industry in general, have become such major bones of contention for so many people. There’s no denying that the slimming industry is worth a veritable fortune- one analyst I saw on TV the other day estimated that a simple cure-all for the world’s obesity problem could be worth up to four trillion dollars, particularly given the boom in public obesity in countries like Brazil and China. However, this doesn’t mean that slimming is popular or that everyone goes in for it- if slimming down weren’t such a problem for so many people, there wouldn’t be an obesity problem worth speaking of, and it’s an open secret that around 99.9% people attempting a new diet fail to keep any weight off in the long term.

To begin, let us consult the very basics. For practical purposes in terms of losing weight, fat is basically energy stored by your body in physical form; the formation of the triglyceride molecules that make up fat requires energy, ‘using up’ any excess energy your body may have, and breaking them apart (the leftover ‘bits’ of the broken-down triglyceride molecules are effectively waste products that are transported to the kidneys via the bloodstream, and are later eliminated from the body in urine) releases this stored energy for your body to use, in order to keep your various bodily functions going and allowing you to move around and do things. Thus, any difference between the amount of energy your body consumes (in food, mainly; a ‘calorie’ is nothing more than an old unit of energy, just like the ‘joule’ unit used in modern science) and uses is offset by your fat reserves- if you put in more than you get out, your fat stores increases, and vice-versa. Thus, the only real challenge facing a slimmer wanting to shed their excess fat is to expend more energy than they consume (leaving to one side for this post various claims that certain foods make you fatter than equivalents of a similar calorific value). Just so we’re all clear on this.

The first concern to raise its ugly head when considering this problem is the simple question of ‘how much energy do we actually expend per day?’. Many people will look to the little table of government-issued Guideline Daily Amounts of various nutrients that you find on the side of most food packaging, but it must be remembered that these are only ‘Guidelines’ after all and a more personal evaluation may be of use. The amount of energy your body uses per day is known as your Metabolic Rate, and a good starting point for an aspiring slimmer would be to calculate your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). One’s RMR is a measure of how much energy a person of your gender, age, height and weight would normally (some people may have unusually fast or slow metabolisms, but these people are rare and ‘I have a slow metabolism’ is more often an exuse than reality) expend per day were they utterly at rest; not moving, not doing anything, this is the minimum amount of energy your body needs in order to function. RMR calculators such as this one are freely available online, and that one also features a separate calculator (under ‘Calorie Calculator) that allows you to (very roughly) estimate your total calorie consumption per day. The final number you get out of this latter process is a very useful guideline to the aspiring slimmer.

However, simply aiming to eat less than that number is no guarantee of long-term weight loss. For one thing, many people give up on diets because they can see no immediate results, but this is because ‘burning’ fat is an inherently slow progress. Depending on your source, fat stores between 7500 and 9000 calories per kilogram, meaning that if you are on a diet in which you eat 500 calories less than you expend (and I’m being generous here; a 500 calorie shortfall will leave you feeling very hungry), you can only expect to lose a kilogram of fat every 2-3 weeks. Even this may be  masked if our hypothetical slimmer decides to exercise a bit more too; regular exercise will cause a person to put on muscle (which weighs more than fat) and thus make the loss of weight seem less impressive- but we’ll come onto exercise in a minute.

The other major issue facing those who try to lose weight by dieting is the fact that diets are really, really unpleasant. For one thing, the constant calorie-counting provides unwanted mental strain for many (hence the popularity of points-based diets and similar that do the calculations for you), and this mental fatigue can serve to only exacerbate the gnawing hunger in our empty bellies at the end of a day when we’ve eaten enough calories but not enough to satisfy our stomach. Not only do dieters frequently feel hungry, they also have to deal with a bland diet of lettuce and cottage cheese- and however much we can pretend that we find these delicate things delicious, they don’t quite compare to the stomach-filling satisfaction of a thick, fatty, meaty burger.

The problem is that our hunger is not dictated by how many calories we have consumed, but by how physically full our stomach is, and whilst there are a few tricks that can be used to try and counteract this (a personal favourite is to down a pint of water when feeling peckish, just to give my stomach a large physical amount of stuff to process) none of them really compare to everyone’s dream of being able to eat as much as they like and still not get thin. So, if attempting to limit our intake of energy alone isn’t enough (although diet is most certainly a vital part of keeping our weight down), our only remaining option is to increase the amount of energy we expend, and that means exercise.

The benefits of exercise in relation to weight loss are generally poorly understood by most people; whilst the very act of getting our bodies moving does expend energy, as the little calorie meter on an exercise regime may show, the actual amount of excess energy expended by this process is usually very little; a half-hour run may only expend a cupcake’s worth of energy. No, the real benefits to exercise concern the metabolism; exercise and leading a generally active lifestyle causes your overall metabolic rate to rise, which is why relatively short but regular bouts of exercise (which constantly ‘top up’ one’s metabolic rate) are generally more productive than a four hour long weekend blowout that only boosts the metabolic rate for a small portion of one’s week. This is why the oft-quoted adage instructing people to do 10,000 steps per day has hung around for so long; I honestly believe that were everyone to follow this advice, there would not be a serious obesity problem. Not only that, but as mentioned before exercise, particularly intense exercise such as sprinting or weight training, will build muscle- muscle whose cells will need to be constantly provided with energy in order to stay alive, thus increasing one’s metabolic rate in the long- as well as short-term.

One final pitfall to be noted with attempting to lose weight in this fashion involves attempting to keep it off. It must be borne in mind that people of a lower weight have a lower RMR and thus need less energy, meaning that if a successful dieter reverts to their pre-diet practices they will be eating too much and will just balloon back to the weight they were. Thus, when one makes a commitment to exercise or better eating it has got to be a genuine change in lifestyle (something very few people are willing to commit to) in order to work for the long-term.

That’s one of two reasons why an unpleasant diet of celery sticks probably isn’t a great weight loss solution; the other reason concerns the other benefit of exercise. Someone who regularly exercises isn’t just likely to be slimmer than a similar person who doesn’t, but to be healthier as well- their heart will be healthier, their muscles more able to perform practical real-world tasks, and their body is generally less likely to suffer from the ravages of time and disease. A lot of the stated health problems that come from being overweight or obese are merely symptomatic of people who eat bad food and don’t exercise sufficiently, rather than being directly caused by being overweight. That’s why very few people worry after the cardiovascular health of Jonny Wilkinson, World Cup-winning rugby star and shining light of Toulon RC: a man whose BMI classes him as morbidly obese.

Blubber

Fat is a much-maligned substance in the twenty-first century world we find ourselves in; exhortations for it to be burnt or exhumed from one’s diet abound from all sides, and indeed entire industries are now founded on dealing with the unwanted stuff in one form or another. However, fat is not, in fact, some demonic hate figure designed specifically to kill all that is good and beautiful about our world, and since it is at least relatively interesting I thought it might be worth investigating a few bits and pieces surrounding it over the course of a post.

All fats are based upon a molecule called glycerol, or propan-1,2,3-triol to give it its technical IUPAC name. Glycerol is a very interesting substance used for a wide range of purposes both in the body and commercially; it can be broken down to form sugar, can be used as a laxative, is an effective antifreeze, a useful solvent, a sweetener, is a key ingredient in the production of dynamite and, of course, can be used to store energy in fatty form. Glycerol is, technically speaking, an alcohol, but unlike most everyday alcohols (such as the ethanol upon which many of our favourite drinks are based) each glycerol molecule contains not one but three alcohol functional groups. In a fat, these alcohol groups act like sticking points, allowing three different long-chain carboxylic acid molecules known as ‘fatty acids’ to attach to each glycerol molecule. For this reason, fats are also known as ‘triglycerides’, and precisely which fat is formed from this structure depends on the structure of these fatty acids.

Fatty acids consisting of shorter chains of carbon atoms have less atoms with which to interact with their surroundings,  and thus the intermolecular forces between the fatty acid chains and other molecules are weaker for shorter-chain acids. This has a number of effects on the properties of the final product, but one of the most obvious concerns its melting point; shorter-chain fatty acids generally result in a product that is liquid at room temperature, and such products are designated as ‘oils’ rather than fats. Thus, not all triglycerides are, technically speaking, fats, and even triglycerides are part of a larger chemical family of fat-like substances known as ‘lipids’ (organic chemistry can be confusing). As a general rule, plants tend to produce oils and animals produce fats (presumably for reasons of storage), which is why you get stuff like duck fat and olive oil rather than the reverse.

The structure of the fatty acids is also important in an important dietary consideration surrounding fats; whether they are saturated or unsaturated. In chemistry, carbon atoms are bonded to one another by covalent bonds, consisting of a shared pair of electrons (each atom providing one electron of the pair) that keeps the two atoms bonded together. Most of the time, only one pair of electrons forms the bond (known as a single bond), but sometimes the relevant carbon atoms have a surfeit of electrons and will create another shared pair, forming a double covalent bond. The nature of double bonds means that the carbon atoms involved can accept more hydrogen atoms (or other electrophiles such as bromine; bromine water is a good test for double bonds) whereas a molecule made up entirely of singly-bonded atoms couldn’t accept any more and would be said to be saturated with hydrogen. Thus, molecules (including fats and fatty acids) with only single bonds are described as saturated, whilst those with double bonds are known as unsaturated*. A mixture of the food industry and chemical fraternity has developed a whole host of more specific descriptive terms that give you more detail as to the chemical structure of your fats (stuff like monounsaturated and such), and has also subdivided unsaturated fats into two more categories, cis- and trans-fats (the names refer to the molecules’ arrangement in space about the double bond, not their gender orientation).

With all these different labels, it’s no wonder people have so much trouble remembering, much less identifying, which fats they are ‘supposed to avoid’. Saturated and trans-unsaturated fats (which occur rarely in nature due to enzyme structure and are usually manufactured artificially) are apparently bad, mono-unsaturated (cis-) fats are good, and poly-unsaturated (cis-) fats good in moderation.

The extent to which these fats are ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ does not refer to the effect they will have on your waistline; all fats you eat are first broken down by your digestive process, and the resulting calories produced are then either used to power your body or turned into other sorts of fat that take up belly space. This process is the same for all types of energy-containing food and I shall come onto a few details about it in a paragraph or two. No, the relative health risk of these different fat types refers instead to the production of another type of lipid; cholesterol, which has such a complex, confusing structure and synthesis that I’m not even going to try to describe it. Cholesterol is a substance produced intentionally by the body and is very useful; it is used in the production of all sorts of hormones and vitamins, is a key ingredient of bile and is used in helping cells rebuild themselves. It is transported through the body by two different substances known as LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (take a wild guess) that carry it via the bloodstream; and this is where problems arise. The precise mechanism behind it is not known, but an increased consumption of trans-fats and other ‘bad’ triglycerides leads to an increase in the amount of cholesterol and LDL in the bloodstream. If this stuff is allowed to build up, cholesterol can start to ‘stick’ to the sides of one’s blood vessels, slowly reducing the effective size of the blood vessel until it is almost completely shut. This greatly reduces the flow of blood through these vessels, and this can have particularly dramatic consequences if the large, important blood vessels close to or supplying the heart are affected, leading to coronary heart disease and a greatly increased risk of heart attacks. HDL, for some reason, doesn’t apparently contribute to this affect, leading HDL to be (misleadingly, since it’s not actually cholesterol) dubbed ‘good cholesterol’ and LDL as ‘bad cholesterol’.

Clearly, then, having too much of these ‘bad fats’ can have some pretty serious consequences, but public realisation of this has lead all fat to be considered as a disgusting thing to be shunned. Frankly, this is just plain old not true, and it is far easier to live a healthy life with a bit of meat** on the bones than to go down the super-skinny angle. Fat is a vital body tissue, required for insulation, vitamin transport, to store energy, to prevent the disease and provides many essential nutrients; omega-3, the ‘essential oil’ (meaning it is not produced by the body) found in fish that is thought  to play a role in brain development and other bodily functions, is nothing more than an unusual fatty acid.

If you want further evidence as to the importance fat plays in one’s body, I refer you to a condition known as lipodystrophy, in which one’s body cannot produce or store fat properly. In some cases this is localised and relatively harmless, but in incredibly rare cases it manifests itself as a hereditary condition that causes abnormal bone and muscle growth, facial disfigurement and requires an incredibly strict diet (in direct contravention of the massive appetite the condition gives you) in order to control one’s levels of cholesterol and carbohydrate intake. In many cases, sufferers of this horrible condition will not live past twenty, if they even get that far.

*Vegetable oils tend to be more frequently unsaturated than fats, as this is another factor that reduces their melting point and makes them liquid. A key process involved in producing margarine involves taking these vegetable oils and adding hydrogen to these double bonds, a process known as hydrogenation, in order to raise their melting point and make the margarine solid and spreadable. Chemistry!

**Although, as anyone who likes their bacon skinny will tell you, fat is most certainly not meat. In fact, it’s not even alive.

Fish

‘Fish’ is one of my favourite words. Having only a single syllable means it can be dropped into conversation without a second thought, thus enabling one to cause maximum confusion with minimal time spent considering one’s move, which often rather spoils the moment. The very… forward nature of the word also suits this function- the very bluntness of it, its definitive end and beginning with little in the way of middle to get distracting, almost forces it to take centre stage in any statement, whether alone or accompanied by other words, demanding it be said loud and proud without a trace of fear or embarrassment. It also helps that the word is very rarely an appropriate response to anything, enhancing its inherent weirdness.

Ahem. Sorry about that.

However, fish themselves are very interesting in their own right; and yes, I am about to attempt an overall summary of one of the largest groups in the animal kingdom in less than 1000 words.  For one thing, every single vertebrate on the planet is descended from them; in 1999 a fossil less than 3cm long and 524 million years old was discovered in China with a single ‘stick’ of rigid material, probably cartilage, running down the length of its body. It may be the only example ever discovered of Myllokunmingia fengjiaoa (awesome name), but that tiny little fossil has proved to be among the most significant ever found. Although not proven, that little bit of cartilage is thought to be the first ever backbone, making Myllokunmingia the world’s first fish and the direct ancestor of everything from you to the pigeon outside your window. It’s quite a humbling thought.

This incredible age of fish as a group, which in turn means there are very few specimens of early fish, has meant that piscine evolution is not studied as a single science; the three different classes of fish (bony, cartilaginous and jawless, representing the likes of cod, sharks and hagfish respectively- a fourth class of armoured fish died out some 360 million years ago) all split into separate entities long before any other group of vertebrates began to evolve, and all modern land-based vertebrates (tetrapods, meaning four-limbed) are direct descendants of the bony fish, the most successful of the three groups. This has two interesting side-effects; firstly that a salmon is more closely related to you than to a shark, and secondly (for precisely this reason) that some argue there is no such thing as a fish. The term ‘fish’ was introduced as a coverall term to everything whose lack of weight-bearing limbs confines them to the water before evolutionary biology had really got going, and technically the like of sharks and lamprey should each get a name to themselves- but it appears we’re stuck with fish, so any grumpy biologists are just going to have to suck it.

The reason for this early designation of fish in our language is almost certainly culinary in origin, for this is the main reason we ever came, and indeed continue to come, into contact with them at all. Fish have been an available, nutritious and relatively simple to catch food source for humans for many a millennia, but a mixture of their somewhat limited size, the fact that they can’t be farmed and the fact that bacon tastes damn good meant they are considered by some, particularly in the west (fish has always enjoyed far greater popularity in far eastern cultures), to the poor cousins to ‘proper meat’ like pork or beef. Indeed, many vegetarians (including me; it’s how I was brought up) will eschew meat but quite happily eat fish in large quantities, usually using the logic that fish are so damn stupid they’re almost vegetables anyway. Vegetarians were not, however, the main reason for fish’s survival as a common food for everyone, including those living far inland, in Europe- for that we can thank the Church. Somewhere in the dim and distant past, the Catholic Church decreed that one should not eat red meat on the Sabbath day- but that fish was permitted. This kept fish a common dish throughout Europe, as well as encouraging the rampant rule bending that always accompanies any inconvenient law; beaver were hunted almost to extinction in Europe by being classed as fish under this rule. It was also this ruling that lead to lamprey (a type of jawless fish that looks like a cross between a sea snake and a leech) becoming a delicacy among the crowned heads of Europe, and Henry I of England (third son of William the Conqueror, in case you wanted to know) is reported to have died from eating too many of the things.

The feature most characteristic of fish is, of course, gills, even though not all fish have them and many other aquatic species do (albeit less obviously). To many, how gills work is an absolute mystery, but then again how many of you can say, when it comes right down to the science of the gas exchange process, how your lungs work? In both systems, the basic principle is the same; very small, thin blood vessels within the structure concerned are small and permeable enough to allow gas molecules to move across the gap from one side of the blood vessel’s wall to the other, allowing carbon dioxide built up from moving and generally being alive to move out of the bloodstream and fresh oxygen to move in. The only real difference concerns structure; the lungs consist of a complex, intertwining labyrinth of air spaces of various size with blood vessels spread over the surface and designed to filter oxygen from the air, whilst gills basically string the blood vessels up along a series of sticks and hold them in the path of flowing water to absorb the oxygen dissolved within it- gills are usually located such that water flows through the mouth and out via the gills as the fish swims forward. In order to ensure a constant supply of oxygen-rich water is flowing over the gills, most fish must keep swimming constantly or else the water beside their gills would begin to stagnate- but some species’, such as nurse sharks, are able to pump water over their gills manually, allowing them to lie still and allow them to do… sharky things. Interestingly, the reason gills won’t work on land isn’t simply that they aren’t designed to filter oxygen from the air; a major contributory factor is the fact that, without the surrounding water to support them, the structure of the gills is prone to collapse, causing parts of it cease to be able to function as a gas exchange mechanism.

Well, that was a nice ramble. What’s up next time, I wonder…