SN Episode III: Revenge of the Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Third Test

Yes, it’s nearly three weeks since the match and yes, I did say I’d try to get this post up closer to the time: travel wasn’t conducive to it, sorry. But the deciding test of the 2013 Lions’ tour to Australia was good enough to have stuck in my mind perfectly clearly since its glorious conclusion, so this is definitely getting an extra-length post as my Lions’ awards season concludes.

I feel I should pre-emptively apologise to any Australians who end up reading this post if it ends up being very Lions-centric, but… come on, you saw the game. The Lions were fantastic.

We begin, as usual, with the FRONT ROW, where (predictably enough) Adam Jones just edges out Alex Corbisiero to take the Yes, It Is Still A Relevant Part Of The Game Award for Best Scrummaging. The Lions scrum has oscillated wildly throughout this test series, from periods of near-total domination to some almost laughable nadirs. It also worth noting that it is most certainly no coincidence that the Lions have scored their points in previous matches during the periods where their scrum was on top. However, in this match the front row combo of Corbisiero, Jones and Richard Hibbard finally managed to deliver on all the pre-tour hype surrounding the scrum, and by ten minutes in they were working like a vice. Indeed, the only period in which Australia were able to exert any form of control (the half hour either side of half-time) came about pretty much solely because there weren’t any scrums.

Much was made of Corbisiero’s contribution in that game, but I’m giving the award to Jones simply because he has been the most consistent of the Lions forwards by a country mile. Jones is undoubtedly the best scrummaging tighthead in world rugby today, and at no point on this tour was he ever seen as the weak link in any sense. He was key to every demolition of every front row he faced on tour, and deserves every plaudit he gets (even those from never-read internet bloggers).

Now, SECOND ROW time, where nobody could hope to challenge Geoff Parling for the Where Did That Come From? Award for Best Tackle. Earlier on in the tour, Jesse Mogg had wreaked havoc amongst Lions ranks with his lines of running during the Brumbies’ win over the Lions, and was rewarded with a place in the Australia squad. He made no appearance during the first two matches, but came on for Israel Folau after 28 minutes in the third and immediately made an impact. Not long after taking to the field, he ran a superb line to split the Lions defence down the middle. With Australia starting to gain momentum at this point, a try could have spelt the end for some of the Lions’ hard won confidence, and as Mogg flew away from Lions defenders in acres of space, a score seemed inevitable.

Parling, however, had other ideas. The bearded Englishmen, showing far more pace than any lock should really be allowed, seemed to appear from nowhere, flying in from Mogg’s right to mount a desperate lunge at the winger’s feet. Somehow, Parling’s giant right paw latched onto one of Mogg’s flying feet, sending him careening through the air and giving grateful Lions defenders time to jump on him and relieve the pressure. It was a truly beautiful moment for a Lions supporter, and one that really deserves more YouTube videos than I found.

Time for the BACK ROW now, where an Australian scoops an award: George Smith, who takes the dubious honour of the Tony O’Reilly Memorial Award for Least Triumphant Recall. The 33-year old Smith, a veritable legend of Australian rugby (if only for the superb hairstyle he sported during the 2003 World Cup, allowing Brian O’Driscoll to become the only international player to be penalised for tackling another by their mullet), had been playing in Japan when he received the call inviting him to join up with the Australian squad ahead of the test series. Whether this was an entirely wise move on behalf of Australian coach Robbie Deans (not to mention, according to some, Smith himself for accepting the offer) was a matter up for much debate online following the announcement, and when he was selected for the deciding test both proponents and critics of his selection lined up with bated breath.

In the end, Smith’s return to international rugby was more slightly sad than especially good or bad. Within just four minutes of his taking the field, he was felled by a bone-rattling collision with Richard Hibbard that saw him taken off the pitch for treatment; perhaps not the best welcoming present for a man only just recovered from a knee injury. Still, there is no field better than a decade of international rugby for weeding out the wimps, and true to form the old soldier Smith was back on the pitch just a short while later. He then proceeded to do absolutely nothing that I was able to notice (although, admittedly, I wasn’t particularly watching) for the next three quarters of an hour, before being replaced by Michael Hooper. Who, it should be mentioned, must have been a trifle miffed at his non-selection after his heroics in the two previous tests.

Next up are the HALF BACKS (yeah, it’s backs and forwards together today), and I’ve got a wealth of options to choose from. All four candidates put in a good shift, with James O’Connor netting a neat try, Will Genia showing again why he’s considered by many the best player in the world and Mike Phillips doing well enough until Conor Murray got on and really got the party started.  However, my choice for an award is Lions No. 10 Jonny Sexton, who gets the Guzzling Humble Pie Award for Making Me Eat My Words. Around ten minutes into the second half, the Australians were continuing their ferocious assault on the Lions’ 22 (with the Lions for their part defending their hearts out) when Toby Faletau stole the ball and it made its way to Sexton. In the bar where I watched it, there was a moment of relief as we anticipated the surely inevitable act of Sexton’s belting the ball to into Sydney Harbour, followed by a moment of high tension mixed with sheer terror as he looked up, turned and poked an adroit chip over the Australian defence. In any other position on the field, I would surely have been praising Sexton’s genius, but pinned back in his own 22 I was less sympathetic. In fact, I recall my words were somewhere along the lines of ‘what on earth are you doing?’.

However, proof, if ever it was needed, was on its way to demonstrate that Jonathan Sexton has a far better rugby brain than I do. Both he and George North had spotted the space behind the Australian line, North hit the accelerator and suddenly the ball was in his hand. A quick pop inside to Jonathan Davies followed by Jesse Mogg being forced to carry the ball into touch and suddenly the Lions had gained eighty metres and lineout ball, both of which were immediately converted to a try thanks to a lovely move set up by Sexton and executed by Leigh Halfpenny. And who scored the try itself? None other than Mr J Sexton himself. Well played sir.

Time for the CENTRES to get their award, which manages to be unique by being awarded to a player who wasn’t actually playing. I speak, of course, about Brian O’Driscoll, who gets the Life Has No Sense Of Romanticism Award for Most Upsetting Drop. O’Driscoll must surely go down in history as one of the greatest players ever to grace a rugby pitch; a veritable handling genius with more than his fair share of pace and a superlative rugby brain, he has enthralled and delighted fans from all countries across his glittering career with Leinster, Ireland and, of course, the Lions. On his first tour in 2001 he had the fans singing ‘Waltzing O’Driscoll’, in 2005 he was chosen as tour captain (we’ll try to forget about Tana Umaga for now) and in 2009 he formed one half (alongside Jamie Roberts) of what coach Ian McGeechan would later call the greatest centre partnership in history. And that wasn’t just idle flattery.

Unfortunately, there are two things that O’Driscoll had, prior to this tour, never ticked off his rugby to-do list; to win a World Cup and to win a Lions tour. At 34 years of age, most agree that he’s probably passed up his last chance at the former, and this tour would surely prove his last bite of the cherry with regards to the latter. To miss out on both would, frankly, be an ignominious end to an otherwise astounding career; he simply had to win.

With such a stellar touring record, it’s not surprising that O’Driscoll was chosen to start both of the first two tests, but in both he did something quite remarkable. He played quite badly. Come the third, Warren Gatland was finally able to bring the previously injured Jamie Roberts into the fold at inside centre, and his mediocre-at-best form (and, cynics would argue, the fact that he isn’t Welsh) meant that O’Driscoll got the chop. He didn’t even make it onto the bench. Yes, Brian O’Driscoll has now, finally, been a part of a successful Lions tour, but it would have been nice if he could have contributed to the riotous victory that really sealed it for the tourists.

Finally, it’s time for me to turn my gaze towards the BACK THREE, where I have chose to offer up my own Man Of The Tour Award. Leigh Halfpenny got the official gong, and I can see why: his performance with the boot was nothing short of superlative and under high balls he was calm and assured. He was just about the only Lions player never to have an off day. Elsewhere, Jonny Sexton proved a metaphorical rock and Adam Jones a physical one for the Lions, Will Genia was Will Genia, and Israel Folau had about as close to perfect a start to an international career as one could hope for. All serious contenders for the title, but my chosen man of the tour is without question the Lions test No. 11, George North. Not just because his personal highlights reel makes such entertaining viewing or because I still go back to the video of him against Fergus McFadden for a giggle now and again, but simply because, in a backline frequently populated by mediocrity, he was the one light that never faded. He combined his natural size and pace with genuine skill to great effect in both bone-shattering defence and electrifying attack, an ever-present threat who the Wallabies were forced to play around for the entire series. He lit up the tour, but more than that he inspired the best T-shirt caption I saw throughout the entire series. It simply ran: “Rugby is a team sport. It takes fourteen men to get the ball to George North”.

Man of the tour? For me, without a shadow of a doubt.

The Second Test: Part Two

Following on from my last post about Saturday’s second test between Australia and the British & Irish Lions, here’s the second part of my alternative awards ceremony. This time, we’re talking about the backs.

First up are the HALF BACKS, where all three Lions scrumhalves (quite impressively, given that one of them didn’t play) take home the Can’t One Of You Just Have A Shocker? Award for Biggest Selection Headache. At the start of this tour, the Lions no. 9 berth looked to be a foregone conclusion: Mike Phillips is a big, abrasive player and hard runner who fits perfectly into the Gatland playing style, as well as being a thoroughbred test match animal. After pulling off some dominating performances in warmup matches, most notably against the Barbarians in Hong Kong, there appeared to be nothing to change this idea- until the first test. Here, Phillips was comprehensively cut to pieces by Ben Mowen and had what has been recognised as one of his worst games on the international stage, and only when Ben Youngs came on to add some pace to the breakdown area did the Lions get a bit of spring in their step. This, combined with a slight knee injury picked up by Phillips, made it a foregone conclusion that Youngs would start this test, and to give him his due he played well, giving Jonny Sexton and his forwards a stream of good possession (even if a few passes were somewhat wayward). However, what was perhaps not as expected was the performance of Conor Murray, who came off the bench just before the hour mark. Mediocre at best during the warmup games, he has been regarded by some as a poor man’s Mike Phillips, but he had apparently not read the papers and refused to play to the script of Will Genia-related domination. Throughout his 25 minute tenure he was sharp, on the ball and played with intelligence, taking every scant opportunity that came his way, kicking well and bringing some physicality to the game that Youngs lacked; he gave the Lions a ninth forward at a time when it was most needed. Now, with Phillips looking set to be fit for the crucial third and deciding test, Warren Gatland has the unenviable task of trying to choose between them. I only hope his eventual choice justifies their inclusion next week.

Now we move to consider the CENTRES,  and since the Lions centres followed last week’s pattern by doing absolutely nothing of note all game (one excellent turnover from Brian O’Driscoll excepted) I shall turn to the Wallabies. Specifically I refer to Christian Leali’ifano, who gets the Following The Script’s For Wusses Award for Not Playing How He Was Supposed To. When Leali’ifano was removed from play after just 56 seconds last week, much was made of how this would effect the Australian playing style. We were gravely told that Leali’ifano’s creative, long passing game would have been key to the Aussie’s expansive attack, playing to the wings, and that his replacement (the defensively-orientated Pat McCabe) would force the Wallabies to restructure their attacking pattern. Given that both Australian tries were scored by a winger targeting the wide channels, clearly their playing style hadn’t been too adversely affected, but nonetheless it might have been reasonably assumed that, with Leali’ifano reinstated for this test, we could expect to see this tactic exploited to within an inch of its life on Saturday. Not so; whilst Leali’ifano certainly played well, his deadeye goalkicking securing the Aussie victory and his hard running proving an effective weapon, he didn’t appear all too interested in the distribution we’d heard so much about. I can only remember two occasions where the Australians attacked the wide channels, seeming content the rest of the time to just batter away at the Lions’ stonewall defence. With hindsight, this could just be providing me with more reason to mistrust everything Stuart Barnes says.

Finally we come to the BACK THREE and, well, no contest really. Whilst Leigh Halfpenny’s pressure kick came close to an award, it’s got to be George North taking home the Do You Even Rugby, Bro? Award for Most Meme-Worthy Moment. North has been the subject of some great YouTube videos during his rugby career, but few lend themselves quite so well to the internet’s sense of humour as the moment of sheer hilarity that graced our screens in the 60th minute. Thrown a through-the-legs pass by Brian O’Driscoll (the second good thing he did that evening), he was quickly enveloped by Israel Folau, and fans across the world sat with bated breath to see in whose favour this clash of titans would swing. However, I don’t think anyone was expecting what was to follow: North dropping a shoulder, picking up the 15 stone Folau and running ten metres with him slung across his shoulder, in what one might have called a dump tackle were North not in possession of the ball. He even managed to bring him down more safely than a lot of dump tackles. You can watch the incident in all its hilarity here. One lucky photographer managed to snap this picture, which inspired the internet to produce this, this, this, this and this. Not to mention this, and this. George North, whatever shall we do with you…

Like last week, I’d like to finish this post with a comment on the game in general. The Lions have come under quite a bit of flak for their showing on Saturday; Scott Gibbs, among others, has said that the Lions underperformed on the big stage and many are of the opinion that it’s now advantage Australia. My opinion is a little more mixed. Yes, the Lions had a golden opportunity to win on Saturday and yes, they did not want to be in this situation. Yes, their attacking game was weak, yes their centre pairing has no real bite and yes, the Australians are playing more attacking, exciting rugby. All of those flaws and more must be addressed by Gatland before next week, for this game has, above everything, revealed that Leigh Halfpenny’s boot isn’t quite enough to win a series on its own. There must be attack to go with the defence. I will also champion the view that, technically, it was a fairly poor game of rugby, dominated by its mistakes rather than moments of genius.

However, that doesn’t mean that that wasn’t one of the most tense, exciting and downright atmospheric games I have ever had the pleasure to watch. To my mind, defence and playing scrappily should always have a place in rugby- I wouldn’t want to watch it in every game, but I still think that you should be able to win like that if you are sufficiently good enough. By way of an example, I point towards 1990, where Scotland won a famous victory over the fancied English (and scooped the entire Northern hemisphere trophy cabinet to boot) by out-tussling their distinguished rivals up front and hanging on to win. Was their rugby good quality? No. Did they play better than their opposition? Arguably, yes, for the Scots remembered that points mean wins, and managed to keep their penalty tally ticking over enough for a historic win. Against Australia on Saturday, the Lions almost pulled off the same trick, keeping their penalty count low and denying Australia all but the most fleeting of scoring chances. In the end it didn’t work, and I’m not sure it’s a trick they could pull off twice. But my god, they came close. Oh so very close…

I am on holiday over the next couple of weeks, so posts will mostly cease for the immediate future. However, I will try to get something written up for the final test next week, although it may be a bit later than usual. We’ll see, I guess.

The First Test: The Backs

Apparently I get carried away whilst talking rugby, so my awards ceremony for this weekend’s Lions match has got split across two posts. This time it’s the backs who get a going over…

First up are the HALF BACKS, both pairs of whom take a Letting The Side Down Award for Most Maddening Gulf In Class Between Key Positions. It has been generally agreed that Mike Phillips, who Warren Gatland had presumably inked in as test scrum-half within half an hour of being told he’d got the Lions’ job, had a bit of a shocker on Saturday; whether it was the attention of Australian flanker Ben Mowen, an inability of his forwards to generate go-forward or just him not playing at his best, Phillips never really got into his natural rhythm. There were none of his surging runs, no sense of control over the breakdown, and he seemed to pass it out to Jonny Sexton at flyhalf only when he ran out of ideas rather than when he’d built a platform. By contrast, Sexton put on a great show, mixing good tactical kicking with some trademark  skill and control of his backline, despite Phillips offering him a decidedly shaky platform.

Australia faced precisely the opposite problem. I’ve never really seen Will Genia play well before, but on Saturday I was treated to a display that came damn close to fully justifying Stuart Barnes’ claim that Genia is the greatest player in world rugby today. Not only did Genia create all the momentum that Phillips didn’t and completely evaded the clutches of the Lions’ back row, the skill he showed to create Australia’s first try was truly breathtaking. When dealing with his forwards, Genia put Australia firmly on the front foot; it was only when he gave it to his fly-half that things started to break down. James O’Connor is something of a jack of all trades, starting his career at wing and moving to the No. 10 jersey via fullback, and his lack of natural instinct in the position showed on Saturday. Much will be made of his three missed kicks at goal, but around the pitch he was virtually non-existent, and his centres only ever got good ball when Genia just gave it straight to them. During the last quarter, Australia brought on a more natural flyhalf in Kurtley Beale; but brought him on at fullback. Given the quality of some of his runs, he and Genia united in the half-backs could have won Australia the game.

Now for the CENTRES, who collectively take the Where The Hell Were You? Award for Best Mastery Of Invisibility. That’s the only explanation I can find, at any rate, for why I cannot remember anything that a centre from either side did for the entire match. Well, that’s not quite true; I remember both Christian Leali’ifano and Pat McCabe getting injured, Jonathan Davies’ run doing said injuring to Leali’ifano (not, I should hasten to add, that I think this is in any way Davies’ fault; Leali’ifano merely put in an appalling tackle and got his head in the wrong position) and Brian O’Driscoll getting penalised early on. But in general play? Well, I presume they made a few tackles, but they never made any incisive breaks and neither side’s attack was focused through their midfield as is more typically the case. Indeed, I seem to remember at least one promising Lions attack getting butchered as Davies ran straight into traffic rather than using his numbers out wide. This could perhaps be blamed on the Lions not playing a natural inside centre (both Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi being injured, meaning the Lions had no go-to crash ball merchant) and the Wallabies getting their main attacking threat at centre injured, but even so that’s not an excuse for being boring.

Finally, we come to the BACK THREE. I could wax lyrical about this lot all day; how sorry I felt for Kurtley Beale after his tragic last-minute penalty miss (and no, Australians, I’m not being sarcastic), how fantastically George North played (and how close he came to scoring a brace), the match-winning kicking display given by Leigh Halfpenny and how both Digby Ioane and Alex Cuthbert both did exactly and only one good thing in the entire match. However, in a side with a surprising number of debutants, it seems only fair that the No One Cap Wonder Here Award for Best Debut should go to Man of the Match Israel Folau. Folau has only been playing the union code for a few months, coming into our fair sport via rugby league and Aussie rules, but he made an immediate impression on the international stage. Just thirteen minutes in, he latched onto a perfectly judged side-of-the-boot grubber kick from Will Genia to run in under the posts, and shortly before half-time he showed his opposite number George North that he wasn’t the only one capable of leaving defenders floundering in their wake. With North having come inside, Folau was left with acres of space in which to work his magic. With one magical step, he left Jonny Sexton for dead and outpaced Leigh Halfpenny for an adroit touchdown; a fantastic score. The battle between him and North in the tests to come will be an intriguing one.

Oh, and I also have one special award to give; Image of the Day. I refer you here, to this video of George North’s superb solo try, but it’s not North who I’m talking about. Once you’ve watched the try (and cackled with glee at the general awesomeness of it), skip forward to 1:07 and watch Berrick Barnes as he flies across to try and see him intercept North. As North slips round him, we see Barnes’ scrum cap-adorned head look up from the floor at the rapidly disappearing red shirt… and then see his face plunge into the ground as the realisation of the score kicks in. I don’t know why, but there’s something in the way he lets his head drop that is simultaneously tragic and hilarious. Depending, I suppose, on which side you were supporting.

I have a few final things to say regarding Saturday’s game. The first concerns referee Chris Pollock, who has taken plenty of flak from Lions fans regarding his refereeing, and particularly his interpretation of the breakdown. Speaking as a referee, I can’t say I agreed with him in a lot of areas: but, he did the most important thing right. He was consistent. Whilst his way of playing rucks and mauls was, to some eyes, ‘wrong’, he was treated both sides the same, and if this style happened to favour the Australians on some occasions then that’s not really his fault. How Craig Joubert and Romain Poite end up doing things is anyone’s guess.

My final message is to the Lions, and although I’m sure Warren Gatland will have told them anyway I want to get this off my chest; you have no excuse for playing like that. The Lions didn’t play badly on Saturday, but they were uninspired and failed to gain any sort of control over Australia in any area, the lineout being a possible exception that nonetheless failed to challenge the Australians for possession. That simply should not be happening. I appreciate the issues of selection, of having to come together in so short a time frame and of injuries that plague all Lions tours, but if ever the omens were pointing the Lions’ way it is now. Australian fans have been baying for Robbie Deans’ blood for some time now over his selection policies, and there was outrage when his Lions squad was announced that many players from the highly successful Reds and Brumbies franchises had been left out. There is a general consensus that this is not Australia’s strongest side, especially without the likes of George Smith (who has been recalled to the squad as injury cover for the second test) an in-form Quade Cooper who, on his day, is one of the best players in the world and combines beautifully with the outstanding Will Genia. Combine that with the fact that the Wallabies are far from the strongest side in the Southern hemisphere, with noted weaknesses up front (although not as pronounced as some think), and there should be no legitimate reason why one of the strongest Lions’ sides in living memory, both physically and skills-wise, should not be giving Australia a far stiffer challenge than they are currently facing. These guys are, for all the difficulties posed on tour, still professional rugby players.

The Lions won on Saturday purely because of bad Australian kicking. If that is what it takes to win the series, then we can hardly claim to be true victors.

The First Test

Right, I think I have just remembered to start breathing again after a far too tense end to the Lions’ first test in Brisbane, and so I think it’s time for one of my alternative awards ceremonies. With only one game to review, I’m not going to give each team a separate series of awards, but rather one each for the key positional groups (across both sides; so both Lions’ and Australian front rowers are both covered under the same category, for example). Some of these will be individual, some will refer to a specific team, and some will just refer to the way the game played out in that position. I will also make a few more general comments at the end, just because there are one or two things I could do with getting off my chest.

OK? Right, let’s get started.

We begin with the FRONT ROW, who collectively take the Reverse Parallels Award for Strangest Resemblance of A Previous Lions Series. The series in question is 1997’s South Africa Tour, the last time the Lions actually won a series, and against all the odds to boot. The South Africans were world champions, champing at the bit for the return of the Lions (who were usually easybeats for past Springbok sides) after a 17-year long apartheid-based drought. Many salivated at the prospect of the giant South African scrum, featuring the legendary 21 stone Os du Randt among others, going up against a comparatively tiny Lions front row, but through a mixture of technique and grit the Lions were able to match their opponents and nullify the South African forwards.

If any of that sounds familiar, then it’s because a lot of people were making bones about it prior to this series, but with the roles reversed. The Australian front row incumbents, Benn Robinson, Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore are noted proponents of the loose but are reckoned to be at scrum time, whereas the Lions’ front row for this test was made up of the tour’s three strongest surviving scrummagers; Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and the scrummaging legend that is Adam Jones. And, indeed, at the Lions’ first scrum, all seemed to be in order; much like on the ’97 tour, the dominant scrum instantly sent the weaker side scurrying backwards and won a penalty, but from then on both the ’13 Aussies and ’97 Lions set about nullifying their opponents’ weapon. Throughout the match Lions fans got excited every time a scrum came along, waiting for a dominant display that never really came. Instead, the Australians used every dirty trick in the book to keep the scrum battle at least ambiguous and that first dominant scrum proved to be the only one. Indeed, as the Lions brought on their substitutes the Australian’s tactical scrummaging began to swing things in their favour, and it’s worth noting that both of the Australian’s last two crucial penalty attempts came from scrums. Whatever you think of referee Chris Pollock’s display (and he gave us plenty to talk about) he should never have been able to give those penalties were the Lions as dominant as they were ‘meant’ to be.

Right, enough about the fat boys; we move on to the SECOND ROW, and Australian captain James Horwill in particular. Horwill takes the dubious honour of the Eyes In The Back Of His Head Award for Being Victim Of The Most Eagle-Eyed Official- but I’m not talking about Pollock. The official in question is whichever sharp-eyed bystander managed to notice, and subsequently refer to the citing officer, an incident where Horwill allegedly stamped on the face of Lions’ lock Alun Wyn Jones (the citing officer presumably thought it was an accident, as he has now been cleared and is free to play in the second test.). You can view the incident here, and I would challenge you to spot what they’re talking about before the camera goes to slo-mo; I watched the match in a bar with around 200 partisan Lions fans in it, and not one of them picked it up at the time. Neither did either of the people I showed that clip to until the replay, and given the lack of reaction from the crowd there weren’t many of them who noticed it either. Whilst the incident has caused (predictably enough) much furore online, I think real credit goes to the one person who actually managed to catch it in real time.

Next come the BACK ROW and another award for an Australian. This time it’s flanker Michael Hooper, who takes the Man Of Many Faces Award for Most Impersonations. Hooper is not a regular fixture in the Wallaby squad, but then again there’s not much he can do about that when the Wallabies’ normal openside is the great David Pocock, and it was a bitter blow to the Aussies when it was announced Pocock was injured and would not be able to take part in the series. The management and those Australian pundits whose opinions I have read refused to betray a smidgeon of concern, confidently predicting that Hooper would be able to fill Pocock’s sizeable shoes. So no pressure there then.

Hooper didn’t play badly, but the game and the refereeing were not friendly to ball-snafflers of Pocock’s mould, as Brian O’Driscoll learned to his cost early on. Indeed, the real star of both back rows was Aussie debutant Ben Mowen, who did a number on Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips and in the process almost single-handedly destabilised the Lions’ entire plan of attack. I will be interested to see how they react in the second test. However, the reason Hooper gets the award this week came around the 60-minute mark, when Australian centre Pat McCabe suffered a neck injury. Low on backs replacements, Robbie Deans took the unusual descision to bring on substitute flanker Liam Gill and give Hooper a run at outside centre. That Alex Cuthbert was immediately sent up the midfield to score a try for the Lions will be laid at Hooper’s feet by some, but given that the move was a Jonny Sexton special I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, he hardly looked out of place for the rest of the match.

Dammit, why do all my posts turn into two parters nowadays? Ah well, backs next time I guess.

6N13: Rnd 3

…aaaand it’s back, after two week’s hiatus; the Six Nations has come among us once again. This weekend promised a wealth of interesting matchups and set the analysts’ mouths watering, and we ended up with games of rugby as varied as one could desire. Once again, I present my alternative awards ceremony:

We begin with ITALY who, having come into the weekend hamstrung by the loss of inspirational captain Sergio Parisse to a five-week ban, hardly did themselves any favours in winning the The Analysts Didn’t Spot This One Award for Biggest Repurcussions from Tiny Tactical Error. A lot was made during the week at coach Jacques Brunel’s descision to drop the half-back pairing of Tobias Botes and Luciano Orquera, so influential in the victory over France, and replace them with Eduardo Gori and Kris Burton. Burton’s inclusion was a particular surprise; during the first two games, Orquera had been injecting some much-needed vigour into the Italian back division, and plumping for Burton’s more conservative kicking approach was rightly considered a dangerous choice. During the game itself, the commentators had endless fun laying into Burton, particularly after two failed drop-goal attempts, but I felt that Gori brought a fair share of problems with him as well; or one problem in particular. If one watched Gori’s deliveries throughout the match, they were invariably aimed directly at Burton’s shoulder, meaning that to catch the ball he had to be standing still. This cost him crucial seconds and forward momentum, both of which enabled onrushing defenders to get right up in his face, severely limiting his options. At least three times Burton was unable to pass and forced to make awkward runs to try and get around several burly Welshmen, and as a result Italy lost all attacking momentum. It was a tiny thing, not mentioned by any commentators, and arguably Burton wouldn’t have been able to do much with ball put in front of him, where it should be, but I thought that it nonetheless had a huge impact.

On to WALES, to whom I was seriously tempted to re-award the Boredom award after a game which almost put me to sleep (seriously; the sofa was really comfortable), but who instead take home the Where Did That Come From? Award for Most Sudden Tries. The weather in Italy on Saturday did not lend itself to particularly flowing rugby, and with kicking fly halves on both sides tries were unlikely to ever come from building attacking momentum and phase play. Indeed, after a decidedly barren first half some observers (myself included) might have been surprised to learn that there were any tries coming at all. But come they did, albeit in the most abrupt fashion. Firstly, a shot-to-nothing chip kick from Mike Phillips bounced awkwardly, wrong-footing both Gori and Burton as they ran into one another attempting to gather and left the try line open for the onrushing Jonathan Davies to leap over. Then, 15 minutes later, Wales executed a set-move, Davies drawing Gonzalo Canale out of position to leave a hole open for Alex Cuthbert to rush through, again totally unopposed. On both occasions the try’s execution was, all buildup and preparation included, less than five seconds from start to finish, and I hardly noticed either of them happening until about 10 seconds later.

Saturday’s next match proved far more interesting, and FRANCE certainly acquitted themselves far better against England than  in their previous two matches. However, the award they collect concerns scrum half Morgan Parra, who takes the dubious honour of the Leave That To The Footballers Award for Worst Diving. Throughout the game, England’s fly half Owen Farrell was making a nuisance of himself among the French ranks, and appeared to have a particular problem with French fullback Yoann Huget. However, after around 18 minutes he decided to get in the way of Parra as the Frenchman tried to get to a ruck. Having seen a replay of the event, I am firmly of the opinion that Parra may have brushed his face against Farrell’s back, which makes it all the more ridiculous that his immediate response was to fall to the floor clutching his face as if Farrell had punched him. I have a particular intolerance towards cowardly foul play such as that, and my ire was particularly irked when, after referee Craig Joubert had rightly ignored his plea for a penalty (or simply not noticed, which would be just as excusable given the innocuous nature of the offence), Parra immediately got up and joined onto the back of the next maul. I can only hope this doesn’t become a habit; I do not like divers.

ENGLAND also take an individual award, with Manu Tuilagi taking the Fired Clay Toilet Award for Dominating The Physical Battle. After being left out of the starting XV for the Ireland match having been injured during the Scotland game, Tuilagi was recalled to his favoured outside centre position at the expense of Billy Twelvetrees. The reason for dropping a player of Twelvetrees’ undoubted skill came in the form of a 6ft, 17 stone Frenchman called Mathieu Bastareaud (voted man most thankful for the existence of three vowels), who lined up to form a potent centre lineup alongside Clermont’s quick and incisive Wesley Fofana, returned to his natural position at 12 after two games stuck out on the wing with nothing to do. Fofana proved his worth with a fantastic bit of individual skill, beating no less than five defenders, to go over for France’s only try, but Tuilagi, the same height and weight of Bastareaud, had been brought in to nullify the Frenchman’s physical presence and did so with aplomb. Not once did Bastareaud make a meaningful run at his opposite number, and on the three occasions (that I counted) that Tuilagi ran at him, he made good ground every time and positively bounced him off on at least one occasion. Put it this way; tries for Tuilagi: 1, tries for Bastareaud: 0. (although admittedly, Tuilagi’s try was more luck than anything else).

Sunday’s game was perhaps the most interesting of the three, and in it IRELAND took the Lighting Cigars With Twenties Award for Lease Efficient Use of Resources. After the game, all pundits were justifiably asking how the hell the Irish had managed to lose the game, and rightly so; the Irish controlled three-quarters of the game’s possession and had over 70% territory, but spent most of it running somewhat unimaginatively straight at the Scottish defence; who, despite 16 missed tackles, somehow managed to hold firm. The Scots also conceded more penalties than their opponents (9 in the first 20 minutes alone), but somehow nearly all were conceded in Irish territory, out of range of Paddy Jackson’s boot. It didn’t help that, of the four kicks Jackson did get on goal, he only managed to execute one of them, which may make him something of a scapegoat for the Irish’s general failure to transform control into points. The one exception to this rule was new cap at inside centre Luke Marshall, who made three fantastic breaks; but here, once again, Ireland’s inability to finish the job came to the fore. Once, Marshall somewhat muddied his performance by throwing a bad pass out to Craig Gilroy, who was unable to hold onto it, and the other two times Keith Earls, in near-identical fashion, attempted a run for the corner alone rather than offering a pass to the unmarked Brian O’Driscoll- and was bundled into touch. A try did eventually come from Gilroy, but after 44 minutes of laboured effort, and it proved their last score. It was like watching the England side of two years ago.

Finally come SCOTLAND, who take home not only their first back-to-back victories in the same season of a Six Nations ever, but also the Laissez-Faire Award for Most Laid-Back Performance. Much like the French side during the first two weeks of the tournament, Scotland spent Sunday’s match quite content to sit back and let Ireland do all the work, deciding that to actually create opportunities for themselves would be far too imaginative. However, unlike France, this was backed up by a solid defensive effort and well-executed kicking game, allowing Ireland to be kept at bay and for the Scots to luck the occasional scoring opportunity; and, after Greg Laidlaw’s first two penalties put them within a sniff of Ireland, they casually flicked up a gear and began tentatively looking for more. Perhaps surprised by this sudden activity, Ireland duly infringed at the breakdown twice within Laidlaw’s range, giving Scotland a four-point lead that proved especially crucial when it later forced Ireland to turn down a kickable opportunity (which would have still left them a point behind), and instead mount another assault on the Scottish line. But the Scots’ defence held, and a valuable victory was theirs. Their next fixture against Wales will be…interesting.

Final Scores:
Italy 9-26 Wales
England 23-13 France
Scotland 12-8 Ireland

The Six Nations Returns…

…and with it my weekly awards ceremony, as last year, for the weekend’s matches. To be honest, I haven’t had much time to think about these, so enthralled with the actual games as I was (over 150 points and 17 tries scored; absolutely fantastic stuff), but I think I’ll just dive straight in with the first match of the weekend.

First, we must turn to WALES, who take the dubious honour of the Year-Long Nostalgia Award for Most Dramatic Fall From Grace, reclaiming a title they won in both 2006 and 2009. Last year the Welsh, after a proud performance at the World Cup the previous awesome, had their ranks positively blooming with talent and good form. Behind the scrum, Rhys Priestland was still hanging on to some of his outstanding 2011 form, Jamie Roberts was in the kind of hard-running, defence-busting mode that won him three Lions caps in 2009, George North (alongside, to a lesser extent, Alex Cuthbert) was terrorising defences through a mixture of raw speed and power, and Jonathan Davies’ smooth running and handling in the centres was causing him to be mentioned in the same breath as New Zealand’s great Conrad Smith. The team seemed unstoppable, battering, bludgeoning and otherwise smashing all who came before them as they romped home to the Grand Slam.

And then the slide began. Since they took the title against the French 11 months ago, Wales have lost eight games on the trot, of which Saturday’s display against Ireland was only the most recent. After some pretty dire performances against the southern hemisphere sides during the summer, a few traces of hope were salvaged during the autumn from close losses to the likes of Australia. Some of the more optimistic Welsh fans thought that the Six Nations may signal a new return to form for their players; but an opening match against Ireland proved unforgiving. The Irish put 30 points past the Welsh in 50 minutes with only 3 in reply, and although Wales mounted a spirited comback it all proved too much, too late.

On, then, to IRELAND; more specifically to left winger Simon Zebo, who takes the Nyan Cat Award for Most YouTube-Worthy Moment from George North in this fixture last year. Whilst North’s little moment of hilarity was typical of a player whose size and strength is his greatest asset, Zebo’s piece of magic was a more mercurial bit of skill. After Dan Biggar (the Welsh flyhalf) decided, for reasons best known to himself, to aim a kick straight at the face of the onrushing Rory Best, the Irishman managed to gather the ball on the rebound and set off for the line. Realising he was being pushed for space, he elected to throw a beautiful long pass out to captain Jamie Heaslip. If Heaslip were able to flick the ball to Zebo, sprinting along his outside, there was a fair chance that the winger could make the corner; but the skipper was under pressure and could only manage a flick off his knees. The pass was poor; thrown at knee-height about a metre behind the onrushing winger, most moves would have ended there with a loose ball. But Zebo produced a truly magical piece of skill– as the ball seemed destined to disappear behind him, he turned and flicked at it deftly with his left heel, before gathering the ball one handed and continuing his run; all without breaking stride. He may not have got the try, but from his bit of sublimity prop Cian Healy did, and thus Zebo will be forever honoured in the hall of fame that is YouTube.

Onto Saturday’s second match and SCOTLAND, proud takers of the Holy Shit, How Did That Happen Award for Biggest Disparity Between Score and Performance. In all honesty, the Scots were never not going to struggle against their English opponents; Calcutta Cups are always ripe for upsets its true, and there’s nothing the Scots like better than being mistaken for the underdog, but they had not won at Twickenham for 30 years and the current team was probably not in the best shape to break that duck. A new side under a new coach (Scott Johnson), they had taken last place and the wooden spoon in last year’s Six Nations, even losing rather badly to Italy, they reached a nadir during the dire loss to Tonga that ended their autumn series and led old coach Andy Robinson to resign. By contrast, the Auld Enemy were ebullient after their emphatic win against New Zealand in November, and some smart money was being put on them to take the Six Nations title this year. And it showed during the game; for all Jim Telfer’s pre-match comments about the England side being ‘arrogant’, the young English side were clinical and efficient, winning twice as many breakdowns as the Scots and Owen Farrell kicking everything he could get his boots on. Nonetheless, the Scots put in a pretty damn good show when they could; new winger Sean Maitland opened the game’s scoring with a neatly taken try in the corner, and fullback Stuart Hogg not only set up that try with a dazzling 60 metre break, but eventually grabbed one of his own and was probably the best back on the pitch. Johnnie Beattie was sublime in the back row, and if it wasn’t for England’s clinical territory game then they would certainly have managed a scoreline far closer than the 20 points it ended up being. We’ve all played games like that; you think you’re playing well and putting up a good fight, scoring some points, and then look up at the scoreboard and think ‘how did that happen?’

As for ENGLAND, centre Billy Twelvetrees takes the Carlos Spencer Award for Most Impressive Debut Performance (and, incidentally, the Staff Sergeant Max Fightmaster Award for Best Name- dunno why, it’s just cool). England have in recent past been rather good at debuts (Freddie Burns last year enjoyed a sound beating of the world champions as his first cap), and much speculation was put forward before the game as to whether the young Gloucester man could fill the sizeable hole left by the injured Manu Tuilagi. As it turned out, he did so splendidly; despite a somewhat ignominious start to his international career (ie he dropped the first ball that came his way), he spent most of the match running superb lines that often threatened the Scottish centre pairing and kept the tempo of the match nice and fast. To cap a great first performance, he even picked up England’s third try, running a typically lovely angle to seemingly pop up from nowhere and slip straight through a gap in the defence. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing if he can make it a habit.

And now to Sunday’s match, where FRANCE take the When Did I Get In Last Night Award for Least Looking Like They Wanted To Be On The Pitch. France are always a tricky bunch to predict, and their last visit to Rome ended an embarrassing defeat that lead coach Marc Lievremont to dub them cowards; but they’d fared the best out of all the northern hemisphere sides in the awesome, beating Australia and Argentina convincingly, and Frederic Michalak, once the French equivalent to Jonny Wilkinson, was back on form and in the No. 10 shirt. To many, a trip to face the usually table-propping Italians was the perfect warmup before the tournament really hotted up, and it seems the French may have made the mistake of thinking the Azzurri easybeats. It quickly transpired that they were not; Italy’s talismanic captain Sergio Parisse grabbed an early try courtesy of fly half Luciano Orquera, who had a stunning game and lead for most of the first half before a try from Louis Picamoles and some good kicking from Michalak put the French in front. But at no point in the game did France ever look threatening; in the first 25 minutes Italy controlled nearly 75% of the game’s possession whilst France seemed content to wait for mistakes that the Italians simply never made. They seemed lazy, lethargic, even as the precious minutes towards the end of the game ticked away, and never matched Italy’s sheer commitment and drive at the breakdown. Even when they did get good ball, the Italian’s surprisingly impressive kicking game meant they rarely had the territory to do anything with it.

As for the ITALY themelves, they (and Luciano Orquera in particular) take the About Bloody Time Award for Finally Finding A Fly Half. Italy have always had strength in the pack thanks to such men as Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, but behind the scrum they have always lacked class. In particular, they have lacked a good kicker ever since Diego Dominguez retired, allowing teams to be ferocious in the breakdowns with only a minimal risk associated with penalties. Kris Burton and Orquera both tried and failed to ignite the Italian back division, growing in strength with the achievements of Tomasso Benvenuti and Andrea Masi, last year, but yesterday Orquera ran the show. He and Tomas Botes at scrum half kept the French pinned back with a long and effective kicking game, whilst Masi’s incisive running from full back and an energetic display from centre Luke Mclean meant the French were never able to establish any sort of rhythm. With their backs to the wall and their fingers not yet pulled out, the French were sufficiently nullified to allow the Italian forwards to establish dominance at the breakdown; and with Orquera’s place kicking proving as accurate as his punts from hand, the French were punished through both the boot and the tries from Parisse and Castrogiovanni. An outstanding defensive effort to keep the French out in the final 10 minutes and two lovely drop goals from Orquera and Burton sealed the deal on a fantastic display, and the Italians can proudly say for the next two years that the frequently championship-winning French haven’t beaten them in Rome since 2009.

Final Scores: Wales 22-30 Ireland
England 38-18 Scotland
Italy 23-18 France