The Penultimate Round…

It’s that time of week again; time for the Six Nations to dust itself off after another week’s hiatus and give me my rugby fix again this weekend. And when the tournament comes back, so too do my awards.

SCOTLAND are this week’s starting point, and takers of the Shooting Themselves In The Foot Award for Most Idiotic Penalties. Scotland’s match against Wales on Saturday was a dull, dour and undoubtedly boring affair governed almost exclusively by penalties; indeed, the match broke the world record for most penalty attempts on goal in international rugby history. As Andrew Cotter said, “Occasional bouts of rugby… threatened to break out between the penalties”. This can partly be blamed on two sides with good kickers and weather that was hardly conducive to free-flowing rugby, but both sets of forwards must take their own, fairly large, share of the blame. A total of twenty-eight penalties were conceded throughout the course of the game, 18 of which resulted in a shot at the post and the majority of them seemed to come courtesy of the Scottish forwards. All of them appeared hell-bent on committing as many blatantly obvious infringements as possible well within the range of Leigh Halfpenny, and all seemed really surprised when Craig Joubert blew his whistle after watching them flying into the side of the ruck right under his nose. Particularly persistent offenders include hooker Ross Ford and second row Jim Hamilton (the latter of whom committed what BBC Sport described as ‘possibly the most blatant infringement in rugby history), and both were exceedingly lucky to receive only severe talkings-to from Joubert rather than anything more severe.

WALES‘ award is related to Scotland’s; the Dude, Seriously? Award for Least Deserved Yellow Card. As the game entered its final two minutes, many in the Welsh camp would have been justifiably miffed to have played the entire game against 15 men. To be sure, Wales were hardly blameless on the penalty front (conceding 12 in all), but theirs never seemed either as blatant, cynical or downright stupid as the Scots’, and the Welsh-favoured scoreline was demonstrative of the fact. However, whilst a few diehard Welshmen may have been convinced that Joubert was letting the Scots get away with murder, I don’t think too many would have been vastly angry with his disciplinary decisions  until, that is, he decided to show a yellow card to Welshman Paul James. For one thing, James had only been on the pitch for around 10 minutes, and for another it was 2 minutes to the end with Scotland 10 points behind in a game where a score never looked likely. James had infringed, but was far from the worst offender on most definitely not the worst offending team. I am sure that it made sense to Craig Joubert at the time; it didn’t very much to me, sat on my sofa.

Saturday’s next game proved far more entertaining, thanks both to Steve Walsh’s well-managed refereeing and to IRELAND‘s That’s More Like It Award for Most Positive Outlook Given The Conditions. The weather in Dublin was, if anything, worse than it had been at Murrayfield earlier in the day, and having played in such conditions on Thursday I can attest that such conditions do not lend themselves to flowing rugby by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, just keeping hold of the ball proved a decent challenge for both me and the internationals. Ireland were also coming off a bad run of form, with their first-choice fly half injured and coach Declan Kidney fearing for his job. Combine that with a match against a lacklustre French side lying bottom of the Six Nations table, and we have all the ingredients for a decidedly bad game.

However, nobody appeared to have told the Irish this, and they attacked Saturday’s match with all the vim and vigour of a midsummer warm-up game. Paddy Jackson bossed things from fly half, and along with Rob Kearney & Connor Murray executed a sublime kicking game that had the French on the back foot all game. This combined well with a slick Irish lineout and sublime mauling game, all of which seemed infused by a genuine sense of fluidity and wanting to take the game to the French. Did it result in points? Not to any great extent (the conditions were too unkind for high scoring, and the French defending was pretty solid), but it put the French decidedly on the back foot for the entire first half and rescued an afternoon of rugby that had the potential to be decidedly awful.

I am more than willing to compliment FRANCE too, and offer them the Hang On In There Award for Most Tenacious Performance. France barely survived the first half; Ireland seemed perpetually camped in their half and offered them practically zero attacking opportunities. Indeed, every scrap of French possession seemingly went straight to Freddie Michalak, under a lot of pressure having been bizarrely reinstated at fly half in place of the in-form Francois Trinh-Duc, and the mercurial talent that is Wesley Fofana can’t have touched the ball more than twice. Even Yoann Huget seemed somewhat out of it, and only Louis Picamoles offered France go-forward.

Nonetheless, they hung on; France’s gritty defending meant they were only 10 points behind at half time, and after the interval their strategy began to get more offensive. Their defence began to blitz more, killing the Irish momentum and jump starting their turnover rate. With a bit more ball, they started to do a bit of attacking of their own, and with 20 minutes to go picked up their first points since the first half. A try, courtesy of Picamoles, followed not long afterwards, and whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they deserved to beat the Irish, they certainly acquitted themselves far better than in recent weeks.

Sunday’s game looked, on the face of it, set to at least revert the try drought that has plagued these past three rounds, but in the end twas not to be. This can partly be put down to the efforts of a heroic ITALY team, who battled through their underdogs tag and some slightly harsh refereeing decisions to claim the How Did We Not Win This? Award for Most Man of the Match Contenders. It could be argued that nobody in the Italian side had an out-and-out flawless game, the kind that wins matches on its own, but nobody would deny the number of merely very good performances put on display. Luke McLean showed some great attacking nous, eventually picking up the game’s only try, and a good defensive showing as well, whilst any member of the Italian front row could have been nominated for doing a number on the English scrum. Behind them Alessandro Zanni appeared to be popping up everywhere, Sergio Parisse had a magnificent return following his truncated ban (including one sublime pass that fooled me even on the third replay), Luciano Orquera bossed the show with a return to his form earlier in the championship, and the eventual man of the match Andrea Masi put in a typically defiant, bullish performance from fullback. Unfortunately, Italy’s penalty count was simply too high, and they were as unable as England to execute the majority of their opportunities in a dominant second half display. Good though Italy undoubtedly were, and tense though the match was, it wasn’t quite enough to secure a second victory for the Azzurri. Roll on Ireland next week…

ENGLAND were somewhat less impressive, and take the Rugby Playing Equivalent Of The Amazon Rainforest for Least Sustainable Winning Strategy. England’s victory came courtesy of six penalties from Toby Flood, one of the few England players to do a good job yesterday. After victory over France and Ireland came in a similar fashion, pundits were quick to praise England’s opportunism, composure and ability to execute, to force their opposition into infringements and take the victory from there. However, against Italy they enjoyed none of the dominance they had in previous matches, and the high penalty count against the Italians that ultimately gave them the win seemed as much down to luck and a period of early territory as much as anything else. Better sides, the southern hemisphere giants in particular, will not give away that many penalties, and England will not be able to manufacture such opportunities against them. It could be that Sunday’s game was the perfect wake up call England needed to get their act together in time for Wales next week; or it could be that England’s current way of playing is a tactical time bomb waiting to go off in their face.

Final Scores:
Scotland 18-28 Wales
Ireland 13-13 France
England 18-11 Italy

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Six Nations wrapped up

OK, you can come out from under the sofa all you rugby-haters- this will be my last post about the great game for a while now, I promise, as I deliver my last set of awards to the sides in this year’s Six Nations, this time for their performances over the tournament as a whole. For me, this year’s has been a bit of an inconsistent one- some matches have been epic to watch, and there have been some really great moments, but then again a few games (the second half of Scotland-Ireland immediately springs to mind) which have bored me out of my skull. Still, as an Englishman it was nice to see Stuart Lancaster’s side play such great rugby- I can only hope that he gets a chance at the full-time job.

Now, onto the awards, beginning with SCOTLAND, who claimed both the wooden spoon (in a disappointing 5-game whitewash) and the Potential Does Not Equal Results Award for Biggest Discrepancy Between Squad Quality and Results. Scotland’s side contains some real gems of world rugby, and a few players in this tournament shone especially brightly. David Denton was a revelation at No.8, his barrelling runs and general go-forward belying his inexperience, and was well backed up in this regard by his giant lock, 22 year-old Richie Gray, whose powerful running and dominance of the lineout look set to make him a giant of the game over the next few years. John Barclay has always been a flanker of great quality, but even he was outshone by his counterpart Ross Rennie in this year’s tournament- he seemed to be absolutely everywhere, in every game he played, and was my pick for player of the tournament. Behind the pack, Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter were back to their formidable bests as they fought over the no.9 shirt, and Greig Laidlaw proved a great catalyst in attack for the Scots- his almost try on debut will go down as one of the best touchdowns I have ever seen. Max Evans and Sean Lamont were useful as ever in the threequarters, and young back 3 players Lee Jones and (especially) Stuart Hogg provided some deadly incisive running and finishing that the Scots have lacked in the past- and they have been backed up by a coach in Andy Robinson who not only has one of the highest win ratios of any Scotland coach ever (the third-highest, at the start of the tournament), but has done much to try and drive this Scottish side out of their perpetual doldrums. I could go on. And despite all that quality, all that skill, Scotland finished… last. Lost everything. Even to Italy. How the *&$% did that happen?

Speaking of ITALY, their award is up next: the …Oh Yes, I Knew There Was SOMETHING Different Award for Most Understated Arrival of a new coach. After last year’s World Cup, the Italian authorities finally decided to dispense with the services of Nick Mallett, the charismatic and successful South African who had lead the Italians to some (for them at least) impressive results, and helped bring them closer to the pace of modern world rugby. In his placed stepped Jacques Brunel, whose lofty aims at the start of the tournament centred around being title contenders within three years. Generally throughout a coach’s first term in office, he is the subject of much media attention, as was England’s caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster. Brunel on the other hand… well, he got a bit of hype on the first weekend- lots of camera cuts to him in down moments looking pensieve, or elated, or… well it’s kind of hard to tell through his superb moustache. But after that, he sort of faded out of the spotlight, lacking Mallett’s sheer charisma and beaming smile in front of the camera, , and only being referred to as an impassive face whenever his defence leaked a try. Even in the Italian’s win over Scotland (which so far gives Brunel a 20% win rate), I only saw one camera cut of him. Or at least, that’s the picture I got from the British media, anyway.

On to IRELAND, clear winners of the Oh, Just Make Your Bloody Minds Up! Award for Biggest Selection Headaches. Coach Declan Kidney was not presented with an easy selection task- not only was his captain, leading try scorer and national talisman Brian O’Driscoll injured for the entire tournament, which only compounded the age-old battle at fly-half between Jonny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara by offering the possibility of playing them together, but vice-captain Paul O’Connell’s health was similarly in doubt, Donnacha Ryan was pushing for either his or Donncha O’Callaghan’s place in the second row, Sean Cronin and Tom Court were challenging up front, and media pressure was building to replace powerful ball-carrier Sean O’Brien with a more natural openside flanker. Kidney stuck to his guns with O’Brien, but elsewhere he was forced into lots of compromise and chopping & changing. He tried out several centre combinations involving a mixture of Sexton, Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls, and later on had to cover for a bad drop in form for long-term centre Gordon D’Arcy. Up front, he dithered over whether to play Ryan or O’Callaghan alongside the strength and imperious form of O’Connell, before O’Connell’s injury finally forced his hand into playing the athletic but slightly weaker second rows alongside one another- a move that backfired spectacularly when, forced to bring Court on early against England, his pack were shunted all over the pitch and completely demolished in an imperious English scrummaging performance. Kidney tried his best, but this year selection-wise, it was not to be.

Now we come to FRANCE, who take the Er, Aren’t You Supposed To Improve With Experience? Award for Progressively Deteriorating Performances. The third team with a new coach this season, France began with a performance against a determined Italian side that made the other teams sit up and take notice- a clinical showing  that some predicted would put them at the top of the pile come the business end of proceedings. This was followed up by an equally clinical display against a spirited Scotland side displaying some newfound invention and incisiveness… and then things began to get patchy. Next up against Ireland, they were two tries down by half-time and only some ground-out penalties and a now-familiarly devastating run from monotonous try machine Wesley Fofana helped them salvage a draw. Their next display was more… well, French (ie fluid and free-flowing), but it was rather forced to be after a blistering first 20 by England, and even another Fofana try couldn’t prevent a two-point loss. Finally, they hit their nadir against Wales- admittedly a quality side who won the Grand Slam that day, but their win was by a single try. For the first time in the tournament, Fofana didn’t cross the line, and the French side as a whole seemed rather lethargic for huge chunks of the game. Tense? Certainly. Compelling? Yes, especially considering that there was a Grand Slam (and possibly a championship) at stake. But a good performance? Er, no. Bear in mind that these guys, with almost exactly the same squad, got to A FRIKKIN’ WORLD CUP FINAL.

To the top two, where the impressive ENGLAND took the See Johnson, Experimentation DOES Work Award for Most Impressive New Squad Performance. A lot was made at the start of this tournament about the youth and inexperience of the England side- there were 5 new caps on the first game of the tournament, a 1-cap captain and a second row pairing whose collective caps total didn’t go above 10 until the Ireland game. The biggest unknown was, of course, Owen Farrell- the son of coach and dual-codes legend Andy and a rising star in the Saracens squad, having won the Premiership with an impressive kicking performance last season. His first two games were at inside centre, allowing old head Charlie Hodgson (‘Chargedown Charlie’) to take the bulk of the pressure off him at fly-half- but prior to the game against World Cup semi-finalists and later Grand Slam winners Wales, Hodgson was injured and Farrell, aged just 20 and with two caps to his name, had to step into the most pressurised position on the pitch, whilst still maintaining kicking duties. He has famously said that the Wigan U-11’s immunised him to boos whilst kicking, but his performance under so much pressure was frankly amazing- combined with another trademark kicking technique (this time involving a glare out of the post that seems to dare them to move out of the way), there are many (me included), who find it hard not to draw parallels between this young, blonde, northern fly-half cum centre with a wicked boot, resolute temperament and a great control of the game and the legend that is Jonny Wilkinson. He was by far the only impressive newbie- Ben Morgan’s running quickly became a bedrock of the side from No.8, Chris Robshaw (captaining from openside) proved a sublime cheat at the rocks, the new centre pairing of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi look set to be a dominant set of bulldozers in the future, and new coach Stuart Lancaster has quickly made himself very popular with the rugby press- but of all of them, it is perhaps Farrell who best epitomises the meteoric rise of this young squad.

And finally, to winners of both the Grand Slam and the OMFG, That Is Never Going To Stop Being Epic Award for Single Best Moment Of The Tournament Award, WALES. Welsh fans would pick out several moments that I could here be referring to- perhaps any of Alex Cuthbert’s tries? No, although they were quite good. Then maybe some of Dan Lydiate’s barnstorming tackles? No, although he was by far the best defender of the tournament and the kind of guy who will make the life of selectors (and David Pocock, come to think of it), very difficult come next year’s Lions Tour. What about the moment of victory itself, the winning of the Grand Slam? Again, no- sure it was great for the Welsh fans, and it was wonderfully tense, but that moment is very much supporter-specific. No, the moment I refer to goes back to their very first game, against the Irish, and Wales’ other giant winger George North. Everyone who saw the moment knows exactly what I was talking about. It epitomised rugby- the speed of the step, the power of the hit, the grace of the offload, the sublimity of the move as a whole. For those who didn’t see it, and for those who, like me, just want to see it over and over again, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72CC9AaoNx0&feature=related

Enjoy 🙂