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.

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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.

The Third Crusade Onward

When we think of the crusades, the subject of my previous two posts and this concluding one, it is primarily the third that springs to mind. This is partly because it was one of the biggest,with the three great European powers of England, France and the Holy Roman Empire uniting for the cause against the might of Islam behind Saladin, and also one of the simplest to understand; one lot of Christians fight one lot of Muslims and whoever ends up with the Holy Land is the winner. However, the main reason it is so well remembered is thanks to Richard I, also known as Coeur-de-Lion or Richard the Lionheart. Richard is a strange figure in English history; a Frenchman who never learnt English, visited England three times in his life, was a decidedly useless ruler who sold and taxed to death everything in England he could in order to pay for his wars, then completely bankrupted it by forcing his subjects to levy the single largest ransom in history to pay for his release and who is STILL somehow considered this great hero of English history. This is almost entirely due to the enduring tale of Robin Hood, whose struggle against Richard’s even more incompetent brother John (who acted as interim ruler during Richard’s absence), and the fact that Richard did some good PR work by forgiving John immediately after returning, before going off to war again, getting himself killed besieging a castle in France and forcing the country to put up with John as an actual king.

Richard was, however, a brilliant warrior and military strategist (which is presumably why he spent his entire life at war), and nowhere was this as well-illustrated as when he went crusading. Even when the vast armies of the Holy Roman Empire almost all went home after Emperor Frederick’s death, he was able to conquer the great walled city of Acre in little over a month. The city would go on to become the new home of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, previously destroyed by Saladin. The subsequent arguments over the city would result in all the remaining German forces and all but 10,000 of the French leaving the Holy Land, which didn’t prevent Richard from routing Saladin’s army when it ambushed his in the Battle of Arsuf, boosting the morale of his men. He captured several more cities, only being forced back from taking the severely weakened Jerusalem due to bad weather, lost the city of Jaffa to a large Muslim force and then defeated them too with a small force of just 2,000; no mean feat given Saladin’s known prowess as a general. Through Richard’s work, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was refounded, albeit without much of its original land or the titular city that Richard, for various reasons, neglected to capture.

In many ways, it’s a shame he was so successful and that his name, and that of his crusade, has lived on so long; Richard was by all accounts an all round terrible person, sanctioning the massacre of civilians at Acre and the mass beheading of prisoners in full view of the Muslim army after the battle because negotiations were taking too long to name but two things. By contrast, even European history has remembered Saladin as more than an ‘infidel’, but as a man of honour and chivalry; when his army retook Jaffa, he reportedly ordered the Christians to take shelter as he attempted to regain control of an army maddened with rage and with thoughts of revenge for Acre in its collective mind. He even sent exotic fruits and healers to his enemy when Richard was nearly dying of fever. He was also known to be supportive of scientific and academic advances in his realm, and died poor after distributing most of his money among his subjects. Richard, by all accounts, respected the hell out of his adversary for precisely these reasons, but couldn’t manage to be as good a man as him.

The Christian attempt to take back the Holy Land would never come close to Richard’s successes. The Fourth Crusade, declared by Pope Innocent III just 10 years later ended in disaster when the crusaders couldn’t find a way to pay the Venetian shipbuilders who built the largest fleet since Roman times to accommodate them, with the crusade sacking the Christian cities of Zara and Constantinople before being excommunicated by the pope and utterly falling to pieces, in the process signalling the end of the once-great Byzantine empire. Innocent III declared the last official papally-sanctioned crusade for the Holy Land 15 years after that, whereupon the crusading army was forced to surrender to Muslim forces in Egypt, No. 6 was little more than a series of non-papally sanctioned political manoeuvres by the excommunicated Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire that did nonetheless give the Kingdom of Jerusalem actual control of Jerusalem for 20 years, but then Muslim forces invaded and took it back. Three subsequent crusades attempted to win it back, but none made it beyond North Africa. In 1291, the once-prosperous Kingdom of Jerusalem set up by Richard fell with the recapture of Acre by the Muslims, and the crusading dream finally ended. Not that anyone told the King of Jerusalem; officially the Kingdom merely moved to Cyprus and the title has lived on for many centuries. Nowadays many people, including King Juan Carlos I of Spain, have a claim on the title.

In many ways, the crusades were a reflection of the age, and particularly the role of the Church within it. The role of the Pope has (reportedly) existed for 2000 years, but it was during the medieval age, between the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance, that it really became a political force. Once just a voice on religious matters, it was during this time that the Christian world embraced religious zealotry; the age where the bishop was the most powerful voice in a community, and was just as much a political leader as the most powerful king or emperor. And, really, this was a direct result of the crusading idea, of the idea that violence in the pursuit of better things was justified, for this gave the church earthly power that it had never previously held. It can be easy to ignore the wills of the Church when all they can physically do to you is waggle a finger and talk about heaven and hell, but when an army marches under a cross, when people are prepared to kill and to die for God, then it becomes one hell of a lot harder to ignore. The Church fully embraced this power, calling crusades not just in the middle east but also for political reasons across Europe (even if not many people went on them), and crusades were even called as late as 1444 in the Balkans. The growing power and influence of the church in this age was perhaps best indicated in the Thomas a Becket incident, when Henry II (in a fit of rage) accidentally ordered the assassination of his archbishop. Henry, one of England’s greatest ever kings, was forced pretty much solely by public pressure to spend vast amounts of money on numerous acts of penance and his reputation has only just begun to recover. Even nowadays, with the role of the church vastly diminished (and to a far lesser extent), this idea of the Christian faith as a political force and even a tool for violence is still very much with us; it provided the moral justification used by the KKK, for example. The story of the crusades is an ugly one, packed to the brim with zealotry, bigotry, hypocrisy and violence on a truly appalling scale; but they are a lot more than just ancient history. The legacy of the crusades will be rattling around our world for many years to come.

So. It is done…

Yes, the party’s finally over; the Six Nations done and dusted for another year. Saturday’s matches were a mixed bunch, yet most definitely not as dull as in previous rounds. This week’s awards ceremony will be undergoing something of a reshuffle; rather than doing the matches in chronological order, losers first (as usual), I’m going to leave England-Wales until last. Anyone who saw, or even heard about, the match will probably be able to work out why.

But we must begin somewhere; IRELAND, to be precise, whose award for both this match and, arguably, their championship as a whole is the Another One Bites The Dust Award for Highest Attrition Rate. I talked in a previous post about Ireland’s depressingly high injury rate against England, and there was more of the same today; promising young centre Luke Marshall and winger Keith Earls were off within 25 minutes, and no sooner had Earls’ replacement Luke Fitzgerald entered the fray before he was limping off with a leg injury. With barely half an hour of the match played and all but one backs substitutes used, Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahoney was forced to spend the remainder of the match out on the wing, and given O’Mahoney’s efforts at the breakdown in recent matches it was no wonder Ireland lost momentum without him in the thick of things. However, Ireland’s injury rows were compounded by three yellow cards; firstly to Brian O’Driscoll after a stamp that really should have warranted red (although that would have been something of an ignominious end (if so it proves) to the international career of the greatest centre of all time), and later to Donnacha Ryan and Connor Murray. I felt rather sorry for them; trying to keep any form of structure through all that is nigh-on impossible.

ITALY also picked up a yellow card, this time to captain Sergio Parisse, but they were not hamstrung by injuries or errors in the same way of the Irish and took home not only the win but also the Maori Sidestep Award for Most Exciting Use of The Crash Ball. There were many impressive facets of Italy’s game on Saturday; their handling was superb (Parisse producing another exquisite underhand flick in the same fashion of last week), Luciano Orquera once again ran the show and some of the running rugby put on display was quite superb to watch. However, what most had me entertained most of all was Italy’s use of their forwards; whilst sending the big man through on a collision course with some poor defender is hardly a new strategy, rarely is it executed with quite the same excitement, speed and aggression that the Italians managed. No taking the ball standing still for them, no slowing down before the hit; every crash ball came at sprinting pace, and much credit is due to the Irish defence for their ability to counter the Italian efforts. All in all, a very entertaining match, a well-deserved win, and a fitting end to the career of 104-cap veteran prop Andrea Lo Cicero.

SCOTLAND‘s match against France was slightly less exciting, and a 9-9 half-time scoreline was rather more reflective of the game than similar results in the weekend’s other two matches. However, things picked up (at least for the French) in the second half and Scotland were, eventually able to get a try- in doing so taking the …Is That Legal? Award for Most Dubious Try-Scoring Tactic. With 75 minutes on the clock and 14 points down, the Scots could be somewhat forgiven for a slightly frayed temper, but Sean Lamont’s bit of very subtley-executed and rather impressive cheating was perhaps a shade too far to be really fair. Scotland had won a lineout near halfway and were putting the ball through the hands, Lamont running the dummy line- so far, so normal. What is less normal was Lamont’s subsequent decision to ‘accidentally’ finish his dummy line by running straight into Gael Fickou, knocking the unsuspecting youngster to the ground and leaving a nice hole for centre partner Matt Scott to break through, before offloading to Tim Visser for the try. The French crowd at the time appeared to express their disapproval, but referee Nigel Owens apparently didn’t see it and the try stood. If the scores had been closer at the time, I think the French would be somewhat angrier.

As for FRANCE themselves, coach Phillippe Saint-Andre could easily have won Best Half-Time Team Talk, such was the transformation in his team when they ran out for the second 40; but I think it is perhaps more reflective of their championship for Vincent Debaty to take the Swing And A Miss Award for Most Fluffed Opportunity. The move had started brightly enough, Debaty taking the ball on the run and using all of his considerable bulk to smash two desperate Scotsmen out of the way. The big prop rumbled off down the wing, and the try seemed fairly certain; Stuart Hogg remained as Scotland’s last line of defence, and France’s flying winger Vincent Clerc was jogging up on Debaty’s outside just waiting to receive the winning pass. However, so apparently engrossed was Debaty with the prospect of only the lithe, skinny Hogg standing between him and the try line that he never even looked at Clerc, and arguably was totally unaware of his team-mate’s existence. Rather than give the pass that would surely have made the five points a formality, Debaty went on his own, was (somehow) taken down by Hogg and France gave away the penalty at the resulting ruck. It was the perfect metaphor for France’s tournament; plenty of promise, an opportunity ripe for the taking, but it all amounted to nothing.

However, by far the best match of the weekend, and arguably the championship, had taken place a couple of hours earlier, where ENGLAND, who had travelled over the Severn in search of a Grand Slam, were soundly thwacked by a rampant Welsh side. I could think of half a dozen awards England could have won; Most Passionate Singing of The Anthems, Worst Rucking, Worst Scrummaging, Biggest Pissing-Off Of A Referee, but in the end I couldn’t look beyond the At Least You Didn’t Give Up Award for Most Optimistic Way to End A Game. As the game entered it’s final couple of minutes, England were well beaten; 27 points down, decidedly on the back foot and looking like they just wanted to leave all thoughts of rugby behind for a day or two. This is the time where you just wind down the clock, boot the ball out and walk off disgusted- but apparently nobody had told them out. When awarded a penalty just a few seconds from time, Danny Care (winner of the Least Necessary And Appropriate Chip Kick award ten minutes previously) decided to take the tap penalty and run for it, and his team joined in with gusto. For a minute, the England side managed to muster great energy and desire to play, showing a bit of much needed character. It might have ended with a dropped ball, but I will always take my hat off to a team prepared to have a go even when all else is lost. Or I might just be getting overly patriotic.

Also deserving of a whole host of awards were WALES; their rucking game was superb, man of the match Justin Tipuric matched only by his blindside flanker partner Sam Warburton, and even Dan Biggar managed to break free of his more customary ‘meh, he’s alright’-ness (my apologies if he ever ends up reading this; just not my type of player I guess) to operate the Welsh back line effectively and slot a cheeky drop-goal. However, the man I want to single out is tighthead prop Adam Jones, my pick for the MOTM award and worthy recipient of the Understated Lynchpin Award for Most Significant Contribution from a Single Player. Of the several areas where Wales controlled the game, the scrum was perhaps the most spectacular; England can’t have won more than two all match and their front row was getting ripped to shreds. Every scrum, the procedure was the same; the experienced scrummaging master that is Adam Jones completely nullified Joe Marler, who should have had the advantage from loosehead, before driving between him and hooker Tom Youngs to split the English scrum and force the penalty. Penalties came for collapsing, missing binds, standing up and just about every other clause of Law 20, not only turning referee Steve Walsh in Wales’ favour (I am not going to say he was biased as some others on the web have done, merely that Wales played him far better than the English) but setting England on the back foot for the rest of the game. Every time a scrum went down, we might as well have saved time by awarding Wales a penalty then and there, allowing England to build no attacking momentum. Combine that with the fact that Wales were competing properly in the rucks, slowing down ball in precisely the way that England weren’t, and all the momentum went the way of the home side. After that, victory was not long in coming.

As an Englishman, I don’t like admitting that Wales were the better side, and I certainly don’t like losing both match, tournament, Grand Slam and (potentially, although I hope for the sake of victory that it doesn’t happen) Lions places to them. But, as I said elsewhere before this weekend: “I’d be fine with Wales winning so long as they actually decided to play some damn rugby for a change”. I will quite happily accept that as them “playing some damn rugby”. Well played Wales. Well bloody played ye bastads.

Final Scores: Italy 22-15 Ireland
Wales 30-3 England
France 23-16 Scotland

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

The Plight of Welsh Rugby

It being a rugby time of year, I thought I might once again cast my gaze over the world of rugby in general. Rugby is the sport I love, and the coming of professionalism has seen it become bigger, faster, and more of a spectacle than ever before. The game itself has, to my mind at least, greatly benefited from the coming of the professional age; but with professionalism comes money, and where there’s money there are problems.

Examples of how financial problems have ruined teams abound all over the world, from England (lead by the financial powerhouse of the RFU) to New Zealand (where player salary caps are, if I remember correctly, set at £50,000 to avoid bankrupting themselves). But the worst examples are to be found in Britain, specifically in Wales (and, to a lesser extent, Scotland).

Back in the day, Wales was the powerhouse of northern hemisphere rugby. Clubs like Bridgend, Pontypool and Llanelli, among others, churned out international-level stars at a quite astounding rate for such relatively small clubs. Amidst the valleys, rugby was a way of life, something that united whole communities who would turn out to watch their local clubs in fierce local derbies. And the results followed; despite England and France enjoying the benefit of far superior playing numbers, Wales were among the most successful sides in the then Five Nations Championship, Welsh sides were considered the major challenge for touring southern hemisphere sides, and the names of such Welsh greats as JPR Williams, Barry John, Phil Bennett and, most famous of the lot, Gareth Edwards, have resonated down the ages. Or at least the nostalgic rugby press tells me, since I wasn’t really in a position to notice at the time.

However, professionalism demands that clubs pay their players if they wish to keep hold of them, and that requires them to generate a not insignificant degree of income. Income requires fans, and more importantly a large number of fans who are willing and able to travel to games and pay good money for tickets and other paraphernalia, and this requires a team to be based in an area of sufficient population and wealth. This works best when clubs are based in and around large cities; but since rugby is a game centred around rolling around in a convenient acre of mud it does not always translate well to a city population. As such, many rugby heartlands tend to be fairly rural, and thus present major issues when considering a professional approach to the game. This was a major problem in Scotland; their greatest talent pool came from the borders region, home of such famous clubs as Melrose and Galashiels, but when the game went pro in 1995 the area only had a population of around 100,000 and was declining economically. For the SRU to try and support all their famous clubs would have been nigh-on impossible, since there are only so many potential fans to go around those many with proud rugby heritage in such a relatively small area, and to pick one club over another would have been a move far too dangerous to contemplate. So they opted for a regional model; here, the old clubs would form their own leagues to act as a talent pool for regional sides who would operate as big, centrally contracted, professional outfits. The idea was that everyone, regardless of their club of origin, would come together to back their region, the proud sum of its many parts; but in reality many consider regional sides to be rather soulless outfits without the heritage or locality to drum up support. In Scotland they formed four regions originally, but the Caledonia Reds (covering the vast, lowly populated area north of the major cities) were disbanded after just a season and the Border Reivers, sprung from Soctland’s rugby heartland, went in 2005 after poor results and worse attendances. Now only Edinburgh and Glasgow are left, doing what they can in places with all the money and none of the heritage.

Ireland also adopted the regional model, but there it was far less of a problem. Ireland (which for rugby purposes incorporates Northern Ireland as well) is a larger, more densely populated country than Scotland, and actually has four major cities to base its four regional sides in (Limerick, Galway, Belfast and Dublin, whose potential to grow into a rugby powerhouse, as the largest conurbation of people in Europe without a major football side, is huge). Not only that, but relatively few Irish clubs had garnered the fame and prestige of their fellow Celts, so the regions didn’t have so many heritage problems. And its shown; Ireland is now the most successful country in the Celtic League (or RaboDirect Pro12, to satisfy the sponsors), Leinster have won 3 Heineken Cups in 5 years, and just four years ago, the national side achieved their country’s second-ever Grand Slam.

But it was in Wales that rugby had the farthest to fall, and fall it did; without the financial, geographical and club structure advantages of England or the virgin potential of Ireland, Welsh fortunes have been topsy-turvy. Initially five regions were set up, but the Celtic Warriors folded after just a few seasons and left only four, covering the four south coast cities of Llanelli (Scarlets), Swansea (Ospreys), Newport (Dragons) and Cardiff. Unfortunately, these cities are not huge and are all very close to one another, giving them a small catchment area and very little sense of regional rivalry; since they are all, apparently, part of the same region. Their low population means the clubs struggle to support themselves from the city population, but without any sense of historic or community identity they find it even harder to build a dedicated fan base; and with the recent financial situation, with professional rugby living through its first depression as player wages continue to rise, these finances are getting stretched ever thinner.

Not only that, but all the old clubs, whilst they still exist, are losing out on the deal too. Whilst the prestige and heritage are still there, with the WRU’s and the rugby world’s collective focus on the regional teams’ top-level performance nobody cares about the clubs currently tussling it out in the Principality Premiership, and many of these communities have lost their connection with clubs that once very much belonged to the community. This loss of passion for the game on a local level may partly be inspired by the success of football clubs such as Swansea, enjoying an impressive degree of Premier League success. Many of these local clubs also have overspent in pursuit of success in the professional era, and with dwindling crowds this has come back to bite; some prestigious clubs have gone into administration and tumbled down the leagues, tarnishing a reputation and dignity that is, for some, the best thing they have left. Even the Welsh national team, so often a source of pride no matter what befalls the club game, has suffered over the last year, only recently breaking an eight-match losing streak that drew stark attention to the Welsh game’s ailing health.

The WRU can’t really win in this situation; it’s too invested in the regional model to scrap it without massive financial losses, and to try and invest in a club game would have stretch the region’s wallets even further than they are currently. And yet the regional model isn’t working brilliantly either, failing to regularly produce either the top-quality games that such a proud rugby nation deserves or sufficient money to support the game. Wales’ economic situation, in terms of population and overall wealth, is simply not ideally suited to the excesses of professional sport, and the game is suffering as a result. And there’s just about nothing the WRU can do about it, except to just keep on pushing and hoping that their regions will gather loyalty, prestige and (most importantly) cash in due time. Maybe the introduction of an IRB-enforced universal salary cap, an idea I have long supported, would help the Welsh, but it’s not a high-priority idea within the corridors of power. Let us just hope the situation somehow manages to resolve itself.

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