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.

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The Second Test

OK, wow. That was quite some match.

The 2nd test on the 2013 Lions tour proved to be a tense, exciting one; an all-out battle between a committed Lions’ defence and the Wallaby attack. For 76 minutes the Lions offered up one of the best defensive displays I have ever seen on a rugby pitch (and in the process set the stage for the tensest game of rugby I have ever been lucky enough to witness), but finally the Aussies were able to put some speed on the ball for one crucial phase, sending Adam Ashley-Cooper over for the winner. Hair raising stuff, roll on the decider.

Right, now time for the awards ceremony. I think another two parter is in order…

Once again, first up are the FRONT ROW, where Benn Robinson and Mako Vunipola (but predominantly Robinson) jointly take home the Ace Up Both Sleeves Award for Best Display of Cheating. Like it or not, cheating is a part of the modern game of rugby, most prominently by back row forwards (looking at you, Richie McCaw) but also by members of the front row brethren. Rarely has this been shown more obviously than in Saturday’s battle between Australian tighthead Robinson and Lions’ loosehead Vunipola. Whilst Vunipola’s scrummaging ability is frequently underrated, it’s fairly safe to say that he merited his place in the touring party for his work in the loose rather than in the scrum. However, he is nonetheless a very powerful figure, and Robinson (also not a natural scrummager) had clearly decided that, if they were going to have a straight pushing contest, he was not going to come out on top. A decision that must surely have been settled upon entirely when Vunipola began boring in at the first scrum, to complete silence from the officials (although I should add a caveat that I think Craig Joubert otherwise refereed superbly and contributed immensely to a good game of rugby), putting Robinson under all sorts of pressure and laying the foundations for every scrum the Lions won that evening.

However, Vunipola’s somewhat unsophisticated technique did give Robinson quite a lot to work with, and over the next couple of scrums he exploited that to the full. Engaging from a low body position enabled him to get underneath Vunipola at the hit and exert some form of control over him, but if he just remained static in this position then Vunipola could have found time to regain his position (as he did at several later scrums). So, Robinson instead took the opportunity to drive slightly downwards, bending Vunipola completely illegally out of position and negating all his power. Twice in succession Vunipola was penalised for ‘going to ground’ (ie Robinson threw himself at the floor), and even though the Lions pack eventually steadied the ship all due credit must go to Robinson for every sneaky trick he pulled to negate his opponent’s power.

On to the SECOND ROW, where this time it’s Geoff Parling’s turn to take home an individual award: the I Thought You Were Meant To Be Good At This Award for Least Mastery of Area Of Personal Skill. Parling is, as the rugby media like to tell us at every opportunity, a lineout forward, not only skilled in the air but also an authoritative organiser who is well able to call the shots and get his lineout working like a well oiled machine. Not that this was particularly evident on Saturday; the lineout had worked well for the Lions last week by being rather conservative in outlook, and Parling’s efforts to use it as more of an attacking platform didn’t work quite as well as they might have. Three times his bearded visage was seen rising into the air at the tail of the Lions’ lineout, and three times he missed a clean catch and a scramble for the ball resulted. Twice it ended up going to the Australians. Indeed, the Lions got their best results by going conservative, their driving maul proving an effective weapon on at least two occasions. This could be at least partly blamed on a fairly atrocious throwing display from Tom Youngs, but Parling also failed to mount any really major challenge to the Wallabies’ ball either- he was able to disrupt it a couple of times, putting Will Genia on the back foot, but there was never any ball stolen or genuinely challenged. I wouldn’t ordinarily mind but… well Parling is kinda supposed to be really, really good at this. Meh, could’ve been worse still.

Finally for this post we consider the BACK ROW, and another individual award goes to a Lion. This time it’s captain Sam Warburton, proud winner of the Shut Up And Sit Down Award for Most Critic-Answering Performance. Warburton has come under a lot of flak during this tour; upon his being named captain, many (including me) were quick to suggest that, whatever his qualities as a player, the back row was too competitive a position to have one space already set aside for a player who may not end up being the best in his position during the warmup games. I still stand by the idea that Warren Gatland’s choice of captain was perhaps not the most sensible, but I cannot deny that his faith in Warburton’s ability was entirely vindicated by his performance on Saturday. Like all good captains he lead from the front, scoring two crucial turnovers early on and a third, perhaps even more importantly, in the second half. In the midst of a virtuoso (well, for 76 minutes at least) team defensive performance, his individual tackling display also stood out, constantly applying pressure on the Australian runners and frequently forcing them backwards; whilst he didn’t top the tackling stats (that gong goes to our old friend Mako Vunipola, with 15), he must have been damn close. He and Dan Lydiate were the standout defenders for me, and it’s almost a shame that they didn’t end up rewarded for their sacrifices with a win. He made no handling errors or, indeed, any real mistakes that I could see, and but for an uninspired showing in attack (which could be attributed the fact that a) he’s not a particularly attacking player and b) the Lions did a grand total of about 3 minutes attacking throughout the match) his would have ranked as among the standout back row displays all year.

And as for the backs? Well we can deal with them next time…

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.

Lions 2K13: The Forwards and more…

My last post was the day after the Lions squad announcement, but only got as far as analysing the backs before realising I’d seriously overstepped my usual post length. Clearly I have too many opinions.

Anyway, the forwards.

We’ll begin with the props, of whom there are six. Adam Jones was always going to be a shoo-in at tighthead after making the scrum his bitch during every match of this Six Nations, and Cian Healy will probably be partnering him in the Test side; Healy has some disciplinary problems, but is a good scrummager and very useful in the loose. In spite of his youth, I am all in favour of Mako Vunipola’s inclusion in the side; he’s played well for England this season, his scrummaging is good and he has an uncanny knack of finding the tryline more often than a prop has any right to, indicating his presence in the loose; he’ll make a great impact sub. Dan Cole is also thoroughly deserving of his place; despite what certain pundits have said in the buildup, he ranks with Adam Jones as among the best scrummaging tightheads in the world and can carry the ball too when he wants to.

Outside these four, Warren Gatland’s choices become a mite more controversial. Gethin Jenkins is an experienced international and past tourist (as well as being Welsh, which always helps one’s case in a squad run by the Welsh national coach) and, when at full strength, is the best scrummaging loosehead in the northern hemisphere. Oh yeah, apart from Andrew ****ing Sheridan. Possibly the strongest and hardest man playing rugby today, he has hit a rich vein of form since joining Toulon- if he was still in England he’d be straight on the plane, and even as it is I’d have considered bringing him in late purely for his history of dominating Australians. Jenkins, on the other hand has gone rapidly downhill since arriving at Toulon and his club form is well below par. He played OK in the Six Nations but is not at his best, and will have to impress to justify inclusion for the test side.

The final prop is Matt Stevens. Now two years out of a lengthy ban after testing positive for cocaine, selection on this tour is a significant milestone in his rehabilitation as both a man and player; not that his inclusion hasn’t angered a couple of people. He’s even toured before, albeit on the disastrous 2005 tour where he didn’t win a cap, and his ability to play both sides of the scrum will be attractive to Gatland. However, he has not been a regular starter for England, and Ryan Grant will be justifiably feeling a bit miffed about having been left out of the squad after a stellar Six Nations with Scotland. Other pundits had even tipped Euan Murray and Mike Ross to tour, outside bets though they were.

Warren Gatland must have great faith in the English front row union; along with three of their props, he’s taken both of their international hookers, Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley. Despite his disciplinary problems and inconsistent throwing, Youngs is active in the loose and was a favourite of many (not me especially, but hey; I’m no international coach) to make the tour. Hartley, on the other hand, is a more controversial choice. Not only is he not British (which, whilst it shouldn’t be a problem, will always annoy someone or other), but he’s also not been a regular starter for England since Youngs’ rise to prominence, and has a history of disciplinary problems. This on its own wouldn’t be much of a barrier to selection were it not for one person: Rory Best. The Irish hooker had a great Six Nations, is a superb lineout thrower and does everything that a hooker should and more; Gatland must have a VERY good reason for not taking him.

Oh, and Richard Hibbard’s the third hooker. He’ll probably start the tests.

Working our way back we arrive at the second rows. Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones were obvious choices after great runs of form for both club and country, and together they would provide an engine room of colossal power. To compensate for some slight deficiencies in lineout agility, Gatland has gone large and taken three more locks: Ian Evans, Geoff Parling and Richie Gray. Both Evans and Parling are lineout bosses (pipping Donnacha Ryan to that job) with some mobility around the park, but neither offer much special in the tight; they will be unlikely to play alongside one another. Gray is the wildcard in the mix, being the most flamboyant ball-carrier and useful in both scrum and lineout; unfortunately his form has been found wanting in recent months, so Gatland will be hoping he finds his feet in Australia to provide a much-needed foil to Jones or O’Connell. If he doesn’t then it’s a role Joe Launchbury could easily have filled (despite his inexperience) after a fantastic showing in the Six Nations.

The back row is the pick of the bunch when it comes to selection controversy: taking two Number 8’s is not uncommon, but England’s Ben Morgan will, despite his recent injury, feel rightly annoyed that he has been left out in favour of Ireland skipper Jamie Heaslip, who’s been having an… OK season. Johnnie Beattie must also be feeling aggrieved after a Six Nations that, whilst hardly world-beating, was probably better than Heaslip’s. Toby Faletau was always going to tour after a good show in the Six Nations, and will probably start but he isn’t quite as exciting or dynamic as Morgan (or even Heaslip at his best; the real mavericks would have even thought about Andy Powell), who would have provided a nice balance. Gatland’s choice of flankers is also interesting; he’s taken a full six to cover just two places, each with their own play style and skill set. Tom Croft has the agility and lineout skills (a smart move if both O’Connell and Jones prove undroppable in the second row), Sean O’Brien is a combative rucker and ball-carrier, Justin Tipuric is a natural loose forward, Dan Lydiate is a veritable rock at blindside flanker and Sam Warburton brings leadership and presence at the ruck. Choosing between them as players is nigh-on impossible, and really depends on how the Lions want to play. Certainly, with six of them, nobody’s getting in by default.

Except that one of them is. Naming Sam Warburton captain makes some sense from a leadership perspective; he took Wales to a Grand Slam last year and, despite his youth, has great presence on the pitch. However, among such talented peers he is not quite shining enough to be absolutely secure of his place, and even in the Six Nations Wales found themselves moving him to the blindside rather than his natural openside to accommodate Justin Tipuric’s superb form. But now Dan Lydiate, the best blindside flanker in the world last year, has returned from injury and joins both of them; if both he and Tipuric hit top form then neither can possibly be left out of the test side, but one must to make way for Warburton. Warburton’s a good player, and could well be the best seven out there come Test time, but making that risk in such a key position wouldn’t have been my position. Fantastic leader (and, indeed, player) though he is, this is not a squad short of leadership potential, and I personally would have picked either Paul O’Connell or Brian O’Driscoll to captain the side.

And then there’s the question of Chris Robshaw. The England captain picked up three man of the match awards during the Six Nations and deserved every one, despite repeated claims that he was playing out of position. Picking the recently injured Lydiate and the not spectacular (this season, anyway) Sean O’Brien over him and the likes of Kelly Brown (another Scottish back rower who made a big impact this season) and Ryan Jones (a seasoned tourist capable of playing everywhere in both second and back rows) will be adjudged by all to be somewhere between risky and downright stupid. Personally I would have taken Robshaw over O’Brien and Jones or Morgan over Heaslip, but that’s just me.

Hmm… 1400 words again. OK, just one more post (only one, I promise) to cover some more general squad trends and attempt to identify playing styles, along with a few other bits and pieces. Monday it is then.

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

Six Nations, week II…

Another weekend over, another Monday spent calming down after a thrilling weekend’s rugby. Once again, awards await all six squads, and the final scores await at the bottom. Enjoy

We begin with ENGLAND, who take home the CBA Award for Only Playing Rugby When They Feel Like It and share the Can’t Quite Make The Second Team Award for Scrappiest Game with their opponents Italy. The match was played in Rome, a city not normally used to the temperature dipping below double figures, but this match started with much of the pitch thickly dusted with snow and the lines painted red so the players could see them. It may have been to do with the weather, the temperature, or simply the backdrop of conditions making it look stupid, but this lead to one of the scrappiest games of rugby I have ever seen. One is usually used, in international rugby at least, to passes being slick and professional, rucks being quick, efficient affairs, everything going to hand. What we’re not used to is passes being fumbled and hurled clumsily away, rucks merely being a collective term for large heaps of forwards in the general vicinity of the ball, and some 25% of passes bouncing. That’s not to say it was a bad match- on the contrary, it was exciting and good to watch, but the first half looked vaguely comical, the only 6 points coming from the boot of Owen Farrell.
Then ITALY scored. Twice. In as many minutes, gaining them the Oh Shit Where Did That Come From Award for Densest Period of Points Scoring. All 15 of Italy’s points came within a ten-minute period either side of half-time, and 12 of them came in the three minutes preceding it, through two tries seemingly against the run of play. Both were as scrappy as was to be expected from the game- first came Giovanbattista Venditti’s opportunistic dive on a loose kick that had bounced off three England players before bobbling towards the line (giving the young winger a try on his debut), and then Ben Foden, having collected a kick and run up, leaving his full-back position exposed, threw a pass straight to Tommaso Benvenuti (who had appeared from god-knows-where), allowing him to run 50 metres for Italy’s second. And here England picked up their other award- finally, for the first time under Stuart Lancaster, they began to play with some ambition, some go-forward, searching for a try which, thanks to a second charge down in as many weeks from Charlie Hodgson, they found not long after. From then on the only difference was the kicking- Farrell put on a superb display, slotting all 5 kicks that went his way, while Italy missed no less than 8 points from place kicks (and another 3 from a missed drop-goal) that could have won them the game. Once again, let down by the boot.

On to the next game, where FRANCE and IRELAND jointly take the UN Award for Fostering International Relations. Paris proved to be even colder than Rome, getting into double negative figures (hell, the Seine had frozen over), and like the Stadio Olimpico, the Stade de France does not have undersoil heating. As such, with just minutes to go before kickoff the officials decided that if the ground was left then it was likely to freeze up due to the stupidly late kickoff time, and the game was cancelled. Disappointment I’m sure for the many travelling Irish and indeed French supporters, who were undoubtedly forced, with a heavy heart, to wander into the streets of Paris, a city where beer can be found for half the price of the British Isles. Oh how the Irish must have suffered. ;-).

To the weekend’s final match, where SCOTLAND couldn’t quite muster up the <INSERT GENERIC SPORTING UNDERDOG FILM HERE> Award for Best Comeback, and instead had to make do with getting angry at the Oh, For ****’s Sake, Sir Award for Harshest Moment To Be Disallowed A Try. After suffering two yellow cards in quick succession, condemning them to play for almost 20 minutes with 14 men, the Scots conceded 3 quick tries- but when returned to their full complement, they began to play with an ambition that has been all too absent from the Scotland shirt in recent years (this may have had something to do with the introduction of Mike Blair at scrum-half, who for seemingly the first time got his side taking quick penalties and upping the game’s tempo). On the wings, Lee Jones and Stuart Hogg were playing like men inspired, and after some stupendous runs Scotland were finally rewarded with a fantastic move, swinging along the line to the right and finding Hogg unmarked on the wing. Unfortunately, Nick De Luca threw him a dreadful pass (which may or may not have had something to do with 14 stone of flying Welshman tackling him from behind), requiring Hogg to throw himself at the ball, flick it into the air, and, before it could touch the ground, sweep it up under his body with a free hand, before scrambling over. All beautiful, and a perfectly legal 5 points. Unfortunately, the movement was fast, and referee Romain Poite was on the other side of the field- all he saw was a dreadful pass and it fumbling in a pair of Scottish hands. You can understand why he considered it a knock-on, and the try was disallowed. The Scots got another try two minutes later from the field position they had gained, so I won’t say that the try could have won them the game- but if it had counted, and given Scotland that little extra momentum, then who knows…

Once again, we finish with WALES, who once again produced a clinical display to send Scotland down, and in doing so won the Getting the Pundits Scratching their Heads Award for Defying Conventional Rugby Thinking.  Nobody who watched that game will deny that the Scottish forwards were immense- David Denton continued where he left off last week by making some powerful runs, ably supported by his gigantic second row Richie Gray. His locking partner Jim Hamilton was making some bone-crunching hits, the front row were awesome in the rucks, and Ross Rennie… well, without disrespect to the superb performance of Dan Lydiate, he was my man of the match, seeming to constantly be in the process of carrying, stealing or tackling the ball at every possible opportunity. Conventional rugby thinking has always had it that ‘forwards win games, backs just decide by how much’, but here the Welsh forwards were overshadowed by their Scottish counterparts- and still ended up winning. How? Their lineout fell to pieces in the first half, they couldn’t compete with the Scottish skill at ball snaffling, and even big runners like Toby Faletau seemed absent. How could they possibly have won? Answer- because the forwards were passable, and the backs were inspired. Even with George ‘Jonah’ North off the pitch injured, they were superb, Jonathan Davies running great lines, Jamie Roberts smashing holes as only he knows how, Alex Cuthbert actually using his physical presence on the wing and Lee Halfpenny just being everywhere. The Scottish backs were far from bad*, but the Welsh were awesome.

The 6N takes a week off next week, so all you non rugby people can come out from under the sofa- next week will be something completely non-sporting, you have my word.

Final Scores:
Italy 15 : England 19
France : Ireland (Postponed)
Wales 27 : Scotland 13

*Well, I say they were far from bad- they were, but they still seemed incapable of using space out wide when it came to them and are still lacking that killer edge- when it comes, they will be something special