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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SN Episode III: Revenge of the Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.