SN Episode III: Revenge of the Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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