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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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…

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.