The First Test: The Backs

Apparently I get carried away whilst talking rugby, so my awards ceremony for this weekend’s Lions match has got split across two posts. This time it’s the backs who get a going over…

First up are the HALF BACKS, both pairs of whom take a Letting The Side Down Award for Most Maddening Gulf In Class Between Key Positions. It has been generally agreed that Mike Phillips, who Warren Gatland had presumably inked in as test scrum-half within half an hour of being told he’d got the Lions’ job, had a bit of a shocker on Saturday; whether it was the attention of Australian flanker Ben Mowen, an inability of his forwards to generate go-forward or just him not playing at his best, Phillips never really got into his natural rhythm. There were none of his surging runs, no sense of control over the breakdown, and he seemed to pass it out to Jonny Sexton at flyhalf only when he ran out of ideas rather than when he’d built a platform. By contrast, Sexton put on a great show, mixing good tactical kicking with some trademark  skill and control of his backline, despite Phillips offering him a decidedly shaky platform.

Australia faced precisely the opposite problem. I’ve never really seen Will Genia play well before, but on Saturday I was treated to a display that came damn close to fully justifying Stuart Barnes’ claim that Genia is the greatest player in world rugby today. Not only did Genia create all the momentum that Phillips didn’t and completely evaded the clutches of the Lions’ back row, the skill he showed to create Australia’s first try was truly breathtaking. When dealing with his forwards, Genia put Australia firmly on the front foot; it was only when he gave it to his fly-half that things started to break down. James O’Connor is something of a jack of all trades, starting his career at wing and moving to the No. 10 jersey via fullback, and his lack of natural instinct in the position showed on Saturday. Much will be made of his three missed kicks at goal, but around the pitch he was virtually non-existent, and his centres only ever got good ball when Genia just gave it straight to them. During the last quarter, Australia brought on a more natural flyhalf in Kurtley Beale; but brought him on at fullback. Given the quality of some of his runs, he and Genia united in the half-backs could have won Australia the game.

Now for the CENTRES, who collectively take the Where The Hell Were You? Award for Best Mastery Of Invisibility. That’s the only explanation I can find, at any rate, for why I cannot remember anything that a centre from either side did for the entire match. Well, that’s not quite true; I remember both Christian Leali’ifano and Pat McCabe getting injured, Jonathan Davies’ run doing said injuring to Leali’ifano (not, I should hasten to add, that I think this is in any way Davies’ fault; Leali’ifano merely put in an appalling tackle and got his head in the wrong position) and Brian O’Driscoll getting penalised early on. But in general play? Well, I presume they made a few tackles, but they never made any incisive breaks and neither side’s attack was focused through their midfield as is more typically the case. Indeed, I seem to remember at least one promising Lions attack getting butchered as Davies ran straight into traffic rather than using his numbers out wide. This could perhaps be blamed on the Lions not playing a natural inside centre (both Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi being injured, meaning the Lions had no go-to crash ball merchant) and the Wallabies getting their main attacking threat at centre injured, but even so that’s not an excuse for being boring.

Finally, we come to the BACK THREE. I could wax lyrical about this lot all day; how sorry I felt for Kurtley Beale after his tragic last-minute penalty miss (and no, Australians, I’m not being sarcastic), how fantastically George North played (and how close he came to scoring a brace), the match-winning kicking display given by Leigh Halfpenny and how both Digby Ioane and Alex Cuthbert both did exactly and only one good thing in the entire match. However, in a side with a surprising number of debutants, it seems only fair that the No One Cap Wonder Here Award for Best Debut should go to Man of the Match Israel Folau. Folau has only been playing the union code for a few months, coming into our fair sport via rugby league and Aussie rules, but he made an immediate impression on the international stage. Just thirteen minutes in, he latched onto a perfectly judged side-of-the-boot grubber kick from Will Genia to run in under the posts, and shortly before half-time he showed his opposite number George North that he wasn’t the only one capable of leaving defenders floundering in their wake. With North having come inside, Folau was left with acres of space in which to work his magic. With one magical step, he left Jonny Sexton for dead and outpaced Leigh Halfpenny for an adroit touchdown; a fantastic score. The battle between him and North in the tests to come will be an intriguing one.

Oh, and I also have one special award to give; Image of the Day. I refer you here, to this video of George North’s superb solo try, but it’s not North who I’m talking about. Once you’ve watched the try (and cackled with glee at the general awesomeness of it), skip forward to 1:07 and watch Berrick Barnes as he flies across to try and see him intercept North. As North slips round him, we see Barnes’ scrum cap-adorned head look up from the floor at the rapidly disappearing red shirt… and then see his face plunge into the ground as the realisation of the score kicks in. I don’t know why, but there’s something in the way he lets his head drop that is simultaneously tragic and hilarious. Depending, I suppose, on which side you were supporting.

I have a few final things to say regarding Saturday’s game. The first concerns referee Chris Pollock, who has taken plenty of flak from Lions fans regarding his refereeing, and particularly his interpretation of the breakdown. Speaking as a referee, I can’t say I agreed with him in a lot of areas: but, he did the most important thing right. He was consistent. Whilst his way of playing rucks and mauls was, to some eyes, ‘wrong’, he was treated both sides the same, and if this style happened to favour the Australians on some occasions then that’s not really his fault. How Craig Joubert and Romain Poite end up doing things is anyone’s guess.

My final message is to the Lions, and although I’m sure Warren Gatland will have told them anyway I want to get this off my chest; you have no excuse for playing like that. The Lions didn’t play badly on Saturday, but they were uninspired and failed to gain any sort of control over Australia in any area, the lineout being a possible exception that nonetheless failed to challenge the Australians for possession. That simply should not be happening. I appreciate the issues of selection, of having to come together in so short a time frame and of injuries that plague all Lions tours, but if ever the omens were pointing the Lions’ way it is now. Australian fans have been baying for Robbie Deans’ blood for some time now over his selection policies, and there was outrage when his Lions squad was announced that many players from the highly successful Reds and Brumbies franchises had been left out. There is a general consensus that this is not Australia’s strongest side, especially without the likes of George Smith (who has been recalled to the squad as injury cover for the second test) an in-form Quade Cooper who, on his day, is one of the best players in the world and combines beautifully with the outstanding Will Genia. Combine that with the fact that the Wallabies are far from the strongest side in the Southern hemisphere, with noted weaknesses up front (although not as pronounced as some think), and there should be no legitimate reason why one of the strongest Lions’ sides in living memory, both physically and skills-wise, should not be giving Australia a far stiffer challenge than they are currently facing. These guys are, for all the difficulties posed on tour, still professional rugby players.

The Lions won on Saturday purely because of bad Australian kicking. If that is what it takes to win the series, then we can hardly claim to be true victors.

Lions Squad 2013

Yes, it’s rugby talk again; this time we are specifically talking about the announcement made yesterday concerning Warren Gatland’s squad for summer’s Lions tour (the second aerodynamics post will be along later). I have and have heard plenty of strong opinions in the buildup to this announcement concerning who should and shouldn’t be taken for various reasons, but I’m not about to start slagging off Mr. Gatland’s decisions (not least because he’s got enough people screaming at him on the internet already). No, the purpose of this post is simply to study the makeup of the tour party in order to explain some of the coaching team’s thought processes, make a guess as to what the final test side will be (at this stage; a LOT depends on how people perform in the warmup matches), and to suggest how Gatland intends his team to play.

We begin with the elephant in the room; the question of whether to pick France-based players, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to travel with the rest of the tour party if they were involved in the Top 14 finals. Gatland kept his cards close to his chest on this one prior to the announcement, saying only that he would ‘prefer’ to have the whole side go out together, and it’s easy to see why. Players coming in late (and off the back of one of the toughest domestic seasons in the world to boot) are always disruptive to a tour, but with so few warmup games for the Lions before Gatland has to knuckle down and pick his test side, such players would only have a couple of games in which to justify their inclusion. In the end, he’s stuck to his guns and only picked players who will be able to travel with the initial party to Hong Kong (where they will play the Barbarians as a first warm-up match); Gethin Jenkins (Toulon) has had an unhappy season in France and the club have apparently released him to tour in full, whilst Mike Phillips (Bayonne) is playing for a club small enough (and mid-table enough) that they probably won’t mind giving him up quite as much as, say, Andrew Sheridan (who’s started almost every game for table-topping Toulon). Gatland’s clearly decided that there’s enough talent at home to suit his needs, and… well, let’s get into the individual positions before I start offering opinions.

We begin at fullback, where there are, predictably, no surprises. In Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Rob Kearney Gatland had three of the best 15’s in the world to choose from, and the only real debate pre-selection concerned whether he was going to take all three or leave either the superlatively talented Halfpenny (not a chance), the mercurial Hogg (who some have pencilled in at winger for the test team) or Kearney, with all his dominance of the aerial battle and his experience as a test Lion in 2009 (a tour he was superb on). At winger, however, there was more debate pre-announcement; the Welsh giants of George North and Alex Cuthbert were always going to tour, (even if North has been closed down by defences this season and Cuthbert can only finish, rather than create), but beyond that there was more confusion. Tommy Bowe has Lions experience but has been injured recently, Craig Gilroy, Simon Zebo, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser have great potential but limited international experience, Chris Ashton has been devastating in the past but has hit a run of poor form, and Christian Wade (the outside bet) is an electric attacker in the mould of Jason Robinson (seriously, watch this step from the 2001 tour, and then this from earlier this season. See the similarity?), but some question his defensive abilities. In the end, the Welsh pair have been joined by Bowe and Maitland, a mix that has less searing, defence-busting pace than it does all-round skill and reliability; the safer option. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gatland to pick an all-Welsh back three (he is their coach after all), but personally I think that Bowe and Maitland would be a more complete pair. Or at least, if Gatland makes North and Cuthbert think that’s what he’s doing, they might pull their fingers out.

Moving further forward we come to the centres. The legend that is Brian O’Driscoll joins Jonathan Davies in making up the skilful, running half of the group, and both have a natural gift for creating something; crucial if someone like Cuthbert takes the winger’s berth. Both are out-and-out 13’s so won’t play on the same side, but the Australians would do well to be wary of either. To complement them, Gatland has chosen a couple of traditional bulldozers in Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi. Roberts and O’Driscoll formed a mean centre partnership in 2009, but Roberts has blown hot and cold since then and only performs really well when his team are definitively on top. Brad Barritt may have offered more, especially in defence, but doesn’t run the same hard lines or have the ability to really set a game alight. Tuilagi is a whole other entity; normally he plays 13, and whilst he has a good pair of hands, a mean handoff and is a more varied, complete runner than Roberts, he’s not used to distributing and could struggle if forced to play inside centre. I would be tempted to pencil in Tuilagi and O’Driscoll if I were naming the team tomorrow, but all will depend on how various partnerships click together in the warmup matches.

Onto fly-half, and the biggest selection news of all; only two No. 10s are touring, and neither of them are Jonny Wilkinson. After a dominant performance for Toulon in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens, many expected him to make the plane over his opposite number for that game, Owen Farrell (who was given a masterclass in fly-half play by Wilkinson). However, Wilkinson has since come forward to say that he was approached and, whilst flattered, didn’t think his body would be able to cope with the pressures of such an intense tour immediately after a tough French season. Still, his clinical finishing ability and the fear he puts into the hearts of Australian rugby fans will both be missed. As it is, we have Jonny Sexton and Farrell on the plane to Oz; Sexton has been The European No. 10 for the past few seasons and, whilst rarely massively exciting, he never has a bad game. Farrell is younger and more inconsistent, and will be playing definite understudy to Sexton throughout this tour; but he is nonetheless talented and has the perfect temperament to deal with the pressure of Lions rugby should injury strike (in which case Wilkinson could be called up or, as Gatland has pointed out, Stuart Hogg could drop in). Even better, with Leigh Halfpenny’s boot in the equation Farrell wouldn’t have the responsibility of keeping the scoreboard ticking over to worry about, further settling his nerves.

If my Lions tour were to have only two flyhalves, I would personally try to address that deficit by taking either James Hook (a fantastically talented, creative player much misused by Wales in the past thanks to his ability to play absolutely everywhere in the backs; unfortunately he plays in France so has not been picked) or Greig Laidlaw; not only can Laidlaw play both 9 and 10 very well, but he can kick, has a good pass and has all the requisite skills. However, his traditional scrum-half stature can sometimes him defensively vulnerable, particularly playing at 10, which is the only reason I can think of as to why such a talented player is not in the tour party. Gatland has chosen three scrum-halves: Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs and Conor Murray, and nobody will expect at this stage anyone other than Phillips to start for the tests. Although he lacks creativity and his pass is, frankly, too slow, he is a born big-match player and is fierce and combative enough to act like a fourth back-rower; which would be great if Gatland hadn’t chosen eight very talented back rowers. Murray is a similar player with a stronger pass but lacks Phillips’ sheer dynamism, whilst Youngs offers something different; a highly creative scrum-half who loves nothing more than looking for opportunities. He probably won’t make the test side thanks to his habit of running with it too far before passing, eating up time and space, but has the skill to make the Aussies sit up and take notice should the game need an injection of pace.

OK, so that’s 1400 words on just the backs; I think the forwards will have to wait for next time, along with an analysis of the squad as a whole, likely tactics and how well I think they’ll perform. See you then…

6N13: Rnd 3

…aaaand it’s back, after two week’s hiatus; the Six Nations has come among us once again. This weekend promised a wealth of interesting matchups and set the analysts’ mouths watering, and we ended up with games of rugby as varied as one could desire. Once again, I present my alternative awards ceremony:

We begin with ITALY who, having come into the weekend hamstrung by the loss of inspirational captain Sergio Parisse to a five-week ban, hardly did themselves any favours in winning the The Analysts Didn’t Spot This One Award for Biggest Repurcussions from Tiny Tactical Error. A lot was made during the week at coach Jacques Brunel’s descision to drop the half-back pairing of Tobias Botes and Luciano Orquera, so influential in the victory over France, and replace them with Eduardo Gori and Kris Burton. Burton’s inclusion was a particular surprise; during the first two games, Orquera had been injecting some much-needed vigour into the Italian back division, and plumping for Burton’s more conservative kicking approach was rightly considered a dangerous choice. During the game itself, the commentators had endless fun laying into Burton, particularly after two failed drop-goal attempts, but I felt that Gori brought a fair share of problems with him as well; or one problem in particular. If one watched Gori’s deliveries throughout the match, they were invariably aimed directly at Burton’s shoulder, meaning that to catch the ball he had to be standing still. This cost him crucial seconds and forward momentum, both of which enabled onrushing defenders to get right up in his face, severely limiting his options. At least three times Burton was unable to pass and forced to make awkward runs to try and get around several burly Welshmen, and as a result Italy lost all attacking momentum. It was a tiny thing, not mentioned by any commentators, and arguably Burton wouldn’t have been able to do much with ball put in front of him, where it should be, but I thought that it nonetheless had a huge impact.

On to WALES, to whom I was seriously tempted to re-award the Boredom award after a game which almost put me to sleep (seriously; the sofa was really comfortable), but who instead take home the Where Did That Come From? Award for Most Sudden Tries. The weather in Italy on Saturday did not lend itself to particularly flowing rugby, and with kicking fly halves on both sides tries were unlikely to ever come from building attacking momentum and phase play. Indeed, after a decidedly barren first half some observers (myself included) might have been surprised to learn that there were any tries coming at all. But come they did, albeit in the most abrupt fashion. Firstly, a shot-to-nothing chip kick from Mike Phillips bounced awkwardly, wrong-footing both Gori and Burton as they ran into one another attempting to gather and left the try line open for the onrushing Jonathan Davies to leap over. Then, 15 minutes later, Wales executed a set-move, Davies drawing Gonzalo Canale out of position to leave a hole open for Alex Cuthbert to rush through, again totally unopposed. On both occasions the try’s execution was, all buildup and preparation included, less than five seconds from start to finish, and I hardly noticed either of them happening until about 10 seconds later.

Saturday’s next match proved far more interesting, and FRANCE certainly acquitted themselves far better against England than  in their previous two matches. However, the award they collect concerns scrum half Morgan Parra, who takes the dubious honour of the Leave That To The Footballers Award for Worst Diving. Throughout the game, England’s fly half Owen Farrell was making a nuisance of himself among the French ranks, and appeared to have a particular problem with French fullback Yoann Huget. However, after around 18 minutes he decided to get in the way of Parra as the Frenchman tried to get to a ruck. Having seen a replay of the event, I am firmly of the opinion that Parra may have brushed his face against Farrell’s back, which makes it all the more ridiculous that his immediate response was to fall to the floor clutching his face as if Farrell had punched him. I have a particular intolerance towards cowardly foul play such as that, and my ire was particularly irked when, after referee Craig Joubert had rightly ignored his plea for a penalty (or simply not noticed, which would be just as excusable given the innocuous nature of the offence), Parra immediately got up and joined onto the back of the next maul. I can only hope this doesn’t become a habit; I do not like divers.

ENGLAND also take an individual award, with Manu Tuilagi taking the Fired Clay Toilet Award for Dominating The Physical Battle. After being left out of the starting XV for the Ireland match having been injured during the Scotland game, Tuilagi was recalled to his favoured outside centre position at the expense of Billy Twelvetrees. The reason for dropping a player of Twelvetrees’ undoubted skill came in the form of a 6ft, 17 stone Frenchman called Mathieu Bastareaud (voted man most thankful for the existence of three vowels), who lined up to form a potent centre lineup alongside Clermont’s quick and incisive Wesley Fofana, returned to his natural position at 12 after two games stuck out on the wing with nothing to do. Fofana proved his worth with a fantastic bit of individual skill, beating no less than five defenders, to go over for France’s only try, but Tuilagi, the same height and weight of Bastareaud, had been brought in to nullify the Frenchman’s physical presence and did so with aplomb. Not once did Bastareaud make a meaningful run at his opposite number, and on the three occasions (that I counted) that Tuilagi ran at him, he made good ground every time and positively bounced him off on at least one occasion. Put it this way; tries for Tuilagi: 1, tries for Bastareaud: 0. (although admittedly, Tuilagi’s try was more luck than anything else).

Sunday’s game was perhaps the most interesting of the three, and in it IRELAND took the Lighting Cigars With Twenties Award for Lease Efficient Use of Resources. After the game, all pundits were justifiably asking how the hell the Irish had managed to lose the game, and rightly so; the Irish controlled three-quarters of the game’s possession and had over 70% territory, but spent most of it running somewhat unimaginatively straight at the Scottish defence; who, despite 16 missed tackles, somehow managed to hold firm. The Scots also conceded more penalties than their opponents (9 in the first 20 minutes alone), but somehow nearly all were conceded in Irish territory, out of range of Paddy Jackson’s boot. It didn’t help that, of the four kicks Jackson did get on goal, he only managed to execute one of them, which may make him something of a scapegoat for the Irish’s general failure to transform control into points. The one exception to this rule was new cap at inside centre Luke Marshall, who made three fantastic breaks; but here, once again, Ireland’s inability to finish the job came to the fore. Once, Marshall somewhat muddied his performance by throwing a bad pass out to Craig Gilroy, who was unable to hold onto it, and the other two times Keith Earls, in near-identical fashion, attempted a run for the corner alone rather than offering a pass to the unmarked Brian O’Driscoll- and was bundled into touch. A try did eventually come from Gilroy, but after 44 minutes of laboured effort, and it proved their last score. It was like watching the England side of two years ago.

Finally come SCOTLAND, who take home not only their first back-to-back victories in the same season of a Six Nations ever, but also the Laissez-Faire Award for Most Laid-Back Performance. Much like the French side during the first two weeks of the tournament, Scotland spent Sunday’s match quite content to sit back and let Ireland do all the work, deciding that to actually create opportunities for themselves would be far too imaginative. However, unlike France, this was backed up by a solid defensive effort and well-executed kicking game, allowing Ireland to be kept at bay and for the Scots to luck the occasional scoring opportunity; and, after Greg Laidlaw’s first two penalties put them within a sniff of Ireland, they casually flicked up a gear and began tentatively looking for more. Perhaps surprised by this sudden activity, Ireland duly infringed at the breakdown twice within Laidlaw’s range, giving Scotland a four-point lead that proved especially crucial when it later forced Ireland to turn down a kickable opportunity (which would have still left them a point behind), and instead mount another assault on the Scottish line. But the Scots’ defence held, and a valuable victory was theirs. Their next fixture against Wales will be…interesting.

Final Scores:
Italy 9-26 Wales
England 23-13 France
Scotland 12-8 Ireland

006 Nations: From Rugby with Love

And so another weekend of Six Nations rugby action has rolled around again, which means an awful pun in the title (for which I apologise unreservedly) of my regular awards ceremony post. So without further ado, onto the first game.

We begin with ITALY, takers of a major scalp last weekend against France and takers this weekend of the Running Into A Brick Wall Award for Sheer Determination and Bloodymindedness. Italy won last week thanks to their fluid, offloading-centric game plan, smashing into the French defensive line and putting them on the back foot, and commentators across Europe have been quick to praise coach Jacques Brunel for his work in transforming Italy’s playing style for the better. The Italians tried much the same tactic against Scotland, who they had high hopes of beating after their heavy loss to England last Saturday, but whether it be the wet, stodgy conditions of Murrayfield (in stark contrast to last week’s faster pitch at the Stadio Olimpico) or the sheer quality of Scotland’s defensive effort, Italy simply could not get the Scots to open up. And yet, credit where it’s due, Italy did not give up. It would have been easy to simply say ‘this isn’t working’ and to try and revert to a less well-practiced kicking game (which would have hardly helped matters against a ruthlessly efficient Scottish lineout), but Italy took the brave option of sticking to the game plan they’d practiced and continuing to probe at the Scottish defence. That they failed to breach their line until a beautifully executed set play less than ten minutes before the end, despite controlling both territory and possession, could be said to demonstrate that this tactic was a failure, but it is perhaps more of a testament to the Scottish tackling and counter-rucking display.

As well as taking the defensive victory, SCOTLAND also take home the Don’t Mind If I Do Award for Fijian-style Opportunism. Scotland controlled next to none of the second half possession, and a minority of it in the first, content instead to ensure the Italians were not going to breach their line; which, given the newfound danger presented by the current Italy side, wasn’t a bad move. This could have been a recipe for a very, very boring match, but such a spectacle was saved by the Scottish back division’s ability to sniff out and exploit the tiniest of scoring chances. Of Scotland’s four tries, two were breakaways courtesy of tiny mistakes from the Italians. Possibly the best moment of the match came from Scotland’s full back Stuart Hogg, who managed to intercept what would otherwise surely have been the scoring pass from Luciano Orquera before running 80 metres for a try. Sean Lamont added Scotland’s fourth after noticing the ball unguarded and legally playable behind an Italian ruck, and Matt Scott nearly picked up his first international try early on after a well-placed grubber kick through conjured up an opportunity from nowhere; only Tobias Botes’ superb covering tackle meant the Scottish centre had to wait half an hour for his try.

Onto Saturday’s other game, where FRANCE’s Maxime Machenaud picked up the Come On Guys, Work With Me Here Award for Best Solo Performance In An Otherwise Dour Team Display. France played their match against Wales in much the same vein as they had against Italy; looking decidedly lethargic throughout, only fullback Yoann Huget ever looked like he was trying to actively do anything rather than waiting to be magically handed the ball with the line at their mercy. The only other player to achieve any obvious sense of activity from the French starting lineup was Machenaud, winning his second Six Nations start at scrum half, and looking every inch ‘Le Petit General’. Small, energetic and feisty, he positively bustled back and forth across the pitch with all the haste and enthusiasm that a scrumhalf should, and as such he appeared a genuine threat. Unfortunately, he was taken off after just 50 minutes in favour of the more calculating and arguably skilful Morgan Parra, but in a game in serious need of kicking off that may have proved France’s death knell.

WALES themselves pick up an award that could very well have been France’s had Machenaud not impressed me so; the Is It Over Yet? Award for Most Boring Game. The entirity of the France-Wales match was reasonably well summarised by the half time 3-3 scoreline, with the vast majority of the game being played between the two ten metre lines. At 10, Wales’ new flyhalf Dan Biggar produced an up and down display, combining some great tactical kicks (including one sweetly-placed grubber to force Huget to concede the lineout) with some rather poor general play and one or two howlers. The game’s final 16-6 scoreline was frankly flattering, and although I will not deny that Wales’ try (a beautiful chip from Biggar into a minute gap that all 6ft several of George North somehow managed to pop up in and bound over from) was both well-executed and well-deserved, I’m not entirely sure Wales can have a definitive claim to having won the game so much as France lost it. Still, at least Wales managed to break their duck, and the weather was most certainly not in their favour for a fast, free-flowing match.

The boredom award could quite easily have applied to IRELAND during their almost as dull game with England on Sunday, but instead they pick up the rather self-explanatory Bar Of Soap Award for Dreadful Handling and the Ooh… Ouch… Award for Biggest Casualty list. Ireland were hamstrung early on in the game when their instrumental flyhalf Jonny Sexton came off with a calf strain, but these things happen and many would argue that his replacement Ronan O’Gara’s more conservative approach was better suited to the wet, dreary conditions. However, last week’s try-scoring winger Simon Zebo was soon off the field as well with what later transpired to be a quite serious metatarsal injury that has ruled him out of the rest of the competition. Zebo was soon followed by Mike McCarthey (knee), Brian O’Driscoll (ankle) and Donnacha Ryan (back) on the injuries list, with all three joining Sexton as doubts for Ireland’s upcoming game against Scotland. Perhaps surprisingly, none of these injuries came about (as far as I could tell) as a result of foul play; in fact the only person committing such an offense was Irishman Cian Healy when he attempted a stamp on Dan Cole’s ankle. Whilst Cole was apparently unaffected, Healy was cited and is very unlikely to be available for Scotland as well in a position Ireland desperately need him to fill. Ireland’s next squad may be shorn of a few key branches.

Finally we come to ENGLAND, also contenders for the boredom award until Ben Youngs’ adroit chip set centre Manu Tuilagi up for the Sleeping Goalkeeper Award for Most Fluffed Up Opportunity. After Owen Farrell’s beautifully placed kick to the corner put Rob Kearney under pressure and forced an English lineout on the Irish five-metre line, England looked set for their best opportunity of the match; and when referee Jerome Garces awarded them a penalty advantage after Ireland infringed at the resulting maul, the chances looked even better. With the safety net of a penalty in place, Youngs poked his head up from the back of a ruck and began sniffing for even the remotest of opportunities; and spied an undefended space in the Irish in-goal area. With deft precision, he hoisted his kick over the Irish defence and directly into the gap, and as Tuilagi rushed onto it a scoring opportunity seemed certain. However, a bouncing rugby ball is a funny old thing, and presumably Tuilagi wasn’t expecting the ball’s first bounce to land as precisely into his chest as it did. He half-fumbled the catch, and as he reached up to take the ball as it began to fall down again he caught his arm on Keith Earls, making a last-ditch effort to stop him. He missed the catch, the ball went dead, and it was left to Farrell to slot the resulting penalty,and another one 5 minutes later, to secure England the win, and their place as the last undefeated team in the championship. How long that record will stand is another matter entirely…

Final Scores: Scotland 34-10 Italy
France 6-16 Wales
Ireland 6-12 England

The Six Nations Returns…

…and with it my weekly awards ceremony, as last year, for the weekend’s matches. To be honest, I haven’t had much time to think about these, so enthralled with the actual games as I was (over 150 points and 17 tries scored; absolutely fantastic stuff), but I think I’ll just dive straight in with the first match of the weekend.

First, we must turn to WALES, who take the dubious honour of the Year-Long Nostalgia Award for Most Dramatic Fall From Grace, reclaiming a title they won in both 2006 and 2009. Last year the Welsh, after a proud performance at the World Cup the previous awesome, had their ranks positively blooming with talent and good form. Behind the scrum, Rhys Priestland was still hanging on to some of his outstanding 2011 form, Jamie Roberts was in the kind of hard-running, defence-busting mode that won him three Lions caps in 2009, George North (alongside, to a lesser extent, Alex Cuthbert) was terrorising defences through a mixture of raw speed and power, and Jonathan Davies’ smooth running and handling in the centres was causing him to be mentioned in the same breath as New Zealand’s great Conrad Smith. The team seemed unstoppable, battering, bludgeoning and otherwise smashing all who came before them as they romped home to the Grand Slam.

And then the slide began. Since they took the title against the French 11 months ago, Wales have lost eight games on the trot, of which Saturday’s display against Ireland was only the most recent. After some pretty dire performances against the southern hemisphere sides during the summer, a few traces of hope were salvaged during the autumn from close losses to the likes of Australia. Some of the more optimistic Welsh fans thought that the Six Nations may signal a new return to form for their players; but an opening match against Ireland proved unforgiving. The Irish put 30 points past the Welsh in 50 minutes with only 3 in reply, and although Wales mounted a spirited comback it all proved too much, too late.

On, then, to IRELAND; more specifically to left winger Simon Zebo, who takes the Nyan Cat Award for Most YouTube-Worthy Moment from George North in this fixture last year. Whilst North’s little moment of hilarity was typical of a player whose size and strength is his greatest asset, Zebo’s piece of magic was a more mercurial bit of skill. After Dan Biggar (the Welsh flyhalf) decided, for reasons best known to himself, to aim a kick straight at the face of the onrushing Rory Best, the Irishman managed to gather the ball on the rebound and set off for the line. Realising he was being pushed for space, he elected to throw a beautiful long pass out to captain Jamie Heaslip. If Heaslip were able to flick the ball to Zebo, sprinting along his outside, there was a fair chance that the winger could make the corner; but the skipper was under pressure and could only manage a flick off his knees. The pass was poor; thrown at knee-height about a metre behind the onrushing winger, most moves would have ended there with a loose ball. But Zebo produced a truly magical piece of skill– as the ball seemed destined to disappear behind him, he turned and flicked at it deftly with his left heel, before gathering the ball one handed and continuing his run; all without breaking stride. He may not have got the try, but from his bit of sublimity prop Cian Healy did, and thus Zebo will be forever honoured in the hall of fame that is YouTube.

Onto Saturday’s second match and SCOTLAND, proud takers of the Holy Shit, How Did That Happen Award for Biggest Disparity Between Score and Performance. In all honesty, the Scots were never not going to struggle against their English opponents; Calcutta Cups are always ripe for upsets its true, and there’s nothing the Scots like better than being mistaken for the underdog, but they had not won at Twickenham for 30 years and the current team was probably not in the best shape to break that duck. A new side under a new coach (Scott Johnson), they had taken last place and the wooden spoon in last year’s Six Nations, even losing rather badly to Italy, they reached a nadir during the dire loss to Tonga that ended their autumn series and led old coach Andy Robinson to resign. By contrast, the Auld Enemy were ebullient after their emphatic win against New Zealand in November, and some smart money was being put on them to take the Six Nations title this year. And it showed during the game; for all Jim Telfer’s pre-match comments about the England side being ‘arrogant’, the young English side were clinical and efficient, winning twice as many breakdowns as the Scots and Owen Farrell kicking everything he could get his boots on. Nonetheless, the Scots put in a pretty damn good show when they could; new winger Sean Maitland opened the game’s scoring with a neatly taken try in the corner, and fullback Stuart Hogg not only set up that try with a dazzling 60 metre break, but eventually grabbed one of his own and was probably the best back on the pitch. Johnnie Beattie was sublime in the back row, and if it wasn’t for England’s clinical territory game then they would certainly have managed a scoreline far closer than the 20 points it ended up being. We’ve all played games like that; you think you’re playing well and putting up a good fight, scoring some points, and then look up at the scoreboard and think ‘how did that happen?’

As for ENGLAND, centre Billy Twelvetrees takes the Carlos Spencer Award for Most Impressive Debut Performance (and, incidentally, the Staff Sergeant Max Fightmaster Award for Best Name- dunno why, it’s just cool). England have in recent past been rather good at debuts (Freddie Burns last year enjoyed a sound beating of the world champions as his first cap), and much speculation was put forward before the game as to whether the young Gloucester man could fill the sizeable hole left by the injured Manu Tuilagi. As it turned out, he did so splendidly; despite a somewhat ignominious start to his international career (ie he dropped the first ball that came his way), he spent most of the match running superb lines that often threatened the Scottish centre pairing and kept the tempo of the match nice and fast. To cap a great first performance, he even picked up England’s third try, running a typically lovely angle to seemingly pop up from nowhere and slip straight through a gap in the defence. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing if he can make it a habit.

And now to Sunday’s match, where FRANCE take the When Did I Get In Last Night Award for Least Looking Like They Wanted To Be On The Pitch. France are always a tricky bunch to predict, and their last visit to Rome ended an embarrassing defeat that lead coach Marc Lievremont to dub them cowards; but they’d fared the best out of all the northern hemisphere sides in the awesome, beating Australia and Argentina convincingly, and Frederic Michalak, once the French equivalent to Jonny Wilkinson, was back on form and in the No. 10 shirt. To many, a trip to face the usually table-propping Italians was the perfect warmup before the tournament really hotted up, and it seems the French may have made the mistake of thinking the Azzurri easybeats. It quickly transpired that they were not; Italy’s talismanic captain Sergio Parisse grabbed an early try courtesy of fly half Luciano Orquera, who had a stunning game and lead for most of the first half before a try from Louis Picamoles and some good kicking from Michalak put the French in front. But at no point in the game did France ever look threatening; in the first 25 minutes Italy controlled nearly 75% of the game’s possession whilst France seemed content to wait for mistakes that the Italians simply never made. They seemed lazy, lethargic, even as the precious minutes towards the end of the game ticked away, and never matched Italy’s sheer commitment and drive at the breakdown. Even when they did get good ball, the Italian’s surprisingly impressive kicking game meant they rarely had the territory to do anything with it.

As for the ITALY themelves, they (and Luciano Orquera in particular) take the About Bloody Time Award for Finally Finding A Fly Half. Italy have always had strength in the pack thanks to such men as Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, but behind the scrum they have always lacked class. In particular, they have lacked a good kicker ever since Diego Dominguez retired, allowing teams to be ferocious in the breakdowns with only a minimal risk associated with penalties. Kris Burton and Orquera both tried and failed to ignite the Italian back division, growing in strength with the achievements of Tomasso Benvenuti and Andrea Masi, last year, but yesterday Orquera ran the show. He and Tomas Botes at scrum half kept the French pinned back with a long and effective kicking game, whilst Masi’s incisive running from full back and an energetic display from centre Luke Mclean meant the French were never able to establish any sort of rhythm. With their backs to the wall and their fingers not yet pulled out, the French were sufficiently nullified to allow the Italian forwards to establish dominance at the breakdown; and with Orquera’s place kicking proving as accurate as his punts from hand, the French were punished through both the boot and the tries from Parisse and Castrogiovanni. An outstanding defensive effort to keep the French out in the final 10 minutes and two lovely drop goals from Orquera and Burton sealed the deal on a fantastic display, and the Italians can proudly say for the next two years that the frequently championship-winning French haven’t beaten them in Rome since 2009.

Final Scores: Wales 22-30 Ireland
England 38-18 Scotland
Italy 23-18 France

Where do we come from?

In the sport of rugby at the moment (don’t worry, I won’t stay on this topic for too long I promise), there is rather a large debate going on- one that has been echoing around the game for at least a decade now, but that seems to be coming ever closer to the fore. This is the issue of player nationality, namely the modern trend for foreign players to start playing for sides other than those of their birth. The IRB’s rules currently state that one is eligible to play for a country having either lived there for the past three years or if you, either of your parents or any of your grandparents were born there (and so long as you haven’t played for another international side). This state of affairs that has allowed a myriad of foreigners, mainly South Africans (Mouritz Botha, Matt Stevens, Brad Barritt) and New Zealanders (Dylan Hartley, Thomas Waldrom, Riki Flutey), as well as a player all of whose family have played for Samoa (Manu Tuilagi), to play for England in recent years. In fact, Scotland recently played host to an almost comic state of affairs as both the SRU and the media counted down the days until electric Dutch wing Tim Visser, long hailed as the solution to the Scots’ try scoring problems, was eligible to play for Scotland on residency grounds.

These rules were put in place after the ‘Grannygate’ scandal during the early noughties. Kiwi coach Graham Henry, hailed as ‘The Great Redeemer’ by Welsh fans after turning their national side around and leading them to eleven successive victories, had ‘found’ a couple of New Zealanders (Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson) with Welsh grandparents to help bolster his side. However, it wasn’t long before a bit of investigative journalism found out that there was no Welsh connection whatsoever, and the whole thing had been a fabrication by Henry and his team. Both players were stopped playing for Wales, and amidst the furore the IRB brought in their new rules.  Sinkinson later qualified on residency and won six further caps for the Welsh. Howarth, having previously played for New Zealand, never played international rugby again.

It might seem odd, then, that this issue is still considered a scandal, despite the IRB having supposedly ‘sorted it out’. But it remains a hugely contentious issue, dividing those who think that Mouritz Botha’s thick South African accent should not be allowed in a white shirt and those who point out that he apparently considers himself English and has as much a right as anyone to compete for the shirt. This is not just an issue in rugby either- during the Olympics, there was a decent amount of criticism for the presence of ‘plastic Brits’ in the Great Britain squad (many of them sporting strong American accents), something that has been present since the days of hastily anglicised South African Zola Budd. In some ways athletics is even more dodgy, as athletes are permitted to change the country they represent (take Bernard Lagat, who originally represented his native Kenya before switching to the USA).

The problem is that nationality is not a simple black & white dividing line, especially in today’s multicultural, well-travelled world. Many people across the globe now hold a dual nationality and a pair of legal passports, and it would be churlish to suggest that they ‘belong’ any more to one country than another. Take Mo Farah, for example, one of Britain’s heroes after the games, and a British citizen- despite being born in, and having all his family come from, Somaliland (technically speaking this is an independent, semi-autonomous state, but is internationally only recognised as part of Somalia). And just as we Britons exalt the performance of ‘our man’, in his home country the locals are equally ecstatic about the performance of a man they consider Somali, whatever country’s colours he runs in.

The thing is, Mo Farah, to the British public at least, seems British. We are all used to our modern, multicultural society, especially in London, so his ethnic origin barely registers as ‘foreign’ any more, and he has developed a strong English accent since he first moved here aged 9. On the other hand, both of Shana Cox’s parents were born in Britain, but was raised in Long Island and has a notable American accent, leading many to dub her a ‘plastic Brit’ after she lead off the 4 x 400m women’s relay team for Great Britain. In fact, you would be surprised how important accent is to our perception of someone’s nationality, as it is the most obvious indicator of where a person’s development as a speaker and a person occurred.

A simultaneously both interesting and quite sad demonstration of this involves a pair of Scottish rappers I saw in the paper a few years ago (and whose names I have forgotten). When they first auditioned as rappers, they did so in their normal Scots accents- and were soundly laughed out of the water. Seriously, their interviewers could barely keep a straight face as they rejected them out of hand purely based on the sound of their voice. Their solution? To adopt American accents, not just for their music but for their entire life. They rapped in American, spoke in American, swore, drank, partied & had sex all in these fake accents. People they met often used to be amazed by the perfect Scottish accents these all-american music stars were able to impersonate. And it worked, allowing them to break onto the music scene and pursue their dreams as musicians, although it exacted quite a cost. At home in Scotland, one of them asked someone at the train station about the timetable. Initially unable to understand the slight hint of distaste he could hear in their homely Scots lilt, it was about a minute before he realised he had asked the question entirely in his fake accent.

(Interestingly, Scottish music stars The Proclaimers, who the rappers were unfavourably compared to in their initial interview, were once asked about the use of their home accents in their music as opposed to the more traditional American of the music industry, and were so annoyed at the assumption that they ‘should’ be singing in an accent that wasn’t theirs that they even made a song (‘Flatten all the Vowels’) about the incident.)

This story highlights perhaps the key issue when considering the debate of nationality- that what we perceive as where someone’s from will often not tell us the whole story. It is not as simple as ‘oh so-and-so is clearly an American, why are they running for Britain?’, because what someone ‘clearly is’ and what they actually are can often be very different. At the very first football international, England v Scotland, most of the Scottish team were selected on the basis of having Scottish-sounding names. We can’t just be judging people on what first meets the eye.

Six Nations wrapped up

OK, you can come out from under the sofa all you rugby-haters- this will be my last post about the great game for a while now, I promise, as I deliver my last set of awards to the sides in this year’s Six Nations, this time for their performances over the tournament as a whole. For me, this year’s has been a bit of an inconsistent one- some matches have been epic to watch, and there have been some really great moments, but then again a few games (the second half of Scotland-Ireland immediately springs to mind) which have bored me out of my skull. Still, as an Englishman it was nice to see Stuart Lancaster’s side play such great rugby- I can only hope that he gets a chance at the full-time job.

Now, onto the awards, beginning with SCOTLAND, who claimed both the wooden spoon (in a disappointing 5-game whitewash) and the Potential Does Not Equal Results Award for Biggest Discrepancy Between Squad Quality and Results. Scotland’s side contains some real gems of world rugby, and a few players in this tournament shone especially brightly. David Denton was a revelation at No.8, his barrelling runs and general go-forward belying his inexperience, and was well backed up in this regard by his giant lock, 22 year-old Richie Gray, whose powerful running and dominance of the lineout look set to make him a giant of the game over the next few years. John Barclay has always been a flanker of great quality, but even he was outshone by his counterpart Ross Rennie in this year’s tournament- he seemed to be absolutely everywhere, in every game he played, and was my pick for player of the tournament. Behind the pack, Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter were back to their formidable bests as they fought over the no.9 shirt, and Greig Laidlaw proved a great catalyst in attack for the Scots- his almost try on debut will go down as one of the best touchdowns I have ever seen. Max Evans and Sean Lamont were useful as ever in the threequarters, and young back 3 players Lee Jones and (especially) Stuart Hogg provided some deadly incisive running and finishing that the Scots have lacked in the past- and they have been backed up by a coach in Andy Robinson who not only has one of the highest win ratios of any Scotland coach ever (the third-highest, at the start of the tournament), but has done much to try and drive this Scottish side out of their perpetual doldrums. I could go on. And despite all that quality, all that skill, Scotland finished… last. Lost everything. Even to Italy. How the *&$% did that happen?

Speaking of ITALY, their award is up next: the …Oh Yes, I Knew There Was SOMETHING Different Award for Most Understated Arrival of a new coach. After last year’s World Cup, the Italian authorities finally decided to dispense with the services of Nick Mallett, the charismatic and successful South African who had lead the Italians to some (for them at least) impressive results, and helped bring them closer to the pace of modern world rugby. In his placed stepped Jacques Brunel, whose lofty aims at the start of the tournament centred around being title contenders within three years. Generally throughout a coach’s first term in office, he is the subject of much media attention, as was England’s caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster. Brunel on the other hand… well, he got a bit of hype on the first weekend- lots of camera cuts to him in down moments looking pensieve, or elated, or… well it’s kind of hard to tell through his superb moustache. But after that, he sort of faded out of the spotlight, lacking Mallett’s sheer charisma and beaming smile in front of the camera, , and only being referred to as an impassive face whenever his defence leaked a try. Even in the Italian’s win over Scotland (which so far gives Brunel a 20% win rate), I only saw one camera cut of him. Or at least, that’s the picture I got from the British media, anyway.

On to IRELAND, clear winners of the Oh, Just Make Your Bloody Minds Up! Award for Biggest Selection Headaches. Coach Declan Kidney was not presented with an easy selection task- not only was his captain, leading try scorer and national talisman Brian O’Driscoll injured for the entire tournament, which only compounded the age-old battle at fly-half between Jonny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara by offering the possibility of playing them together, but vice-captain Paul O’Connell’s health was similarly in doubt, Donnacha Ryan was pushing for either his or Donncha O’Callaghan’s place in the second row, Sean Cronin and Tom Court were challenging up front, and media pressure was building to replace powerful ball-carrier Sean O’Brien with a more natural openside flanker. Kidney stuck to his guns with O’Brien, but elsewhere he was forced into lots of compromise and chopping & changing. He tried out several centre combinations involving a mixture of Sexton, Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls, and later on had to cover for a bad drop in form for long-term centre Gordon D’Arcy. Up front, he dithered over whether to play Ryan or O’Callaghan alongside the strength and imperious form of O’Connell, before O’Connell’s injury finally forced his hand into playing the athletic but slightly weaker second rows alongside one another- a move that backfired spectacularly when, forced to bring Court on early against England, his pack were shunted all over the pitch and completely demolished in an imperious English scrummaging performance. Kidney tried his best, but this year selection-wise, it was not to be.

Now we come to FRANCE, who take the Er, Aren’t You Supposed To Improve With Experience? Award for Progressively Deteriorating Performances. The third team with a new coach this season, France began with a performance against a determined Italian side that made the other teams sit up and take notice- a clinical showing  that some predicted would put them at the top of the pile come the business end of proceedings. This was followed up by an equally clinical display against a spirited Scotland side displaying some newfound invention and incisiveness… and then things began to get patchy. Next up against Ireland, they were two tries down by half-time and only some ground-out penalties and a now-familiarly devastating run from monotonous try machine Wesley Fofana helped them salvage a draw. Their next display was more… well, French (ie fluid and free-flowing), but it was rather forced to be after a blistering first 20 by England, and even another Fofana try couldn’t prevent a two-point loss. Finally, they hit their nadir against Wales- admittedly a quality side who won the Grand Slam that day, but their win was by a single try. For the first time in the tournament, Fofana didn’t cross the line, and the French side as a whole seemed rather lethargic for huge chunks of the game. Tense? Certainly. Compelling? Yes, especially considering that there was a Grand Slam (and possibly a championship) at stake. But a good performance? Er, no. Bear in mind that these guys, with almost exactly the same squad, got to A FRIKKIN’ WORLD CUP FINAL.

To the top two, where the impressive ENGLAND took the See Johnson, Experimentation DOES Work Award for Most Impressive New Squad Performance. A lot was made at the start of this tournament about the youth and inexperience of the England side- there were 5 new caps on the first game of the tournament, a 1-cap captain and a second row pairing whose collective caps total didn’t go above 10 until the Ireland game. The biggest unknown was, of course, Owen Farrell- the son of coach and dual-codes legend Andy and a rising star in the Saracens squad, having won the Premiership with an impressive kicking performance last season. His first two games were at inside centre, allowing old head Charlie Hodgson (‘Chargedown Charlie’) to take the bulk of the pressure off him at fly-half- but prior to the game against World Cup semi-finalists and later Grand Slam winners Wales, Hodgson was injured and Farrell, aged just 20 and with two caps to his name, had to step into the most pressurised position on the pitch, whilst still maintaining kicking duties. He has famously said that the Wigan U-11’s immunised him to boos whilst kicking, but his performance under so much pressure was frankly amazing- combined with another trademark kicking technique (this time involving a glare out of the post that seems to dare them to move out of the way), there are many (me included), who find it hard not to draw parallels between this young, blonde, northern fly-half cum centre with a wicked boot, resolute temperament and a great control of the game and the legend that is Jonny Wilkinson. He was by far the only impressive newbie- Ben Morgan’s running quickly became a bedrock of the side from No.8, Chris Robshaw (captaining from openside) proved a sublime cheat at the rocks, the new centre pairing of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi look set to be a dominant set of bulldozers in the future, and new coach Stuart Lancaster has quickly made himself very popular with the rugby press- but of all of them, it is perhaps Farrell who best epitomises the meteoric rise of this young squad.

And finally, to winners of both the Grand Slam and the OMFG, That Is Never Going To Stop Being Epic Award for Single Best Moment Of The Tournament Award, WALES. Welsh fans would pick out several moments that I could here be referring to- perhaps any of Alex Cuthbert’s tries? No, although they were quite good. Then maybe some of Dan Lydiate’s barnstorming tackles? No, although he was by far the best defender of the tournament and the kind of guy who will make the life of selectors (and David Pocock, come to think of it), very difficult come next year’s Lions Tour. What about the moment of victory itself, the winning of the Grand Slam? Again, no- sure it was great for the Welsh fans, and it was wonderfully tense, but that moment is very much supporter-specific. No, the moment I refer to goes back to their very first game, against the Irish, and Wales’ other giant winger George North. Everyone who saw the moment knows exactly what I was talking about. It epitomised rugby- the speed of the step, the power of the hit, the grace of the offload, the sublimity of the move as a whole. For those who didn’t see it, and for those who, like me, just want to see it over and over again, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72CC9AaoNx0&feature=related

Enjoy 🙂