The First Test

Right, I think I have just remembered to start breathing again after a far too tense end to the Lions’ first test in Brisbane, and so I think it’s time for one of my alternative awards ceremonies. With only one game to review, I’m not going to give each team a separate series of awards, but rather one each for the key positional groups (across both sides; so both Lions’ and Australian front rowers are both covered under the same category, for example). Some of these will be individual, some will refer to a specific team, and some will just refer to the way the game played out in that position. I will also make a few more general comments at the end, just because there are one or two things I could do with getting off my chest.

OK? Right, let’s get started.

We begin with the FRONT ROW, who collectively take the Reverse Parallels Award for Strangest Resemblance of A Previous Lions Series. The series in question is 1997’s South Africa Tour, the last time the Lions actually won a series, and against all the odds to boot. The South Africans were world champions, champing at the bit for the return of the Lions (who were usually easybeats for past Springbok sides) after a 17-year long apartheid-based drought. Many salivated at the prospect of the giant South African scrum, featuring the legendary 21 stone Os du Randt among others, going up against a comparatively tiny Lions front row, but through a mixture of technique and grit the Lions were able to match their opponents and nullify the South African forwards.

If any of that sounds familiar, then it’s because a lot of people were making bones about it prior to this series, but with the roles reversed. The Australian front row incumbents, Benn Robinson, Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore are noted proponents of the loose but are reckoned to be at scrum time, whereas the Lions’ front row for this test was made up of the tour’s three strongest surviving scrummagers; Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and the scrummaging legend that is Adam Jones. And, indeed, at the Lions’ first scrum, all seemed to be in order; much like on the ’97 tour, the dominant scrum instantly sent the weaker side scurrying backwards and won a penalty, but from then on both the ’13 Aussies and ’97 Lions set about nullifying their opponents’ weapon. Throughout the match Lions fans got excited every time a scrum came along, waiting for a dominant display that never really came. Instead, the Australians used every dirty trick in the book to keep the scrum battle at least ambiguous and that first dominant scrum proved to be the only one. Indeed, as the Lions brought on their substitutes the Australian’s tactical scrummaging began to swing things in their favour, and it’s worth noting that both of the Australian’s last two crucial penalty attempts came from scrums. Whatever you think of referee Chris Pollock’s display (and he gave us plenty to talk about) he should never have been able to give those penalties were the Lions as dominant as they were ‘meant’ to be.

Right, enough about the fat boys; we move on to the SECOND ROW, and Australian captain James Horwill in particular. Horwill takes the dubious honour of the Eyes In The Back Of His Head Award for Being Victim Of The Most Eagle-Eyed Official- but I’m not talking about Pollock. The official in question is whichever sharp-eyed bystander managed to notice, and subsequently refer to the citing officer, an incident where Horwill allegedly stamped on the face of Lions’ lock Alun Wyn Jones (the citing officer presumably thought it was an accident, as he has now been cleared and is free to play in the second test.). You can view the incident here, and I would challenge you to spot what they’re talking about before the camera goes to slo-mo; I watched the match in a bar with around 200 partisan Lions fans in it, and not one of them picked it up at the time. Neither did either of the people I showed that clip to until the replay, and given the lack of reaction from the crowd there weren’t many of them who noticed it either. Whilst the incident has caused (predictably enough) much furore online, I think real credit goes to the one person who actually managed to catch it in real time.

Next come the BACK ROW and another award for an Australian. This time it’s flanker Michael Hooper, who takes the Man Of Many Faces Award for Most Impersonations. Hooper is not a regular fixture in the Wallaby squad, but then again there’s not much he can do about that when the Wallabies’ normal openside is the great David Pocock, and it was a bitter blow to the Aussies when it was announced Pocock was injured and would not be able to take part in the series. The management and those Australian pundits whose opinions I have read refused to betray a smidgeon of concern, confidently predicting that Hooper would be able to fill Pocock’s sizeable shoes. So no pressure there then.

Hooper didn’t play badly, but the game and the refereeing were not friendly to ball-snafflers of Pocock’s mould, as Brian O’Driscoll learned to his cost early on. Indeed, the real star of both back rows was Aussie debutant Ben Mowen, who did a number on Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips and in the process almost single-handedly destabilised the Lions’ entire plan of attack. I will be interested to see how they react in the second test. However, the reason Hooper gets the award this week came around the 60-minute mark, when Australian centre Pat McCabe suffered a neck injury. Low on backs replacements, Robbie Deans took the unusual descision to bring on substitute flanker Liam Gill and give Hooper a run at outside centre. That Alex Cuthbert was immediately sent up the midfield to score a try for the Lions will be laid at Hooper’s feet by some, but given that the move was a Jonny Sexton special I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, he hardly looked out of place for the rest of the match.

Dammit, why do all my posts turn into two parters nowadays? Ah well, backs next time I guess.

The Scrum Problem

My apologies from deviating back to a personal favourite- I try too keep rugby out of these posts on the grounds that, in real life, it tends to make things kind of exclusive for people who aren’t into it, but I thought that I might be allowed one small deviation from this guideline. Today, I wish to talk about probably the single most contentious issue in the game today, one that divides, confuses and angers just about everyone involved in it: the scrum.

The scrum has always been a historic feature of the game of rugby- perhaps a historic callback to the old ‘scrums’ of viciously fighting players that formed the origins of the game of football, in the context of rugby it has proved contentious since the very first international ever played. England and Scotland were playing one another and, at the time, both played under different rules, so it was agreed that they would play under English rules for the first half and Scottish ones in the second. The game was around an hour old, tied at 0-0 (yeah it was a bit rubbish in those days), when the Scots won a scrum on the English five metre line. Rather than feed the ball into the scrum, the Scots instead began to push. The unsuspecting English forwards were caught off guard and forced back over their own line, whereupon the Scottish scrum-half grounded the ball. Whilst totally illegal under English rules, and thus generating a barrage of complaints, the Scots had one fair and square, starting off a bitter rivalry against ‘the Auld Enemy’ that continues to this day.

The scrum has developed a lot since those days (everyone now plays under the same rules for one thing), but perhaps the most important development for the modern game came in the 1990’s, specifically within the New Zealand team at the time. The All Blacks were a talented side, but their major disadvantage came up front, for whilst their front row players were skilled, Sean Fitzpatrick and company were not the biggest or heaviest front row around. Whilst not a disadvantage in open play, at scrum time it was feared that they would crumble under their opponent’s superior weight, so they had to find a way round that. In the end, they resorted to a bit of trickery. The structure adopted at scrum time by most sides of the age was to come together gently, get settled, then let the scrum half put the ball in and start to push, twist, and cheat in all the million ways discovered by front rowers over the years. However, what the Kiwis decided to do was hit the engagement hard, smashing their opponents back to get a good body position early. Then, the scrum half would feed the ball in almost immediately, allowing them to start pushing straight away and keep their opponents on the back foot, thus not allowing them time to get themselves settled and start to push back. It worked like a charm, aside from one small drawback. Everyone else started to copy them.

Even with trained wrestlers, there is only so much damage that sixteen men can do to one another when simply trying to push one another back. However, when not much below a tonne of meat slams as hard as it can into another tonne smashing back the other way, the forces involved in the impact is truly huge, and suddenly the human spine doesn’t seem all that strong. Not only that, but the slightest misalignment of the impact, and that amount of force means there is simply no way for it to all settle down nicely. Combine this fact with the immense muscle building and weight gain programs now demanded by the modern, professional game, and the attention to detail of modern coaches to get that extra edge in the impact, and we reach the inescapable and chaotic conclusion that is the modern scrum. In the last world cup in 2011, in matches between top-tier countries 50 scrums out of every 100 collapsed, and there were 31 resets and 41 free-kicks or penalties per 100. The stats were virtually the same during this year’s Six Nations, in which nearly half of all scrums resulted in the ball not coming back and creating one match (Ireland v Scotland) that spent over a quarter of its playing time spent scrummaging, resetting or collapsing.

This is despite the fact that the face of the game has changed very much against the set piece in the modern era. In the early 1970’s, analysis suggests that the average number of set-pieces (scrums and lineouts) in a match was nearly triple its current value (mid-thirties), whilst the number of rucks/mauls has gone up sixfold since then. Even since the game first turned pro in the mid-nineties, the number of set pieces has dropped by a third and the number of successful breakdowns tripled. The amount of time the ball spends in play has also risen hugely, and some are even arguing that the scrum as we know it is under threat. Indeed, in last year’s Six Nations the scrum was only the deciding factor in one game (England v Ireland), and as Paul Wallace astutely pointed out at the time that Ireland getting pushed about for the entire match was their reward for playing by the rules and not sending a front rower off ‘injured’.

Then there are the myriad of various intrigues and techniques that have lead to the scrum becoming the unstable affair it is today. Many argue that modern skintight shirts don’t allow players to grip properly, forcing them to either slip or grab hold of easier and possibly illegal positions that make the scrum decidedly wobbly. Others blame foot positioning, arguing that the modern way of setting up one’s feet, where the hooker demands the majority of space, forces the backs of his props to angle inwards and making the whole business more dangerous and less stable. Some blame poor refereeing for letting scrummagers get away with things that are now becoming dangerous, destabilising habits among front rowers, whilst others may counter this by considering the myriad of confusing signals a referee has to try and keep track off at scrum time- two offside lines, straightness of feed, hooker’s feet up early, incorrect back row binding, illegal front row binding, whether his line judge is signalling him and whether anyone’s just broken their neck. This is clearly a mighty confusing situation, and one I’d love to be able to start suggesting solutions for- but I think I’ll leave that until Saturday…

Episode 6: Return of the Nations

The Six Nations returned this weekend, bringing with it some superb running rugby, some great tries, and the opportunity to make the rubbish pun in the title of this post (sorry). As usual, scores at the bottom, and hit BBC iPlayer or Rugby Dump afterwards to watch the highlights if you didn’t see the games- they were awesome

First up are ITALY who take the Oh God, The Cliches Will Be Horrendous Award for Causing the Most Obvious Game of Two Halves (although weirdly the BBC half-time analysis during the other two games described both first halves as ‘a half of two halves). The first half of their match with Ireland was a great contest, with the Italian underdogs matching the Irishmen point for point (despite their traditional kicking issues) to go in at the break 10-10, courtesy of a lovely try from Sergio Parisse.
Then came the second half, during which the intriguing contest of the first appeared to go straight out of the window the moment Wayne Barnes blue his whistle. Italy secured little possession, and their forwards were powerless to stop the Irish backs trampling all over their Italian counterparts, making break after break and running in four tries, including two in the last two minutes as Italy appeared to just roll over and give up. Considering how well they have done in the last two weeks, and indeed in last year’s championship (including a very tense, narrow loss to the Irish), this was a reminder that they still have a way to go.

IRELAND themselves picked up a more individual award, namely the Sorry, Were We Watching The Same Game? Award for Most Baffling Man of the Match. Ireland had many standout players in their rout of the Italians- Tommy Bowe scored a brace on the wing, Keith Earls was running well in the centre and scored a try of his own, and Paul O’Connell was seemingly omnipresent in the lineout and breakdown. Two of my tips for MOTM were Stephen Ferris, who made at least two clean breaks and was tackling like the immovable object he usually is, and Rob Kearney, whose aggression whilst running would have made the bravest defender start to whimper. And Man of the Match went to… Jonny Sexton, the Irish flyhalf.
Now, Sexton is a good player, and the typical media view of him appears to be somewhere between Dan Carter and God, but he was not MOTM. From my point of view, he was playing quite well, but certainly nothing like his best and wasn’t even inspiring his attacking line like he had been in previous weeks. Man of the Match? Not a chance.

Onto the next game, in which ENGLAND picked up the consolation Are You Blind, Sir? Award for Unluckiest Refereeing Errors. Any rugby player will tell you that no referee, no matter how good and no matter what the match, can see everything, and there will be always things that they miss. To his credit, referee Steve Walsh (who himself won the Hugh Jackman Lookalike Award) did spot most things and overall refereed well, but several of those that he did miss or got wrong went severely against England. One example that sticks in mind occurred midway through the second half- with the English back line under pressure, flyhalf Owen Farrell (who had an absolute stormer) tried to simultaneously flick the ball onwards while avoiding the unwelcome attentions of Welsh centre Jonathan Davies. As he did so, Davies tackled him and knocked the ball on, sending it flying upfield. This should have been an English scrum, but with Walsh on the wrong side he allowed play to go on, from which Wales made 30 metres, won a penalty and got a lucky 3 points.
More controversial, however, and something that will prove a source of bitterness for years to come methinks, occurred right at the end. With England needing a converted try to draw level, they launched one last desperate attack, including one attempted crossfield kick that was inches away from a score. Finally, wing David Strettle launched himself at the line and, although swamped by three Welsh defenders, appeared at first glance to have touched it down over his head. Multiple video replays appeared to show the same thing, but the TMO was unsure as to whether Strettle had exerted sufficient ‘downward pressure’ and, as it says in the laws “if there is any doubt as to whether a try has been scored, a scrum must be awarded”. With time over, Walsh called no try, blew his whistle, and Wales were victorious. Was it a try? I think it was (as do all my English friends), but hey- it’s happened now. But Wales- you got lucky. Very lucky. (Although I must say, Strettle did himself no favours in the post-match press conference by making at least 2 laws mistakes that didn’t exactly help his case)

As for WALES, they can thank their win due to a mixture of a rather fluky try from Scott Williams (how he got the ball of the strongest man on the pitch I will never know), and their work in gaining the Leonidas, Eat Your Heart Out Award for Best Defence. Despite Manu Tuilagi sitting Rhys Priestland on his arse at every possible opportunity, and England’s defence being solid as a rock too, the Welsh defence was awesome. MOTM and Welsh captain Sam Warburton saved a sure-fire try with a one-leg tackle on Tuilagi, the most powerful runner out there, that stopped him dead in his tracks, and it was that desperation and urgency with their backs to the wall that kept the English away from a try, and prevented Strettle’s try from being in any doubt. Added to that was George North’s beautiful hit on Owen Farrell, just after Farrell’s equally beautiful chip through, and just after his impressive placement of the ball, considering he’d just been hit by a train of a tackle. You can see it in appalling quality here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edFYLea7n2Y, or with sound on the highlights video- gotta be one of the best of the tournament so far.

Finally we come to Sunday and SCOTLAND‘s clash with France, in which the Scots picked up the Oh Shit, You Are Actually Quite Good Progress Prize. Every rugby man worth his salt knows what Scotland’s problems have been in recent years- tries, or more importantly, a lack of them. In players Sean Lamont, Max Evans, Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair Scotland have always had some undoubtedly potent backs, but they never seem to be able to finish anything, or to provide that moment of magic that leads to a welcome 5-point boost. However, within 10 minutes of the starting whistle on Sunday, first starter Stuart Hogg changed that when, in tandem with some great vision by Greig Laidlaw, he scooted over in the corner to open the scoring for Scotland. From that moment on, Scotland were a changed team from the one we have seen in recent months- fast, open, free-flowing and exciting to watch. Hogg was constantly threatening from full-back (once running straight through what looked like a solid wall of French defenders), Laidlaw kept up the good work from fly-half, and the back row were their usual brilliant selves. When Lee Jones got try no. 2 (courtesy of what I’m sure was a bit of outrageous cheating from John Barclay), the result seemed immaterial, for Scotland were playing well at last. Although, to be honest, the win would have been nice.

And so we come to that game’s victors, FRANCE, winners of the Sporting Underdog Films Are Never Going to Happen In Real Life Award for Mercilessly Grinding Out wins. France were not overwhelming in their victory- they were not spectacular and, for a French side, surprisingly lacking in flair. While the Scots surprised and encouraged everyone watching, getting the Murrayfield crowd behind them and setting themselves up for what would have been a historic win, the French were comparatively calm and collected in their manner. While their rather shoddy defence let them down on occasions, in attack they were clinical finishers, getting one try courtesy of a killer line from Wesley Fofana, and another from a simple 2-on-1 from a clean line break. Lionel Beauxis’ drop goal to finish it off at the end epitomised their performance- nothing flashy, no tension, no dramatic try attempts as they struggled to break the Scottish line- just calm, efficient finishing and just performance ability. Some would say Scotland were the moral victors- but the French made sure that was not about to happen.

Final Scores:
Ireland 42-10 Italy
Wales 19-12 England
France 23-17 Scotland