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

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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