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.

Six Nations, week II…

Another weekend over, another Monday spent calming down after a thrilling weekend’s rugby. Once again, awards await all six squads, and the final scores await at the bottom. Enjoy

We begin with ENGLAND, who take home the CBA Award for Only Playing Rugby When They Feel Like It and share the Can’t Quite Make The Second Team Award for Scrappiest Game with their opponents Italy. The match was played in Rome, a city not normally used to the temperature dipping below double figures, but this match started with much of the pitch thickly dusted with snow and the lines painted red so the players could see them. It may have been to do with the weather, the temperature, or simply the backdrop of conditions making it look stupid, but this lead to one of the scrappiest games of rugby I have ever seen. One is usually used, in international rugby at least, to passes being slick and professional, rucks being quick, efficient affairs, everything going to hand. What we’re not used to is passes being fumbled and hurled clumsily away, rucks merely being a collective term for large heaps of forwards in the general vicinity of the ball, and some 25% of passes bouncing. That’s not to say it was a bad match- on the contrary, it was exciting and good to watch, but the first half looked vaguely comical, the only 6 points coming from the boot of Owen Farrell.
Then ITALY scored. Twice. In as many minutes, gaining them the Oh Shit Where Did That Come From Award for Densest Period of Points Scoring. All 15 of Italy’s points came within a ten-minute period either side of half-time, and 12 of them came in the three minutes preceding it, through two tries seemingly against the run of play. Both were as scrappy as was to be expected from the game- first came Giovanbattista Venditti’s opportunistic dive on a loose kick that had bounced off three England players before bobbling towards the line (giving the young winger a try on his debut), and then Ben Foden, having collected a kick and run up, leaving his full-back position exposed, threw a pass straight to Tommaso Benvenuti (who had appeared from god-knows-where), allowing him to run 50 metres for Italy’s second. And here England picked up their other award- finally, for the first time under Stuart Lancaster, they began to play with some ambition, some go-forward, searching for a try which, thanks to a second charge down in as many weeks from Charlie Hodgson, they found not long after. From then on the only difference was the kicking- Farrell put on a superb display, slotting all 5 kicks that went his way, while Italy missed no less than 8 points from place kicks (and another 3 from a missed drop-goal) that could have won them the game. Once again, let down by the boot.

On to the next game, where FRANCE and IRELAND jointly take the UN Award for Fostering International Relations. Paris proved to be even colder than Rome, getting into double negative figures (hell, the Seine had frozen over), and like the Stadio Olimpico, the Stade de France does not have undersoil heating. As such, with just minutes to go before kickoff the officials decided that if the ground was left then it was likely to freeze up due to the stupidly late kickoff time, and the game was cancelled. Disappointment I’m sure for the many travelling Irish and indeed French supporters, who were undoubtedly forced, with a heavy heart, to wander into the streets of Paris, a city where beer can be found for half the price of the British Isles. Oh how the Irish must have suffered. ;-).

To the weekend’s final match, where SCOTLAND couldn’t quite muster up the <INSERT GENERIC SPORTING UNDERDOG FILM HERE> Award for Best Comeback, and instead had to make do with getting angry at the Oh, For ****’s Sake, Sir Award for Harshest Moment To Be Disallowed A Try. After suffering two yellow cards in quick succession, condemning them to play for almost 20 minutes with 14 men, the Scots conceded 3 quick tries- but when returned to their full complement, they began to play with an ambition that has been all too absent from the Scotland shirt in recent years (this may have had something to do with the introduction of Mike Blair at scrum-half, who for seemingly the first time got his side taking quick penalties and upping the game’s tempo). On the wings, Lee Jones and Stuart Hogg were playing like men inspired, and after some stupendous runs Scotland were finally rewarded with a fantastic move, swinging along the line to the right and finding Hogg unmarked on the wing. Unfortunately, Nick De Luca threw him a dreadful pass (which may or may not have had something to do with 14 stone of flying Welshman tackling him from behind), requiring Hogg to throw himself at the ball, flick it into the air, and, before it could touch the ground, sweep it up under his body with a free hand, before scrambling over. All beautiful, and a perfectly legal 5 points. Unfortunately, the movement was fast, and referee Romain Poite was on the other side of the field- all he saw was a dreadful pass and it fumbling in a pair of Scottish hands. You can understand why he considered it a knock-on, and the try was disallowed. The Scots got another try two minutes later from the field position they had gained, so I won’t say that the try could have won them the game- but if it had counted, and given Scotland that little extra momentum, then who knows…

Once again, we finish with WALES, who once again produced a clinical display to send Scotland down, and in doing so won the Getting the Pundits Scratching their Heads Award for Defying Conventional Rugby Thinking.  Nobody who watched that game will deny that the Scottish forwards were immense- David Denton continued where he left off last week by making some powerful runs, ably supported by his gigantic second row Richie Gray. His locking partner Jim Hamilton was making some bone-crunching hits, the front row were awesome in the rucks, and Ross Rennie… well, without disrespect to the superb performance of Dan Lydiate, he was my man of the match, seeming to constantly be in the process of carrying, stealing or tackling the ball at every possible opportunity. Conventional rugby thinking has always had it that ‘forwards win games, backs just decide by how much’, but here the Welsh forwards were overshadowed by their Scottish counterparts- and still ended up winning. How? Their lineout fell to pieces in the first half, they couldn’t compete with the Scottish skill at ball snaffling, and even big runners like Toby Faletau seemed absent. How could they possibly have won? Answer- because the forwards were passable, and the backs were inspired. Even with George ‘Jonah’ North off the pitch injured, they were superb, Jonathan Davies running great lines, Jamie Roberts smashing holes as only he knows how, Alex Cuthbert actually using his physical presence on the wing and Lee Halfpenny just being everywhere. The Scottish backs were far from bad*, but the Welsh were awesome.

The 6N takes a week off next week, so all you non rugby people can come out from under the sofa- next week will be something completely non-sporting, you have my word.

Final Scores:
Italy 15 : England 19
France : Ireland (Postponed)
Wales 27 : Scotland 13

*Well, I say they were far from bad- they were, but they still seemed incapable of using space out wide when it came to them and are still lacking that killer edge- when it comes, they will be something special