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

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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 🙂