The Final Round (Six Nations 2014)

Saturday, March 16th 2014: the day the sun finally shone on European rugby (both literally and metaphorically). With firm pitches underfoot and glorious playing conditions, the final round of the Six Nations ended with an eye-watering 20 tries being scored as European rugby finally showed what amazing stuff it can produce given the conditions for it. One of the Six Nations’ most entertaining days, it was a great day of rugby for all (well, at least for those not wearing blue), and now, to wrap it up, here comes my final round of awards.

I feel like I may be repeating myself a little here with ITALY‘s award, but I still think it’s warranted-the Wax Lynchpin Award for Being So Badly Let Down by Just One Thing. For many years, Italy have been the Six Nations whipping boys, salvaging plucky wins against struggling sides whenever they can but never really looking like serious contenders. The perennial story was always one of ‘give their pack a back line to finish things off, and maybe we’ll get a good rugby team out of them’. Nowadays however, they have genuinely turned a corner- Jacques Brunel has selected a back division with strike runners of genuine quality, Michele Campagnaro has undoubtedly been the find of the tournament, and Luciano Orquera & Tomasso Allen find themselves in the position of being Italy’s first international-quality fly halves since Diego Dominguez. All in all, they have been transformed into a side who genuinely look like they belong on the world stage, but unfortunately, this has yet to manifest itself where it really counts- on the scoreboard, and it all comes down to the breakdown. The ruck is undoubtedly the single most important battle ground in modern rugby- games are frequently won or lost around them, and when you are as comprehensively unable to compete at them as Italy proved on Sunday, there is simply nothing a team can do. You control no possession, have no ability to affect the pace of the game, can’t build a territorial advantage, and essentially have nothing to do but exhaust yourself against an attack who can pretty much pick & choose how they want to attack you. The result was demonstrated quite emphatically on Saturday, as England ran seven tries past the Italians whilst the Azzuri themselves were restricted to one piece of lucky opportunism. Brunel has done a wonderful job getting Italy this far- now he just needs to complete the puzzle.

There are many awards I could have given ENGLAND after their display: some thing about aerial ability would have allowed me to wax lyrical about the English locks again, or I could have made mention of the (entirely deserved) third MOTM award this tournament for Mike Brown who looks set to win man of the series. Then there was their frenetic speed of play, and a sign of things to come after George Ford’s adroit little cameo to finish off proceedings, but really there was only one candidate- the Demon On The Dancefloor Award for Best Try Celebration. Props rarely go into a match expecting to cross the whitewash, and on the rare occasions when they do they are generally just lucky enough to be on the end of a sweeping attacking moves. They do not expect, as happened to Mako Vunipola on Saturday, to ease themselves up from a ruck and suddenly find the ball delivered into their hands with the line at their mercy. As such, Vunipola didn’t exactly have much time to mentally prepare himself for his little moment of glory, and neither did he have hordes of team-mates ready to congratulate them (they all being at the base of aforementioned ruck). Unfortunately for him, Vunipola didn’t quite realise his isolation until very slightly after beginning his unplanned try celebration, resulting in a truly beautiful compromise between celebration and playing it cool; a little penguin hop into the air, arms flailing by his side, followed by a rather embarrassed stroll away from the line. One feels that video may come back to haunt him over the rest of his playing days.

For SCOTLAND, however, the embarrassment was collective and continuous, after what must rank pretty highly in the annals of worst international rugby performances ever (as a proud Scottish fan, it pains me to have to say those words). Being a Scotland fan at the moment is a pretty trying task, but all credit must go to those brave souls who made the trip down to Cardiff and were forced to watch their countrymen… well, let’s just leave it unsaid. They are deserved recipients of the Loyal To The End Award for Most Committed Fans. At around the hour mark, Scotland were 44-3 down, having conceded six tries already and offering next to zero resistance, but the Scottish fans were not to be defeated so easily: as the BBC camera panned around, it focused on a small core of them, standing proud in their tartan and smiles on their faces. From the depths of their lungs and at possibly the last moment one would think pride in the blue jersey were warranted,  ‘Flower Of Scotland’ rang around the stadium for all to hear- a genuinely heartwarming gesture, and a great advert for the spirit of the game.

However, the scoreline Scotland conceded was not just because they played badly; Stuart Hogg must also take some of the blame, after his dismissal (after an uncharacteristic and frankly horrendous shoulder to the face on Wales’ Dan Biggar), whilst WALES must also take due credit for capitalising quite as spectacularly as they did. In doing so, they won my It’s Not Quite Rugby League But… Award for Best Advert For Making Rugby A 14-Man Game. Without Hogg’s reliable presence at fullback, there was a hole ever-present in the Scottish line, and Wales took full advantage of their continuous overlap. 14 men is, apparently, not enough to cover the full width of a rugby pitch properly, and without the Scottish defence pressurising them in any way, the Welsh were able to secure fast, reliable ball and unleash their devastating strike runners to amazing effect. North, Roberts, Davies and Co. ran rampant, throwing it around like the most wild & exuberant of afternoon kickabouts, producing a game that felt to watch rather like an extended highlights reel or YouTube ‘best of’ compilation. Now all they have to do is prove themselves against a team who can play rugby.

After an offside call on Taulupe Faletau put paid to a wonderful Welsh move featuring enough cross kicks and clever offloads to make Will Genia need to change his underwear, Wales were in the running for the Rugby Needs A ‘Because It’s Awesome’ Rule Award for Most Cruelly Denied Try. Instead, however, the award goes to FRANCE; in what ended up as only the second game of the championship where they actually played well (for which all credit must go to Remi Tales winning his first test start), they dogged Ireland throughout and put two tries past an Irish defence that has otherwise been tight as a drum throughout. And, at the death, it looked like they’d stolen it from right under their noses- pressurising the Irish line in the 78th minute at just two points down, some good phase play sucked defenders in in classic fashion before a wicked move swept the ball right and found Damien Chouly unmarked on the right to scoot over. To a Frenchman (and indeed any Englishmen watching- a French win and the championship was English), it was the stuff of schoolboy tales and fairytales, and there wasn’t a man or woman in the Stade de France not weeping tears of elation or heartbreak- except, of course, referee Steve Walsh, who immediately called for the TMO. Video analysis revealed that the crucial pass delivered to Chouly had gone forward, leaving the Irish ahead and worthy champions. Even if they did make a meal of it and lose the resulting scrum.

IRELAND making a meal of their victory was something of a running theme during their match on Saturday; after four rounds of calm consistency, it did have to be in the title decider that they decided it was high time to earn the Stress-Related Aneurysm Award for Unnecessary Tension. Much of this came thanks to the French deciding to show up and play some rugby for a change, but the fact that the Irish appeared to choke on the big occasion and virtually stopped playing for the last 20 minutes didn’t help. Neither did Jonny Sexton. The Irish flyhalf is, at least on paper, the best in the northern hemisphere, and whilst he’s not quite Leigh Halfpenny his boot is nonetheless a reliable source of points for his team. Not so this time round- at least 3 kicks that a club kicker would have regarded as sitters went sailing wide, keeping France far too close for comfort and Irish nails ground down to the bone. My own personal theory for why it went so close, however, concerns a certain Brian O’Driscoll- in his last ever international, he clearly wanted to go out on a big one (heaven knows he deserved to), so why not make it one the of the tensest and most dramatic games of his career? I mean it’s not like it’s the winning match of his final, and victorious, Six Nations anyway or something.

OK, I’ll admit the theory falls down a bit there.

Advertisements

Isn’t legalised violence wonderful?

OK, back I am after unscheduled break, and since I have some time, I thought I would try to spread the word of something very close to my heart- the sport of rugby.

In Europe (or Britain, anyway), rugby is subject to a lot of misconceptions due to lack of knowledge- across the rest of the world, Australasia and South Africa excepted, it is hardly known. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, rugby is an ancestor of American Football, and shares several of the same broad features- big meaty players, an oval-shaped ball (although rounder than an American football to make it easier to pass and kick), physicality and the idea of touching the ball down in the end-area. However, below the surface, the similarities end. For one thing, rugby players do not wear full body armour, and for another they do not run around for 3 seconds at a time interrupted by a 2 minute break. I would try and explain the rules differences, but rugby is recognised as having some of the most complicated laws (when gone into in detail) of any major sport. A few basic rules include- there are two groups of players, big, strong forwards who win possession and be physical, and light, fast backs who score most of the points. Points are scored either by touching the ball down over the end line for 5 points (not just by running over it or throwing it down), or kicking the ball through the posts at either end- this can either be done either after a try (touchdown) has been scored (worth an extra two points), when a penalty is awarded (3 points), or from a drop kick in general play (also 3 points). You can only pass backwards & sideways (but can kick or run forwards in open play), you can only tackle a player with the ball, and once a player has been tackled to the ground the forwards (or whoever happens to be nearby), all pile in to try and push each other off the ball in what’s called a ruck, in order to win possession. If the ball is ‘knocked on’ (spilled forwards), a scrum is formed (both sets of forwards pushing against each other to win the ball), and if it is kicked out of the field on either side, a lineout is formed (the ball is thrown in and both sets of forwards jump and lift one another in order to try and catch it).
Considering I probably could have summarised football in a sentence, this gives you some idea of just how complicated the game can get. If you want to learn more, I suggest you try to watch some- the Six Nations tournament is starting in February and will be on TV, while one of the American networks (I think it may be NBC) has recently started broadcasting rugby 7’s (7 players on each side rather than 15, and only 7 minutes each way rather than 40- this leads to very fast, high-scoring games).
I should probably also take this point to clear up a couple of misconceptions about the game. 1) Rugby is not a ‘posh man’s sport’. Yes, it is named after an English public school and yes, most of the current England squad will have got sport scholarships at private schools, but rugby is an inclusive game, and anyone can join without fear of class boundaries- I have been in a squad where one guy with a dad earning upward of 100 grand  has been struggling for his place while our first choice centre’s dad has been struggling for work. 2) You are not guaranteed to break eery bone in your body. I have played rugby for numerous years now and have yet to receive a serious injury, and while it is true the injury toll in rugby is far greater than in football, it is far less than sports like American Football, and the rugby community is very good at looking after its members.
However, I didn’t post this just to be a laws description or a whinge against those who don’t understand the game, because rugby is so much more than a complicated set of rules. To my mind, there are 4 reasons why rugby is the best game on the planet. One is that it is a game for everyone, regardless of shape, size or skills. The big chunky ones who may not be the most intelligent or skilful but like to push each other around can go up front in the forwards (probably the front row, who are an entity unto themselves), the big tall ones can be really good in the lineout, the fast ones can go on the wing, the skilful and aware ones at flyhalf (the rugby equivalent of a quarterback), and the tiny, annoying little gob*****s who like to annoy the referee are born scrum-halves. Two is that rugby can, at its best, be superlatively spectacular and beautiful in a myriad of different forms. This: http://www.rugbydump.com/2011/12/2271/biarritz-score-a-sensational-team-try-against-montpellier, is just a teamwork spectacular showing a ‘backs try’, but just as beautiful to a rugby aficionado could be a 60-metre maul (like a loose scrum), pushed all the way up the pitch. And then you’ve got this which, well… it was the world cup final, England v Australia (the old rivals), England had never won the world cup before, it was 17-17 well into extra time, there were less than 30 seconds left and- this:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related. It was a hell of a lot better than the video and commentary makes it look.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, rugby is a social sport. It’s a friendly game, and getting drunk in the bar with your opposite number is a celebrated post-match ritual, even if he’s sporting a broken nose you gave him in the match earlier. On the pitch, you may be worst of enemies- on it, everyone has a laugh. Rugby fans are allowed to drink at matches, unlike football fans, because the authorities can trust them to basically behave. Rugby abhors violent play, and abuse of the referee is especially frowned upon. It is a game founded on trust and friendliness, on camaraderie, on team spirit, to an extent that no other sport can match, and it is a thing more beautiful than even the greatest of tries.
And fourth (watch all the replays of these) and finally there is… well this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related
and this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKHtcIdD4M&feature=related
and this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPMZrPjW5cs
… and also this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wq_PL-GDTI&feature=related
Yeah…