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.

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Nations: 6. Round: 5. Twenty: FOURteen

It’s back! For some reason, this particular two week-long gap between Six Nations fixtures seemed an especially long one, and I was positively salivating at the prospect of a weekend’s rugby when Friday rolled around. So, without further ado, here are the awards.

Poor, poor ITALY. For so many years the whipping boys of the championship, condemned to scrapping for the wooden spoon in their desperate search for a weapon beyond a strong scrummage- and now, whilst playing some genuinely great, fluid rugby, a true professional outfit, they are takers only of the Are You Sure You’re Adding That Up Right? Award for Most Deceptive Scoreline. A casual glance at the scoreline of their game against Ireland, and indeed of many a slightly lazily written match report, would tell you the Italians were soundly thrashed on Saturday, and to be fair the Irish played very well- they were dominant at the breakdown, controlling the vast majority of the game’s possession and executing a number of excellent attacking moves that made them well worth each of their eventual six tries. But, rucking aside, the Italians scarcely put a foot wrong- despite their lack of possession forcing them to make an exhausting 208 tackles, their defence was solid as a rock for most of the game. When, during the first half, they were able to maintain some degree of parity with regards to possession, Ireland’s advantage on the scoreboard remained very slim, and they made the most of what opportunities they got- continually making probing runs and playing at a frenetic pace, their one try (courtesy of winger Leonardo Sarto) coming from a great piece of opportunism and an excellent solo run. One day, Italy will be a force to be reckoned with in this tournament. One day.

However, IRELAND‘s game on Saturday was only ever going to belong to one man: Brian O’Driscoll, who wins everyone’s In BOD We Trust Award for Outstanding Contribution to Rugby/Best Send-off. O’Driscoll has dominated Northern Hemisphere rugby for over a decade, and for most of his career has been the undisputed best outside centre in the world. Barring the World Cup, he has won just about every trophy going as a player, has captained his country through some of their most successful seasons in living memory and, as of Saturday, is the most-capped international player ever (current tally stands at 140). But to think of him merely in terms of numbers belies his true genius: blessed with a superb rugby brain and the silkiest of skills with the ball in hand, he can also tackle and scrap with the best of them and is one of the few players ever to play world rugby with no clear weaknesses or flaws as a player. Season after season, even has he has aged, he never ceases to confound defences and delight crowds with his imaginative and immaculately executed moments of pure rugby genius. His display on Saturday, his last ever home match for Ireland, was a typically sublime one, hard-hitting tackling combined with a dominant, controlling attacking display that directly made two tries and played the Italian back line like an instrument: one that would have deserved the eventual Man Of The Match Award had his entire damn career not merited it a hundred times over. As he fought back tears in the post-match interview, the crowd clapping and cheering in the final act of a wonderful farewell, one realised just how special he is as both a man and player, and just how badly he will be missed when gone.

Whilst the poignance (and, for that matter, result) of the Ireland game was heavily forecast, few would have expected to get such an entertaining a showing as they did from Saturday’s other match (well, half of it at least), SCOTLAND‘s clash against France. The two sides have both had troubled tournaments thus far, Scotland struggling to find their cutting edge and France simply failing to execute theirs, but in spite of the predictably atrocious Murrayfield pitch and a howling wind, Scotland were able to win my Who Are You And What Did You Do With My Team? Award for Least Characteristic Play. Scotland have been characterised for much of this tournament by slow and frankly unadventurous play that has rarely seemed to threaten an opponent’s tryline, but on Saturday they were able to produce one try (through Stuart Hogg) borne of uncharacteristic ambition through a well executed chip & chase, and another through a sublime bit of interplay, straight off the training paddock, that must have put a smile on Scott Johnson’s face as Tommy Seymour raced over. It’s a shame the entertainment didn’t have the grace to extend as far as the second half, but we can’t have everything.

Many pundits spent their post-match analysis asking exactly how Scotland, for all their first-half heroics, still managed to end up losing to a decidedly poor FRANCE side, but to my mind the answer is simple, and it earned them the Picking Quite A Moment Award for Best Timed Try. Early in the second half, France were in trouble; 14-9 down and struggling to create anything, Scotland were threatening their tryline with  a sweeping cross-field attack. With an overlap out wide, Scotland elected to throw a long pass that should have given their outside men at least a 3-on-2 and a probable try to finish France off. As it turned out, big mistake- that few seconds of the ball’s flight time was all Yoann Huget needed to latch onto the pass, outpace the Scottish defence and dive under the posts for the only try France ever looked like getting. It proved crucial, putting France back into contention and, with the Scottish attack starting to falter, keeping them within range in time for a final penalty to seal a French win. The Scottish fans may feel deservedly pissed off that they didn’t win that one.

However, all these matches were only ever going to be a warm-up for the veritable clash of titans that was lined up for Sunday: WALES vs. England. Last year, Wales denied a Grand Slam and stole a championship from under England’s noses- the year before that, some highly contentious moments in a desperately tight game gave Wales a victory that eventually landed them the Slam. England had a point to prove, reigning champs Wales had a reputation to uphold. In the end, however, 14 of Wales men hardly needed to have turned up, as Leigh Halfpenny proved himself deserved winner of the One Man Army Award for Biggest Individual Contribution. With Halfpenny’s metronomic boot, him contributing all of Wales’ points was hardly unsurprising, if not exactly desirable from a Welsh perspective, and given his prodigious skillset in other parts of the game his being their best player is also far from unheard of. However, when up against Mike Brown in the form of his life, to make even he seem merely good by comparison speaks volumes about the sheer quality of Halfpenny’s performance in an otherwise uninspired Welsh team- not a kick was missed, not a catch unfielded, not a gap left unprobed by boot or darting run in a virtually flawless performance marred only by how infrequently he was given the ball. However, perhaps in defence he was most significant- as Wales’ last line of defence he presented a brick wall to England’s (far too frequent) line breaks, frustrating them throughout the second half, and ended up dislocating his shoulder in the line of duty whilst stopping what would otherwise have been a certain try from England’s Luther Burrell- a man five inches taller and nearly 4 stone heavier than he. That injury has, unfortunately, ended his season, but his fine tackle in doing so saved many a Welsh blush and his overall performance effectively masked the countless other errors of his compatriots. Wales, and indeed the rugby world, can only hope his recovery is swift.

Last time out ENGLAND kept every one of their fans on the edge of their seat in a desperately tense encounter- this week it was merely the rugby historians among us who shifted nervously in our seats as England won the Don’t Mention The War Award for Coming Worryingly Close to Repeating History. Of all of Wales’ many victories over their Saxon neighbours, perhaps none have been more celebrated in recent years as their classic victory in 1999. England had been the tournament powerhouse, on course for a Grand Slam coming into their final game against the Welsh, and after two first-half tries they would appear to have had the game in hand- had Neil Jenkins’ metronomic boot kept the Welsh well within reach. Despite numerous line breaks, England had frequently struggled to turn their dominance into meaningful control of the scoreboard- and if we substitute the name ‘Leigh Halfpenny’ for ‘Neil Jenkins’ over the last two sentences, we have a pretty accurate description of Sunday’s match as well. In ’99, the half time gap was just 7 points- here it was but 5, and even though Wales could not, in the end, find similar heroics to win the game this year as on that famous day 15 years ago, it was enough to make me rather unnerved over my half-time pint. And when England, in the last few minutes of the game, elected to kick for the corner rather than take the easy three points, it raised a wry smile- at least this time round, the gap was more than 6 points.

SN Episode III: Revenge of the Six

Aaaaannd as the Six Nations returns once again to our screens, so awards return to my front page. Whilst the lowest-scoring of the three rounds of the competition thus far (a fact that pisses me off greatly), there was much good rugby played and I very much enjoyed seeing my beloved sport enjoying such quality time in the spotlight.

However, FRANCE didn’t exactly get things off to a great start on Friday night, their lacklustre display meriting only the Pfff, C’est La Vie Award (my apologies for the casual racism implicit in that phrase) for Not Giving A Toss. French rugby has always been a topsy-turvy affair, with ‘which France will turn up?’ being one of the most commonly posed lazy journalist questions in the game. Many a time very good French sides have let themselves down through overambition or (more frequently) ill-discipline, but seldom has such apathy as they displayed on Friday stricken the side. So far this tournament France have fed off their opponent’s mistakes, and despite a strong defensive line Wales gave France enough opportunities to do so again- but being able to capitalise on them would have required the French to a) not drop the ball every four and a half seconds and b) actually seem to care about crossing the whitewash. Jules Plisson seemed content to boot the ball back into Welsh hands every time it came his way, Fofana and Bastareaud in the centres were both all out of ideas, and only Louis Picamoles and Hugo Bonneval seemed to have any  ambition or go-forward. When Picamoles was yellow carded around the hour mark, with his side two tries down, it was the final nail in France’s coffin.

However, WALES‘ victory on Friday can hardly be considered as entirely France’s fault; the Welsh players acquitted themselves well enough to create and take advantage of their opportunities (when they themselves could be persuaded to take a break from the night’s apparent main event of dropping the ball at every opportunity), but a more significant contribution is what gains Wales their award: the 75,000 Man Overlap Award for Biggest Contribution from the 16th Man. The Welsh crowd at the Millennium stadium are rarely described as a quiet, conservative bunch- the venue is never at anything but capacity and the hordes of wild Welsh fans who fill it are some of the most vocal and passionate rugby has to offer. Even so, the atmosphere they created on Friday was exceptional even by their usual standards- even watching on TV, the way ‘Bread Of Heaven’ rang around the ground was enough to transport me 200 miles to the gates of the stadium itself, and one almost felt the roar generated at every Welsh half-chance was enough to blow over any unwary French defender. Before the match began, I would have put France as favourites- but when the crowd’s rendition of ‘Land Of My Fathers’ sent shivers down my spine, one felt that something was on.

A mention should, I feel, also be given to Alain Rolland, for whom the Wales-France game represented the end of his refereeing career. Rolland has frequently courted controversy during his time behind the whistle, being accused of favouritism to his mother’s country of France and famously dashing Wales’ hopes at the 2011 World Cup after Sam Warburton’s tip tackle. However, despite all this, there are few who would deny that he has always been an uncompromising referee, never afraid to make the big call or stand up for his way of doing things- a man who does not take s**t, always a good quality in a referee. His decision in this game to send off two props, not because he could pinpoint anything they had done wrong but more because they were ruining any chance the scrum had of behaving itself, was a typically ballsy yet wise decision, and one for which I felt he received insufficient praise. The man has refereed a World Cup final and been a huge presence within the rugby landscape for season after season- if a great player deserves a send-off at the end of his career then so too, I feel, does Mr. Rolland.

Anyway, back to the games. After a rather dull match on Friday, ITALY got us back on track with a more vibrant, exciting performance on Saturday, and one that won them the Moral Victories Get Old After A While Award for Least Deserved Losing Streak. Italy have played some great rugby thus far this tournament, and some of the most exciting too: from memory, they are joint second on number of tries scored and have been the side most willing to run the ball and do something interesting with it. Despite being officially bottom of the Six Nations table they are most certainly not the guaranteed easybeats of yesteryear- all of which makes their lack of victories to show for it all the more maddening. They have ran Wales too close for comfort, kept France under constant pressure throughout the first half of their match, and it took a last gasp drop goal and two excellent tries for Scotland to overcome a half-time deficit and snatch a win from under the noses of the Azzurri- a matchup that, after Scotland’s lacklustre performances so far this tournament, the Italians would have been justified in targeting for a win. They now face table-topping Ireland and England in consecutive weeks, and although a win against either would be a reasonably long shot it would take a braver man than I to bet against them. I’d like them to get one, at least, even as an England fan.

SCOTLAND played their part too in the entertainment, finally breaking a try drought that has lasted more matches than I care to count and in the process winning the Thumbs Up The Arse* Award for Most Entertaining Lineouts. In modern rugby, the lineout is probably the single biggest different between the game at elite and lower levels: whilst the latter tends to stick to the tried and tested unmoving two-pod structure, top-level lineouts are now intricate affairs involving lots of flashy loops, dummies and precision throwing. For rugby nerds like me, they are great to watch, but rarely have they proved quite so entertaining as Scotland’s on Saturday. Even at international level, there are usually a few simple calls reserved for when a team is under the cosh and wishes to be reliable rather than incisive, but in keeping with the carefree spirit of the game the Scots seemed to have left these at home. At every lineout players were flying this way and that, numbers constantly chopping and changing as they kept attempting to outthink rather than out-jump the Italians. And it worked; a team that has struggled at the lineout so far this tournament today found their groove, winning all of their own ball and even nicking the first two of the Italians’. As a Scottish fan, it was great to watch- more of that please.

*This is, by the way, exactly what I got told when I learnt to lift in lineouts

If Italy-Scotland provided the fast-paced entertainment for the weekend, then IRELAND‘s trip to Fortress Twickenham provided the thrills and drama. Whilst other matches were characterised by errors and the occasional flash of brilliance, here we had possibly the two in-form sides of the championship thus far playing close to their best in a desperately hard-fought, uncompromising encounter, two titanic defensive performances going up against attacking displays that would probably have yielded at least three tries apiece against any other side. In fact, it’s a miracle such a high-stakes game didn’t attract more foul play, but cheating is an integral part of the game of rugby and a vital skill in any successful forward. With this in mind, I congratulate Ireland’s Paul O’Connell on the award he won for his team- the Trained By McCaw Award for Most Well-Executed Bit Of Cheating. With his side pressuring the English 22, the smallest of gaps were beginning to appear in England’s defensive line- not enough for a break, but enough to show that only the smallest bit of leverage need be applied to create holes. And O’Connell provided exactly that leverage- standing up following a ruck, just a little bit of lazy walking was all that was required to block Joe Launchbury as he attempted to get to the next one. Nothing definite, nothing even that would stand up as evidence to the TMO, but it was enough to just make him a second or two late to defend the ruck- which, it transpired, was enough to leave a gap open just a few seconds longer. It was all Ireland needed- a simple draw-and-give, the kind of thing to bring tears of joy to the eyes of any age group coach, put Rob Kearney away for Ireland’s first try, giving them a 7 point cushion. Even if, in the end, it proved not quite enough.

When it comes to ENGLAND‘s performance, I’m spoilt for choice for potential award candidates. Joe Launchbury’s ability to be absolutely everywhere on the pitch at once would surely have won him a Man Of The Match award in any team that didn’t include Mike Brown playing like a man possessed, whilst (on a less positive note) Owen Farrell and Jonny May were close to picking up something related to Luckiest Avoidance Of A Card (after a truly dreadful ‘tackle’ on Dave Kearney in the first half) and Worst Butchering Of A Try (not, admittedly, entirely May’s fault- that he had defenders on him at all is thanks to England’s apparent inability to play with their heads up) respectively. However, I’ve eventually gone with the Donation To The NHS Required Award for Causing Heart Attacks Among Rugby Fans, after making me sit through an experience that I later described on Facebook as being ‘more tense than having a shotgun shoved in my mouth for 80 minutes’. Stuart Lancaster had said before the game that he anticipated a margin of only 3 or 4 points, and only once during the match did the difference exceed this. This left fans on both sides biting nails down to the bone throughout, neither side able to either establish a safe lead or be so far out of touch that victory wasn’t a tantalisingly dangled carrot. If anything, being on the reverse end of the scoreline was a worse experience to me; with England 4 points down prior to Danny Care’s try (the result of a characteristically superb piece of running by Brown), I was worried but not attempting to eat my own hands. For the scoreless 15 or so minutes that followed it… well let’s just say I’m not sure I breathed whilst there was a 7 on the clock.

It’s Only A Game

When reading Brian Moore’s autobiography, Beware Of The Dog (which I can thoroughly recommend to rugby fans everywhere, particularly those who hate him) recently, one phrase stuck out at me. In reference to the period in the late 80s & early 90s when South African sides were excluded from the sporting world in protest against apartheid, Moore writes that “I have never subscribed to boycotting sporting events unless they are accompanied by a total breaking of trade and diplomatic relations. I do not accept that sport should pay the political price when governments and business do not do likewise. Sport is an easy target, one that can be, and is, bullied by those who will not take similarly difficult decisions”. That single statement perfectly distils much of the ‘official’ attitude to sport; whilst clearly a significant enough part of our modern world to be considered a part of the political sphere, it isn’t really held to have much value over the purely symbolic, with the economy and wars taking significant precedence. Indeed, this attitude of sport being some sort of add-on, rather than the central constituent of one’s way of life, pervades all classes and levels of modern society; despite the way that the football clubs of our nation continue to be our biggest-selling global brand and are such prominent figures of our social world, sporting news is relegated to its own private little section of the paper and TV news, and during the Olympics of last summer there were even columnists who wrote articles of the opinion that the news’ greatly increased coverage of sport during this period was distracting the focus of these broadcasts away from ‘real news’*.

This attitude could potentially be considered an offshoot of our schooldays; schoolteachers, particularly at the lower ages, hate their charges becoming overly competitive, as taking it all too seriously can easily lead to jealousies, resentments and arrogance that just make the lot of a teacher even more of a social minefield than it already is. That’s not to say they think all competition is a bad thing, merely that it all works much better for everyone if it’s not blown out of all proportion and made to be the be-all and end-all of the school hierarchy. Since this competitiveness is, of course, most prominently demonstrated on the sporting field and, despite many a teacher’s efforts to the contrary, the practice of class’ social structure dividing along lines very similar to sporting (or, in many cases simply footballing) ability is common in schools across the country, among schoolchildren of all ages. In an effort to at least try and prevent this, many children are encouraged from a young age not to take the results of various sporting contests too seriously; hence the origin of that age-old phrase ‘it’s only a game’.

But is it really ‘just a game’? Is sport to be so easily dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow, just a game for kids to mess around with and to make us laugh, before we get on with the business of the ‘real world’? It’s true that sport has all manner of reasons for not totally dominating our way of life; it doesn’t greatly affect how many people are in work or the productive output of the human race in general, it doesn’t help save the environment or make any real change on our world’s political landscape, and its contribution to human technological advancement isn’t quite as significant as that of, say, NASA. However, this doesn’t mean that sport is merely some meaningless sideshow, unimportant in the grand scheme of things without lasting consequences; indeed, arguably, sport does just as much for mankind as a whole than everything your chosen newspaper will publish this year.

Consider the story of the famous Christmas football matches that took place in No Man’s Land in the winter of 1915 on the Western front, allowing Entente and Alliance forces to come into contact with one another and realise that these young men on the other side of the barbed wire were not so very different from themselves; one of the first times that the jingoistic view of the enemy as some kind of unimaginable monster was challenged and thus helping to pave the way for modern pacifism. Consider the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in which the new South African president Nelson Mandela was able to unite members of all ethnicities within ‘the Rainbow Nation’ behind a traditionally Afrikaner sport and to start making slow inroads into the decades of institutionalised racism that had previously blighted the country.  Consider how, every Saturday, men and women across the globe give up a few hours of their day to do something that helps them get a little bit healthier, gets them out and about and interacting with other people, and in many cases provides a regular reminder of the value of teamwork and generally getting along with one another.

Admittedly, these sentiments are not universally practiced within the sporting world, but in the majority of cases they are; and in that respect sport may be taking us closer to utopia than any number of technological achievements. Sport demonstrates to us the value of commitment, teamwork, dedication and the need to make sacrifices in the pursuit of greatness, not to mention the astounding ability sport has to bring people from all walks of life together and show them off at their best, in the process serving social equality and understanding better than any political lobbying. A post like this has little in the way of a natural conclusion, but it does have a point; the idea that sport is ‘only a game’ ignores that it, and what it stands for, can be so much more than that, and that to ignore its significance, to dismiss it as something merely symbolic, is indicative of an attitude that may have somewhat lost sight of what its ultimate goal is.

Basically, sport is a pretty awesome thing and deserves a little more respect in places.

*The ‘real news’ in question actually referred to the situation in Syria, something I’ve already done a post and personally consider something definitely not worth being shoved to one side for anything; but it was nonetheless reported with all appropriate seriousness and the main complaint of the writer in question appeared to be that newsreaders were being too happy by announcing medals immediately after reporting on it. And anyway, it weakens my point to mention that.

Rugby Videogaming for Dummies

In my last post, I highlighted some of the problems facing the developers of rugby videogames, and the flaws in the current best efforts the industry has to offer. However, I personally reckon that the problems presented in attempting to replicate one of the most complex games on earth can be overcome; but that it may require a quite drastic change in the way these games are designed.

(For the purposes of this, I will stick simply to gameplay features; stuff like team licensing, graphics and the number of game modes available are all important quality factors in a rugby game, but can hardly be accounted for by any development team)

Probably the most similar sport to rugby currently in existence (excluding league… or union depending on your perspective) is American Football, which has the good fortune of having its own massive gaming franchise built around it. As such, I reckon that, despite the sizeable differences between the two sports, a quick look at the Madden game series would be a good place to start.

American Football is a highly structured game, and Madden (from my albeit very limited experience of playing it) reflects this well: before each play, the attacking player selects which move he wants to perform (from a very long list) and is then tasked with executing it properly (timing the pass and so on). This principle was also adopted to an extent in the 2005 game Pro Rugby Manager 2 (not a bad game, but graphics are appalling and large sections of gameplay horribly designed), which allowed you to preselect which move you wanted to perform before scrumss and lineouts. The fact that only about three of these presets ever worked is, of course, just a cursory detail.

Modern rugby, and many of its greatest tries, are dependent on such preset moves, and the tactic of allowing them to be selected from scrums and lineouts is, I think, a good one. Crucially, to retain the element of skill and to allow players to mix things up a bit in response to defensive frailties, only running lines should be pre-programmed, with the player choosing when and where to pass (or, indeed, kick). I personally think that the situation could be even further improved by allowing players to design their own moves, but this would be difficult to do on a console so probably wouldn’t be worth programming.

However, not all moves come from scrums and lineouts, and Rugby 08‘s idea of having a smaller subset of simpler moves to deploy in general play is worth reviving, I feel. Like that system, I feel four is the optimum number to be available in general play would be four, allowing console players to easily select them with the left analogue stick or D-pad. Two differences must, however, be stressed compared to Rugby 08‘s system; firstly, the players whilst running presets should not be constrained to jogging at two miles an hour in order to ensure speed differences don’t cause the move to break down (a frankly unsubtle solution to the problem that could be largely mitigated by allowing players to choose when they pass), and secondly, I think that a few even more basic moves should also be usable in loose play, rather than just after rucks. Simple stuff, like loops or scissors moves, the kind of stuff players could legitimately drop into play given enough space, just to give them the extra edge.

Next up, onto a few niggly details. The kicking system from Rugby 08 (which basically boils down to releasing the ‘kick bar’ at just the right time to ensure it bisects the upright) is just about perfect for place kicks and drop goals, although it could do with some method by which kicks are made more difficult to aim the harder they are hit. For kicks in general play, I like Rugby Challenge‘s system of slowing down time to allow proper aiming of kicks, not to mention most of their system of running rugby; a straight adaptation of that when playing ‘manually’ would be perfect. At the rucks, however, their heavy bind/quick bind system is, frankly, a bit stupid, not to mention the way that RC’s system prevents a team from playing the ball until it has definitively been ‘won’, preventing them from getting quick ball. Rugby 08‘s system is preferable; here, the team with the ball is presumed to have won it and are free to play it unless the opposing team get men there quickly enough. The only changes I would make to this system would be the introduction of a ‘grey area’ where the ball has been ‘half won’ from the opposition and neither side are prepared to play it, and for players to be able to cheat (and be penalised) of their own accord rather than requiring player input.

Trying to accurately replicate set pieces in rugby is, if anything, even more tricky than with general play. Lineouts would, I feel, be best replicated using much the same system as described for general play; preselecting how pods and players should move before letting the player manually perform the jump and throw. Again, flaws in both aspects should, I feel, be automated and mistakes dependent on a player’s lineout skill rather than getting the player to manually aim as in Rugby Challenge‘s frustrating throwing-in system. At scrums, things get more complicated, and although the simplest solution would be to just have teams simply push or dig in at the player’s discretion (as in Rugby 08), I reckon a better, more skill-centric approach would be to have two rhythm mini-games running simultaneously. To explain in more simple jargon, this would involve, on a keyboard by way of example, one hand pressing the up, down, left and right arrow keys in time with a series of symbols appearing on the screen, whilst the other hand does the same thing with the WASD keys, each set of keys representing the forward battle on each side of the scrum. A separate button press would tell the scrum half/no. 8 to take control of the ball; again, slowing down time here would allow for a suitably fast decision-making process. The more symbols are hit correctly in the rhythm sequence, the more control the prop is able to exert over his opponent; the amount the opposing scrum is pushed back as a result of this should not be arbitrary, but instead dependent on the relative strength and scrummaging skill of the second and back row players. And should also not be utterly ridiculous; on Rugby Challenge, a dominant scrum is often able to send opposing players flying back twenty metres or so, which simply never happens. Ever

Advocating the introduction of spurious rhythm mini-games is rarely something that will make you popular in gaming circles, and a lot of the ‘borrowed’ features I have advocated including in my hypothetical game could probably not be brought in verbatim for licensing reasons. But hey, I’m just some guy being hopeful; it may never happen, but if it ever did…

The Rugby Challenge

I frequently feel like apologising on this blog for my all too frequent excursions into the worlds of my two main leisure activities; rugby and videogames. Today, however, inspired by the recent release of Rugby Challenge 2, I’m going to combine the two, highlighting the problems oh-so-frequently encountered when designing a rugby game.

Rugby is not a sport that can be said to have made a grand splash in the gaming world; unlike the likes of football and basketball which get big-budget EA Sports releases every year, EA’s only attempt at a rugby game in the last 5 years was a half-hearted and lazily designed attempt to cash in on the 2011 World Cup. It’s even worse for rugby league fans, who I believe have only had two games ever made concerning their sport. The reason for this is depressingly simple; money. FIFA sells because football is massively popular across pretty much the entire globe, resulting in a massive market and the popularity of American Football sells copies of Madden by the bucketload in the wealthy USA. Rugby, however, has no such market ready and waiting for it; worldwide, around 4.5 million people are registered rugby players, and a rather optimistic guess could put the number of fans of the sport at perhaps 15 million. Of those, there is a fairly broad spread of ages between 7 and 70; yet the majority of gamers fit into the 14-25ish age bracket. And not all of those are going to end up buying a rugby game anyway.

Put simply, a rugby game has nowhere near the potential market of many other sports, so whilst FIFA 2013 was able to sell more than 3.3 million units in its first week, Sidhe’s 2011 game Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge sold just 430,000 units lifetime across PS3 and Xbox 360 combined. Admittedly it was competing against the RWC 2011 game (which sold roughly the same, and probably to the same people), but even in a year when rugby’s profile was at its highest, such comparatively meagre sales represent a big problem when game development and the acquisition of team licenses are so massively expensive.

However, there’s very little that can be done about this until more people get interested in rugby/videogames respectively, so I’m now going to focus on the content games themselves, which presents a whole host of other issues. The two major figures in terms of representing rugby in the virtual world are EA Sports’ Rugby 08 (which, despite being 5 years old and barely different from the two previous EA incarnations, still has its adherents) and the previously mentioned Rugby Challenge. Having owned and played both (although not yet Rugby Challenge 2, hence why it doesn’t feature here), I feel confident in saying that, whilst both are pretty good in their own way, both have sizeable flaws; Rugby 08 is full of little cheats (such as a way of automatically winning every kickoff) that make the game far too easy once you are sufficiently experienced, the players have no personality or realism about their movements, its knowledge of the laws is dodgy in places, the difficulty settings are blunt as hell, the preset attacking moves are rubbish, lineouts are oversimplified, manually attacking produces highly unrealistic gameplay, the defensive moves it bangs on about in the promo material make no difference whatsoever, players frequently run through one another’s falling bodies and for some reason the player has to manually select when he or she wants to cheat (which, given how unrealistically good the ref is, is a totally dumb idea). Rugby Challenge is, to my mind, a superior game, but it is no less flawed; in their efforts to make the game more free-flowing, the developers have almost completely done away with any semblance of structure as every move degenerates into one long spree of offloads, with no preset moves to help offset this issue. To frustratingly contrast with this, the rucking system guarantees a constant stream of annoyingly slow ball, lineouts and scrums are dysfunctional and just plain unrealistic respectively, the goal kicking is dumb, the player ratings unrealistic (particularly for northern hemisphere players), you can’t take quick throw-ins and the commentary is nowhere near as good as in Rugby 08. And, just to compound the annoyance, neither has a realistic career mode, which severely damages replay value (an issue thankfully dealt with in this year’s Rugby Challenge 2)

Phew. Right, rant over, now to actually address the causes.

Aside from most studios being unwilling or unable to invest large amounts of money in developing a rugby game due to the limited market size, the main issue facing any rugby game concerns the nature of the game itself. Rugby is a game of a myriad of different battlegrounds and ways of playing the game, with players having to function both as a team player and as an individual both on and off the ball. This makes controlling it from the perspective of the guy with the ball, as all previous games have done, inherently difficult and unrealistic; in rugby, it is just as important if not more so who runs the dummy lines and provides a threat to the defence as the person who ends up with the try. This practice of each player’s individual work adding up to a concerted team effort is incredibly difficult to program, and to simulate it properly would require an incredibly sophisticated AI system beyond anything seen in any other sporting game. And that’s just considering the work done by the backs; accurately simulating forward play would be a nigh-on impossible task, so complex is the technique and decision-making that, in a real game, is responsible for the rucking and scrummaging victories that can turn a match. The other issue is the level of control that should be allowed to the player; a more complex, detailed game would be more realistic, but would seriously risk either swamping the player with decisions and information as they tried to control fifteen players at once, killing the immersion, or automating everything and taking the player out of the equation too much, so that their individual skill level ceased to matter. Finding a suitable middle ground between the Scylla and Charybdis of these two extremes would be a difficult, dangerous task for any game developer.

Still, despite all these problems and more, I personally think that it is far from impossible to make a great game that (relatively) accurately portrays modern rugby. And to find out exactly how I’d go about designing such a game, you can read my next post, in which I will tell you all about it…*

*That sounded way creepier than intended. Sorry

One final note; due to developments in my personal life, posts are now only going to come twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday. This may change again in the future.

Alternative Sports Star Fantasy XV

Being as I am a massive rugby nerd, one of the pages I follow on Facebook goes by the name of ‘Rugby Banter Page’. In the last few months, they have also set up a website, on which they recently posted this rugby fantasy XV made up of stars of other sports. And Dan Carter. Sitting with a couple of mates watching the Leicester-Worcester match the other day, this team came up in conversation and all thought that, although good, there was enough potential in the world of sport to rival even this star-studded line-up. One thing lead to another, and in the space of a few minutes we had our own, rival squad ready to face down the opposition. And then I thought ‘hey, I have a blog, so I might as well share’.*

Front Row: 1. Wanderlei Silva, 2. Chad le Clos, 3. Magnus ver Magnusson
In the props, we’ve gone big and nasty. Silva is a record-holding Brazilian MMA fighter, and although some might claim what he does isn’t really sport, I would invite them to say so to his face after hearing of his nickname ‘the Axe Murderer’ and watching this. Despite this wanton aggression, he is known as being a consummate sportsman once a fight is over, so should fit into rugby’s post-match drinking culture perfectly. Together with four time world’s strongest man Magnussen (who, whilst retired and without quite the pedigree of RBP’s chosen strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski, gets a place in the team by virtue of his name alone), they form possibly the hardest and most imposing front row unit imagineable. In between them is South African swimmer le Clos, included for two reasons beyond the natural rugby-playing ability imbued in every native South African. Firstly, being a double Olympic gold medal winner in butterfly is sure to give him ‘overarm throw muscles’ capable of throwing a lineout ball to the far side of the pitch, and secondly his dad will give someone entertaining for the TV people to interview.

Second Row: 4. Nikolai Valuev, 5. LeBron James
We felt that RBP’s second row combo of heavyweight boxer as enforcer with overly-tall basketballer for lineout time was a good one, but personally reckon that better candidates are available than their chosen pair if we consider rugby-applicable skill. In place of Wladimir Klitschko we have former heavyweight champion Valuev; whilst not as successful a boxer as Klitschko, Valuev played basketball and water polo as a child which should give him good handling ability, and at seven foot tall he offers a serious lineout option as well (even if lifting him could prove a challenge even for Magnussen). To combat the sheer height of Tao Ming in the lineout, we’ve gone for the shorter but infinitely more skilful LeBron James- frequently considered the best basketballer in the world, what he lacks (relatively speaking) in height he will more than make up for in agility.

Back row: 6. Ian Bell, 7. Lewis Smith, 8. Ashton Eaton
With RBP selecting big hitter Gayle at 6, we thought Bell would be a perfect, utterly fearless opposite number as a player who, when fielding, is frequently asked to get solid lumps of wood and leather smashed at his head from three metres away- and then catch the thing. Not to mention the fact that he likes to give the ball a smash now and again too. At openside, gymnast Smith has, we feel, potential to become a real star; with superb upper body strength and posture, long arms for rangy tackling and a cheeky bit of cheating at ruck time, and all the agility needed to challenge in the air as a third lineout option or ball-stealer, he might even be able to show off some fancy footwork after winning last year’s series of Strictly Come Dancing. Finally, Ashton Eaton is the world decathlon record holder and current Olympic champion, with incredible speed, strength, power and all-round skill that belies his slight physique and gives him all the skill-set and more for an attacking, combative No.8. He’s called ‘the world’s greatest athlete’ for a reason.

Half Backs: 9. Ronnie O’Sullivan, 10. Andres Iniesta
Whilst O’Sullivan’s mouth has frequently got him into trouble in snooker circles, being gobby is a prerequisite for every good scrum-half, and when you throw in his hand-eye coordination, characteristic flair and speed of thought (he still holds the record for the world’s fastest 147 break) we have a seriously promising half-back on our hands. Since RBP already bagsied Lionel Messi, we went for his Barcelona team-mate and World Cup winner Iniesta at fly-half. With superlative kicking ability, attacking flair and not inconsiderable turn of pace, the man voted UEFA player of the season last year should be a natural fit at 10.

Centres: 12. Ramy Ashour, 13. Johan Blake
Few of you may have heard of Ramy Ashour; neither had I until my brother introduced me to him. The Egyptian is currently world squash champion and current holder of just about any major squash title you care to mention, and if his being a champion of one of the most technically difficult of all sports didn’t already alert you to his superb reactions, dexterity and speed over a short distance and dexterity then this might, not to mention revealing his near-supernatural levels of all-around perception and the sheer deftness of his hand motion. In all, his skill would form the perfect foil to sprinter Blake’s sheer speed and power, which would make more than a few defenders wonder if another Tuilagi brother had been let in.

Back Three: 11. Lawrence Okoye, 14. Sam Tomkins, 15. Jonty Rhodes
Some would argue that choosing Okoye is cheating a bit; although the former Olympic discus thrower now plays American Football in the NFL, he played on the wing (yes really, wing) for Whitgift, the noted rugby school. Still, he’s not technically a rugby player now, so I think he counts- plus, he would put the fear of God into any opposition winger. At fullback we have another cricketer and another retiree; Rhodes was a South African international until 2003, who gets in our team for having the safest pair of hands in the world. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
Finally, on the right wing, comes our permitted one actual rugby player, although rather than fishing in my preferred code of union (George North was a serious consideration) I chose instead to go for league player (for the moment at least) Tomkins. I could justify his selection by talking about his creativity, versatility (he would be able to slot in at either half back position should the need arise) or sheer pace, but one statistic does all the talking for me: 149 games for Wigan, 144 tries. End of discussion

*Our rules: All contestants must be male (despite some argument, we eventually agreed to maintain rugby’s single-sex rules), none may have been picked by the Rugby Banter Page’s team, retired players are acceptable, one should attempt to choose from as wide a variety of sports as possible and the resulting team must on no account be taken seriously.