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.

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.

So. It is done…

Yes, the party’s finally over; the Six Nations done and dusted for another year. Saturday’s matches were a mixed bunch, yet most definitely not as dull as in previous rounds. This week’s awards ceremony will be undergoing something of a reshuffle; rather than doing the matches in chronological order, losers first (as usual), I’m going to leave England-Wales until last. Anyone who saw, or even heard about, the match will probably be able to work out why.

But we must begin somewhere; IRELAND, to be precise, whose award for both this match and, arguably, their championship as a whole is the Another One Bites The Dust Award for Highest Attrition Rate. I talked in a previous post about Ireland’s depressingly high injury rate against England, and there was more of the same today; promising young centre Luke Marshall and winger Keith Earls were off within 25 minutes, and no sooner had Earls’ replacement Luke Fitzgerald entered the fray before he was limping off with a leg injury. With barely half an hour of the match played and all but one backs substitutes used, Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahoney was forced to spend the remainder of the match out on the wing, and given O’Mahoney’s efforts at the breakdown in recent matches it was no wonder Ireland lost momentum without him in the thick of things. However, Ireland’s injury rows were compounded by three yellow cards; firstly to Brian O’Driscoll after a stamp that really should have warranted red (although that would have been something of an ignominious end (if so it proves) to the international career of the greatest centre of all time), and later to Donnacha Ryan and Connor Murray. I felt rather sorry for them; trying to keep any form of structure through all that is nigh-on impossible.

ITALY also picked up a yellow card, this time to captain Sergio Parisse, but they were not hamstrung by injuries or errors in the same way of the Irish and took home not only the win but also the Maori Sidestep Award for Most Exciting Use of The Crash Ball. There were many impressive facets of Italy’s game on Saturday; their handling was superb (Parisse producing another exquisite underhand flick in the same fashion of last week), Luciano Orquera once again ran the show and some of the running rugby put on display was quite superb to watch. However, what most had me entertained most of all was Italy’s use of their forwards; whilst sending the big man through on a collision course with some poor defender is hardly a new strategy, rarely is it executed with quite the same excitement, speed and aggression that the Italians managed. No taking the ball standing still for them, no slowing down before the hit; every crash ball came at sprinting pace, and much credit is due to the Irish defence for their ability to counter the Italian efforts. All in all, a very entertaining match, a well-deserved win, and a fitting end to the career of 104-cap veteran prop Andrea Lo Cicero.

SCOTLAND‘s match against France was slightly less exciting, and a 9-9 half-time scoreline was rather more reflective of the game than similar results in the weekend’s other two matches. However, things picked up (at least for the French) in the second half and Scotland were, eventually able to get a try- in doing so taking the …Is That Legal? Award for Most Dubious Try-Scoring Tactic. With 75 minutes on the clock and 14 points down, the Scots could be somewhat forgiven for a slightly frayed temper, but Sean Lamont’s bit of very subtley-executed and rather impressive cheating was perhaps a shade too far to be really fair. Scotland had won a lineout near halfway and were putting the ball through the hands, Lamont running the dummy line- so far, so normal. What is less normal was Lamont’s subsequent decision to ‘accidentally’ finish his dummy line by running straight into Gael Fickou, knocking the unsuspecting youngster to the ground and leaving a nice hole for centre partner Matt Scott to break through, before offloading to Tim Visser for the try. The French crowd at the time appeared to express their disapproval, but referee Nigel Owens apparently didn’t see it and the try stood. If the scores had been closer at the time, I think the French would be somewhat angrier.

As for FRANCE themselves, coach Phillippe Saint-Andre could easily have won Best Half-Time Team Talk, such was the transformation in his team when they ran out for the second 40; but I think it is perhaps more reflective of their championship for Vincent Debaty to take the Swing And A Miss Award for Most Fluffed Opportunity. The move had started brightly enough, Debaty taking the ball on the run and using all of his considerable bulk to smash two desperate Scotsmen out of the way. The big prop rumbled off down the wing, and the try seemed fairly certain; Stuart Hogg remained as Scotland’s last line of defence, and France’s flying winger Vincent Clerc was jogging up on Debaty’s outside just waiting to receive the winning pass. However, so apparently engrossed was Debaty with the prospect of only the lithe, skinny Hogg standing between him and the try line that he never even looked at Clerc, and arguably was totally unaware of his team-mate’s existence. Rather than give the pass that would surely have made the five points a formality, Debaty went on his own, was (somehow) taken down by Hogg and France gave away the penalty at the resulting ruck. It was the perfect metaphor for France’s tournament; plenty of promise, an opportunity ripe for the taking, but it all amounted to nothing.

However, by far the best match of the weekend, and arguably the championship, had taken place a couple of hours earlier, where ENGLAND, who had travelled over the Severn in search of a Grand Slam, were soundly thwacked by a rampant Welsh side. I could think of half a dozen awards England could have won; Most Passionate Singing of The Anthems, Worst Rucking, Worst Scrummaging, Biggest Pissing-Off Of A Referee, but in the end I couldn’t look beyond the At Least You Didn’t Give Up Award for Most Optimistic Way to End A Game. As the game entered it’s final couple of minutes, England were well beaten; 27 points down, decidedly on the back foot and looking like they just wanted to leave all thoughts of rugby behind for a day or two. This is the time where you just wind down the clock, boot the ball out and walk off disgusted- but apparently nobody had told them out. When awarded a penalty just a few seconds from time, Danny Care (winner of the Least Necessary And Appropriate Chip Kick award ten minutes previously) decided to take the tap penalty and run for it, and his team joined in with gusto. For a minute, the England side managed to muster great energy and desire to play, showing a bit of much needed character. It might have ended with a dropped ball, but I will always take my hat off to a team prepared to have a go even when all else is lost. Or I might just be getting overly patriotic.

Also deserving of a whole host of awards were WALES; their rucking game was superb, man of the match Justin Tipuric matched only by his blindside flanker partner Sam Warburton, and even Dan Biggar managed to break free of his more customary ‘meh, he’s alright’-ness (my apologies if he ever ends up reading this; just not my type of player I guess) to operate the Welsh back line effectively and slot a cheeky drop-goal. However, the man I want to single out is tighthead prop Adam Jones, my pick for the MOTM award and worthy recipient of the Understated Lynchpin Award for Most Significant Contribution from a Single Player. Of the several areas where Wales controlled the game, the scrum was perhaps the most spectacular; England can’t have won more than two all match and their front row was getting ripped to shreds. Every scrum, the procedure was the same; the experienced scrummaging master that is Adam Jones completely nullified Joe Marler, who should have had the advantage from loosehead, before driving between him and hooker Tom Youngs to split the English scrum and force the penalty. Penalties came for collapsing, missing binds, standing up and just about every other clause of Law 20, not only turning referee Steve Walsh in Wales’ favour (I am not going to say he was biased as some others on the web have done, merely that Wales played him far better than the English) but setting England on the back foot for the rest of the game. Every time a scrum went down, we might as well have saved time by awarding Wales a penalty then and there, allowing England to build no attacking momentum. Combine that with the fact that Wales were competing properly in the rucks, slowing down ball in precisely the way that England weren’t, and all the momentum went the way of the home side. After that, victory was not long in coming.

As an Englishman, I don’t like admitting that Wales were the better side, and I certainly don’t like losing both match, tournament, Grand Slam and (potentially, although I hope for the sake of victory that it doesn’t happen) Lions places to them. But, as I said elsewhere before this weekend: “I’d be fine with Wales winning so long as they actually decided to play some damn rugby for a change”. I will quite happily accept that as them “playing some damn rugby”. Well played Wales. Well bloody played ye bastads.

Final Scores: Italy 22-15 Ireland
Wales 30-3 England
France 23-16 Scotland

The Penultimate Round…

It’s that time of week again; time for the Six Nations to dust itself off after another week’s hiatus and give me my rugby fix again this weekend. And when the tournament comes back, so too do my awards.

SCOTLAND are this week’s starting point, and takers of the Shooting Themselves In The Foot Award for Most Idiotic Penalties. Scotland’s match against Wales on Saturday was a dull, dour and undoubtedly boring affair governed almost exclusively by penalties; indeed, the match broke the world record for most penalty attempts on goal in international rugby history. As Andrew Cotter said, “Occasional bouts of rugby… threatened to break out between the penalties”. This can partly be blamed on two sides with good kickers and weather that was hardly conducive to free-flowing rugby, but both sets of forwards must take their own, fairly large, share of the blame. A total of twenty-eight penalties were conceded throughout the course of the game, 18 of which resulted in a shot at the post and the majority of them seemed to come courtesy of the Scottish forwards. All of them appeared hell-bent on committing as many blatantly obvious infringements as possible well within the range of Leigh Halfpenny, and all seemed really surprised when Craig Joubert blew his whistle after watching them flying into the side of the ruck right under his nose. Particularly persistent offenders include hooker Ross Ford and second row Jim Hamilton (the latter of whom committed what BBC Sport described as ‘possibly the most blatant infringement in rugby history), and both were exceedingly lucky to receive only severe talkings-to from Joubert rather than anything more severe.

WALES‘ award is related to Scotland’s; the Dude, Seriously? Award for Least Deserved Yellow Card. As the game entered its final two minutes, many in the Welsh camp would have been justifiably miffed to have played the entire game against 15 men. To be sure, Wales were hardly blameless on the penalty front (conceding 12 in all), but theirs never seemed either as blatant, cynical or downright stupid as the Scots’, and the Welsh-favoured scoreline was demonstrative of the fact. However, whilst a few diehard Welshmen may have been convinced that Joubert was letting the Scots get away with murder, I don’t think too many would have been vastly angry with his disciplinary decisions  until, that is, he decided to show a yellow card to Welshman Paul James. For one thing, James had only been on the pitch for around 10 minutes, and for another it was 2 minutes to the end with Scotland 10 points behind in a game where a score never looked likely. James had infringed, but was far from the worst offender on most definitely not the worst offending team. I am sure that it made sense to Craig Joubert at the time; it didn’t very much to me, sat on my sofa.

Saturday’s next game proved far more entertaining, thanks both to Steve Walsh’s well-managed refereeing and to IRELAND‘s That’s More Like It Award for Most Positive Outlook Given The Conditions. The weather in Dublin was, if anything, worse than it had been at Murrayfield earlier in the day, and having played in such conditions on Thursday I can attest that such conditions do not lend themselves to flowing rugby by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, just keeping hold of the ball proved a decent challenge for both me and the internationals. Ireland were also coming off a bad run of form, with their first-choice fly half injured and coach Declan Kidney fearing for his job. Combine that with a match against a lacklustre French side lying bottom of the Six Nations table, and we have all the ingredients for a decidedly bad game.

However, nobody appeared to have told the Irish this, and they attacked Saturday’s match with all the vim and vigour of a midsummer warm-up game. Paddy Jackson bossed things from fly half, and along with Rob Kearney & Connor Murray executed a sublime kicking game that had the French on the back foot all game. This combined well with a slick Irish lineout and sublime mauling game, all of which seemed infused by a genuine sense of fluidity and wanting to take the game to the French. Did it result in points? Not to any great extent (the conditions were too unkind for high scoring, and the French defending was pretty solid), but it put the French decidedly on the back foot for the entire first half and rescued an afternoon of rugby that had the potential to be decidedly awful.

I am more than willing to compliment FRANCE too, and offer them the Hang On In There Award for Most Tenacious Performance. France barely survived the first half; Ireland seemed perpetually camped in their half and offered them practically zero attacking opportunities. Indeed, every scrap of French possession seemingly went straight to Freddie Michalak, under a lot of pressure having been bizarrely reinstated at fly half in place of the in-form Francois Trinh-Duc, and the mercurial talent that is Wesley Fofana can’t have touched the ball more than twice. Even Yoann Huget seemed somewhat out of it, and only Louis Picamoles offered France go-forward.

Nonetheless, they hung on; France’s gritty defending meant they were only 10 points behind at half time, and after the interval their strategy began to get more offensive. Their defence began to blitz more, killing the Irish momentum and jump starting their turnover rate. With a bit more ball, they started to do a bit of attacking of their own, and with 20 minutes to go picked up their first points since the first half. A try, courtesy of Picamoles, followed not long afterwards, and whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they deserved to beat the Irish, they certainly acquitted themselves far better than in recent weeks.

Sunday’s game looked, on the face of it, set to at least revert the try drought that has plagued these past three rounds, but in the end twas not to be. This can partly be put down to the efforts of a heroic ITALY team, who battled through their underdogs tag and some slightly harsh refereeing decisions to claim the How Did We Not Win This? Award for Most Man of the Match Contenders. It could be argued that nobody in the Italian side had an out-and-out flawless game, the kind that wins matches on its own, but nobody would deny the number of merely very good performances put on display. Luke McLean showed some great attacking nous, eventually picking up the game’s only try, and a good defensive showing as well, whilst any member of the Italian front row could have been nominated for doing a number on the English scrum. Behind them Alessandro Zanni appeared to be popping up everywhere, Sergio Parisse had a magnificent return following his truncated ban (including one sublime pass that fooled me even on the third replay), Luciano Orquera bossed the show with a return to his form earlier in the championship, and the eventual man of the match Andrea Masi put in a typically defiant, bullish performance from fullback. Unfortunately, Italy’s penalty count was simply too high, and they were as unable as England to execute the majority of their opportunities in a dominant second half display. Good though Italy undoubtedly were, and tense though the match was, it wasn’t quite enough to secure a second victory for the Azzurri. Roll on Ireland next week…

ENGLAND were somewhat less impressive, and take the Rugby Playing Equivalent Of The Amazon Rainforest for Least Sustainable Winning Strategy. England’s victory came courtesy of six penalties from Toby Flood, one of the few England players to do a good job yesterday. After victory over France and Ireland came in a similar fashion, pundits were quick to praise England’s opportunism, composure and ability to execute, to force their opposition into infringements and take the victory from there. However, against Italy they enjoyed none of the dominance they had in previous matches, and the high penalty count against the Italians that ultimately gave them the win seemed as much down to luck and a period of early territory as much as anything else. Better sides, the southern hemisphere giants in particular, will not give away that many penalties, and England will not be able to manufacture such opportunities against them. It could be that Sunday’s game was the perfect wake up call England needed to get their act together in time for Wales next week; or it could be that England’s current way of playing is a tactical time bomb waiting to go off in their face.

Final Scores:
Scotland 18-28 Wales
Ireland 13-13 France
England 18-11 Italy

6N13: Rnd 3

…aaaand it’s back, after two week’s hiatus; the Six Nations has come among us once again. This weekend promised a wealth of interesting matchups and set the analysts’ mouths watering, and we ended up with games of rugby as varied as one could desire. Once again, I present my alternative awards ceremony:

We begin with ITALY who, having come into the weekend hamstrung by the loss of inspirational captain Sergio Parisse to a five-week ban, hardly did themselves any favours in winning the The Analysts Didn’t Spot This One Award for Biggest Repurcussions from Tiny Tactical Error. A lot was made during the week at coach Jacques Brunel’s descision to drop the half-back pairing of Tobias Botes and Luciano Orquera, so influential in the victory over France, and replace them with Eduardo Gori and Kris Burton. Burton’s inclusion was a particular surprise; during the first two games, Orquera had been injecting some much-needed vigour into the Italian back division, and plumping for Burton’s more conservative kicking approach was rightly considered a dangerous choice. During the game itself, the commentators had endless fun laying into Burton, particularly after two failed drop-goal attempts, but I felt that Gori brought a fair share of problems with him as well; or one problem in particular. If one watched Gori’s deliveries throughout the match, they were invariably aimed directly at Burton’s shoulder, meaning that to catch the ball he had to be standing still. This cost him crucial seconds and forward momentum, both of which enabled onrushing defenders to get right up in his face, severely limiting his options. At least three times Burton was unable to pass and forced to make awkward runs to try and get around several burly Welshmen, and as a result Italy lost all attacking momentum. It was a tiny thing, not mentioned by any commentators, and arguably Burton wouldn’t have been able to do much with ball put in front of him, where it should be, but I thought that it nonetheless had a huge impact.

On to WALES, to whom I was seriously tempted to re-award the Boredom award after a game which almost put me to sleep (seriously; the sofa was really comfortable), but who instead take home the Where Did That Come From? Award for Most Sudden Tries. The weather in Italy on Saturday did not lend itself to particularly flowing rugby, and with kicking fly halves on both sides tries were unlikely to ever come from building attacking momentum and phase play. Indeed, after a decidedly barren first half some observers (myself included) might have been surprised to learn that there were any tries coming at all. But come they did, albeit in the most abrupt fashion. Firstly, a shot-to-nothing chip kick from Mike Phillips bounced awkwardly, wrong-footing both Gori and Burton as they ran into one another attempting to gather and left the try line open for the onrushing Jonathan Davies to leap over. Then, 15 minutes later, Wales executed a set-move, Davies drawing Gonzalo Canale out of position to leave a hole open for Alex Cuthbert to rush through, again totally unopposed. On both occasions the try’s execution was, all buildup and preparation included, less than five seconds from start to finish, and I hardly noticed either of them happening until about 10 seconds later.

Saturday’s next match proved far more interesting, and FRANCE certainly acquitted themselves far better against England than  in their previous two matches. However, the award they collect concerns scrum half Morgan Parra, who takes the dubious honour of the Leave That To The Footballers Award for Worst Diving. Throughout the game, England’s fly half Owen Farrell was making a nuisance of himself among the French ranks, and appeared to have a particular problem with French fullback Yoann Huget. However, after around 18 minutes he decided to get in the way of Parra as the Frenchman tried to get to a ruck. Having seen a replay of the event, I am firmly of the opinion that Parra may have brushed his face against Farrell’s back, which makes it all the more ridiculous that his immediate response was to fall to the floor clutching his face as if Farrell had punched him. I have a particular intolerance towards cowardly foul play such as that, and my ire was particularly irked when, after referee Craig Joubert had rightly ignored his plea for a penalty (or simply not noticed, which would be just as excusable given the innocuous nature of the offence), Parra immediately got up and joined onto the back of the next maul. I can only hope this doesn’t become a habit; I do not like divers.

ENGLAND also take an individual award, with Manu Tuilagi taking the Fired Clay Toilet Award for Dominating The Physical Battle. After being left out of the starting XV for the Ireland match having been injured during the Scotland game, Tuilagi was recalled to his favoured outside centre position at the expense of Billy Twelvetrees. The reason for dropping a player of Twelvetrees’ undoubted skill came in the form of a 6ft, 17 stone Frenchman called Mathieu Bastareaud (voted man most thankful for the existence of three vowels), who lined up to form a potent centre lineup alongside Clermont’s quick and incisive Wesley Fofana, returned to his natural position at 12 after two games stuck out on the wing with nothing to do. Fofana proved his worth with a fantastic bit of individual skill, beating no less than five defenders, to go over for France’s only try, but Tuilagi, the same height and weight of Bastareaud, had been brought in to nullify the Frenchman’s physical presence and did so with aplomb. Not once did Bastareaud make a meaningful run at his opposite number, and on the three occasions (that I counted) that Tuilagi ran at him, he made good ground every time and positively bounced him off on at least one occasion. Put it this way; tries for Tuilagi: 1, tries for Bastareaud: 0. (although admittedly, Tuilagi’s try was more luck than anything else).

Sunday’s game was perhaps the most interesting of the three, and in it IRELAND took the Lighting Cigars With Twenties Award for Lease Efficient Use of Resources. After the game, all pundits were justifiably asking how the hell the Irish had managed to lose the game, and rightly so; the Irish controlled three-quarters of the game’s possession and had over 70% territory, but spent most of it running somewhat unimaginatively straight at the Scottish defence; who, despite 16 missed tackles, somehow managed to hold firm. The Scots also conceded more penalties than their opponents (9 in the first 20 minutes alone), but somehow nearly all were conceded in Irish territory, out of range of Paddy Jackson’s boot. It didn’t help that, of the four kicks Jackson did get on goal, he only managed to execute one of them, which may make him something of a scapegoat for the Irish’s general failure to transform control into points. The one exception to this rule was new cap at inside centre Luke Marshall, who made three fantastic breaks; but here, once again, Ireland’s inability to finish the job came to the fore. Once, Marshall somewhat muddied his performance by throwing a bad pass out to Craig Gilroy, who was unable to hold onto it, and the other two times Keith Earls, in near-identical fashion, attempted a run for the corner alone rather than offering a pass to the unmarked Brian O’Driscoll- and was bundled into touch. A try did eventually come from Gilroy, but after 44 minutes of laboured effort, and it proved their last score. It was like watching the England side of two years ago.

Finally come SCOTLAND, who take home not only their first back-to-back victories in the same season of a Six Nations ever, but also the Laissez-Faire Award for Most Laid-Back Performance. Much like the French side during the first two weeks of the tournament, Scotland spent Sunday’s match quite content to sit back and let Ireland do all the work, deciding that to actually create opportunities for themselves would be far too imaginative. However, unlike France, this was backed up by a solid defensive effort and well-executed kicking game, allowing Ireland to be kept at bay and for the Scots to luck the occasional scoring opportunity; and, after Greg Laidlaw’s first two penalties put them within a sniff of Ireland, they casually flicked up a gear and began tentatively looking for more. Perhaps surprised by this sudden activity, Ireland duly infringed at the breakdown twice within Laidlaw’s range, giving Scotland a four-point lead that proved especially crucial when it later forced Ireland to turn down a kickable opportunity (which would have still left them a point behind), and instead mount another assault on the Scottish line. But the Scots’ defence held, and a valuable victory was theirs. Their next fixture against Wales will be…interesting.

Final Scores:
Italy 9-26 Wales
England 23-13 France
Scotland 12-8 Ireland

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

The Six Nations Returns…

…and with it my weekly awards ceremony, as last year, for the weekend’s matches. To be honest, I haven’t had much time to think about these, so enthralled with the actual games as I was (over 150 points and 17 tries scored; absolutely fantastic stuff), but I think I’ll just dive straight in with the first match of the weekend.

First, we must turn to WALES, who take the dubious honour of the Year-Long Nostalgia Award for Most Dramatic Fall From Grace, reclaiming a title they won in both 2006 and 2009. Last year the Welsh, after a proud performance at the World Cup the previous awesome, had their ranks positively blooming with talent and good form. Behind the scrum, Rhys Priestland was still hanging on to some of his outstanding 2011 form, Jamie Roberts was in the kind of hard-running, defence-busting mode that won him three Lions caps in 2009, George North (alongside, to a lesser extent, Alex Cuthbert) was terrorising defences through a mixture of raw speed and power, and Jonathan Davies’ smooth running and handling in the centres was causing him to be mentioned in the same breath as New Zealand’s great Conrad Smith. The team seemed unstoppable, battering, bludgeoning and otherwise smashing all who came before them as they romped home to the Grand Slam.

And then the slide began. Since they took the title against the French 11 months ago, Wales have lost eight games on the trot, of which Saturday’s display against Ireland was only the most recent. After some pretty dire performances against the southern hemisphere sides during the summer, a few traces of hope were salvaged during the autumn from close losses to the likes of Australia. Some of the more optimistic Welsh fans thought that the Six Nations may signal a new return to form for their players; but an opening match against Ireland proved unforgiving. The Irish put 30 points past the Welsh in 50 minutes with only 3 in reply, and although Wales mounted a spirited comback it all proved too much, too late.

On, then, to IRELAND; more specifically to left winger Simon Zebo, who takes the Nyan Cat Award for Most YouTube-Worthy Moment from George North in this fixture last year. Whilst North’s little moment of hilarity was typical of a player whose size and strength is his greatest asset, Zebo’s piece of magic was a more mercurial bit of skill. After Dan Biggar (the Welsh flyhalf) decided, for reasons best known to himself, to aim a kick straight at the face of the onrushing Rory Best, the Irishman managed to gather the ball on the rebound and set off for the line. Realising he was being pushed for space, he elected to throw a beautiful long pass out to captain Jamie Heaslip. If Heaslip were able to flick the ball to Zebo, sprinting along his outside, there was a fair chance that the winger could make the corner; but the skipper was under pressure and could only manage a flick off his knees. The pass was poor; thrown at knee-height about a metre behind the onrushing winger, most moves would have ended there with a loose ball. But Zebo produced a truly magical piece of skill– as the ball seemed destined to disappear behind him, he turned and flicked at it deftly with his left heel, before gathering the ball one handed and continuing his run; all without breaking stride. He may not have got the try, but from his bit of sublimity prop Cian Healy did, and thus Zebo will be forever honoured in the hall of fame that is YouTube.

Onto Saturday’s second match and SCOTLAND, proud takers of the Holy Shit, How Did That Happen Award for Biggest Disparity Between Score and Performance. In all honesty, the Scots were never not going to struggle against their English opponents; Calcutta Cups are always ripe for upsets its true, and there’s nothing the Scots like better than being mistaken for the underdog, but they had not won at Twickenham for 30 years and the current team was probably not in the best shape to break that duck. A new side under a new coach (Scott Johnson), they had taken last place and the wooden spoon in last year’s Six Nations, even losing rather badly to Italy, they reached a nadir during the dire loss to Tonga that ended their autumn series and led old coach Andy Robinson to resign. By contrast, the Auld Enemy were ebullient after their emphatic win against New Zealand in November, and some smart money was being put on them to take the Six Nations title this year. And it showed during the game; for all Jim Telfer’s pre-match comments about the England side being ‘arrogant’, the young English side were clinical and efficient, winning twice as many breakdowns as the Scots and Owen Farrell kicking everything he could get his boots on. Nonetheless, the Scots put in a pretty damn good show when they could; new winger Sean Maitland opened the game’s scoring with a neatly taken try in the corner, and fullback Stuart Hogg not only set up that try with a dazzling 60 metre break, but eventually grabbed one of his own and was probably the best back on the pitch. Johnnie Beattie was sublime in the back row, and if it wasn’t for England’s clinical territory game then they would certainly have managed a scoreline far closer than the 20 points it ended up being. We’ve all played games like that; you think you’re playing well and putting up a good fight, scoring some points, and then look up at the scoreboard and think ‘how did that happen?’

As for ENGLAND, centre Billy Twelvetrees takes the Carlos Spencer Award for Most Impressive Debut Performance (and, incidentally, the Staff Sergeant Max Fightmaster Award for Best Name- dunno why, it’s just cool). England have in recent past been rather good at debuts (Freddie Burns last year enjoyed a sound beating of the world champions as his first cap), and much speculation was put forward before the game as to whether the young Gloucester man could fill the sizeable hole left by the injured Manu Tuilagi. As it turned out, he did so splendidly; despite a somewhat ignominious start to his international career (ie he dropped the first ball that came his way), he spent most of the match running superb lines that often threatened the Scottish centre pairing and kept the tempo of the match nice and fast. To cap a great first performance, he even picked up England’s third try, running a typically lovely angle to seemingly pop up from nowhere and slip straight through a gap in the defence. Good stuff, and I look forward to seeing if he can make it a habit.

And now to Sunday’s match, where FRANCE take the When Did I Get In Last Night Award for Least Looking Like They Wanted To Be On The Pitch. France are always a tricky bunch to predict, and their last visit to Rome ended an embarrassing defeat that lead coach Marc Lievremont to dub them cowards; but they’d fared the best out of all the northern hemisphere sides in the awesome, beating Australia and Argentina convincingly, and Frederic Michalak, once the French equivalent to Jonny Wilkinson, was back on form and in the No. 10 shirt. To many, a trip to face the usually table-propping Italians was the perfect warmup before the tournament really hotted up, and it seems the French may have made the mistake of thinking the Azzurri easybeats. It quickly transpired that they were not; Italy’s talismanic captain Sergio Parisse grabbed an early try courtesy of fly half Luciano Orquera, who had a stunning game and lead for most of the first half before a try from Louis Picamoles and some good kicking from Michalak put the French in front. But at no point in the game did France ever look threatening; in the first 25 minutes Italy controlled nearly 75% of the game’s possession whilst France seemed content to wait for mistakes that the Italians simply never made. They seemed lazy, lethargic, even as the precious minutes towards the end of the game ticked away, and never matched Italy’s sheer commitment and drive at the breakdown. Even when they did get good ball, the Italian’s surprisingly impressive kicking game meant they rarely had the territory to do anything with it.

As for the ITALY themelves, they (and Luciano Orquera in particular) take the About Bloody Time Award for Finally Finding A Fly Half. Italy have always had strength in the pack thanks to such men as Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni, but behind the scrum they have always lacked class. In particular, they have lacked a good kicker ever since Diego Dominguez retired, allowing teams to be ferocious in the breakdowns with only a minimal risk associated with penalties. Kris Burton and Orquera both tried and failed to ignite the Italian back division, growing in strength with the achievements of Tomasso Benvenuti and Andrea Masi, last year, but yesterday Orquera ran the show. He and Tomas Botes at scrum half kept the French pinned back with a long and effective kicking game, whilst Masi’s incisive running from full back and an energetic display from centre Luke Mclean meant the French were never able to establish any sort of rhythm. With their backs to the wall and their fingers not yet pulled out, the French were sufficiently nullified to allow the Italian forwards to establish dominance at the breakdown; and with Orquera’s place kicking proving as accurate as his punts from hand, the French were punished through both the boot and the tries from Parisse and Castrogiovanni. An outstanding defensive effort to keep the French out in the final 10 minutes and two lovely drop goals from Orquera and Burton sealed the deal on a fantastic display, and the Italians can proudly say for the next two years that the frequently championship-winning French haven’t beaten them in Rome since 2009.

Final Scores: Wales 22-30 Ireland
England 38-18 Scotland
Italy 23-18 France

The Scrum Problem

My apologies from deviating back to a personal favourite- I try too keep rugby out of these posts on the grounds that, in real life, it tends to make things kind of exclusive for people who aren’t into it, but I thought that I might be allowed one small deviation from this guideline. Today, I wish to talk about probably the single most contentious issue in the game today, one that divides, confuses and angers just about everyone involved in it: the scrum.

The scrum has always been a historic feature of the game of rugby- perhaps a historic callback to the old ‘scrums’ of viciously fighting players that formed the origins of the game of football, in the context of rugby it has proved contentious since the very first international ever played. England and Scotland were playing one another and, at the time, both played under different rules, so it was agreed that they would play under English rules for the first half and Scottish ones in the second. The game was around an hour old, tied at 0-0 (yeah it was a bit rubbish in those days), when the Scots won a scrum on the English five metre line. Rather than feed the ball into the scrum, the Scots instead began to push. The unsuspecting English forwards were caught off guard and forced back over their own line, whereupon the Scottish scrum-half grounded the ball. Whilst totally illegal under English rules, and thus generating a barrage of complaints, the Scots had one fair and square, starting off a bitter rivalry against ‘the Auld Enemy’ that continues to this day.

The scrum has developed a lot since those days (everyone now plays under the same rules for one thing), but perhaps the most important development for the modern game came in the 1990’s, specifically within the New Zealand team at the time. The All Blacks were a talented side, but their major disadvantage came up front, for whilst their front row players were skilled, Sean Fitzpatrick and company were not the biggest or heaviest front row around. Whilst not a disadvantage in open play, at scrum time it was feared that they would crumble under their opponent’s superior weight, so they had to find a way round that. In the end, they resorted to a bit of trickery. The structure adopted at scrum time by most sides of the age was to come together gently, get settled, then let the scrum half put the ball in and start to push, twist, and cheat in all the million ways discovered by front rowers over the years. However, what the Kiwis decided to do was hit the engagement hard, smashing their opponents back to get a good body position early. Then, the scrum half would feed the ball in almost immediately, allowing them to start pushing straight away and keep their opponents on the back foot, thus not allowing them time to get themselves settled and start to push back. It worked like a charm, aside from one small drawback. Everyone else started to copy them.

Even with trained wrestlers, there is only so much damage that sixteen men can do to one another when simply trying to push one another back. However, when not much below a tonne of meat slams as hard as it can into another tonne smashing back the other way, the forces involved in the impact is truly huge, and suddenly the human spine doesn’t seem all that strong. Not only that, but the slightest misalignment of the impact, and that amount of force means there is simply no way for it to all settle down nicely. Combine this fact with the immense muscle building and weight gain programs now demanded by the modern, professional game, and the attention to detail of modern coaches to get that extra edge in the impact, and we reach the inescapable and chaotic conclusion that is the modern scrum. In the last world cup in 2011, in matches between top-tier countries 50 scrums out of every 100 collapsed, and there were 31 resets and 41 free-kicks or penalties per 100. The stats were virtually the same during this year’s Six Nations, in which nearly half of all scrums resulted in the ball not coming back and creating one match (Ireland v Scotland) that spent over a quarter of its playing time spent scrummaging, resetting or collapsing.

This is despite the fact that the face of the game has changed very much against the set piece in the modern era. In the early 1970’s, analysis suggests that the average number of set-pieces (scrums and lineouts) in a match was nearly triple its current value (mid-thirties), whilst the number of rucks/mauls has gone up sixfold since then. Even since the game first turned pro in the mid-nineties, the number of set pieces has dropped by a third and the number of successful breakdowns tripled. The amount of time the ball spends in play has also risen hugely, and some are even arguing that the scrum as we know it is under threat. Indeed, in last year’s Six Nations the scrum was only the deciding factor in one game (England v Ireland), and as Paul Wallace astutely pointed out at the time that Ireland getting pushed about for the entire match was their reward for playing by the rules and not sending a front rower off ‘injured’.

Then there are the myriad of various intrigues and techniques that have lead to the scrum becoming the unstable affair it is today. Many argue that modern skintight shirts don’t allow players to grip properly, forcing them to either slip or grab hold of easier and possibly illegal positions that make the scrum decidedly wobbly. Others blame foot positioning, arguing that the modern way of setting up one’s feet, where the hooker demands the majority of space, forces the backs of his props to angle inwards and making the whole business more dangerous and less stable. Some blame poor refereeing for letting scrummagers get away with things that are now becoming dangerous, destabilising habits among front rowers, whilst others may counter this by considering the myriad of confusing signals a referee has to try and keep track off at scrum time- two offside lines, straightness of feed, hooker’s feet up early, incorrect back row binding, illegal front row binding, whether his line judge is signalling him and whether anyone’s just broken their neck. This is clearly a mighty confusing situation, and one I’d love to be able to start suggesting solutions for- but I think I’ll leave that until Saturday…

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 🙂