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

Six Nations, week II…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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