Episode 6: Return of the Nations

The Six Nations returned this weekend, bringing with it some superb running rugby, some great tries, and the opportunity to make the rubbish pun in the title of this post (sorry). As usual, scores at the bottom, and hit BBC iPlayer or Rugby Dump afterwards to watch the highlights if you didn’t see the games- they were awesome

First up are ITALY who take the Oh God, The Cliches Will Be Horrendous Award for Causing the Most Obvious Game of Two Halves (although weirdly the BBC half-time analysis during the other two games described both first halves as ‘a half of two halves). The first half of their match with Ireland was a great contest, with the Italian underdogs matching the Irishmen point for point (despite their traditional kicking issues) to go in at the break 10-10, courtesy of a lovely try from Sergio Parisse.
Then came the second half, during which the intriguing contest of the first appeared to go straight out of the window the moment Wayne Barnes blue his whistle. Italy secured little possession, and their forwards were powerless to stop the Irish backs trampling all over their Italian counterparts, making break after break and running in four tries, including two in the last two minutes as Italy appeared to just roll over and give up. Considering how well they have done in the last two weeks, and indeed in last year’s championship (including a very tense, narrow loss to the Irish), this was a reminder that they still have a way to go.

IRELAND themselves picked up a more individual award, namely the Sorry, Were We Watching The Same Game? Award for Most Baffling Man of the Match. Ireland had many standout players in their rout of the Italians- Tommy Bowe scored a brace on the wing, Keith Earls was running well in the centre and scored a try of his own, and Paul O’Connell was seemingly omnipresent in the lineout and breakdown. Two of my tips for MOTM were Stephen Ferris, who made at least two clean breaks and was tackling like the immovable object he usually is, and Rob Kearney, whose aggression whilst running would have made the bravest defender start to whimper. And Man of the Match went to… Jonny Sexton, the Irish flyhalf.
Now, Sexton is a good player, and the typical media view of him appears to be somewhere between Dan Carter and God, but he was not MOTM. From my point of view, he was playing quite well, but certainly nothing like his best and wasn’t even inspiring his attacking line like he had been in previous weeks. Man of the Match? Not a chance.

Onto the next game, in which ENGLAND picked up the consolation Are You Blind, Sir? Award for Unluckiest Refereeing Errors. Any rugby player will tell you that no referee, no matter how good and no matter what the match, can see everything, and there will be always things that they miss. To his credit, referee Steve Walsh (who himself won the Hugh Jackman Lookalike Award) did spot most things and overall refereed well, but several of those that he did miss or got wrong went severely against England. One example that sticks in mind occurred midway through the second half- with the English back line under pressure, flyhalf Owen Farrell (who had an absolute stormer) tried to simultaneously flick the ball onwards while avoiding the unwelcome attentions of Welsh centre Jonathan Davies. As he did so, Davies tackled him and knocked the ball on, sending it flying upfield. This should have been an English scrum, but with Walsh on the wrong side he allowed play to go on, from which Wales made 30 metres, won a penalty and got a lucky 3 points.
More controversial, however, and something that will prove a source of bitterness for years to come methinks, occurred right at the end. With England needing a converted try to draw level, they launched one last desperate attack, including one attempted crossfield kick that was inches away from a score. Finally, wing David Strettle launched himself at the line and, although swamped by three Welsh defenders, appeared at first glance to have touched it down over his head. Multiple video replays appeared to show the same thing, but the TMO was unsure as to whether Strettle had exerted sufficient ‘downward pressure’ and, as it says in the laws “if there is any doubt as to whether a try has been scored, a scrum must be awarded”. With time over, Walsh called no try, blew his whistle, and Wales were victorious. Was it a try? I think it was (as do all my English friends), but hey- it’s happened now. But Wales- you got lucky. Very lucky. (Although I must say, Strettle did himself no favours in the post-match press conference by making at least 2 laws mistakes that didn’t exactly help his case)

As for WALES, they can thank their win due to a mixture of a rather fluky try from Scott Williams (how he got the ball of the strongest man on the pitch I will never know), and their work in gaining the Leonidas, Eat Your Heart Out Award for Best Defence. Despite Manu Tuilagi sitting Rhys Priestland on his arse at every possible opportunity, and England’s defence being solid as a rock too, the Welsh defence was awesome. MOTM and Welsh captain Sam Warburton saved a sure-fire try with a one-leg tackle on Tuilagi, the most powerful runner out there, that stopped him dead in his tracks, and it was that desperation and urgency with their backs to the wall that kept the English away from a try, and prevented Strettle’s try from being in any doubt. Added to that was George North’s beautiful hit on Owen Farrell, just after Farrell’s equally beautiful chip through, and just after his impressive placement of the ball, considering he’d just been hit by a train of a tackle. You can see it in appalling quality here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edFYLea7n2Y, or with sound on the highlights video- gotta be one of the best of the tournament so far.

Finally we come to Sunday and SCOTLAND‘s clash with France, in which the Scots picked up the Oh Shit, You Are Actually Quite Good Progress Prize. Every rugby man worth his salt knows what Scotland’s problems have been in recent years- tries, or more importantly, a lack of them. In players Sean Lamont, Max Evans, Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair Scotland have always had some undoubtedly potent backs, but they never seem to be able to finish anything, or to provide that moment of magic that leads to a welcome 5-point boost. However, within 10 minutes of the starting whistle on Sunday, first starter Stuart Hogg changed that when, in tandem with some great vision by Greig Laidlaw, he scooted over in the corner to open the scoring for Scotland. From that moment on, Scotland were a changed team from the one we have seen in recent months- fast, open, free-flowing and exciting to watch. Hogg was constantly threatening from full-back (once running straight through what looked like a solid wall of French defenders), Laidlaw kept up the good work from fly-half, and the back row were their usual brilliant selves. When Lee Jones got try no. 2 (courtesy of what I’m sure was a bit of outrageous cheating from John Barclay), the result seemed immaterial, for Scotland were playing well at last. Although, to be honest, the win would have been nice.

And so we come to that game’s victors, FRANCE, winners of the Sporting Underdog Films Are Never Going to Happen In Real Life Award for Mercilessly Grinding Out wins. France were not overwhelming in their victory- they were not spectacular and, for a French side, surprisingly lacking in flair. While the Scots surprised and encouraged everyone watching, getting the Murrayfield crowd behind them and setting themselves up for what would have been a historic win, the French were comparatively calm and collected in their manner. While their rather shoddy defence let them down on occasions, in attack they were clinical finishers, getting one try courtesy of a killer line from Wesley Fofana, and another from a simple 2-on-1 from a clean line break. Lionel Beauxis’ drop goal to finish it off at the end epitomised their performance- nothing flashy, no tension, no dramatic try attempts as they struggled to break the Scottish line- just calm, efficient finishing and just performance ability. Some would say Scotland were the moral victors- but the French made sure that was not about to happen.

Final Scores:
Ireland 42-10 Italy
Wales 19-12 England
France 23-17 Scotland

Bradley Davies… just die

(First up, quick apology for the lack of post on Saturday- I was out and away from my computer all day so was unable to post. Sorry)
For those of you who don’t know, the first round of the Six Nations (Europe’s premier international rugby competition) took place this weekend. If you didn’t see any of the matches, I highly recommend you do, especially the final match (Wales-Ireland), which was a cracker, if controversial towards the end. The other two (France-Italy and England-Scotland), were pretty good too, and I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend’s rugby.
The Six Nations will be continuing (on and off), for the next 6 weekends, so I thought I might devote my humble corner of the internet to it for that time. Every week there is a round of matches, my post here on Monday will be dedicated to the weekend’s action, handing out awards to the various sides. Some will be individual, some will be collective and… well you’ll pick it up as we go along I suppose
To anyone who is thinking of watching the games but hasn’t yet done so, I would recommend hitting BBC iPlayer (Google it) and watching the games online (or at least the highlights show, which will be significantly shorter and miss out the boring bits) BEFORE reading this (or any future) post, as there may be a few spoilers. I’ll print the scores down at the bottom if you can only be arsed to see the results

OK, everyone seen them who wants to?  Good, because here we go, beginning with…

ITALY, who won the England, Watch the Hell Out Award for Most Improved Game Style. Italy have traditionally been a side of big forwards who never got effectively used, and light backs who got very effectively run all over by the opposition. However, with the arrival of new coach Jacques Brunel (who after just one game has somehow earned the same admiration from me as I showed towards old coach Nick Mallett- and I thought he would do England proud), Italy at last appear to have a working, effective game plan. It isn’t complex- it basically involves working with the forwards close to the ruck to gain some quick ball and get the defence on the back foot, the same tactic my club uses when playing- but it is well-executed, well-suited to the Italian game plan (especially their captain, the superb Sergio Parisse), and Italy are at last beginning to look like a quality outfit

FRANCE are next up, and take the Bloody Hell, Where Did That Come From Award for Most Devastatingly Efficient Scorers. France got 4 tries from just 6 line breaks- a truly devastating strike rate that will strike fear into the hearts of defences in the weeks to come. Italy only had to make one mistake and bam- France were over. This was best demonstrated in their third try, which was also by far the most beautiful- fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc chipped over the defence, right behind the only weakly defended spot in the Italian line, in the only phase where the Italian full-back was out of position. This allowed him to run straight through the gap after the ball without the Italians managing to contest it and, after one deft touch from the outside of the foot and another off Aurelien Rougerie’s knee, Vincent Clerc was able to gather and run in under the posts. This is one attack to keep a close eye on

On to the next game, where ENGLAND (or more accurately their new captain, Chris Robshaw), won the Richie McCaw award for best cheating in the rucks. As any referee or flanker, and in fact most forwards, will tell you, the ruck is the place where the most offences can, and most often do, occur, and one of the few places where 90% of such offences are deliberate, since it is impossible for the referee to notice all of them amongst the bodies. Flankers are the masters of cheating at the breakdown, and Chris Robshaw on Saturday night showed that to perfection. I can think of only a few rucks where his hand (conveniently the one opposite to where the referee, George Clancy, was standing) was not on the ball illegally, or interfering with Scottish forwards. The fact that he only got caught two or three times is testament to the fact that in rugby, cheating is a skill rather than a foul- well, in rucks at least

SCOTLAND picked up both a team and individual award for their performance, collectively taking the Nigerian Striker Award (I can’t remember his name, the one from the World Cup) for the Most Missed Opportunities (they had several scoring opportunities that went begging, but dropped the ball so many times that it hardly mattered), and Man of the Match David Denton bagging the Mr T Award for Being An Absolute Tank. On only his second cap, he was a revelation, leaving defenders scattered in his wake and being Scotland’s only real source of go-forward. If  others could only follow his lead, Scotland would be a force to be feared.
(I could also have given Scotland the awards for Worst Way to Concede a Try for this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etiqc-cr1hY (skip to 1 minute), and would have given them Best Touchdown In Human History if the moment at 2:06 had actually resulted in a score. So close, yet so far)

To Sunday, where IRELAND were winners, almost of the match (a real cracker that was), but were denied as they won Harshest Legal Descision to be Yellow Carded for. With the clock reading 79 minutes and Wales desperate for the winning score, the Irish defence appeared to be going slowly backwards, but was holding firm on their own 22. Then Stephen Ferris, Ireland’s flanker (who had an outstanding game), put in a big hit, lifting the right leg of Ian Evans and forcing him sideways and into the dirt. To all rugby fans at home and in the stadium, the tackle was safe. It was techinically a lift-and-dump, yeah, but really, that stuff shouldn’t even be penalised. It was slow, it was controlled- fine. If that had been lower-league rugby no-one would have thought twice about it.
However, before the World Cup last autumn the international referees were told that anybody lifting legs above the shoulders warranted a penalty and 10 minutes in the sin bin, and that was what Ferris had done. He was yellowed, Wales got the penalty and won the match- many would argue deservedly. But the manner of their win left a bitter taste in the mouth of many an Irish fan, especially after what had happened to…

WALES, who also won multiple awards- not only the Me Playing Football Award for Worst Kicking (Rhys Priestland, who missed literally everything until Leigh Halfpenny took over kicking duties), and the How The Hell Is Someone That Skinny So Powerful Award (George North, who made one try and scored another through some spectacular hard running- for a 19-year-old, skinny winger, he was amazing), but also the Not Such A Dark Alley Award for Most Ridiculously Stupid And Brutal Behaviour I Have Ever Seen On A Rugby Pitch. 15 minutes prior to Ferris’ misdemeanour, Irish flanker Donncha Ryan attempted to counter-ruck the welsh off the ball. He failed, and was caught by Wales lock Bradley Davies, who then picked up Ryan, carried him away from the ruck while the ball was whisked away, and then, with Ryan totally innocent of the ball or any illegal move, picked him up, turned him over and spear-tackled him into the ground. To watch both it and Ferris’ tackle, see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUm9Whlaydc
Rugby is a violent sport- I will not deny that. But confine it please to a fair contest of fists, where little lasting damage is typically done, not this vindictive assault. Every player knows that a tackle like that is a potential broken neck and a life possibly ended, by a stupid, illegal move. The worst part is, he wasn’t even red-carded for it- the line judge, Dave Pearson, recommended a yellow and that was what was given. Ridiculous. As all the pundits were saying afterwards, that moment ruined an otherwise perfect advertisement for the game. Davies knows what he did and what he deserves- let’s hope its the last of such behaviour we see for a very long time

Final scores:

France 30- Italy 12
England 13- Scotland 6
Wales 23- Ireland 21