The Final Round (Six Nations 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nations: 6. Round: 5. Twenty: FOURteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lions 2K13: The Whole Package

This will be my last post on this year’s Lions squad (promise; more aerodynamics next time). I’ll probably be coming back to the tour during the summer when they start playing games, but for now I’ve got a few things to consider, beginning with the makeup of the tour party.

Of the 37 players in the initial tour squad, 21 of them are forwards; a balance that, whilst not apparently significant, is indicative of the balance of player numbers. If he is trying to cover a position for both weekend and midweek games whilst allowing for form or injury, a coach would generally take double the number of players required in each position plus one (so three fullbacks, five wingers, five centres and so on), with a few more for particularly high-attrition positions such as the front row. However, this tactic alone would create a squad of more than 40 which, given that the Lions-size squad of 37 is about the upper limit to be effectively manageable and organised for a touring party, would simply not work, particularly if there were a lot of good candidates for any one position to further force the numbers up. As such, some positions are always going to be culled of an extra man here or there, and Gatland has chosen the backs; picking just four wingers and four centres means that only one is likely to be properly rested for each game, whilst the two flyhalves will find the going especially tough with the potential to be sharing starting & subbing duties for every single match. By contrast, there are eight back rowers and nine front rowers covering just six positions between them. The flyhalf problem may be helped if Gatland chooses, as he has mentioned, to play Stuart Hogg as an auxiliary fly half, but even so problems may arise; here taking James Hook or Greig Laidlaw may have mitigated the problem further, but I presume Gatland knows what he’s doing.

That he’s taken so many forwards may indicate two things; firstly that Gatland knows how high Lions attrition rates often are (especially up front) and he wants to ensure all his forwards are used to playing with one another whatever happens, and that he thinks that is where the key battles will lie. The Australians have one of the fastest and most exciting back lines in world rugby, despite many of their players being inconsistent in their brilliance; on their day they can set a game alight and, good though the Lions backs undoubtedly are, even they may struggle to cope with them in full flow. It may well be that Gatland has decided that he thinks the Australians weak link will be up front, and that if the tight five can gain dominance over their counterparts the Wallabies will simply have no ball to play with. Whilst the Australian back three is mobile and contains, in David Pocock, possibly the finest openside in world rugby (as well as the barnstorming runner that is Wycliffe Palu), they are not renowned for their scrummaging ability and, if set on the back foot in the power stakes, could see their effectiveness drastically dim. Go back to my last post, and count the number of times the word ‘scrummaging’ was used to describe the Lions’ prop selection. I think that might reveal quite a bit, and explain why some more exciting, but temperamental, players (looking at you, Christian Wade) have been left out of the squad; Gatland’s playing the safe game.

Running counter to this theory is some of the players he’s included; the likes of Richie Gray, Tom Youngs and Justin Tipuric are known for their performances in loose, rather than structured gameplay, so why has he picked them? The most probable answer is also the simplest; things go wrong in international rugby, and sometimes the Australians will get some ball to play with. Even if the Lions can’t quite match the Australian’s loose game, they must at least be able to counter it for the time being if the needs arise. These players may end up filling the bench as ‘just in case’ measures; or it may transpire that I’m totally wrong, and that Gatland may be picking good scrummagers up front as the basis for a looser, faster game. We will see.

If solidity is Gatland’s tactic, then his game plan may well be based around ensuring set-piece ball is top-notch. This might give Alun Wyn Jones the nod over Paul O’Connell for the second row berth due to his increased lineout presence, and suggests that Richie Gray is going to have to improve his game in the tight to justify inclusion over the lineout specialists Geoff Parling and Ian Evans; whichever one of those it ends up being depends very much on in-game form, but Evans may have the edge due to his experience partnering Jones for Wales. If he does though, his mobility around the park could reap dividends at the breakdown. If this doesn’t prove the case, then expect to see Tom Croft making a surprise appearance at blindside; whilst not a traditional defensive blindside, Croft is a born Test match player and his lineout agility is second to none. There are a few dead certs elsewhere in the squad; Adam Jones at tighthead, Toby Faletau at No.8, Sam Warburton at openside flanker, Mike Phillips at 9 and Jonny Sexton at 10, but elsewhere things are a little more uncertain. There is a reasonable chance that country combos will end up coming to the fore, at least for the Welsh; the back three and back row are likely to be all-Welsh, and there is a possibility for the second row and centres to follow a similar pattern. If Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard are injured then there’s a possibility for an English front row and an even slimmer chance of an English half-back pairing (if Mike Phillips is injured, the Irish half-backs may combine), but the view of most is that this will be a Welsh-dominated test side. I hope it is not too overrun by Welshies; nothing against them as players, only the fact that the Welsh national side has failed to beat Australia on its own several times in the past. Plus, y’know, it’s a Lions tour; ‘E pluribus unum’ and all that.

Beyond those few suggestions however, few notions of team selection cannot be made with any accuracy at this stage; all will depend on how various players perform in warmup matches, and it will be intriguing to see who Gatland picks to start the opening weekend and midweek matches respectively (the opening Barbarians match excluded; that’s likely to be a bit more experimental). Either way, this team selection has revealed just how much strength their is in European rugby at the moment (I mean, just check out this article on the best British & Irish 15 not going on tour, and see how strong it is), and the tour will doubtless prove… intriguing.

Lions Squad 2013

Yes, it’s rugby talk again; this time we are specifically talking about the announcement made yesterday concerning Warren Gatland’s squad for summer’s Lions tour (the second aerodynamics post will be along later). I have and have heard plenty of strong opinions in the buildup to this announcement concerning who should and shouldn’t be taken for various reasons, but I’m not about to start slagging off Mr. Gatland’s decisions (not least because he’s got enough people screaming at him on the internet already). No, the purpose of this post is simply to study the makeup of the tour party in order to explain some of the coaching team’s thought processes, make a guess as to what the final test side will be (at this stage; a LOT depends on how people perform in the warmup matches), and to suggest how Gatland intends his team to play.

We begin with the elephant in the room; the question of whether to pick France-based players, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to travel with the rest of the tour party if they were involved in the Top 14 finals. Gatland kept his cards close to his chest on this one prior to the announcement, saying only that he would ‘prefer’ to have the whole side go out together, and it’s easy to see why. Players coming in late (and off the back of one of the toughest domestic seasons in the world to boot) are always disruptive to a tour, but with so few warmup games for the Lions before Gatland has to knuckle down and pick his test side, such players would only have a couple of games in which to justify their inclusion. In the end, he’s stuck to his guns and only picked players who will be able to travel with the initial party to Hong Kong (where they will play the Barbarians as a first warm-up match); Gethin Jenkins (Toulon) has had an unhappy season in France and the club have apparently released him to tour in full, whilst Mike Phillips (Bayonne) is playing for a club small enough (and mid-table enough) that they probably won’t mind giving him up quite as much as, say, Andrew Sheridan (who’s started almost every game for table-topping Toulon). Gatland’s clearly decided that there’s enough talent at home to suit his needs, and… well, let’s get into the individual positions before I start offering opinions.

We begin at fullback, where there are, predictably, no surprises. In Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg and Rob Kearney Gatland had three of the best 15’s in the world to choose from, and the only real debate pre-selection concerned whether he was going to take all three or leave either the superlatively talented Halfpenny (not a chance), the mercurial Hogg (who some have pencilled in at winger for the test team) or Kearney, with all his dominance of the aerial battle and his experience as a test Lion in 2009 (a tour he was superb on). At winger, however, there was more debate pre-announcement; the Welsh giants of George North and Alex Cuthbert were always going to tour, (even if North has been closed down by defences this season and Cuthbert can only finish, rather than create), but beyond that there was more confusion. Tommy Bowe has Lions experience but has been injured recently, Craig Gilroy, Simon Zebo, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser have great potential but limited international experience, Chris Ashton has been devastating in the past but has hit a run of poor form, and Christian Wade (the outside bet) is an electric attacker in the mould of Jason Robinson (seriously, watch this step from the 2001 tour, and then this from earlier this season. See the similarity?), but some question his defensive abilities. In the end, the Welsh pair have been joined by Bowe and Maitland, a mix that has less searing, defence-busting pace than it does all-round skill and reliability; the safer option. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gatland to pick an all-Welsh back three (he is their coach after all), but personally I think that Bowe and Maitland would be a more complete pair. Or at least, if Gatland makes North and Cuthbert think that’s what he’s doing, they might pull their fingers out.

Moving further forward we come to the centres. The legend that is Brian O’Driscoll joins Jonathan Davies in making up the skilful, running half of the group, and both have a natural gift for creating something; crucial if someone like Cuthbert takes the winger’s berth. Both are out-and-out 13’s so won’t play on the same side, but the Australians would do well to be wary of either. To complement them, Gatland has chosen a couple of traditional bulldozers in Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi. Roberts and O’Driscoll formed a mean centre partnership in 2009, but Roberts has blown hot and cold since then and only performs really well when his team are definitively on top. Brad Barritt may have offered more, especially in defence, but doesn’t run the same hard lines or have the ability to really set a game alight. Tuilagi is a whole other entity; normally he plays 13, and whilst he has a good pair of hands, a mean handoff and is a more varied, complete runner than Roberts, he’s not used to distributing and could struggle if forced to play inside centre. I would be tempted to pencil in Tuilagi and O’Driscoll if I were naming the team tomorrow, but all will depend on how various partnerships click together in the warmup matches.

Onto fly-half, and the biggest selection news of all; only two No. 10s are touring, and neither of them are Jonny Wilkinson. After a dominant performance for Toulon in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens, many expected him to make the plane over his opposite number for that game, Owen Farrell (who was given a masterclass in fly-half play by Wilkinson). However, Wilkinson has since come forward to say that he was approached and, whilst flattered, didn’t think his body would be able to cope with the pressures of such an intense tour immediately after a tough French season. Still, his clinical finishing ability and the fear he puts into the hearts of Australian rugby fans will both be missed. As it is, we have Jonny Sexton and Farrell on the plane to Oz; Sexton has been The European No. 10 for the past few seasons and, whilst rarely massively exciting, he never has a bad game. Farrell is younger and more inconsistent, and will be playing definite understudy to Sexton throughout this tour; but he is nonetheless talented and has the perfect temperament to deal with the pressure of Lions rugby should injury strike (in which case Wilkinson could be called up or, as Gatland has pointed out, Stuart Hogg could drop in). Even better, with Leigh Halfpenny’s boot in the equation Farrell wouldn’t have the responsibility of keeping the scoreboard ticking over to worry about, further settling his nerves.

If my Lions tour were to have only two flyhalves, I would personally try to address that deficit by taking either James Hook (a fantastically talented, creative player much misused by Wales in the past thanks to his ability to play absolutely everywhere in the backs; unfortunately he plays in France so has not been picked) or Greig Laidlaw; not only can Laidlaw play both 9 and 10 very well, but he can kick, has a good pass and has all the requisite skills. However, his traditional scrum-half stature can sometimes him defensively vulnerable, particularly playing at 10, which is the only reason I can think of as to why such a talented player is not in the tour party. Gatland has chosen three scrum-halves: Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs and Conor Murray, and nobody will expect at this stage anyone other than Phillips to start for the tests. Although he lacks creativity and his pass is, frankly, too slow, he is a born big-match player and is fierce and combative enough to act like a fourth back-rower; which would be great if Gatland hadn’t chosen eight very talented back rowers. Murray is a similar player with a stronger pass but lacks Phillips’ sheer dynamism, whilst Youngs offers something different; a highly creative scrum-half who loves nothing more than looking for opportunities. He probably won’t make the test side thanks to his habit of running with it too far before passing, eating up time and space, but has the skill to make the Aussies sit up and take notice should the game need an injection of pace.

OK, so that’s 1400 words on just the backs; I think the forwards will have to wait for next time, along with an analysis of the squad as a whole, likely tactics and how well I think they’ll perform. See you then…

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

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