SN Episode III: Revenge of the Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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