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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Six Nations wrapped up

OK, you can come out from under the sofa all you rugby-haters- this will be my last post about the great game for a while now, I promise, as I deliver my last set of awards to the sides in this year’s Six Nations, this time for their performances over the tournament as a whole. For me, this year’s has been a bit of an inconsistent one- some matches have been epic to watch, and there have been some really great moments, but then again a few games (the second half of Scotland-Ireland immediately springs to mind) which have bored me out of my skull. Still, as an Englishman it was nice to see Stuart Lancaster’s side play such great rugby- I can only hope that he gets a chance at the full-time job.

Now, onto the awards, beginning with SCOTLAND, who claimed both the wooden spoon (in a disappointing 5-game whitewash) and the Potential Does Not Equal Results Award for Biggest Discrepancy Between Squad Quality and Results. Scotland’s side contains some real gems of world rugby, and a few players in this tournament shone especially brightly. David Denton was a revelation at No.8, his barrelling runs and general go-forward belying his inexperience, and was well backed up in this regard by his giant lock, 22 year-old Richie Gray, whose powerful running and dominance of the lineout look set to make him a giant of the game over the next few years. John Barclay has always been a flanker of great quality, but even he was outshone by his counterpart Ross Rennie in this year’s tournament- he seemed to be absolutely everywhere, in every game he played, and was my pick for player of the tournament. Behind the pack, Mike Blair and Chris Cusiter were back to their formidable bests as they fought over the no.9 shirt, and Greig Laidlaw proved a great catalyst in attack for the Scots- his almost try on debut will go down as one of the best touchdowns I have ever seen. Max Evans and Sean Lamont were useful as ever in the threequarters, and young back 3 players Lee Jones and (especially) Stuart Hogg provided some deadly incisive running and finishing that the Scots have lacked in the past- and they have been backed up by a coach in Andy Robinson who not only has one of the highest win ratios of any Scotland coach ever (the third-highest, at the start of the tournament), but has done much to try and drive this Scottish side out of their perpetual doldrums. I could go on. And despite all that quality, all that skill, Scotland finished… last. Lost everything. Even to Italy. How the *&$% did that happen?

Speaking of ITALY, their award is up next: the …Oh Yes, I Knew There Was SOMETHING Different Award for Most Understated Arrival of a new coach. After last year’s World Cup, the Italian authorities finally decided to dispense with the services of Nick Mallett, the charismatic and successful South African who had lead the Italians to some (for them at least) impressive results, and helped bring them closer to the pace of modern world rugby. In his placed stepped Jacques Brunel, whose lofty aims at the start of the tournament centred around being title contenders within three years. Generally throughout a coach’s first term in office, he is the subject of much media attention, as was England’s caretaker coach Stuart Lancaster. Brunel on the other hand… well, he got a bit of hype on the first weekend- lots of camera cuts to him in down moments looking pensieve, or elated, or… well it’s kind of hard to tell through his superb moustache. But after that, he sort of faded out of the spotlight, lacking Mallett’s sheer charisma and beaming smile in front of the camera, , and only being referred to as an impassive face whenever his defence leaked a try. Even in the Italian’s win over Scotland (which so far gives Brunel a 20% win rate), I only saw one camera cut of him. Or at least, that’s the picture I got from the British media, anyway.

On to IRELAND, clear winners of the Oh, Just Make Your Bloody Minds Up! Award for Biggest Selection Headaches. Coach Declan Kidney was not presented with an easy selection task- not only was his captain, leading try scorer and national talisman Brian O’Driscoll injured for the entire tournament, which only compounded the age-old battle at fly-half between Jonny Sexton and Ronan O’Gara by offering the possibility of playing them together, but vice-captain Paul O’Connell’s health was similarly in doubt, Donnacha Ryan was pushing for either his or Donncha O’Callaghan’s place in the second row, Sean Cronin and Tom Court were challenging up front, and media pressure was building to replace powerful ball-carrier Sean O’Brien with a more natural openside flanker. Kidney stuck to his guns with O’Brien, but elsewhere he was forced into lots of compromise and chopping & changing. He tried out several centre combinations involving a mixture of Sexton, Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls, and later on had to cover for a bad drop in form for long-term centre Gordon D’Arcy. Up front, he dithered over whether to play Ryan or O’Callaghan alongside the strength and imperious form of O’Connell, before O’Connell’s injury finally forced his hand into playing the athletic but slightly weaker second rows alongside one another- a move that backfired spectacularly when, forced to bring Court on early against England, his pack were shunted all over the pitch and completely demolished in an imperious English scrummaging performance. Kidney tried his best, but this year selection-wise, it was not to be.

Now we come to FRANCE, who take the Er, Aren’t You Supposed To Improve With Experience? Award for Progressively Deteriorating Performances. The third team with a new coach this season, France began with a performance against a determined Italian side that made the other teams sit up and take notice- a clinical showing  that some predicted would put them at the top of the pile come the business end of proceedings. This was followed up by an equally clinical display against a spirited Scotland side displaying some newfound invention and incisiveness… and then things began to get patchy. Next up against Ireland, they were two tries down by half-time and only some ground-out penalties and a now-familiarly devastating run from monotonous try machine Wesley Fofana helped them salvage a draw. Their next display was more… well, French (ie fluid and free-flowing), but it was rather forced to be after a blistering first 20 by England, and even another Fofana try couldn’t prevent a two-point loss. Finally, they hit their nadir against Wales- admittedly a quality side who won the Grand Slam that day, but their win was by a single try. For the first time in the tournament, Fofana didn’t cross the line, and the French side as a whole seemed rather lethargic for huge chunks of the game. Tense? Certainly. Compelling? Yes, especially considering that there was a Grand Slam (and possibly a championship) at stake. But a good performance? Er, no. Bear in mind that these guys, with almost exactly the same squad, got to A FRIKKIN’ WORLD CUP FINAL.

To the top two, where the impressive ENGLAND took the See Johnson, Experimentation DOES Work Award for Most Impressive New Squad Performance. A lot was made at the start of this tournament about the youth and inexperience of the England side- there were 5 new caps on the first game of the tournament, a 1-cap captain and a second row pairing whose collective caps total didn’t go above 10 until the Ireland game. The biggest unknown was, of course, Owen Farrell- the son of coach and dual-codes legend Andy and a rising star in the Saracens squad, having won the Premiership with an impressive kicking performance last season. His first two games were at inside centre, allowing old head Charlie Hodgson (‘Chargedown Charlie’) to take the bulk of the pressure off him at fly-half- but prior to the game against World Cup semi-finalists and later Grand Slam winners Wales, Hodgson was injured and Farrell, aged just 20 and with two caps to his name, had to step into the most pressurised position on the pitch, whilst still maintaining kicking duties. He has famously said that the Wigan U-11’s immunised him to boos whilst kicking, but his performance under so much pressure was frankly amazing- combined with another trademark kicking technique (this time involving a glare out of the post that seems to dare them to move out of the way), there are many (me included), who find it hard not to draw parallels between this young, blonde, northern fly-half cum centre with a wicked boot, resolute temperament and a great control of the game and the legend that is Jonny Wilkinson. He was by far the only impressive newbie- Ben Morgan’s running quickly became a bedrock of the side from No.8, Chris Robshaw (captaining from openside) proved a sublime cheat at the rocks, the new centre pairing of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi look set to be a dominant set of bulldozers in the future, and new coach Stuart Lancaster has quickly made himself very popular with the rugby press- but of all of them, it is perhaps Farrell who best epitomises the meteoric rise of this young squad.

And finally, to winners of both the Grand Slam and the OMFG, That Is Never Going To Stop Being Epic Award for Single Best Moment Of The Tournament Award, WALES. Welsh fans would pick out several moments that I could here be referring to- perhaps any of Alex Cuthbert’s tries? No, although they were quite good. Then maybe some of Dan Lydiate’s barnstorming tackles? No, although he was by far the best defender of the tournament and the kind of guy who will make the life of selectors (and David Pocock, come to think of it), very difficult come next year’s Lions Tour. What about the moment of victory itself, the winning of the Grand Slam? Again, no- sure it was great for the Welsh fans, and it was wonderfully tense, but that moment is very much supporter-specific. No, the moment I refer to goes back to their very first game, against the Irish, and Wales’ other giant winger George North. Everyone who saw the moment knows exactly what I was talking about. It epitomised rugby- the speed of the step, the power of the hit, the grace of the offload, the sublimity of the move as a whole. For those who didn’t see it, and for those who, like me, just want to see it over and over again, here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72CC9AaoNx0&feature=related

Enjoy 🙂