A Poor Quality Six Nations in World Cup Year

The Six Nations may be the jewel in the crown of the Northern Hemisphere rugby season with all of the history and rivalry it entails, but some of the matches played so far this season have been dour, with skills and spatial awareness at times sparse or even completely absent.

Last weekend’s European derby in Rome was a real fast-forward-frenzy, perfectly formed for the Sky+ era with only about 5 minutes of play worth enduring at normal speed.  Forget the thrills; this was all about the spills as players from both teams juggled the ball like inexperienced clowns, time and again allowing it to fall to the deck.  What a depressingly poor quality match, and a terrible advert for the tournament as a whole.  Indeed, all of the French matches have been pretty dire thus far, and a far cry from the resplendent offloads and mazy running lines of days gone by.

Even when angles are cut and half-breaks made, try scoring opportunities are squandered and opportunities go to waste.  England has the most creative backline in the Championship and created several gilt edged chances against Scotland but failed to complete the job time and again.  In Cardiff, Wales defended heroically on their own line but the Irish must have been wearing Gold Cup blinkers as they pummeled away around the fringes and spurned countless men over on the wide outside.  As good as the result was for Wales, and as enjoyable as the tight games may have been for the fans, realistically one has to say that the lack of composure and clinical finishing does not bode well for the forthcoming World Cup.

Contrast the game in the North to the rugby in the Southern Hemisphere.  The Super 15 season is not long underway and the games are electric, the offloads come thick and fast and there is a much bigger emphasis on attack.  That isn’t to say that defensive duties are neglected, in fact far from it.  There are some bone crunching hits, well won turnovers and solid counter-rucks, but teams aren’t wasting time grappling on the floor to slow opposition possession, or simply trying to win a long-winded territory battle with the boot.  Instead, they concentrate on handling skills and working hard to break down defences with deft running lines, neat offloads and intelligent support play.  Fitness levels in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa must be immense; players are working so hard with and without the ball for 80 minutes, providing an enthralling spectacle week in, week out.  Come the World Cup in October, when the cream has risen to the top and players have been in International training camps for a few weeks, these teams could prove unplayable for the Northern Hemisphere outfits that seem to be playing at a far slower pace.

That isn’t to say there have been no rays of light in this year’s Six Nations, as the emergence of some new players onto international the scene have been a revelation.  The Italian lock Biagi, France’s Scott Spedding and La Rochelle Number 8 Goujon as well as a trio of centres from England, Ireland and Scotland – Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw and Mark Bennett have all proved their worth, with the Bath centre in particular taking his creative club form straight onto the Six Nations stage.  But what I’ve felt has really been missing is the intent from teams to go for the jugular and kill off the opposition with heavy scores.  Perhaps this is something a bonus point structure could address?  After all, the 6 Nations is now the only annual rugby tournament still not using points-scoring incentives of any kind.  Maybe now is the right time to break with tradition and introduce bonus points to improve the spectacle and encourage teams to play with a more attacking mind-set?  This year’s table might well look the same if bonus points were accounted for, but that simply reinforces the belief that no-one is really playing with enough ambition or desire to score more tries than they absolutely require to win.  Who knows just how the results could have been impacted had the extra point incentives been in play?

Overall, this year’s Six Nations has been rather disappointing and lacking a certain “je ne sais quoi”, as maybe teams have a bigger prize in mind and one eye on the World Cup in the autumn.  For all the excitement and importance placed on the final table at the end of this Saturday’s games, perhaps though we should be wary about proclamations and predictions of who will do what when the tournament kicks off in September.  Last Saturday, Wales did do well to beat a tough Irish team, and England did show they could make a break or two, but each and every team in this year’s Six Nations will have to reduce their error count significantly if they have great aspirations later on this year.  Come to think of it, perhaps the French have developed a cunning plan to get all of their mistakes cleared out of the way before the tournament gets underway in September…..

#StayStrongForOws Grand Prize Draw

Fund raising is not something I am particularly used to doing personally.  If the truth be told, I find it quite difficult asking for money from others, not least because this seems to be a daily activity most of us will encounter already whether in the street, online or on TV.  However, this year I have made a commitment to do my best to raise funds for former Welsh International Owen Williams, as has my colleague Gareth who is participating in several sporting events, beginning with the Paris Marathon in just a few weeks’ time.

One of the ways we have hit upon to raise funds is to hold a prize draw for everyone who donates £10 (or multiple thereof).  To encourage entries, we needed to get some pretty spectacular prizes together and I think we have just about managed to do that!  Thanks to a few of my contacts over my playing and coaching career, I was able to put out a few calls and the response was amazing.  Not one person turned down my request when they heard who the money would be for, and this really epitomises the strength of feeling in the rugby community and the support for Owen and the whole #StayStrongForOws campaign.

Thanks to the Welsh players in Paris, and particularly to Luke Charteris, we are able to offer a signed Racing Metro jersey as a prize for one lucky winner.  This is a really special piece of memorabilia, and something which is would be almost unique in the UK.  This is a really big prize for someone to win and it alone should pique the interest of most rugby fans, and will hopefully encourage many to donate a tenner to such a worthwhile cause to have a chance of winning it.

PrizesSeparately, through contacts in Wales we have pairs of tickets to regional games, including one derby (Scarlets v Blues) available and one potentially decisive fixture at the Liberty Stadium between Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors in May.  I’ve also been provided with a signed Newport Gwent Dragons shirt and Gareth will be getting a signed #StayStrongForOws ball from the Cardiff Blues.

Naturally these prizes are great and hopefully will encourage more donations.  Whether you decide to donate to enter the prize draw, or in recognition of Gareth’s exploits, or both, you can rest assured that everybody who joins us in donating to Owen and his family will, I am certain, be winners in their eyes.  So please do give all you can, cross your fingers and hopefully you may win a prize.  Tell all your friends and family to enter too and let’s work together to generate a good amount to help Owen in his recovery.

The Clairvoyance of IWRTV

When I co-founded IWRTV a little over a year ago, the landscape of Welsh rugby was bleak, perhaps as bleak as it had ever been.  Many words have been written about this period of Welsh rugby by amateur bloggers and the disastrous state the game was in and how it got there.  IWRTV was however, in my opinion, a little different.  We gave a voice to the grassroots clubs in a format they had not benefitted from for some time, and used experienced panel members to articulate their views on the problems in and around rugby in Wales.  Given the independent nature of the programme, we were able to freely and openly discuss these, and almost immediately the audience was captivated and complimentary.  What transpired over the course of the shows was, in retrospect, quite clairvoyant in how the situation was assessed and solutions suggested to overcome the problems.  Looking back over them now with hindsight, it is pleasing to think how we played our part in events of the last year, even once we had stopped broadcasting.

In episode one, Ben Jeffreys lamented the league structure and spoke about how the grassroots clubs were being ignored, a theme that carried through pretty much every subsequent show thereafter.  I joined with other panellists voicing concerns about how the new leagues, initially imposed with very little consultation or empathy for the clubs and their supporters, was leading to a feeling of resentment and would cause a larger problem sooner or later.  And so it transpired, with the EGM call largely set-up on the back of league restructuring issues.  In June, the clubs were by and large placated with reassurances of consultation, but the wheels of change had been set in motion.

Stephen Jones, of the Sunday Times, spoke of the need to market the game better at the lower level and bemoaned the missed opportunities to promote the sport.  Elsewhere, we were praised by club secretaries and regional Chief Executives for exposing the lower echelons to a wider public, showing off the talents of amateur players and generating interest for commercial partners at clubs, who in turn could benefit from greater revenue.  Although we were effectively “shut down” and stopped from showing the games, it was pretty obvious that interest within the clubs had stirred and they had begun to question why they too couldn’t enjoy some kind of coverage of this sort.

David Moffett had of course re-entered the fray and made key points about the WRU finances.  Again IWRTV took the lead with an exclusive interview, asking insightful questions and ensuring club members could hear all sides of the debate and make a balanced judgement.  Whilst others chose to overlook many of his actions and neglected to interview him directly, IWRTV preferred to retain an entirely open stance, although sadly our invitations to the WRU to join us on the show were refused on more than one occasion.

Our final episode lasted a full hour, even without footage, and proved the most profound of all.  Gareth Davies, still CEO of the Newport Gwent Dragons at the time, predicted that until a positive relationship could be found between the regions and the Union, arguments would perpetuate.  In typically robust fashion, Spike Watkins proclaimed Roger Lewis to be the sticking point and maintained that progress would not be made without his removal and a change in the Chairman of the Union.  Within months of the programme being broadcast, Gareth Davies had succeeded David Pickering, and soon after Lewis announced his resignation as CEO.  The tide had turned in the manner IWRTV had predicted in its short six month lifespan.

One prediction though remains outstanding, and that concerns the more distant future and the fate of Welsh rugby over the next 5 years.  Peter Jackson and Andrew Hore both echoed my own comments that the decisions made right now may not be felt today, but in years to come.  Hore went on to state that the legacy of the board can in fact only be judged at that time, and not in the immediate aftermath.  So for all of the current trumpeting in certain quarters, perhaps we should be mindful that Welsh rugby could be on the precipice for a few seasons yet to come.

Maybe one day IWRTV can make a comeback and hopefully continue to fill the vacuum in publicity for those grassroots clubs that so need our support, one can only hope.  For all of us who participated in the show however, it was an unmitigated success, moving the debate along and foreseeing the future.  The path may have seemed obvious to most, even without a crystal ball, but without the courage to speak and the platform to publicise, it is quite feasible that these developments could have remained simply pipe dreams.