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…..

A Calamitous Climax in Murrayfield

After I described last week at the Millennium Stadium as a farce, I hardly expected to be trumped in the very next match, but how wrong I was!  A dramatic end to the game for sure, but the tension could, and should, have been ramped up yet another notch.  It was truly farcical how nobody knew whether the match had ended or whether there would be one last play once Scotland scored their try after battering away at the Welsh line!  At home we could all clearly see that seconds remained after Laidlaw’s conversion and that Wales should have restarted, yet on a difficult day for Glen Jackson, he opted to consult the TMO who duly gave him the wrong information!

How does Rugby Union, and in particular the Six Nations keep on doing this to itself?  The clock in the corner of the screen, generally seen around the grounds too, is meant to avoid this kind of problem, but it doesn’t.  The thrills and spills of a dramatic final play were allowed to proceed in 2010 where Wales showed impressive ball retention skills against a short-handed Scottish defence before Shane Williams dived under the posts to seal the result.  And who can forget the infamous “10 seconds” Chris White accorded to Wales in Rome in 2007 when James Hook quickly kicked to the corner in the hope of securing lineout possession and crossing the whitewash to win the game, spurning a kick at goal to draw.  As Wales prepared to throw, White proceeded to ask TMO Geoff Warren for a time check before blowing for full time, to the consternation and dismay of those in red.  The man with the whistle, as things currently stand, is the sole arbiter of the watch yet it seems as though on pitch officials are happy to defer to someone else when it comes to timekeeping.

On the same weekend as the missing seconds in Scotland, a similar overtime scenario played out in the Super 15 competition 6,000 miles away in South Africa.  As the Sharks chased a win against the Cheetahs in Durban, the ball was kicked into touch with the clock reading 79 minutes and 55 seconds.  Unlike in Murrayfield, the on-field referee Rohan Hoffmann – without needing to consult the TMO – clearly and correctly explained to the players that although the clock had turned red by the time the line-out had formed, there would in fact be time for a last play.  This duly took place with the final whistle eventually blown at 81.30.  In South Africa, unlike in Scotland, the officiating team did a great job and without any fuss, demonstrating the distance Super 15 officials are ahead in terms of organisation and decisiveness compared to their Northern Hemisphere counterparts.

Other sports, and in particular Rugby League must look at instances such as the one last Sunday and snigger.  They have adapted their game beyond compare over consecutive seasons, now stretching to TMO’s explaining decisions to the crowd, much like an NFL umpire in the USA.  In Rugby League, timing is clear, a hooter sounds when the time is up and no-one is under any illusions as to whether there will be a “next play”.  In Ice Hockey, there is a buzzer for the same reason and we have even seen hooters used in Southern Hemisphere Union games, so why not introduce it now to the Six Nations?  This is really the only sure-fire way to eliminate all element of doubt come the end of the match.

Having said that, it still requires a time-keeper with a diligent eye and precise hand to stop the clock at the right time and restart it again on the referee’s say-so.  Many sports manage this simply enough, so surely it would also prove a resounding success in the Six Nations as well, although you have to wonder given recent timekeeping history!  The viewing public seem more aware of the clock and the laws surrounding the end of the game than some of the officials who call time when there are seconds still to play.  Correctly and accurately implemented however, there is no reason to believe that the introduction of a league-style hooter would be anything other than a positive innovation, and one which referees like Glen Jackson would surely also welcome.

The Friday Farce

Well, what a let down Friday was for a Welsh rugby fan!  The awful decision to hold the game on a Friday night was just the start of it.  And we already know it won’t be for the final time, with a Friday night fixture already announced for the next two championships, presumably at the behest of the broadcasters with the usual scant regard for what the paying supporters actually would prefer.

And what on earth was the “light show” before the match all about?  Added to the now obligatory fireworks and the comfortable salary afforded to the CEO of the Welsh Rugby Union, anyone would think Welsh rugby has more money than it knows what to do with but of course that simply isn’t the case!  Grassroots clubs must be livid when they see their own money literally being burned in front of their eyes, a lavish spectacle lasting a couple of minutes preferred to the investment in club rugby and nurturing young talent and the future generation of Welsh players.  And they would rightly be annoyed when they consider what the CEO takes home for organising discos such as this one.

What is wrong with the band and choral hymns of old?  If that isn’t enough of a spectacle, well what about asking youngsters to perform some traditional Welsh dances?  Or getting the Under 20’s or Ladies teams to play a curtain raiser on a newly laid part-artificial turf that should easily now stand up to two games in one day?  What we were left with was more pop concert than sport and meant a complete lack of respect for the anthems as large electrical units were wheeled from the pitch during their singing so as not to delay the kick off.  One can only imagine what was spent on this spectacle all together.

As for the game itself, the result was certainly not what was expected from a solid and settled Welsh side, at home.  For all the horseplay about the roof, England left with no reason to accede to Welsh requests to close it ever again.  After a good start, Welsh fragilities began to show.  A complete lack of creativity behind the scrum was exposed as Wales failed to unlock the English defence.  In fact, it is difficult to remember Wales’ last clean line break and score full stop.  England on the other hand settled down and destabilised the opposition with fast footed players.  Ford, Joseph, Watson and Brown regularly stepped and jinked past first tackles and attacked weak shoulders.

Again Wales seemed to have no plan “B”.  The most creative player in their squad, Liam Williams, was left kicking his heels on the bench having looked hungry for the 8 minutes in which he replaced George North.  He, and Justin Tipuric, had the ability to at least change the style of the home team’s play but were not required on the day, even as Wales sought a way back in the second half.

Recent matches have demonstrated the big differences in the development structure of the two countries.  England are bringing their Under 20’s stars through the ranks, playing them in their “A” side and affording them a step up from Premiership rugby.  When they perform well, like Henry Slade, they are then added to the senior squad.  England seem to value their own young and creative talent whereas in Wales we are currently confining them to bit part roles.  Creative players in Wales are presently far less popular than larger physical specimens.  What has happened to Welsh flair and creativity?  Since the retirement of Shane Williams the team has lacked an X Factor player and is in desperate need of at least two in the backline.

Indeed what a farce last Friday turned out to be for a Welshman!  The WRU though, was as proficient as always in creating a spectacle using smoke and shadows, as it did on the night.  Hopefully though it was the grassroots clubs who truly saw the light and will begin to force for the changes in regime that are desperately needed in order to save our national sport.

Thoughts On 6 Nations 2015.

The ground frost and snowfall are now synonymous with the beginning of February which also spells the start of the 6 Nations season, the jewel in the crown of Northern Hemisphere rugby.  The matches between old rivals stir a whole host of emotions in any rugby fan, and the capital cities of Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy become party grounds for a month and a half.  The rugby bandwagon draws in all walks of life, all ages and all genders and nothing, it seems, will ever stop it rolling.

Every fan has an opinion about their team, and the opposition.  Suddenly everyone is a coach, selecting and dropping players, talking tactics and tweeting wildly optimistic prognostics.  The first game of this years’ tournament is the traditionally brutal derby between two old enemies, perhaps the greatest of foes, Wales and England.

England has suffered from a multitude of injuries in the build-up to the game, but still possess a potent threat behind.  Surely Wales must be favourites for this clash, at home and with probably the most settled and consistent side in the championship.  Whilst a win is undoubtedly better than a loss, and sets down a marker for what is to come at Twickenham later in the year, the public should be wary about placing too much emphasis on this game and going overboard if the win is delivered.  England will be a different side in September, and whatever happens in Cardiff they will be very focussed on the game in the World Cup.  Both sides should be cautious about peaking too early, though both will be equally trying their hardest to get the “W”.

This 6 Nations may well throw up more than a couple of surprises.  Of course the French could be magic or tragic, they have the players available to go unbeaten but as always their attitude could be their undoing.  If Philippe Saint-André can galvanise his stars to pull together, who knows where they could end up.  Perhaps though, the dark horses this year could be Scotland.  They are an unfashionable side to back but with the relative success of the Glasgow team and now with Vern Cotter at the helm, they are beginning to get the best out of their comparatively limited resources.  They have some good youngsters coming through in Grey, Seymour, Bennett and Dunbar (although they surely would also have loved to have been able to select Strauss and Matawalu too!) and will be smarting from their 50-point beating in Cardiff last year.  They have a point to prove to themselves, and without any real pressure or expectation on their shoulders to do so.  They really could pose more than their fair share of problems this time out.

I’m sure no coach will be discounting Italy on the pitch, and nor should they be taken lightly.   They will niggle away and stay on your heels, ready to pounce when you are unaware, as Wales, Scotland and France know all too well.  But realistically, the other 5 teams have enough firepower in their armoury which, if used correctly, should take them out of range of the Azzurri.  Most people’s favourites for the tournament will of course be Ireland, coming off the back of a great autumn series and with consistently strong results for provinces in the Pro 12.  Whilst it is difficult to bet against them, they don’t necessarily instil the same confidence right now as they once did and are seemingly still in transition trying to get over the loss of their talisman O’Driscoll.  Will their new kid on the block Robbie Henshaw be the new star of the 6 Nations?  Will Sean O’Brien rediscover his pre-Lions form?  Has the Irish scrum got a tighthead? All questions that will ultimately make or break their campaign.

I suppose if I had to pick a winner right now, it would have to be Wales if they can get off to a good start on Friday.  Mostly though, I’m predicting a few surprises before “Super Saturday” on March 21st.