Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Six Nations — Week Two

Although three teams won last weekend, I suspect only two coaches felt any satisfaction.

Eddie O'Sullivan must surely have felt slightly apprehensive about having to face a resurgent Scottish team at Murrayfield without two of his most potent weapons, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon Darcy. If so, the apprehension was misplaced. Was this the same Scottish team that had come so close to winning in Paris only a week earlier? It certainly didn't look like it. Cardboard imitations could hardly have performed so badly.

Meanwhile, over in Rome, Mike Ruddock must have been wondering what had happened to the Italian pack that gave the Irish such a mauling in week one. It certainly wasn't in evidence against a Welsh team that begins to look as if it might just have what it takes to win the championship (Ruddock, wisely, is avoiding talk of a grand slam and so, for the moment, will I).

So the only surprise on Saturday was that the games were by no means the close-fought affairs that I'd expected.

Sunday was an altogether different matter.

England has now lost three successive games by a total margin of one unconverted try and seems to be making a habit of turning a winning position into a defeat. Instead of consoling himself with the narrowness of the loss, Andy Robinson should be asking himself (and, more importantly, his players) how a team that goes in at half-time with an 11-point cushion can contrive to lose the second half by a score of 12-0.

Bernard Laporte, meanwhile, might be wondering how it is that his team is still in contention for a possible grand slam. It certainly owes nothing to his selection policies, which continue to baffle and enrage in equal measure: Dimitri Yachvili's kicking game showed just how misguided Laporte's team selection for the Scottish game had been, but his squad for the game against Wales in a fortnight's time shows that he has not lost his eccentric touch — one is reminded of Rudolph Straeuli's ever-changing teams during his time as Springbok coach.

The most notable feature of week two was the lack of foul play. It's true that Italy's no 8, Sergio Parisse, has been cited for stamping on Stephen Jones, but as the incident in question wasn't broadcast, it's difficult to know how bad it was, though the sight of Jones leaving the field with a ripped jersey and bloodied gashes on his shoulder blade suggests it might have been serious. Other than that, the only incident that might (should!) have merited a yellow card for "dirty play" was Martin Corry's hit on the French full-back, Pepito Elhorga. I say 'hit' because it wasn't a tackle: Corry made no attempt to use his arms, contenting himself with a brutal shoulder charge into Elhorga's back. Paddy O'Brien, who in the past has shown an almost distasteful readiness to dish out yellow, or even red, cards (remember Jannes Labuschagne?), was quick to make the excuse that Corry might not have heard him whistle for Elhorga's 'mark', but that was surely irrelevant: it wasn't the lateness of the hit, but the manner of it, that merited a yellow card.


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Six Nations — Week One

Never underrate the underdog! That's the clear message from the first round of 6N matches.

"If Gordon Bulloch's men win in Paris, it will be the upset of the tournament" I wrote last week. And on Saturday afternoon I was almost forced to eat my words. Not that Scotland played well enough to win, but France certainly played badly enough to lose. Apart from a brief flurry midway through the first half and some sustained pressure close to the Scottish line in the closing minutes of the half, the French, in the first 40 minutes, didn't look like potential champions. That said, they'd have gone in at half time feeling a lot happier if Michalak had been on the field to take advantage of the kicking opportunities. In the second half France looked better, especially after the introduction of Michalak. Scotland's belligerent coach, Matt Williams, might have had some harsh words about the officials but I don't think they can be faulted over Allister Hogg's disallowed try — the touch judge was right on the spot and had a much better view than the TV cameras were able to provide. The sin-binning of Jon Petrie is a different matter: the referee was in no doubt that a player in an offside position had tackled Valbon, preventing what might easily have been a try, and although his comments weren't clear, he seemed to be telling the Scots that he'd considered awarding a penalty try; the only unfortunate aspect is that Petrie seemed to be blameless — if any one was at fault, it was probably Stuart Grimes. That said, a professional foul that close to the line deserves a yellow card and the fact that France went on to level the scores and then get the winning try was probably just about fair.

In Saturday's second match, Wales didn't disappoint. For much of the game they were the only side playing rugby and, with a different kicker and better discipline, could have put the game out of England's reach before half-time. I'd expected to see Gavin Henson taking the kicks at goal and was amazed that they stuck with the out-of-sorts Stephen Jones for as long as they did. The ease with which Henson converted the one opportunity he was given must surely make him the kicker of choice for the rest of the tournament. Gareth Thomas, on the other hand, must have done his chances of being picked as Lions captain no good at all with a stupid display of ill-discipline just before the half. When your team is camped on the opponent's try line and the referee is consulting with his touch judge about something that is almost certainly going to give you a penalty, it would be rank stupidity for anyone to show such indiscipline that the penalty is reversed; when it's the captain, rushing in from 15 yards back, who turns the ball over to the opposition, it's inexcusable. I've never understood why Colin Charvis was dropped as Welsh captain and this incident just reinforced my belief that Mike Ruddock made a mistake.

And finally to Rome, where John Kirwan's Italians did everything except win the game. An Irish pack more or less at full strength was comprehensively outplayed at the scrums and breakdowns and if Italy had had just one back with a touch of flair, this game could have been very different. Instead, two darting runs by O'Driscoll, some very smart play by Horgan and Stringer, and some pretty woeful Italian defending gave Ireland a result that flattered them; and also, unfortunately, left them with worrying injuries to O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy.

Looking ahead, I fully expect the French to raise their game against England and will be surprised if Michalak (and perhaps Yachvili) doesn't make the starting XV — kicking penalties is so crucial that even the unpredictable Bernard Laporte will surely see the sense in having a proven kicker on the field from the outset. Wales, based on their performance against England, should see off Italy: even though the Welsh pack will again be without Colin Charvis, I doubt that the Italians will be able to assert the same superiority that they did against Ireland, and the Welsh back line is quite as capable as their Irish counterparts when it comes to probing weaknesses in the opposition's defence. Scotland against Ireland will, I still believe, be a close match, though if O'Driscoll is unable to start, the Scots might just have a chance.

In fact, for the first time since the Five Nations became the Six Nations, any team is capable, on its day, of beating any other. Which is great news for the tournament, great news for rugby.


Thursday, February 03, 2005

Piero - New Technology from the BBC

The BBC is publicising new technology that it plans to introduce during its coverage of the Six Nations, starting with Saturday's game from Cardiff. From the sound of it, the 'new' technology is not dissimilar to 'Hawkeye', the system that has been in operation during cricket broadcasts for several years now: a series of fixed cameras provides telemetric data that is processed by computer to render a 3-D image of the action.

It sounds fascinating, and I look forward to seeing it in action. But one aspect of its proposed use bothers me, and that is when, as the BBC suggests, it's used to resolve disputes about whether or not a pass is forward.

From what I can see, all that Piero (the fancy name for the new system) will be able to tell is whether the ball travelled forward between passer and recipient. But even if it does, it's not necessarily a forward pass within the laws of the game.

Law 12 defines a 'throw forward' as occurring:

"when a player throws or passes the ball forward. 'Forward' means towards the opposing team's dead-ball line."

On a strict interpretation of the law, it's not the path of the ball that determines whether it was thrown forward, but the action of the passer. When a back, running at speed, passes the ball laterally, or even slightly backwards, the momentum of the ball will carry it forward; that's not a forward pass, just simple physics. And, provided that the referee is satisfied that the passer delivered the ball laterally or backwards, he's perfectly entitled to treat the pass as legal even if the ball travels forward.

But, with Piero, we could find ourselves in a situation where a pass that is deemed legal by the referee is adjudged to be forward by the technology, if, as I suspect, it is only taking account of the flight of the ball.

In an ideal world, of course, the technology would be able to factor in the passer's (and, hence, the ball's) forward momentum and give us a scientifically accurate assessment of whether the ball was "thrown forward", but I suspect Piero is not at that stage yet and that, far from resolving disputes, it may just add to them.


Monday, January 31, 2005

Who Will Win the Six Nations?

The Six Nations are almost upon us, so it's time to think about winners and losers.

Losers are, I think, a bit easier to identify than winners this year. I can't see Scotland or Italy beating any of the other four (although I give Scotland an outside chance against Wales), so the wooden spoon will probably be decided when Scotland host Italy at Murrayfield. And although Italy won in Rome last year, I don't see them repeating that in Edinburgh. So I think we'll see poor Italy propping up the heap this year, with Scotland doing just enough to scrape clear of the bottom.

At the other end of the table, things are a lot less clear, especially as all teams will be starting the competition without key players.

Week one sees France hosting Scotland, Wales at home to England, and Ireland travelling to Italy. If Gordon Bulloch's men win in Paris, it will be the upset of the tournament; even without Serge Betsen and Olivier Magne, the French will, no doubt, be hoping to start with a big win, and I doubt that they'll be disappointed. England, on the other hand, face a difficult game in Cardiff against a Welsh team that probably feels it should have beaten both South Africa and New Zealand last autumn and will fancy its chances against an England side lacking many of its big names. With Gavin Henson looking to dominate in mid-field and with the boot, this could be a close one, but I fancy Wales to win by a single score, even in the absence of Colin Charvis . The only thing that Ireland has to fear from their visit to Rome is the prospect of further injuries.

In round two, Italy will again be at home, this time to Wales, and if their respective performances against the All Blacks in November are any guide, the result is a foregone conclusion. But I'm not so sure. I think Wales will win, but it could be a closer game than many expect. Likewise, Scotland at home to Ireland may be closer than recent results suggest, and I expect to see Scotland trying to disrupt an Irish lineout that is dodgy at the best of times, though I think Ireland will win through. Although England will be at home to France, I expect the French to win, though the only certainty is the capacity of Les Bleus to surprise.

None of the games in week three is a foregone conclusion. As I said earlier, I expect Scotland to beat Italy, but the other games could go either way, with home advantage perhaps being the decisive factor. On balance, I expect France to beat Wales and Ireland to hand England what could well be its third defeat of the competition.

Fortunately for England, the last two games are at Twickenham against the weakest two nations, so Andy Robinson's team should finish with no less than 4 points. Week four could see another two close games, with Scotland hosting Wales and Ireland at home to France. I expect Wales to win in Edinburgh, but Ireland versus France could be the closest game of the competition and, perhaps, a grand slam decider. At the moment, I favour the French to win, but it won't take more than an injury to one or two key French players to swing the result Ireland's way.

The final week of the competition could prove something of an anti-climax. I don't expect either France, away to Italy, or England, at home to Scotland, to be unduly troubled. The only game that could go either way is Wales versus Ireland, but even though Wales will have home advantage and Ireland may well be feeling the effects of tough games against England and France, I favour Ireland to win and secure their second successive triple crown.

In summary, therefore, I expect the final standings to look like this:-

P W D L Pts
France 5 5 0 0 10
Ireland 5 4 0 1 8
Wales 5 3 0 2 6
England 5 2 0 3 4
Scotland 5 1 0 4 2
Italy 5 0 0 5 0


Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Year of the French?

So is this to be the year of the French? With three French teams at home in the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup, there's a distinct possibility that the final at Murrayfield could be an all-French affair, while the French national side, despite its somewhat erratic results in the autumn internationals, must fancy its chances of another Six Nations grand slam.

Looking first at the Heineken Cup, the only away side that I fancy to win its quarter-final tie is Leicester. Leinster's top seeding owes much, I feel, to the fact that Pool 2 was relatively weak: Bourgoign made it fairly clear that they had decided to concentrate on the domestic championship, Treviso was never going to test the top sides, and Bath was ravaged with injuries. Leicester, on the other hand, had to qualify in what was, without any doubt, the most competitive pool, and while it might be argued that they were lucky to do so, it seemed to me that the team that lost at home to Biarritz in round 5 was a mere shadow of the one that had weathered two bruising matches against Wasps a month earlier. If Leicester can stay healthy between now and 2nd April (and if Harry Ellis can retain some self-control!), I feel they can overcome Leinster.

Other than that, I think it will prove to be a clean sweep for the French sides.

Against Leicester, Biarritz showed what they're capable of, and unless Munster can stop the driving maul and control the back row combination of Betsen, Lievremont and Harinordoquy, I don't give them any chance at all.

Intriguingly, Toulouse v Northampton is a rematch of round 4 of the pool stage, when the Saints came away without so much as a bonus point. If Clement Poitrenaud can just remember where the touch-line is, Toulouse should progress to the semi-finals.

Which leaves Newcastle (with or without Wilkinson?) facing Stade Francaise in Paris, never an easy venue for the visiting side. If round 6 is any guide, Stade's whitewash of Gloucester at Kingsholm should give them a lot more encouragement than the Falcons can take from a slightly scrappy home win against the Dragons. But even if Wilkinson plays, my money would be on Stade to secure a place in the last four.

After that, it's anybody's guess, the only certainty being that, if my forecasts prove correct, at least one French team will be in Edinburgh on 22nd May.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

A Premature Choice as Captain?

When Andy Robinson, newly appointed as caretaker coach of England, announced that Jonny Wilkinson would be England's new captain, I was surprised. It seemed to me that the obvious candidate was Jason Robinson, for several reasons:

First, he was fit and a certainty for selection, unlike Wilkinson, who was still, at that stage, recovering from his shoulder injury and a long way from being match-fit, certainly for Test rugby.

Second, he has the outgoing personality and charisma that Wilkinson so obviously lacks.

Third, from what I'd seen of his first few weeks as Sale's new captain, he seemed quite capable of captaining the side from the full-back position.

And finally, it didn't seem to me that it was in Wilkinson's (or England's) best interests to burden him with the captaincy, in addition to the huge weight of expectations that already rests on his shoulders whenever he wears an England shirt. In fact, putting aside that one drop-kick that won England the World Cup, it was fairly obvious that Wilkinson was struggling as a playmaker earlier in the tournament: the difference in his play when Mike Catt was on the field was very noticeable.

Nothing I've seen since then has given me any reason to change my mind. England, under Robinson's 'temporary' captaincy, notched up two good wins in the Autumn internationals and if it wasn't three wins, the blame hardly rests with Jason Robinson — with a kicker, any kicker, in half-decent form on the day, England could well have won the match, indeed should have won.

And now, here we are again, only a couple of weeks away from the start of the Six Nations, and England's "captain" is injured again. Indeed, only a few days ago, Eddie Butler was questioning whether Wilkinson would ever again be a major force in international rugby. I hope Butler's wrong, but I fear he may be right. Either way — and only time will tell — England will be starting its 6N campaign with Jason Robinson still acting as captain. To my mind, Andy Robinson should cut his losses, forget about Wilkinson as captain, and give the job to Jason Robinson (assuming he stays fit enough to do the job).