They say that a week is a long time in sport….
With an opening weekend containing energy, excitement and endless highlights, the RBS Six Nations Championship erupted into life with an extraordinary assortment of rugby. The six teams had mixed fortunes in their respective games but for all of the squads this week will have flown by.
The intensity of the Six Nations is ruthless. The physical demands of each of the games last weekend were tangible and teams will have worked hard all week on the training pitch to mend any frailties from their performances. Video analysis makes up a huge part of the modern day game. Teams will have debriefed their games, and the results will have been easier to swallow for some more than others. Every team has specialist coaches who will scrupulously inspect the footage before presenting to the squad. The presentations will typically highlight both the positive areas and the parts that must be worked on, covering every aspect of the game – attack and defence shape, execution, decision making, kicking, the tackle area and set piece.
By sunrise the morning after the game statistics are produced by the team analysts and distributed around the squad. These sheets contain both the team statistics and individual player feedback ranging from distance covered (picked up on the GPS packs players now wear), to tackles made/missed, effectiveness at ruck clearout and number of defenders beaten. There is absolutely no hiding place – the statistics pull the pieces together and give players the facts in black and white, ensuring that each man is fully accountable to both coaches and team mates.
I was in the North-West corner of Twickenham on Saturday afternoon for the Calcutta Cup showdown – England vs Scotland – and I didn’t need the statman’s feed (or the great in-game statistics on the BBC coverage) to work out that England dominated the game. What it did teach me though, is that when watching a game live from the stands, and especially one of that pace and ferocity, it is almost impossible to take everything in first time round. Sunday afternoon found me glued to the game for a second occasion, this time from the comfort of my sofa, picking up on the detail I missed watching from the stands.
The battle at the breakdown was something Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan highlighted prior to the match and was the key area Scotland lost out at. In the modern day game it is commonly seen as one of the areas which dictate the outcome. England in possession were accurate, efficient and aggressive. Crucially, they generated front foot ball giving Ben Youngs and, latterly, Danny Care the lightning quick ball that every scrum half in the world thrives upon. Watching live I didn’t appreciate the gargantuan effort the likes of captain Kelly Brown and his comrades put in at the tackle area in an attempt to slow things down. However this effort and bravery, more often than not, only momentarily halted the barrage of English attacks.
Owen Farrell played like a seasoned campaigner way beyond his years. He was ably assisted by debutant sidekick Billy Twelvetrees who brought dangerous strike runners into the game and was threatening himself. A feature of play Stuart Lancaster has brought in under his tutelage of England is their ability to identify and attack space. This puts opposition defenders in two minds reducing the likelihood of ‘t-bone’ tackles and neutralising the strife at the tackle area. The ultimate result is quick ball, and it is little wonder so many of the Scottish players said afterwards that this was the most tiring game they’d ever played. Constantly defending is energy-sapping.
Though Scotland had only 38% of the possession and 36% territory on Saturday, they will be buoyed by their two outstanding tries. Stuart Hogg was Scotland’s best performer – speedy and elusive from fullback, he created the first try with a searing break and scored the second after a 95 metre turnover counterattack. Sean Maitland looked classy and scored within ten minutes of making his international debut. Johnnie Beattie was physical, dynamic and a real handful throughout. Scotland only had ten days under their new coaching team to prepare for the England clash and I believe they will have taken another step forward in training this week.
One game whereby the statistics didn’t tell the whole story was the opener between Wales and Ireland at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. Ireland rocketed out of the blocks absolutely dominating the first half. Brian O’Driscoll, earning his 121st cap, rolled back the years and lit up the game with an outside arch and sumptuous pass to put Simon Zebo into the corner for the opening try of the tournament. Ireland’s second try came when Rory Best charged down a Dan Biggar clearance. Regathering the ball 40 metres out, he found Jamie Heaslip with an audacious left handed pass. The pass from Heaslip to Zebo was wayward but with a touch that Lionel Messi would be proud of he controlled the ball with his left foot, flicking it and regathering. Two phases later, Cian Healy barged his way over from close range. At 23-3 down at halftime Wales were in disarray, inferior in every facet.
O’Driscoll, in his final Six Nations tournament, stretched the lead immediately after the break, burrowing over for a try from close range. Ireland perhaps relaxed, Gordon D’Arcy left the field injured and Welsh scavenger Justin Tipuric entered the fold. His introduction provided the spark Wales desperately needed. Alex Cuthbert scythed through replacement Keith Earl’s channel to score from close range. With Rory Best in the sinbin for multiple team offences at the breakdown, the shift in momentum was confirmed when Wales created space for Leigh Halfpenny to dive in at the corner. Best had no sooner returned from the naughty step before Connor Murray was sent to the bin after constant raids on Irish territory. Craig Mitchell blasted his way over with a few minutes to play but it proved too little, too late.
The stats confirmed that it was a game of two-halves with Wales totally dominating all but four minutes of the second half with 79% possession and 81% territory! However, the 200 tackles Ireland made were clinical enough to hold off wave upon wave of Welsh attack and the lead they had built proved to be unassailable. Welsh coach Shaun Edwards made it clear in a post-game interview where he felt the game was won and lost – “That man O’Driscoll was the difference between the two teams. I wish someone had left him in Ireland”.
The final fixture between joint-favourites France and wooden spoon contenders Italy in Rome emerged from the shadows of Sunday afternoon as the stand out game of the weekend . With both teams dressed in the classy three-stripes of Adidas, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the dominant team in white were odds-on favourites France. It was, however, the passionate Italians who ran rampant, rattling the unpredictable French whose minds seemed to be elsewhere. In an era whereby rugby is viewed as being a game dominated by bulk, physical size and power it was refreshing to see the most diminutive player on the field, Luciano Orquera, dictating proceedings. At just 5ft7” and 79kg, the thirty year old played the game of his life kicking a dropgoal, two conversions and a penalty. Equally as significant was his sizzling break to send talisman Sergio Parisse in for the opening score after four minutes and his deft touch later in the game which created space for Castrogiovanni to score. An old coaching friend of mine often used the phrase “dangle the carrot in front of the donkey” and Orquera did this all day, executing kicks with accuracy, keeping the monsterous Italian pack on the front foot and subsequently defusing the French armoury. The Azzurri played like men possessed and were unwavering for 80 minutes. Les Bleus, meanwhile, had a bout of the sunday blues.
Statistics reflected a tight game. Italy won due to their ability to capitalise on visits to the French half. France only conceded four penalties in the 80 minutes yet Orquera and his replacement Burton kept the scoreboard ticking over with drop goals. Even on a day to forget, France had the chance to win the game at the death. The sporting gods, however, were smiling on Italy. Expect a backlash from France. They’ll bare their teeth soon, of that I have no doubt.
It has been said before that a week is a long time in sport but whoever said it wasn’t referring to the Six Nations Championship. Last weekend’s matches have long been debriefed and opponents for this coming weekend previewed. Though players will have been fed a plethora of information there’s no danger of paralysis by analysis. The only thing that matters to all six teams taking the field this weekend is the statistic on the scoreboard at the final whistle.
I’d rather be out there creating more memories but one thing’s for sure, I can’t wait to see how things pan out.