Saturday, March 28, 2015

Superb Saturday

No matches nowadays can simply be matches; they are events. These events don’t come alone. They come with pyrotechnics, dance music and a supercilious moniker to appeal to a wider market. When people started talking about the final day of the Six Nations as “Super Saturday,” it was hard for die hard, passionate fans to feel enthused. However, a nickname has rarely been more fitting.
It’s difficult to recall a finale to any sport that could surpass the final day of the championship. 221 points scored, 27 by way of tries; three title contenders playing in three different games… in one day! By the time Nigel Owens blew his whistle on a 90 point thriller at Twickenham, ‘Super Saturday’ appeared somewhat understated and modest.
Not that you would have thought that after 40 minutes in Rome. The first half was packed with more awkward fumbling than an unsupervised teenage disco and another Fiji-esque performance looked on the cards. As half time quickly approached it was difficult to know if the Welshmen were more nervous about the title chase or being stuck in a room with Gatland and Edwards after such a dire start.
Wales needed something different after the break, but what they produced wasn't a world away; it was a whole new galaxy. The second half played out like a highlight reel. Wales ran in tries like a training session, running the ball from deep and punishing errors. A week before against Ireland, the second half performance was all about the grit and determination of defence; here it was the flair of free flowing attack.
Some compared it to the Grand Slam winners of 2005. The truth is however, this display was far more ruthlessly efficient. Led by Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton and Liam Williams; Wales functioned to highly tuned perfection and set a point target that neither England nor Ireland could have imagined before the day began. That target could have been stretched even further bar for a late Italian turnover that saw the Azzuri turn defence into attack and a 14 point switch.
And so on to Edinburgh, where almost 70,000 Celts waited with nervous expectation. Ireland still held dreams of back-to-back Six Nations crowns – even if the slam had slipped through their fingers – whilst Scotland prayed on victory to lift them from the gloom of a wooden spoon.
To see Ireland vying for Six Nations success was a surprise to nobody, they entered the tournament as favourites mid winning streak that included South Hemisphere heavyweights. Scotland were a surprise to many, as any promise all bar washed away. With each week they slid further in people’s estimations; from dark horses to also-rans to barely-rans.
With diginity and pride on the line, Scotland again slipped to defeat with little resistance. Scotland needed to call on the spirit of William Wallace to lead them to victory, but barely summoned the fight of Jessie Wallace as Ireland ran riot.
If there is one flaw in Irish plans, it is how rigidly they stick to the game plan; it’s a criticism that has been levelled at Wales numerous times in the past. This time however it would play into their hands. When chasing a large target it can become easy to try to walk before you can run. To look so far ahead at your destination, you trip over your own feet. Ireland approached the game with their usual style of forward dominance to build the platform to work forwards, to earn every metre. By the time Paul O’Connell scored in the opening minutes, the game already looked beyond the Scots.
Scotland did show the occasional glimpses of skill and intent but these moments were so rare they are in trouble of being placed on the endangered list. Ireland strolled their way to the summit and when Stuart Hogg showed his usual skill and pace to canter over, only for the ball to squirm from his grasp. It served only to make England’s job against France, all that more difficult.
At Twickenham the day and tournament would reach it’s close. England’s target looked insurmountable, but this was the best attack side in the competition against a French team that looked like they couldn’t care less about rugby for much of the competition. Any hint of Gallic flair had been replaced by Gallic nonchalance. It was difficult to know which France would turn up; would it be the inept and lacklustre France or the terrible and down right useless France? After Scotland it was difficult to even know what colour they would turn up in.
England started with a bang that reverberated all the way to Murrayfield where Irish fans still waited in hope and expectation. More French folly led to England’s opener; this campaign has the biggest export of French foolishness since Marcel Marceau. England were rampant then suddenly trailing. France twice sucker punched the home team with long range efforts and – despite Noa Nakaitaci’s best efforts to blew France’s second try – Le Bleus took le lead.
England needed tries and tries they got. Back they came, battering at a sea of French defenders with Jonathan Joseph and Ben Youngs leading the cavalry’s charge. By half time England found themselves 12 points ahead and needing 14 more. It France was though who started with a score; Maxime Mermoz crossing under the sticks and piling the pressure back on the men in white who answered only to be pegged back again. Possession rolled end-to-end and scores rattled up like a basketball game.
The only constants were the thrilling entertainment and the excellence, authority and humour of Nigel Owens. Never has the mention of the name “Christopher” reaped so much obedience and laughter.
With minutes remaining England struck again. 55-35 and six points from glory, on final flourish from silverware. As the clock ticked over 80 minutes England edged closer to the tryline with a rolling maul. Down it went, but no hint of anything untoward ruled Nigel Owens until Billy Twelvetrees gave away a penalty. France only had to put the ball off for it was all over for England, all glory for Ireland. But this is France, that isn’t how it’s done. On their own line they tapped and went. Irish hearts skipped a beat; English hearts leapt. However there would be no final twist in an extraordinary tale. The ball found it’s way into touch and the title was – deservedly – Ireland’s.
At a darkened Murrayfield, Ireland reappeared led by the mercurial O'Connell. On a day of countless heroes and icons; they emerged as victors and - for the first time in 7 hours - could breathe a sigh of relief.
Boring, Mr Hansen? Not on your life. That was entertainment.

The Jam - That's Entertainment 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Wales-Ireland: Where It Will Be Won and Lost

Today Wales take on Ireland in a game that could make or break the championship for both sides. Ireland have started the tournament where they left off last year and without doubt look the best side above the equator. Meanwhile, Wales find themselves on an upward trajectory from a terrible opener against England; where DJ Spoony and some laser lights were the only spectacle Welsh fans enjoyed less.

So let's take a look at where today's game will be won and lost.

The Kicking Game
Much has been made of Ireland's kicking and the England game showed why. In reality Ireland don't kick as often as either Wales or England, but rarely kick aimlessly. Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray often kick with the intention of retention and are more than adept at rugby league style  cross field kicks for their wingers to compete.
Much depends on the fitness of Sexton, but against England it was Murray who led by example on the Irish kicking game - only one of Sexton's kicks was retained, compared to five of Murray's. This kick to compete policy is clear in distances of kicks from hand. Ireland averaged just 35 metres per kick, 13 metres less than England (who failed to gather one of their own kicks).
Of the 32 kicks Ireland did not retain, 13 led directly to turnovers. That means even when they don't win the aerial battle, Ireland's disciplined chase means they still get the ball back.
How do Wales compete? By doing what they've been doing. In the first two weeks of the tournament Wales retained more kicks than any other team. 21% of Welsh kicks were retained with Ireland keeping 18% of the possession they put boot to.
Nobody implements the up-and-under more frequently or as well as Wales do.
With the kicking abilities of both teams, rugby may go airborne. As it stands Ireland rule the air, but I can't think of any team better equipped to challenge them than one that contains Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar. It could make for a fascinating battle.

The Set Piece
The last four winners of the Six Nations have achieved over 90% ball retention from their own set piece.
The front row battle come scrum time will be epic. However, it's the lineout where the men in green really thrive. Since 2010 42% of Ireland's tries have come from their own lineouts, with a further 9% coming from their opponents throw. Paul O'Connell and the monolithic Devin Toner are a virtually invincible at the lineout, losing just one against England and pinching three from under England's noses.
Ireland's lineout is a powerful weapon, creating ball for Murray and Sexton or starting the devastating rolling maul that they operate to a high degree - something Wales have often struggled to defend.
However, Wales proved how far they have come against France and Luke Charteris waded through Frenchmen as effortlessly as an adult through a paddling pool. The lineout also functioned to perfection, failing to lose a single ball as they did for the whole of the 2013 championship.
If Wales can get parity at the set piece, it puts them in good stead.

The Breakdown
Ireland have become masters of the ruck. With Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahoney in the backrow, there are few teams as capable at the breakdown. It's the hard work and a disciplined kick chase that reaps rewards. In the first half of the England game, Ireland won three penalties at the ruck and all were kicked to give them a 9-3 lead at half time.
With ball in hand Ireland play it simple; don't get isolated, keep the ball in contact and clear quickly to secure possession. It's a low risk, high reward tactic. They average just 4 offloads a game, but get turned over just 8.6 times. Compare that with France; 16 offloads per game but lose the same amount of turnovers.
Wales know they will have to be on top of their game; when they are, they're a force. Sam Warburton will endeavour to find weaknesses in the seemingly water tight Irish ruck, whilst every player must play intelligent rugby to stop vultures of the Irish pack scavenging on unprotected possession.
Wales were battered, bullied and badly beaten by England's forwards but have responded well. Today they meet their toughest opponents so far.

Taking Chances
Chances may be at a premium and both sides will need to put points on the board with clinical efficiency. Against France, Wales enjoyed 75% possession and 80% territory at first half, but only had a 3 point lead to show for their troubles. If they are that wasteful today, they will lose.
Both teams have place kickers of the highest order and will have to keep themselves straight or be punished. Defences are strong and Halfpenny and Sexton's personal battle from behind the kicking tee could decided the game.

Whatever happens - with both teams wanting the win and next week's opportunity to have it all - the game should be epic.
Faith No More - Epic

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Summon Spirit of 2013 and Refuse To Be Denied

Wales’ demolition of England in 2013 will forever be etched into the minds of most Welsh fans and plenty of English too. However, the biggest game of the tournament for Wales wasn't in Cardiff, it was five weeks earlier in Paris.

In the first week of the Six Nations Wales succumbed to Ireland. The Irish pack bossed the breakdown, whilst the likes of Simon Zebo and Brian O’Driscoll strutted through the Welsh defence. The second half had barely started when the game was all bar ended for Wales. A fight back came, but they ultimately ran out of time.

It was a familiar tale in twelve months of Welsh rugby. With Rob Howley temporarily in charge, four autumn defeats - including Samoa and Argentina - had followed an Aussie whitewash in a three test series. Wales had recorded no victories against a rugby nation since their Grand Slam in 2012; their only victories between tournaments coming against the Barbarians and Super Rugby’s ACT Brumbies.

Things were looking bleak with a daunting trip to Paris up next. Anything less then victory would have left Wales’ Six Nations in tatters, Howley’s position untenable and the Welsh players’ Lion prospects ruined. In France it all changed.

The parallels to this year’s victory are easy to spot. Question marks hung over the Welsh players like a grey cloud; there was no eight game losing streak this time around, but the first two games of the championship were poor to say the least. Again the win was not sensational. On both occasions flamboyance and flair were suppressed by passion and perseverance; a passion released with incredible displays of emotion. At the full time whistle Leigh Halfpenny's emotions poured out in the arms of girlfriend Jess, overcome with the occasion.

Two years ago it was Dave North - father of George - who allowed the occasion to get the better of him, entering the fraying in a show of support for his under fire son. That day North Jr answered his critics by applying a superb finish to Dan Biggar's inch perfect chip, but the giant winger still attracts his detractors.

For an S4C advert, George North ran through a forest carrying a tree, now he carries and whole nation on his shoulders in every game. George has been so impressive during his first 50 caps that fans expect every game to be a finger pointing, Folau carrying, French fullback flattening highlight reel.

Many will continue to make the obvious comparison to the All Blacks' Julian Savea, but North is just 22. Savea was only a month away from his 22nd birthday when he made his test debut against Ireland in 2012.

There was to be no try scoring heroics this time around, but North's labour is easy to see with the 79 metres he carried the ball for. That's more than any other player in the Stade de France.

The match winning try came from Dan Biggar, the provider turned finisher to help seal two victories some two years apart. The outside half capped a cunning Rhys Webb manoeuvre after outstanding linking from Dan Lydiate; an Ospreys trio combining in the red of Wales.

Outside Biggar, Jamie Roberts was simply fantastic. Given ball, there are few strike runners more effective than the Racing Metro centre. In the pack Alun Wyn Jones and Gethin Jenkins put in a double shift worthy of any international team. Jones left his mark on just about every facet of play, French play and blade of grass. Meanwhile Luke Charteris helped shore up an ailing Welsh line out and swam through French mauls like Michael Phelps chasing gold.

After beating France, ex-England centre Jerry Guscott said Wales should be favourites due to having "big-match, big-name players fit and home advantage." It will take some performance on Saturday to beat Ireland and everything suggests the men in green are correctly favourites, despite Guscott's views. However, they say hope is the last thing to die and every fan in Wales will be hoping they can spring a surprise on Saturday. 

The players themselves must do more than hope. They must believe. Just like two years ago, they must use the dogged victory in Paris as their galvaniser. They must scrap for every inch of ground. Just like 2013 they must refuse to be denied.

Anthrax - Refuse to Be Denied

Thursday, March 5, 2015

World Book Day

Today is World Book Day and to celebrate Ruck ‘n’ Roll brings you our three favourite rugby books of recent years.
Engage: The Rise and Fall of Matt Hampson – Paul Kimmage
Not just one of my favourite rugby books of all time, but one of my favourite novels full stop. Engage tells the story of Matt Hampson; the English prop who was left paralysed after dislocating his neck whilst training with England Under 21s.
Written by Paul Kimmage - in collaboration with Hampson himself – Engage has gut wrenching honesty and pitch black humour that typifies rugby. The view into Hampson’s life after the accident is unflinching and direct but always laced with an undercurrent of wit.
Hampson’s courage is awe inspiring as he learns not just to live with his catastrophic injuries, but to thrive with them. Engage is a full white knuckle ride of emotions that may induce tears in even the toughest front rowers.
Engage: The Rise and Fall of Matt Hampson by Paul Kimmage is available here;

This Is What We Are – Jack Fenwick
In a sporting world where teams have become “products” and fans have become “consumers,” Jack Fenwick strips back corporate coverings from our game to gaze at the unrelenting passion and pride that fans hold.
We follow Fenwick through in restructuring of Italian rugby in 2010. From the dizzying highs of European victory Fenwick’s team - Parma - find themselves lost in reformation of the game. Parma becomes part of the new ‘Aironi’ franchise, but also make up half of the new ‘Crociati’ team alongside their biggest rivals ‘Noceto.’ Then Parma reform as an amateur team in the lower echelons of Italian rugby.
This is a voyage through emotions as Fenwick, his wife and their friends attempt to revive their sporting passions with pale imitations of their first love.
It’s a must for any sporting fan and particularly those Welsh rugby fans who have been disenfranchised with regional rugby.

This Is What We Are by Jack Fenwick is available here;
Proud – Gareth Thomas
‘Alfie,’ the first Gareth Thomas biography, was surprisingly candid on a number of issues throughout the Welsh legends career and life. Although Thomas hadn’t come out when Delme Parfitt’s book on the former Welsh captain hit the shelves, Alfie’s sexuality was the worst kept secret in Welsh rugby.
‘Proud’ sets the record straight. It grips you at the very first paragraph; opening on a suicide bid from the man many believed to be the happy, funny man of Wales. 'Proud' pulls no punches; this is the man laid bare. From sexuality to THAT Scrum V appearance.
However, despite it’s heavy subject and serious issues, 'Proud' doesn’t leave you feeling low. Thomas’ courage and determination seeps from the pages and are almost infectious.
Proud: My Autobiography by Gareth Thomas is available here;

 The Beatles - Paperback Writer