Wales and France the early stars of the Six Nations

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    The French take on England in the City of Light. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

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    The first round of the 2012 Six Nations tournament has been completed, with Wales, France and England (particularly the first two rugby nations) claiming impressive victories.

    While England are gamely trying to put together a new team from last year’s shambolic squad, Wales and France are consolidating on their strong performances in the 2011 RWC and setting themselves up for the next tournament in 2015.

    Both England and Wales won away from their home grounds.

    This is an important consideration when trying to work out how impressive their victories were. It has to be said, though, that England’s task was easier than that of Wales.

    Poor old Scotland has not scored a try at Murrayfield in a Six Nations tournament for four years.

    And sticking with the Scotland-England match for a bit longer, England never really looked like scoring a try from a series of plays or from a back movement. Their sole try, which came right after half-time, was the result of a sort of Scottish own goal.

    Scotland’s Australian born and bred number 10, Dan Parks, had a kick charged down. The ball bounced kindly for Charlie Hodgson. This fluke try was enough for England to scrape home.

    England blooded 8 uncapped players, which provides an explanation, in part at least, for some of the incoherency and lack of clarity and skill in much of the team’s play.

    Scotland, on the other hand, squandered chance after chance.

    As Paul Ackford noted in his UK Daily Telegraph report: “Yes, Scotland were awful, unable for the umpteenth time to fashion a try from a bucket load of chances.”

    The atmosphere at Murrayfield for the traditional fixture between the ‘auld’ enemies for the Calcutta Cup was marvellous. There was an edge about the play, sharpened by historical atrocities and territorial resonances, that used to be part of England-Scotland football matches when the Hampden Park roar could be heard almost around the British Isles.

    The fact that this Six Nations match has replaced the traditional football contest gave the contest a ferocity which, for those of us who like our rugby played passionately, provided a certain pleasure. But the actual skill levels, physical and mental, shown by players in both teams was below the usual standard expected of Test sides.

    As the late John Reason, the acerbic rugby writer for the UK Telegraph, used to say, especially when decrying a performance by the All Blacks or Wallabies (two teams he despised for some reason): “This was a match played between two poor teams playing poorly.”

    Still, England won.

    And given the state of rugby in England, this victory has to be put in the category of “a win is a win is a win.”

    I would say, though, that England’s back play won’t improve until someone coaching in England begins to understand that the number 10 must stand flat, especially when turnovers are achieved. For decades, England five-eights, with only a couple of exceptions, have stood deep, rather like a gridiron kicker, and then booted the ball from this safe haven.

    Someone should rush Geoff Mould or Mark Ella across to England to teach them the theory and practice of the flat backline.

    Meanwhile, terrific attackers, potentially, like Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, hardly get their hands on the ball to run with it. But under the way rugby is being played and refereed in 2011, with a tolerance given (and rightly so) to sides that run the ball, England can’t hope to be a dominant team in the world again, as they were btween 2000 and 2003, until they can get a backline to work as a cohesive and dangerous unit.

    This brings us to Wales and France, two teams that do employ a flattish backline.

    As a consequence, their backlines are often lethal.

    France scored four tries against Italy and did enough under their new coach Philipe Saint-Andre to suggest that a fifth Six Nations crown in the last 11 years is on the cards.

    Wales, despite the fact that they had to kick a penalty to win with seconds remaining in their match, were even more impressive.

    Warren Gatland is probably the best coach in Europe right now. He has got the pack doing what a pack should do and that is challenging the rucks and mauls and securing clean and quick ball for the backline.

    The only real weakness in the forwards is the lineouts, where a number of Welsh throws were won by Ireland.

    But the real strength of the side is an exciting, young and punishing backline.

    There is great size in this backline, especially in the massive frame of 19 year-old George North, who played like a young Jonah Lomu literally smashing through tacklers. North frequently made breaks, two of them in the phases leading up to the last try scored by Wales.

    He also showed a flick pass on one occasion to put a runner through a gap that SBW himself would have been proud of.

    As a schoolboy, I had the pleasure of watching Bleddyn Williams playing for the British Lions, with his Cardiff and Wales team-mate Dr Jack Matthews. Both these players were chunky battering-ram runners, with plenty of pace.

    It is the highest praise that can be made of a centre, especially a Welsh centre, to say, as I do about Davies, that he reminds me of these Welsh greats.

    One further point should be made about the opening rounds of the 2012 Six Nations tournament: all the games were intense, often exciting and despite the inept play on occasions (especially from Italy and Scotland), the ball was in play for long periods of time, the driving play was tough and uncompromising, and from time to time (especially from Wales and France) there was some wonderful running play from the outside backs.

    Rugby played with this spirit and skill and intelligently refereed (and, yes, Wayne Barnes in the Ireland-Wales fixture was a stand-out) is a prince of games.

    Bring on the second round next week.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (48)

    • February 7th 2012 @ 4:30am
      kingplaymaker said | February 7th 2012 @ 4:30am | ! Report

      Spiro it’s interesting how the larger number of teams in the Six Nations gives it a scale and energy that 3 or even 4 can’t match. The Stadio Olimpico is sold out for the England match and almost for the Scotland match. Ireland could fill and 80,000 stadium and did until they foolishly moved to a 50,000 one. That means that now in 6 countries you can have 70,000 sell-outs for a tournament taking place in six capitals, with three matches each weekend.

      I think the southern hemisphere should aim to increase the number of teams in their championship in order to create the same massive scale.

      The U.S, Japan, Canada and Russia (who can’t play with the north because their winter is too cold), are the potential candidates, and SANZAR should look to develop the game through Super rugby teams in these countries with a view to one day including them in the Rugby championship.

      Imagine if in a decade or 15 years the Rugby championship took place in Sydney, L.A., Auckland, Tokyo, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, let alone Vancouver/Toronto, Moscow/Petersburg. If only the Rugby championship could add just two more teams, it would be a vast international event.

      What’s more the TV rights from such a championship would eliminate all SANZAR financial worries.

      Italian rugby is almost at tipping point. Every year the professional playing number increases by double digits, and soon surely the one or two good backs will appear to turn their forward dominance into victories. Moving to and selling out the Stadio Olimpico is a huge advance for the profile of the sport as well.

      However, I think the Italian federation have been their own worst enemies, and Brunel has actually selected badly. The four attacking players who have showed quality of some sort over the last years have been: Craig Gower, Gonzalo Canale, Mirko Bergamasco and Andrea Masi, and yet the federation didn’t force Aironi to buy Gower, the keystone in the whole Italian attack, as they were entitled to, while Canale is simply not selected. Bergamasco is either injured or left out although it’s not clear which, and so this reduced the backline from one that could potentially do at least something, to one relying on Masi for the entire attack. It’s the lunatic loss of the creative Gower at 10 however, that is the biggest calamity and destroyed their RWC.

      England selected a lot of new caps, but like their coach Lancaster, they are run of the mill new caps and not exciting young talents: Barritt, Dowson, Robshaw and Turner-Hall are nothing special and it’s strange to read the extravagant praise of Barritt in the English press, as he only had to defend against mediocre Scottish centres and did nothing in attack. The five brilliant neglected players over the last years, Cipriani, Geraghty, Tait, Simpson-Daniel and Narraway are all absent (Tait and Geraghty injured), and had Cipriani played 10, Narraway 8 and Simpson-Daniel probably in the centres with the lack of alternatives although he is more normally a wing, then the Scots would have been thrashed. The English press spend much time puzzling over why England fail, but perhaps not selecting 50% of your best players and choosing plodding mediocrities instead might have something to do with it.

      I fear that despite the growth of the game in Ireland they are in danger of turning into another Scotland or Italy: a team who rely entirely on their forwards to win matches and whose backs can hardly make a dent. However, the growth of the game in Ireland in recent years should produce some backs soon too, as indeed one might hope it would in Italy.

      As for Scotland, I think the problem was a weakening of confidence because of the RWC failure.

      France were not as good as they seemed I believe, and were lucky the Italians didn’t have any good backs otherwise given the dominance of the Italian pack for much of the match, it might well have swung the other way. Saint-Andre will surely be better than Lievremont on the other hand.

      The Italy/England match at the sold-out Stadio Olimpico will be a great event in the development of the game, as will Argentina’s debut in the Tri-nations later this year.

      • February 7th 2012 @ 11:44am
        Stats said | February 7th 2012 @ 11:44am | ! Report

        Cipriani is useless haha your love of him is absurd.

      • February 7th 2012 @ 2:14pm
        kingplaymaker said | February 7th 2012 @ 2:14pm | ! Report

        Oh dear I just re-read this and saw that I wrote ‘Gonzalo Canale’ instead of ‘Gonzalo GARCIA’. Canale should be playing too for what it’s worth!

    • February 7th 2012 @ 4:42am
      Viscount Crouchback said | February 7th 2012 @ 4:42am | ! Report

      Remarkably, I don’t think I can disagree with a single word of this article! I thought Wales were a joy to watch – the slickness of their handling is really something to behold. Warren Gatland commented when he took over the team that he was amazed by the natural skill levels of Welsh players (even in comparison to his champion Wasps team): it was simply the mental resilience, tactics and fitness of the Welsh that required improvement – something he has managed to achieve quite spectacularly.

      As for England, a win is indeed a win – and I was delighted by their passion and commitment in defence – but I do have my doubts about Farrell and Barritt as an attacking force. Let us hope that the imminent return of Flood and Tuilagi reduces England’s impotence in attack.

      The poor old Scotch, meanwhile, should surely be left in a darkened room with a bottle of whisky and a revolver – or better still, stick to curling.

      • February 7th 2012 @ 11:12am
        HardcorePrawn said | February 7th 2012 @ 11:12am | ! Report

        VC,
        Sorry to be pedantic, but so as to not upset any of our friends from the North, your last sentence should have read:
        “The poor old SCOTS, meanwhile, should surely be left in a darkened room with a bottle of whisky and a revolver – or better still, stick to curling.”
        As Sean Connery could tell you (I think he said something similar in the Untouchables): “Scotch is a drink…A person from Scotland is a Scotsman or a Scot”.
        Best to not upset them even further! 😉

        • Roar Guru

          February 7th 2012 @ 2:02pm
          The Bush said | February 7th 2012 @ 2:02pm | ! Report

          I think you’ll find that VC has done it deliberately in a half-condescending manner to demonstrate his English superiority…

      • February 7th 2012 @ 10:49pm
        Ben S said | February 7th 2012 @ 10:49pm | ! Report

        I think the jury is still out on Gatland, VC. Let’s not forget how staggeringly average they were in the previous 6N. Wales have only looked good as an attacking unit when Priestland came to the fore, and we know how that happened…

    • February 7th 2012 @ 7:48am
      Jason Cave said | February 7th 2012 @ 7:48am | ! Report

      Warren Gatland might be the early favourite to be the coach of the British & Irish Lions when the Lions tour Australia in 2013.

      And I wouldn’t be surprised if the bulk of the Lions squad came from Ireland & Wales, with England & Scotland having a couple of players in the Lions squad. The question is, would Brian O’Driscoll & Ronan O’Gara be part of the Lions set-up in 2013?

    • February 7th 2012 @ 10:25am
      King of the Gorgonites said | February 7th 2012 @ 10:25am | ! Report

      Great to be able to watch the matches live on fox. Barwick is a bit out of his element but great stuff nonetheless.

      • February 7th 2012 @ 12:17pm
        Pierce said | February 7th 2012 @ 12:17pm | ! Report

        Do we even need some blokes sitting in a studio in Australia, why not just take the feed as it is? I agree though, it is great to watch the matches on Fox and regardless of the quality or otherwise of the games on the weekend I enjoyed the theatre, the tradition, the history and the rivalries. Great stuff.

        • February 7th 2012 @ 12:45pm
          King of the Gorgonites said | February 7th 2012 @ 12:45pm | ! Report

          agreed. i would much prefer the European pre and post game analysis. why use aussies at all?

          • February 7th 2012 @ 1:04pm
            Marcel Proust said | February 7th 2012 @ 1:04pm | ! Report

            Hi King and Pierce.

            You talk about “some blokes sitting in a studio in Australia”.

            I saw the France v Italy game on Saturday on BBC TV. One of the ( freezing ) pundits was Michael Cheika, along with the presenter Gabby Logan. So we in Britain get to see Australian blokes discussing the rugby.

            Can you see this on the BBC iPlayer ???

            By the way, Michael Cheika has the opportunity to live and coach in Paris, while spending a bit of time with Gabby Logan. Not bad for him ! La vie est belle !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

            • February 7th 2012 @ 1:56pm
              HardcorePrawn said | February 7th 2012 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

              I really think that the BBC should have put Mrs Logan into a nice warm studio like this one: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/09/22/article-2040424-0DFF473200000578-150_468x518.jpg

              Rather than at a wintry Stade de France, like this:
              http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Sport/Pix/pictures/2012/2/4/1328395888907/Gabby-Logan-at-France-v-I-007.jpg

              Then they might have had even better ratings for the France-Italy game.

            • February 7th 2012 @ 2:01pm
              King of the Gorgonites said | February 7th 2012 @ 2:01pm | ! Report

              i just googled gabby logan. nice work indeed.

              at least Cheika knows what is going on when it comes to eurpean rugby. a lot of aussie commentators do not have enough knowledge about northern hemisphere rugby.

              not sure about the bbc i player. will look into it.

            • February 7th 2012 @ 2:06pm
              kingplaymaker said | February 7th 2012 @ 2:06pm | ! Report

              Marcel I can’t believe every rugby fan is so desperate they have to roll out a long past-it bimbo (long past it as a bimbo), instead of someone who actually knows the smallest amount about what they’re talking. Personally I don’t watch rugby for women and I can’t imagine anyone else over the age of 15 does either.

              • February 7th 2012 @ 2:28pm
                HardcorePrawn said | February 7th 2012 @ 2:28pm | ! Report

                KPM, you’re being a bit harsh on Gabby Logan. She’s a former gymnast (who represented Wales at the Commonwealth Games); is the daughter of Terry Yorath, who played football for Tottenham and Leeds, and went on to captain and manage the Welsh national side; and is married to Kenny Logan, the former Scotland rugby international.
                It’s safe to say that, unlike some of the dead-eyed, stick-thin, clothes horses that front some Australian news and sports programmes, Gabby knows her stuff.

              • February 7th 2012 @ 2:58pm
                King of the Gorgonites said | February 7th 2012 @ 2:58pm | ! Report

                she also read law……….

              • February 7th 2012 @ 9:45pm
                Dublin Dave said | February 7th 2012 @ 9:45pm | ! Report

                That’s it kingplaymaker. You’ve gone too far. Pistols or swords?

              • February 8th 2012 @ 12:59am
                kingplaymaker said | February 8th 2012 @ 12:59am | ! Report

                That may all be true, but she actually doesnt know anything about rugby, only football, if that, or indeed, if anything except pouting. Besides surely it wouldn’t be impossible to get a real rugby presenter? Besides there are other ways to get closer to women beyond watching them presenting rugby matches.

              • February 8th 2012 @ 1:55am
                Ben S said | February 8th 2012 @ 1:55am | ! Report

                ‘That may all be true, but she actually doesnt know anything about rugby, only football, if that, or indeed, if anything except pouting.’

                We can now add sexism to your long list of talents. Brilliant.

              • February 8th 2012 @ 3:17am
                Marcel Proust said | February 8th 2012 @ 3:17am | ! Report

                Well, KPM, I probably am more “desperate” than you. I rather like Gabby Logan, though she perhaps isn’t as nice as she used to be: in the late 90s, she was the best thing on British TV. Better, even that Prime Minister’s Question Time.

                I am 14 years older than 15. Maybe that’s a bad thing.

                One current criticism of BBC Radio ( and, I suppose, TV ) is that there are too few women. So I am all in favour of her being there.

              • February 8th 2012 @ 10:21am
                HardcorePrawn said | February 8th 2012 @ 10:21am | ! Report

                KPM,
                What make you so sure that Gabby Logan knows nothing about rugby? She always seems pretty well-informed to me. And, as far as I know, John Inverdale, the BBC’s main rugby presenter, never played either, do you think that he must have a better ingrained idea of how to play the sport because he’s a bloke?

              • February 8th 2012 @ 10:36am
                kingplaymaker said | February 8th 2012 @ 10:36am | ! Report

                It’s not really about having played or not, it’s that Inverdale is a professional rugby presenter and knows an enormous amount about the sport, and Logan is a shipped-in Bimbo who probably knows plenty about football and could present football matches reasonably, but just reads off pre-prepared material when presenting rugby.

                I watch rugby matches and the discussions in the programmes out of interest in the sport so I would like to see a rugby expert like Inverdale presenting rugby matches, not a non-rugby presenter who in any case was only a presenter in the first place on the questionable basis of her looks, which have long vanished anyway.

                So she neither satisfies the demands of a rugby presenter who is an expert on rugby, nor even high grade eye candy, which was supposedly why she was a presenter of any sport in the first place. But it seems that you all have fallen for her so I wish you well and commend the manly bravery of defending her.

              • February 8th 2012 @ 11:19am
                HardcorePrawn said | February 8th 2012 @ 11:19am | ! Report

                “… a non-rugby presenter who in any case was only a presenter in the first place on the questionable basis of her looks, which have long vanished anyway.”

                *KPM lights blue touch paper, before retiring to a safe distance.*

              • February 8th 2012 @ 12:02pm
                kingplaymaker said | February 8th 2012 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

                She actually made her name presenting soccer on sky, which is where she belongs and should have stayed: she’s the page three girl type for that kind of thing.

              • February 8th 2012 @ 1:07pm
                HardcorePrawn said | February 8th 2012 @ 1:07pm | ! Report

                I can’t believe that I’m getting into a slanging match defending Gabby Logan, but here goes: She actually never worked for Sky, she was only ever on ITV and BBC (& possibly Channel 5 as well for a brief time if memory serves). I’ll admit that Sky have a reputation for employing female presenters that are easy on the eye too, but even they usually have a certain degree of knowledge regarding their respective sports.
                Besides, if Gabby didn’t know anything about rugby you would think that her husband might take her to one side and quietly ‘have a word’ about her career choices wouldn’t you?
                How about we agree to disagree and move on to the more important matters: this weekend’s fixtures?
                I’m particularly looking forward to the Italy-England game: Italy growing in confidence, against a re-built, not-quite-gelled-yet England, a capacity crowd at the Stadio Olimpico, Italy’s worst weather for decades to possibly provide a leveller between the two sides… and maybe the BBC will call upon the talents of Laura Esposto to cover the game too…
                😉

              • February 8th 2012 @ 2:11pm
                kingplaymaker said | February 8th 2012 @ 2:11pm | ! Report

                Well I certainly agree there are more important things in life than discussing the value of dolly-birds as rugby presenters, so I’ll concede the last word to you.

                That looks like the best match indeed, and so long as the match is reasonably close it should be a triumph for rugby. It will be interesting to see the atmosphere in the Stadio Olimpico, though I do worry about Italy’s backs. And if you ever happen to watch Italian TV coverage of the Six Nations as I did for some time, you’ll see dolly-birds presenting who are not only empty-headed and ignorant of rugby, but genuinely good-looking too!

          • February 7th 2012 @ 1:20pm
            HardcorePrawn said | February 7th 2012 @ 1:20pm | ! Report

            I agree too, UK coverage also tends to be more impartial than Australian, a result of the BBC, Sky, ITV et al having to broadcast to each of the home nations. They will regularly employ pundits to represent the opposition as well as having analysis from neutrals (Jonathan Davies commenting during the Scotland-England game being an example).
            I think that this allows for a more balanced analysis and commentary, something that some of the commercial networks over here could do with taking note of.

            • February 7th 2012 @ 2:07pm
              kingplaymaker said | February 7th 2012 @ 2:07pm | ! Report

              HardcorePrawn the panel of experts and the programme as a whole on the BBC is the most extraordinary collection of accents you’ll ever hear, and Jonathan Davies does very well to take first prize.

    • February 7th 2012 @ 11:35am
      Snobby Deans said | February 7th 2012 @ 11:35am | ! Report

      John Reason – he wouldn’t happen to be related to that awful Mark Reason, the Pommy writer who has set himself up in NZ would he?

      • February 7th 2012 @ 9:18pm
        Dublin Dave said | February 7th 2012 @ 9:18pm | ! Report

        His dad.

        JR, now gone to the great press box in the sky, was an irascible chauvinistic supercilious git who knew how to wind up those he considered to be from lesser nations (everybody outside of England and South Africa) and did so repeatedly and successfully.

        His attitudes were nostalgia for empire and the English class system and sympathy for the blatant naked racism of apartheid. He had also copped on quite early to the reliable hack’s trick of blaming the referee for the outcome of nearly every match and just when you thought it was safe to credit a rumbling forward drive or an incisive back line move for a stirring winning try, old JR would point out that it would never have happened were it not for the referee’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the laws regarding binding in the maul or blocking in the lineout.

        That said, he was a funny and lucid writer and once you filtered out all the xenophobia and class snobbery (he wrote for the Daily Telegraph after all) he was one of the more knowledgeable and enlightening journalists both on the history of the game and its finer points.

        Here’s one example from his book about the 1980 Lions tour to South Africa. Decrying the fact that in the 1970s, the Lions had managed to achieve first parity and then superiority in forward play over the southern hemisphere teams but at the expense of neglecting their own back play he wrote:
        ” For the last 10 years, British rugby has been obsessed with forward play, and it has now become the most efficient in the world…but it is now time to recognise that as the end of the see-saw holding the forwards has soared into the skies, the end with the backs sitting on it has gone down with such a bang that they have all fallen off.”

        He was right that time, which only goes to show that he could occasionally provoke thought among his audience, as well as an urgent desire to catch up with him and plant one on his nose.

    • February 7th 2012 @ 12:33pm
      SAMURAI said | February 7th 2012 @ 12:33pm | ! Report

      Does Barwick have any connection with rugby? At times he seems clueless, but glad Gordon Bray is there.

      Can’t wait for week 2, I sense an upset on the cards at Stadio Olimpico. Brunel has a big mobile backline at this disposal, they need a decent fly-half!

      • February 7th 2012 @ 12:45pm
        King of the Gorgonites said | February 7th 2012 @ 12:45pm | ! Report

        Barwick seems only to know that each nation has a “stirring anthem”. the guy is a non-entity.

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