February 3, 2011
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 02/03/2011
Ten things you need to know...about the Six Nations
1. The collective might of the Six Nations are playing catch-up rugby and have been doing so since last year's Tri-Nations (although some may argue since 2003) when the southern hemisphere giants showed how to concoct a hypnotic blend of power, speed and precision week after week. The Six Nations' leading lights have struggled to keep pace and have shown precious little flair in comparison. Failure to deliver a warning shot across the Tri-Nations' bow in the coming weeks will only further the opinion of many that Europe's finest are playing for third place at best when the World Cup rolls around later in the year.
2. The International Rugby Board may claim to have taken a major step in improving the ugly spectacle that is the current workings of the scrum but don't expect miracles just yet. The governing body's attempts to refine the game have had mixed results ranging from the mess that was the ELVs to the water-into-wine-like miracle performed this time last year with the tackle law. The success of the latter was down to the strict officiating and we can only hope that a similar strict approach is adhered to this time. But even the afore mentioned success required a bedding in period so don't hold your breath. All eyes on that first scrum...
3. Twitter will hit the headlines - again. Banter has long been part of the rugby fabric and the emergence of Twitter has allowed players to take their put-downs global. Wales' leading players may have opted for a Twitter silence for the course of the Championship (perhaps due to the previous headline-grabbing Tweets by Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Thomas) but that leaves them as sitting ducks for their title rivals. Certain players will not be able to resist the lure of their phone so expect a plenty of word games - some of which might be funny - and the odd photo - except not of Andy Powell in a golf buggy.
4. Coaches and players may treat the words World Cup with the kind of disdain that theatrical types reserve for "the Scottish play" but don't buy a word of it. This is a World Cup year and everything else is secondary to the battle for Bill. Of course the PR types wouldn't accept any bad-mouthing of the Six Nations so you will not hear anything on the record but make no mistake this year's Championship is a stepping stone - the final chance to fine tune things before the big one in the kind of intense atmosphere that will await them all in New Zealand. The world is watching...
5. The Six Nations means rugby on the BBC - yes, the BBC. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Beeb had given up the ghost when it comes to rugby union thanks to the land-grabbing efforts in the UK of Sky Sports and ESPN and the Corporation's fascination with second division darts and bowls. But this time of year they dust off the rugby talent and take the game to the masses and do a grand job in the main - and will continue to do so until at least 2013. We'll forgive the likes of Brian Moore and Eddie Butler getting carried away once in a while but you get enough sense out of Jonathan Davies and Lawrence Dallaglio to make it worthwhile. Of note this year the BBC will have the honour of whetting the nation's appetite for the World Cup - which will be aired on rival ITV. One day the Six Nations will surely be lost to terrestrial TV (but perhaps not until Sky realise there's rugby outside of England?) so make the most of it. And for those in the States - check out BBC America.
6. The title race really is wide open. For the first time in what seems like years there is no clear favourite for the Six Nations crown. Coaches will often play down talk of favouritism but there was an air of sincerity emanating from the official launch last month when the leading figures talked up the chances of all those involved (OK, not Italy). Injuries and patchy form have done their best to level the playing field and while England remain favourites with the bookies there is a strong case for France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to dominate over the coming weeks. A Grand Slam is highly unlikely. Who's your money on?
7. The Six Nations is all about the fans. Thankfully the Friday night lights experiment will draw to a close on the opening weekend in Cardiff and very few will lament its demise. Fans will no longer have to answer the conundrum of how to escape work and cross the continent in time for a Six Nations fix. It was an acceptable novelty the first year but it was wearing thin last year and officials have seen sense despite bumper TV figures. Now, what can we do about Sunday fixtures? Never under estimate the power of the fans and the magical element they bring to games - be that the colour they bring or the excitement they share that helps to cement the Six Nations' place in the sporting calendar.
8. Prepare to drown in statistics. Whether it is the amount of tackles by France's Thierry Dusautoir, Dan Parks' kicking percentage for Scotland, Wales' losing run, the pints of Guinness drunk at Twickenham on match days or the amount of people following England's James Haskell on Twitter. Stats drive so much of the Six Nations coverage from our unrivalled Statsguru to the grim on-screen figures underlining how much time is lost at what used to be called the scrum - it makes you wonder what we did without them.
9. Form is temporary - class is permanent. With the Rugby World Cup looming there is precious little time for a new name to explode onto the international stage and make their name. That means the focus falls on the established names who know how to deliver when it matters most. Step forward the likes of O'Driscoll, Parisse, Moody, Dusautoir, Jones and Barclay - some may be honoured with the captaincy of their sides but all lead by example on the field.
10. England may be favourites for the title but there is one battle they will never win - the anthems. God Save The Queen may stir emotion if you happen to have a red rose on your chest or if you find yourself at Twickenham all the better for a few pints but when it comes to melodic motivation it falls some way short of its Six Nations rivals. Leading the way on that front are Wales whose supporters have been known to raise the roof with Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Italy who would blow the roof off the Stadio Flaminio with a rousing rendition of Il Canto degli Italiani if it had one. Hard on their heels are France whose temperamental fans are at least always committed to La Marseillaise and then there is Ireland who may yet inspire a roar from the new Lansdowne Road with Ireland's Call. A packed Murrayfield belting out Scotland's Flower of Scotland will trigger more than the odd goose bump with England's God Save The Queen bringing up the rear on this occasion. But can we please drop the act - who ever it may be - and just leave the singing to the fans and the players?
November 5, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/05/2010
Ten things you need to know...about the November internationals
The stage is set for a feast of international rugby over the next few weeks with the world's best set to go head-to-head across Europe and to accompany the latest inter-hemisphere battles we can offer the first instalment of our new series - 10 things you need to know...
1. Sonny Bill Williams is the real deal. Much of the rugby union press have been slow on the uptake as far as the former league international is concerned. His performances for Toulon passed many of them by but certainly made an impression on us. His star continued to rise on his return to New Zealand and he is primed to become the sport's biggest name.
2. Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens will underline their class as two of the best referees in the game. At this time it appears they the northern hemisphere's best chance of gracing the Eden Park turf come October 23, 2011. On the subject of officials - you can also expect Steve Walsh to make a headline or two.
3. England manager Martin Johnson is not going anywhere. The former World Cup-winning skipper could suffer another horrendous November but his position is safe. Two wins is the widely-reported target but the Rugby Football Union have already nailed their colours to the mast so even a schooling at the hands of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and failure to fire against Samoa will not prompt a re-think. Good job too as changing your coach less than a year to a World Cup is a recipe for disaster.
4. Sky Sports will continue to ignore any international they do not have the rights for. Sadly, as far as they are concerned the pointless Anglo-Welsh Cup (yawn) warrants a higher profile than any non-England Test clash. It doesn't even matter if it is the easy-on-the-eye Georgie Thompson telling me about the tin pot competition - it is laughable.
5. Unions will continue to hammer fans in the pocket. A chill wind will blow through the northern hemisphere in the next few weeks and it's not just the onset of autumn. Empty seats means less revenue and mild panic. The Irish and Welsh Rugby Unions have already admitted ticket sales are down but the Rugby Football Union continues to live in a different league - RFU Wine Club anyone? Anyone?
6. Springboks coach Peter De Villiers cannot be muzzled. A dressing down from the South African rugby union and a change of media advisor in the reassuring form of communication chief Andy Colquhoun may ensure he tones it down a litte but when the lights come on he knows it is time to perform. And a misfiring team could crank up the pressure on the gaff-prone boss. You have been warned.
7. One swallow does not make a summer and one southern hemisphere scalp does not a World Cup-winner make. The long-standing gulf in class between the two hemisphere will still be in place come a month's time. The Six Nations must raise their game to a consistent level of excellence before they can share the stage with the Tri-Nations giants.
8. The weather will not save Europe's finest from a lesson or two. New Zealand and Australia raised the bar during this year's Tri-Nations and a disappointing South Africa were not that far behind. As much as some northern hemisphere sides claim such a fast-paced game isn't Test rugby - it is. Just not the sort they can handle. A verbal volley or even a wet and windy welcome is not going to stop the likes of the All Blacks and Wallabies trying to put pace on the ball and unless they can adapt it will be a case of damage limitation.
9. Richie McCaw will stand like a colossus above everyone else. Many of the world's leading coaches were hoping the latest law interpretations would rob Captain Tackles of some of his powers but the classy and intelligent openside has ridden out the wave of change and continues to exert the kind of influence - on the game and referees - that has made him arguably the best player the game has ever seen.
10. Certain folk will continue to gripe about the haka and continue their merry crusade to rid the sport of one of its finest moments of theatre. Their argument that it provides a psychological advantage is of course true, but it should also fire up opposing teams. I'm waiting with baited breath for an article calling for Samoa's siva tau to be banned. Oh right - they're not trampling all over the north are they? So they can carry on regardless...