Since time began, or so it seems, our northern hemisphere cousins have been extolling the qualities of the Six Nations tournament – even when it was the Four Nations, and then the Five Nations. No matter how the number of competing nations has grown, they remain correct. It is a great tournament – and this year it was superb.
The venues, the crowds, the passion and excitement, the sheer quality of the play – all were there for all to see. I loved it. Thanks to the worldwide television access, we can watch the games pretty much anywhere – well almost anywhere. I missed the England v France game whilst in Thailand conducting coaching camps and workshops for the Asia Centre Foundation, which cares for young, generally orphaned, victims of the horrendous tsunami a couple of years back.
Anyway, I certainly saw all of this weekend’s matches and they were great. The key match, of course, was Wales v. France in Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium. Wales were striving for the Championship and the Grand Slam, but France were there to upset them. Just a guess mind you, but I doubt that the Froggies would have been overjoyed to see Craig Joubert in charge, after the terrible deal he gave them in the RWC final last year. I certainly made a note of it – before the game began – on the top line of my jottings.
If we are to believe the commentary teams – and I do – there were more disappointed fans outside the stadium than the lucky 75,000 crammed inside, when the match began, with the roof open, soon after a deluge had made conditions treacherous. The decision by France, to go for an open roof, gave the clue that France would adopt a pragmatic ‘put them under pressure and see how their skills hold up’ approach and their selection of Beauxis, with his strong kicking game, confirmed this. In retrospect, they would have been better served with the more talented Trinh-Duc.
The game was an absorbing contest, giving the lie to the wet, slippery conditions, with Wales keen to keep the ball in hand – either wide or through their running forwards – and France generally favouring the high ball through Beauxis. However, when the opportunity presented itself, the French could suddenly lift the pace and attack with precision. On two such occasions, one in the first half when a short lineout throw saw Servat free down the right touch and Wales under real pressure, then in the second half, Lydiate claimed Harinordoquy, when the try seemed certain. But these breakouts, although potentially lethal, were too few and too far between. Wales, on the other hand, consistently threatened, just as they have for the last twelve months, and their vision, intent and skill – not to mention size and pace – have bought them their just reward.
It has occurred to me frequently in recent years, that perhaps the most important quality required of a top level coach, is his ability as a selector. Warren Gatland has introduced Warburton (youngest ever Six Nations captain), North, Cuthbert, Halfpenny (at fullback) – I could go on – after chopping and changing between lesser players for a couple of seasons. Likewise, Stuart Lancaster has been smart enough, and brave enough, to go for Farrell, Dickson, Morgan, Barritt, Botha – I could go on here also – after years of fiddling with captaincy and (again) lesser players, indeed some whose heads were considerably larger than their ability.
Phillipe St. Andre, also, has stabilised the unbelievable merry-go-round of the French fifteen. It was only a year or so ago that France omitted Harinordoquy, Rougerie and Bonnaire from the one selection, and Picamoles has only just reappeared following a phenomenal tour of New Zealand about two or three years back – not the easiest place to play rugby either! All three of these coaches have shown this quality and their teams have performed accordingly very well. It’s not the only quality required, but it’s a vital one.
This match was indeed a fitting finale to a great championship. The defence from both teams was magnificent. France absorbed what appeared to be intolerable pressure in the opening quarter, to then bounce back and apply some of their own. The Welsh then took their turn to show just what they could do also. Both backrows were outstanding – Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau versus Dusautoir, Bonnaire and Harinordoquy. I’d walk over hot coals any day of the week to watch these trios in action again. (Whilst on the subject of defence, I thought that Fritz was great for France against the outstanding Roberts and Davies – more caps for him, please.)
The better team won and, indeed, they were the best team in the tournament, but not by a lot. England ran them very close and were, in my opinion, a bit unlucky on that day. Wales played rugby the way we’ve always known that they, as a nation, could, but in recent years rarely have. This could be the beginning of another golden era for them – and for us, the spectators.
I thought that the ref was very inconsistent. Sometimes – a couple with France hot on attack – it was a penalty for ‘not supporting your weight’, ‘going off your feet’ at the tackle. Other times it was not. Trinh-Duc was penalised for throwing the ball away, whilst in touch, to prevent a quick Welsh throw-in. I see it happen every week, often worse than this and not penalised – even with this same ref. Brian Moore, commentating (intelligently) on the England v. Ireland game, questioned the absence of a yellow card for Barritt for his deliberate playing of the ball, in an offside position, following a knock-on. How much more cynical, and damaging to France, was the same offence by Gethin Jenkins, with France storming on to the ball about 5 metres out from the try-line? But no yellow card here – Brian would have had apoplexy. Once again, I don’t think that the French would be happy with M. Joubert.
I said two weeks ago that the New Zealand Super Rugby teams were playing well, South African teams ok and Australian teams poorly. Nothing has changed. Our rugby, in general, lacks pace, precision and intensity. We lack also the courage ‘to risk failure in order to achieve success.’ This from a nation whose proud sporting traditions have been based on ‘’Ave a go, yer mug!’