Good, bad and foxy: what we've learned from the Six Nations
Our team of writers hand out their bouquets and brickbats at the end of this year's Championship
Sunday 20 March 2011
Challenges, not more replays: Ask the TMO! That was the knee-jerk cry after Wales's illegal try against Ireland. It sounds like common sense, but it's the opposite. Giving TV officials extra powers to intervene will only increase the chances of human error. They have been wrong before (Jonny Wilkinson's try v Scotland in 2007) and replays can be inconclusive and time-consuming. The system must be limited to two or three "challenges" a match.
Italy's win good for credibility: Italy have been cut a lot of slack since they joined the Six Nations in 2000. But there was always the nagging doubt that they were all tight forwards and nothing else. Then they beat France, with the backs and a collective resolve overturning an 18-6 deficit. Forza Roma! Forza Italia!
Friday night matches: The next two years' Six Nations will be on Saturdays and Sundays only; the impression is the Friday night experiment has failed. Anyone caught in 28-mile tailbacks or on crowded trains on the way to or from Wales v England would concur. But it's an afternoon off work and no worries about the morning after. We need a proper survey of public opinion, not a slavish devotion to TV audience figures.
People still love a good scrum: It's sad, the farce that the scrummage has become. Crouch, touch, put the kettle on, engage early, fall over. That's what it says in the law book, right? This crescendo of anti-scrum noise has been a few years in the making but it has warmed the cockles to see the lust that fans still have for rugby's most primal area of confrontation when it has been allowed to develop. The French were ebullient as their men poured on the power against the Scots; the English would have made Dan Cole Prime Minister last week had a half-time election been called.
This is why we love the French: One minute they look invincible, the next quite conquerable. A funny bunch; the All Blacks aside, they look like the most talented, gifted players in the world but they have another side. Poitrenaud: capable of pure, jaw-dropping magic but always good for a howler. Chabal: monstrously powerful and athletic but invariably inclined to throw a pass that would leave his Under-8s coach screaming in frustration. They have always been this way and, as long as you're not French, you wouldn't change them a bit.
Fans drinking pints: "Oh my God," squealed my mother-in-law, "that man has sneaked beer into the stands." Fearing a riot she lunged for the phone, though I'm not sure who she was intended to call. "This isn't football," I reassured her, "these people sit and drink together without any threat of violence". It was only after I shot this back in a patronising tone that I realised how different the sports are. Two blokes in opposing jerseys sharing a few pints. Bloody wonderful.
We're inferior to the Tri-Nations: For technical excellence and skill the Six Nations is still inferior to the Tri-Nations and that bodes ill for the World Cup. The Six Nations invariably produces its quota of surprises but excitement levels derive from close contests – no bad thing – rather than skill. If there is one area the home unions in particular need to work on, it's support play.
What no Sergio Parisse? British governing bodies used to sneer at, if not condemn, player awards. The shortlist of 12 for this year's Six Nations does not include Parisse, which suggests they were right to sneer. Italy's captain has been outstanding and is the leading No 8 by a country mile. Whoever is named player of the tournament, the award has no credibility.
History does repeat itself: Paul Ackford was 30 before he was capped in 1988; he went on to play at lock for the Lions and in a World Cup final within three years. Tom Palmer did not have to wait so long for his first cap but, at 31, this is his first complete Six Nations, and how well he played. The Lions await.
The creative outside-half is back: After years, which have seemed liked decades, of Jonny Wilkinson, Stephen Jones, Ronan O'Gara and even Dan Parks, the coaches are finally cottoning on that a bit of flair in the playmaking role makes tries easier to come by. Toby Flood has added a new dimension to England; James Hook proved what he has long been screaming inside his brain – "I am a No 10!" If Jonathan Sexton and Ruaridh Jackson can train on, the Six Nations might one day be classed as "entertainment".
Time limit on penalty kicks: Nothing has been a bigger turn-off than watching goalkickers standing like statues for minutes on end. The argument goes that if a 30-second time limit is put on penalty-takers, foul play will be rewarded. Extend it to 45 seconds. Nobody should need longer than that.
Warren Gatland is no fun any more: First we had the Dylan Hartley explosion, then we waited, and waited, and waited... until we realised. The Wales coach was serious – he was not going to drop any more verbal bombshells. As quickly as a spark flew out of his gob, so it jammed tight. Someone else would have to roll the grenades. Step forward Marc Lièvremont, a dream replacement. Please don't sack him!
Size doesn't really matter: At Twickenham last Sunday the 12st 8lb Chris Paterson showed he's no metaphorical lightweight. The Scotland full-back was arguably the biggest influence on the pitch, with one brilliant tackle on Chris Ashton and a stunning try-saver on Ben Foden. Would come in useful for kicking sand in anyone's faces too. He wouldn't miss.
A fox can still steal the show: In 1991, Grant Fox kicked 14 of New Zealand's points in an 18-12 victory against England in the opening game of the World Cup. Last Sunday a vulpine creature provided regal pre-match entertainment, roaming free on the pitch, then scurrying up into the stands towards the royal box. It must have been terrified amid so many Barbour-jacketed types, but it managed to escape undefeated, to rousing applause.
Richie Gray's no 'Bambi on ice': He was derided by Jeremy Guscott, that prince of centres, on the eve of the tournament, but the young, 6ft 9in, bleached blond Scotland lock was a stand-out performer of thoroughbred quality. More like Red Rum on the home stretch at Aintree.
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