Sunday, February 17, 2008

Challenge accepted - the Velvet Bear

We Bears like a challenge. Hell, you try being born without opposable thumbs and see how far a passive approach to life takes you. So when I was dared to have a go at a rugby union column, I felt that I at least had to give it a go. You will, I am sure, tell me if I suck.

After last weekend's internationals, the one question burning itself into my mind is: “Are Eddie Butler and Brian Moore the worst commentary team ever?”

Whilst no-one can doubt the extensive rugby knowledge of this pair, and allowing for the fact that Moore gave me the proudest moment of my (real) career, you still have to wonder if you couldn't get a more informative commentary from a pair of trained chimps - or at least a pair of trained bears.

For two weeks now I have screamed at the television whenever this pair appear. Describing the action on the pitch with any degree of accuracy takes second place to trying to show how clever they are - a hard task if, like Butler, you use the phrase 'Curate's egg' and then have to admit that you don't know where it came from. Meanwhile, amidst all the rugby technobabble, the humble viewer is left howling in anguish as the pair miss the referee's signals (and so have to guess, usually wrongly, at what any penalty has been given for), speculate on the blindingly obvious (the blood pouring down Jamie Noon's face might just have been a clue to why he was leaving the pitch) and patronise England's opponents. There actually is no point to either of them being there.

Idiot commentators aside, England's problems on the pitch were, in retrospect, only to be expected. Their side mauled by injuries, they were forced to make numerous changes from the previous game (which we shall gloss over as it makes me say rude words). This left them with a XV well below international class. In fact, if Tim Payne is an international quality prop, then I'm a pepperoni pizza with extra chillies.

To be fair to Payne, he wasn’t the only one struggling against an Italian side which, as they did against Ireland the week before, started slowly but were much better after half time. In the second half, the bigger Italian pack outmuscled the English one, resulting in slow possession which the England backs were unable to make any use of. This was despite Italy being without their captain, Marco Bortolami, who was instead stood on the touchline doing a commentary in a foreign language to him and making a damn sight better job of it than Moore and Butler.

England do have some thinking to do before they take on the French on Saturday. They need to work out how they are going to get Lesley Vainikolo into the game more, because one high kick a game in his direction isn’t giving him enough ball to do damage to the much smaller wingers he usually faces. Iain Balshaw is offering nothing at all from fullback, there’s no creativity in midfield and the only benefit James Haskell is bringing to the side is the chance of a breather whilst the opposition kicks yet another penalty given away by him. And is Luke Narraway the only forward in international rugby who actually needs to eat *more* pies?

Finally, they need to decide what to do about Danny Cipriani. The game is littered with very good club players who never made the step up to international class. He is clearly short of that class at the moment and has too little experience of top flight rugby to play fly half at international level. Remember that he only became Wasps’ first choice there this season. His foolish kick which led to Italy’s try was a prime example of this.

The Italians also have some work to do. They will be buoyed by the return of Bortolami for their game against Wales, but must do something at half back, where they cannot sustain a partnership of a converted wing and a converted centre. Andrea Masi is turning into the Forest Gump of fly halves - he can’t stop running.

Scotland look to be in for a long, hard campaign. They have too little inspiration on the pitch, too few high class players. Some of their side would struggle to make the third team of most nations, whilst the centre pairing of Henderson and De Luca offers them plenty of defence but nothing in attack. Every team goes through troughs where they cannot find a creative player anywhere (even in that favourite Scottish hunting ground, New Zealand) and the Scots’ time will come again. For now, they can await a good dose of the wooden spoon.

Creativity is one thing Wales have in spades. Packing it all in is their problem and they’ve made six changes from the side which thrashed the Scots, giving Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel a run at half back and bringing in an entirely fresh front row. It is hard to remember how badly they struggled against England in that first half at Twickenham and the battle of the two packs will be an interesting one when they play Italy.

France have had a scintillating start to the tournament, with Vincent Clerc already running up five tries. He might not get the same chances against England, but it will be no surprise if we see a game of two sides who start brightly and fade as the game goes on, as has happened to both teams thus far this season. The French will, of course, be anxious to perform well after almost blowing that huge lead against the Irish. They are another side with a problem at number 10, where neither Trinh-Duc nor Skrela seems to be able to unleash the talent outside of him. This could be a closer game than people expect.

What has happened to Ireland? For some reason, it seems to have taken them the better part of two games to wake up to it being international rugby time again. They were soporific in beating Italy and hopelessly outplayed by the French for much of the game in Paris. Losing Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell for the season hasn’t helped, but Geordan Murphy has looked totally out of sorts on the wing, the pack looks listless without O’Connell, the line-out is so bad they might as well just give the opposition the ball and JUST HOW MANY CAKES HAS O’DRISCOLL EATEN SINCE THE WORLD CUP? A chance to put all this right against Scotland beckons, but this team is underperforming badly this year.


upanunder greengrass said...

Thanks, Bear -
looking forward to more rugby chronicles from you.

Do you do the real rugby - League?

Everytime we've seen O'Driscoll in the taproom (he almost lives there) he's been filling up on roasted tapir. He must be scoffing cakes elsewhere.

MoTM said...

I know one shouldn't antagonise a bear, but what is it with Moore and Butler? My rugby knowledge is garnered from a handful of live matches and internationals on the telly, so I'm no expert, but I find them informative, non-patronising and, at times, funny. But they do divide opinion.

What I don't understand about England is why they insist on taking the ball into contact and not off-loading RL style. Tindall may be a fine defender but for 50-odd internationals, he has offered less in attack than Guscott offered in 50-odd minutes. And if you're going to have forwards clogging up the midfield (as all teams seem to have, except maybe France) is it not possible to find some who are quick? American Football seems overflowing with 2 metres tall guys who can run.

Thanks for the piece - more after the next round of matches?

velvet bear said...

Thanks for the comments. It is nice to know the experiment worked. I'm tempted to do another after this weekend if I manage to get the latest NFL piece finished in time.

I know a bit about League, but not as much as I do about Union.

The offloading thing is interesting. There was a time when it was really popular, but then teams went too far and it became interception heaven. The danger is that you run like a league player and end up too upright in the tackle because you are looking for the offload - Farrell is a prime example of this. I think you will see more of it if the IRB bring in the changes being trialled in the Super 14 at the moment, as they are designed to create more open play.

offsideintahiti said...

Not a commentator as such, more of a half-time in the studio pundit: RTE's George Hook. Knowledgeable and very funny.

A versatile bear, now, that's a first (as long as it's oval, right?). Well done.

upanunder greengrass said...

Veering giddily on-topic, England will (barring injury) soon field a scrum-half with a great name:

All real rugby players should have names like this, chuckle-friendly names that invite mirth.

Do we have a Shufflebottom handy?

Upanunder Greengrass said...

We beat the buggers!

Upanunder Greengrass said...

I would have thought les Frogs would have been on here long ago to banter me to death.

Come on, garcons, getting whipped by a bunch of Rosbifs in your home citadel can't be all that bad.

I'm not asking you to eat our food, just say something...

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