Saturday, March 22, 2008

End of - the Velvet Bear

There’s been a lot of excitement in the popular press about the return of the TV show Gladiators. Whilst one can understand the desire to retread and rehype popular formats which don’t require dodgy telephone votes to attract an audience, why is anyone bothering when, if you want to see grown men knocking seven bells out of one another for a prime time Saturday audience, you could just repeat the last weekend’s Wales v France match ad infinitum? There are plenty in the Principality who would never tire of watching it.

From the outset, it was a tremendous contest. Wales, at home, going for the grand slam. France looking for a championship victory to vindicate the selection policy of new coach Marc Lievremont - who had, in honour of the occasion, picked 13 of his best 15 players to start the game.

It was pretty much an even battle up front, the French pack competing far harder than they had done at any time in the competition to date. The real contest, though, was in midfield, where Tom Shanklin and Gavin Henson provided an impenetrable barrier against the silky skills of Damien Traille and Yannick Jauzion. Even when Henson was sent to the sin bin for an absurdly high tackle on the impossible-to-pronounce Ouedragao, the Welsh defence did not falter. As against Ireland the week before, they skilfully retained the ball within the forwards for as long as possible until they were restored to full strength.

The moment which changed the match came midway through the second half. Jauzion, in an attempt to avoid being flattened on the gain line for the umpteeth time, threw out a speculative pass. Shane Williams grabbed an interception and raced to the line for his sixth try of the tournament, his 41st in Welsh colours (thus making him their leading try scorer ever).

France continued to attack without ever looking like breaking through the Welsh defences. Ten minutes after Williams’ score Wales should’ve had a second try, as Mark Jones intercepted another loose French pass and raced from his own 22 to within a metre of the French line before he was hauled down. Two minutes later they killed the match off as a slick passing move saw veteran flanker Martyn Williams stroll over the line and behind the posts.

It was a fantastic performance from the Welsh to end a 6 Nations which must have exceeded their wildest dreams. There is no doubt that a grand slam is far harder nowadays than it ever was and to do it with substantially the same side which destroyed their own World Cup campaign back in the autumn is some achievement for the new coaching team. The game also showed the French what might have been, if only their coach wasn’t so odd.

Over in Twickenham, we witnessed the birth of Danny Cipriani’s international career. The ease with which England beat Ireland was a surprise. In some respects, the Irish were unlucky. Losing Dennis Leamy after only 12 minutes was a big blow and seemed to badly hinder them. Losing Geordan Murphy ten minutes later was doubly unfortunate. But none of this detracts from a much improved English performance, orchestrated by their new fly half and capped by a man of the match performance by centre Jamie Noon. Indeed, Noon was without doubt their best player of the whole tournament, rock solid in defence and occasionally dangerous in attack.
Cipriani is a different kind of player to Jonny Wilkinson. He loves to run with the ball and to spread it wide to his backs. Wilkinson plays further behind the gain line and relishes taking the ball into contact, or directing play with his boot rather than his hands. He made an appearance at inside centre after an hour and contributed to a try for Matthew Tait, but it is hard to see how this can be his regular position in the side. This could turn into a re-run of the early 90s debate over the relative merits of Rob Andrew and Stuart Barnes.

As much as anything, though, England were helped by a change of emphasis. By not endlessly taking the ball into contact with the opposition, by keeping it alive instead of trying to begin every move with the forwards picking the ball up and driving, they opened up the ponderous Irish back line and made life very easy for themselves. To see the likes of Steve Borthwick and Simon Shaw making swift passes was a revelation - the former even filled in at scrum half in the move which led to Tait’s try. Ireland, by contrast, only seemed to have one tactic, which was to give the ball to Paul O’Connell and see if he could batter his way through the English midfield. In the backs, Andrew Trimble had a nightmare, repeatedly losing possession in the tackle, whilst Shane Horgan proved that he is no substitute at all for O’Driscoll or D’Arcy. In fact, in which universe do Ireland only have two centres of note, anyway? Surely there is a better option than playing two wingers out of position?

The wooden spoon ended up in Italian hands, but only on points difference. They finally put enough of a game together to beat the Scots. Last week I predicted that this match would go to the side which made the fewest unforced errors and so it did. Surprisingly, though, it was the home side who made the fewest mistakes, whilst the Scots contrived to blunder and blunder again. Everything that could go right for the Italians did, as the Scots helped them into the perfect field position for the winning drop goal with only 40 seconds left. Heck, Gonzalo Canale even managed to hold onto the ball long enough to score a try this week.

In the end, only Wales will look back on this championship. France and England were hindered by myopic team selection, whilst Ireland grew old before our eyes. The Italians were competitive but lacked a decent combination at half back. Scotland had arguably the best half back pairing of the tournament, but lacked quality everywhere else on the park. It won’t go down as a vintage year, but the Welsh just won’t care.

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