Monday, February 18, 2008

The return of running rugby?

Exciting ‘though they were the later stages of last year’s Rugby World Cup, culminating in a try-less Final, were not exactly feasts of running rugby. So one of the interesting features of this season’s 6 Nations is watching to see whether one or more of the teams can break away from the shackles of the defensive kicking game and entertain the crowds with running rugby. On the evidence so far it is only the French who really look like doing this.

Les nouveaux Bleus

After the bitter disappointment of the World Cup – losing to England in Paris in the Semi-Final (Sacré bleu!) - The French, under a new coach Marc Lievremont, are building a brand new team. “Les nouveaux bleus” have been exciting so far. They got off to a good start in the campaign with an impressive victory against a very poor Scotland at Murrayfield with Vincent Clerc scored two tries, one in each half, to give Lievremont success in his first match. Clerc then followed up with a hat trick of tries in France’s next match at home to Ireland and although they faltered badly in the second half in this match – allowing the determined Irish to get back to 21-26 from a seemingly down and out 6-26 deficit – they held on to win and now look favourites in the Tournament.


The Irish comeback in Paris was only one of a number of surprising reversals, or near reversals, in the competition so far. Pride of place has to go to Wales who, in front of a stunned crowd at Twickenham, came back from a losing 6-19 position shortly after half time to beat England 26-19 on the opening day of the season. England were like Longfellow’s little girl who “…when she was good she was very, very good but when she was bad she was horrid.” To allow Wales to fight back and score 20 unanswered points during a remarkable 13-minute second-half spell was as horrid as it gets – for the England supporter anyway. But take nothing away from the Welsh who built on their familiarity with one another as players (they nearly all play for the same club side) to overcome a disjointed, confused and eventually traumatised England.

Lighting doesn’t strike twice in the same place they say but it certainly nearly struck twice against England when, just a week after their Twickenham disaster, they almost did the same again in Rome. Here a 20-6 interval lead versus Italy became a nerve tingling 23-19 by the end of the match. What on earth was going on? It is tempting to suggest a failure of a national character was in play – after all England’s cricket and football teams have demonstrated a similar ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in recent times. But, in reality, I think that there was simply a lack of the ability to close out a match combined with an admirable Welsh and an Italian determination not to give up – we saw that also with the Irish in France.

A Royal at Croke Park

Next Saturday your correspondent is off to Dublin to see Ireland play Scotland at the famous Croke Park ground. Amongst the other spectators will be HRH Princess Anne who is the patron of the Scottish Rugby Union. This will be the first visit by a member of the British Royal family to a ground that is a symbol of Irish nationalism and which has a tragic history in the Anglo-Irish conflict of the early part of the Twentieth century. Most of the spectators will take this in their stride I expect and their main interest will be to watch an improving Irish side beat the Scots. Scotland has yet to score a Try in 160 minuted of Rugby this season – perhaps they are stuck in a World Cup timewarp?

The competition is France’s to win or lose

Whilst there may be a slip along the way everything in this year’s 6 Nations does seem to be building to a great climax in the final match at the Millennium Stadium on 15th March when it is likely that Wales and France, both unbeaten, will contest the Grand Slam. The French have the easier path to this “Final” with a home matches against England and Italy which they should win comfortably. Wales have to face Ireland away en route and that is a fixture which could easily trip them up. But neutrals will be hoping that the two teams are unbeaten for the final match showdown. The last time France played at the Millennium Stadium I was privileged to see them beat the All Blacks in the World Cup – the greatest game of rugby I have ever seen live. But in this year’s 6 Nations nothing is quite predictable and whilst it is logical to say that the French are the team to beat I’m not clairvoyant or foolish enough to make a prediction. But if they do win it will be by carrying on playing running rugby – and we can all be grateful for that.