This week we'll be concerning ourselves with the Six Nations… and a couple of other odds and ends, but mostly the Six Nations.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Six Nations… and a couple of other odds and ends, but mostly the Six Nations.
What a weekend! What a weekend! This was perhaps the best Six Nations weekend since… actually, perhaps this was even the best Six Nations weekend ever.
Three games, sixteen tries – Wales only scored ten in five games to get to a Grand Slam last year, while we are already at 35 per cent of last year's total – more points from the ball crossing the whitewash than the crossbar, a monumental upset, a classic and a bout of dangerous throat-clearing from Europe's most dogged animal.
Not only was the rugby of exceptional quality right across the board, but a word should also go to the officials. Both Alain Rolland and Nigel Owens were verging on faultless, while Romain Poite stood up well to several tests of coolness under some frantic pressure. If this quality of rugby from all parties involved can be perpetuated over the winter and spring, we're going to have not only a fabulous tournament, but also a B&I Lions side fresh off the back of a tournament now looking able to match its SH counterpart for skill as well as passion. It's all looking great for the game.
We'll start the more precise review with Italy. Two years ago in Rome, Italy beat France on a day when everything just went their way. France could have chucked on an extra five players and they still would not have either created an overlap or had a refereeing decision go their way. It wasn't a fluke, but it definitely was in large part down to the rub of the green.
Sunday's win over France was completely different. Italy didn't just win, they actually outplayed their opponents – most people's tip to be Grand Slammers themselves at the kick-off. France did not play truly terribly, but found the Italian defence resilient, the rucking technically superior and the attack finally running quick precise deep lines to which the French could find no answer.
Italy's problem ever since they turned five into six in 2000 has been their lack of pace and skilful threat, especially wide. Now they seem to have found the secret, the victory over France should serve as a warning to the rest: no longer it is just Italy and Scotland playing for the wooden spoon this year.
It could even be Wales and Scotland. Whatever the final half-hour of the game against Ireland presented – and it did at least show that Wales are not struggling with fitness, whereas Ireland might – the first 45 minutes of the Welsh display was abject.
Pillar defenders not manning their stations, broken lines rushing up in defence, one-dimensional attacks that plod, plod, plodded one direction across the field before plod, plod, plodding across the other way. Ruckers arriving too late, poor ball presentation, slow distribution, rusty skills… the list goes on.
It's been a feature of Wales the past twenty years that whenever they are coached local, they seem to just not quite get it. Bring in someone from abroad and the team reacts, grows up and believes. Rob Howley is facing a monumental task to buck this trend, while Warren Gatland may return from Lions duty almost able to name his price.
Meanwhile, across the Severn, what odds on England mounting a serious assault on their own World Cup now?
It was not just the manner of the win over Scotland – who really weren't that bad, by the way – it was the glaringly obvious potential for improvement in many areas. A poor decision here, a couple of needless penalties there, one or two clumsy handling errors… England already have assumed the mantle of favourites from France. If they clean up their act even more over the next two years… another home World Cup win?
Ireland were good, but they looked a smidgeon out of shape compared to others. We'll know more about that after next week's game against England.
But there's one thing to add.
An Irish gentleman approached me before the game against Wales and coined my tuppen'orth on the chances of Brian O'Driscoll being Lions captain eight years after his one and only minute sporting that particular Test armband.
“I don't think so,” said I. “I think he's just taken a little too much battering down the years and I am not quite sure if he's the definite first choice any more. Paul O'Connell's been chosen ahead of him as captain once, now Jamie Heaslip as well… I think the writing is on the wall. He'll be on the tour, he'll be in the leadership group, but he'll not be the captain. There's just too much risk of him breaking down.”
Following the game I took those ill-chosen words home, stored them in the fridge and then sprinkled them liberally on the omelette I had for breakfast on Sunday. After what BOD delivered on Saturday (leaving aside the odd box-kick with five to go), who can give a viable alternative?
Away from the Six Nations, we received some interesting stats on rugby's global fan base this week, from a study carried out by SMG Insight and YouGov. More is to follow in this week's excellent PR newsletter the Crooked Feed but as a taster, apparently:
– Wales has Europe's most dedicated fan base
– South Africa has the highest female fan base
– France has the highest physical number of fans at 21.7 million
– Rugby still attracts most followers from a high-income bracket, with the majority of the support in 12 out of the 14 countries (IRB tier one nations, USA, Brazil, Russia and Japan) surveyed found within high-income people.
So the Welsh can still sing, Springbok women can still speak lucidly about the game, and the French clubs still love downing tools to come together on French rugby day. Meanwhile, the nobs at HQ are ordering another fridgeload of prawn sandwiches for themselves and their guests…
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson