This week we concern ourselves with the Six Nations… there's a lot to be concerned about.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Six Nations… there's a lot to be concerned about.
“It's just boring, boring rugby” said Jeremy Guscott during his half-time analysis of the France Italy game. The allusions of John Inverdale to the dire quality of Saturday's fare were hardly missable either.
It's been a long time since the Six Nations served up such drivel – and it has also often been backed up by a succeeding weekend of excellence. But Kiwis and South Africans, even the stuttering Wallabies, must have either been laughing hysterically or snoring hard, dependant on their time zone or choice of accompanying drink. Roll on Super Rugby!
That's the general impression. Here are our other takeaways from the weekend's action:
1) That thing about the Lions tour and France being fresher the following year has never rung truer. Wales look absolutely dead on their feet, while neither England nor Ireland are exactly serving up high-paced ambition. Of course, the argument ought not to apply to Scotland, but they have their own demons to wrestle with.
At least the French – and the Italians – had a few players looking sprightly… the home nations are just stuffed. This Grand Slam is France's for the taking. Taking into account the miserable quality of the televised weekend games between Exeter and Northampton and Toulouse – Montpellier, and it's tough to avoid that old bugbear: there's too much rugby being played up north.
2) What on earth happened with those red cards in Paris? A scrum goes up a bit, there's a bit of argy-bargy, it settles down… and that is where it ought to have been it. Instead, a four-minute pause, a lot of irritated players, some pompous official conferring, two red cards and many a spectator focussing on, in fact actively looking on the big screen for, a headbutt, when they could have been watching a scrum. It just didn't need to be. Headbutts like Bakkies Botha's on Jimmy Cowan a couple of years ago are the ones people need to be sent off for, those ones in Paris are creations of television.
3) Aside from all the dirge, France might have unearthed a new star in Brice Dulin. The full-back was the scourge of Italy, kicking well, running back into holes, safe in defence and passing superbly. He was no slouch against England either. Keep your eyes on that number 15 against Wales.
4) The pitch just wasn't an excuse. England cannot expect to turn 68% possession into only 20 points and be taken seriously as a team that will win things. There is progress, but until the English players start keeping their chests facing forward when they pass and running straight rather than at a 20-degree angle across the field, those crucial five-pointers they are striving so hard to earn will not come.
5) Back to Wales: how much is the ridiculous tug-of-love between the WRU and the regions wearing on the squad? It's not just that Wales look knackered, some of them truly looked as though they did not want to be there. Last year's performances were marked by pride, by a collective desire and a collective backing.
This squad looks fragmented, like they are all keeping from each other, while their fans and administrators chop and change and wrangle over a few pennies. Adam Jones and Rhys Priestland have offers on the table from both sides, one side unsure if they can guarantee a tournament to participate in, the other side unsure if they can produce a team to play in. What player would produce his best under those conditions?
It's difficult not to be extremely pessimistic if you are a European rugby fan at the moment. Off the top of the head, we could come up with three really good examples of skill from the weekend past – Wesley Fofana's magnificent pass that led to Bonneval's try topping the list.
The international teams look tired and uninspired, the clubs are all arguing with each other and their unions… and we are 18 months out from a World Cup. Something has to give… hopefully it will be the third weekend of Six Nations, which has often been a cracker.
Fantasy rugby starts next week, albeit in fledgling form because there are only two fixtures. And while you'll no doubt be scouring the lists for bargains over the next few weeks, here's our list of players you just can't be without…
Front row: Stephen Moore. Seemingly indestructable in terms of games missed with injury and always good for a try. Might be getting a bit long in the tooth now, but he's still top dog in Canberra and there's still no obvious challenger for his role.
Lock: Sam Whitelock. A giant even among his brothers, and aided by the permanent extra threat of Kieran Read as an extra line-out option, Whitelock not only rules the air at line-out time, but his work-rate in the loose has him consistently topping the ball-carrying charts at his position.
Back-row: Liam Messam. Few back-rowers are as capable of getting on the finishing end of as many moves as the Chiefs' captain. It's the players he beats that rack him up the points on top of those tries though.
Half-backs: Gareth Anscombe. Strange that he is still in the half-backs slot having played so much of last season at full-back, but Anscombe's ability to cut lines and finish moves, as well as his goal-kicking exploits, made him a league-winner last year until he got crocked…
Centre: Christian Lealiifano. He gives you a rare goal-kicking option for the centre position, but his ability to create go forward ball and beat defenders adds to that and makes him the prime candidate. However Leali'ifano isn't expected to return until Round Five, so look at Frans Steyn over the with the Sharks for now.
Outside backs: Israel Folau's ball-catching and line-breaking ability makes him indispensible at the outside position. If you could manufacture a position where you had him and Julian Savea in your team…
And our final tip: remember the values of players start changing quickly. If you are sure your bargain man – the one costing 700,000 but who is scoring all his team's points – will be picked that week, buy him on Monday. And watch your profit grow as all the others follow suit. The trick to winning the game is to up the value of your team as much as possible in the early weeks, so you can buy whoever you want in the later weeks.
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson