Super Rugby 2017

Week Four

A Thought For The Week:

I usually refrain from commenting about rugby tournaments, competitions or games on which I have not done a bit of homework. I tend to think that there are many others with a better knowledge of that particular tournament or game, and I leave it to them to make their deductions and form opinions that they share with the rest of us. However, sometimes I do like to make some quick comments that reflect my own thoughts about a particular event.

This time I would like to share some thoughts about the Six Nations tournament that has just finished up north.

Over in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Italy they are busy with their “Contact Evaluation Reports” as the dust from the latest version of the Six Nations settles. Those “Contact Evaluation Reports” are often used by military authorities to look back on a battle, skirmish, or fire-fight, to see what they have done wrong, what they did right, and what lessons they can learn from the incident they are evaluating.

Adding some spice to the scientific hindsight exercises is the upcoming British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. Who will be chosen to go? Who will captain the squad? Who is the best player in each position? What are the Lions’ chances against the All Backs?

I admit to having watched some of the Six Nations encounters with just half an eye, flicking between channels to stay with Super Rugby games and 6N Tests. I did, however, make sure that I gave the broadcast highlights packages my full attention. My interest was especially piqued by the utterances of that Evil Garden Gnome that is coaching England. Eddie Jones is a master at getting under the skin of his opponents. He also gets an awful lot of media exposure in the process as he is so different to many of the dour, taciturn individuals who wear the coaches’ caps in world rugby.

Let’s take a quick look at each the Six Nations, with my thoughts on where they are and the state of the game in each country.

We begin with the Champions, England.

Eddie Jones has been quite vociferous in his statements that England are very close to the All Blacks in quality, and getting closer with every game they play.

I am afraid that Eddie is being just a bit windy.

The evidence on the field was not quite as emphatic as Eddie’s pronouncements.

A close win over France, 19-16, another close-run thing with Wales, winning just 21-16. A hissy fit by Eddie after a 36-15 win over Italy, who outthought Eddie and his team for a full 40 minutes before the coach read the riot act at half time.

The England game clicked into gear against Scotland, who were rolled over 61-21, but then this was Scotland, not New Zealand.

And then the Irish beckoned from Dublin. It was a big game for England. They could do the Grand Slam by beating Ireland. Even bigger, in Eddie’s world, was the New Zealand record of 18 consecutive Test Match wins over Tier 1 teams. If England could beat Ireland, they would have 19 consecutive wins.

History tells us the Irish won.

So, a team that is supposed to getting close to the quality of the All Blacks squeaked three wins, had a run-away win in one game, and lost another?

England do have some depth in their pack of forwards, but it is not the most mobile pack in the world. They also tend to play forward oriented rugby, more often than not.

At the back they have the likes of Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell as decision makers, and I have the feeling that they are not the quickest thinkers on a rugby field. They do have some good runners out wide in the likes of Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell.

Personally, I do not think England are anywhere near the 2016 All Blacks, and that AB was in the “process of rebuilding” which signals a team that will be more mature and experienced in 2017.

Next, Ireland.

Ireland started the 6N with ideas of a third Grand Slam and another championship title. After a good run against the All Blacks, Australia, and South Africa at the end of 2016, the Irish were confident that new style of aggressive running rugby could carry them to the 2017 title.

And then they lost the first game of the 6N to Scotland.

The Irish were angry, and it was Italy that felt the backlash in the next fixture. South African born CJ Stander scored a hat trick of tries as they utterly obliterated the Italians in Rome. Then they took out France quite easily.

Just when the men in green thought they were back on track for a title, they
Welcomed the Welsh to Dublin, and lost.

The fifth and last game of the Irish 6N was the encounter with England. Eddie and his guys were coming to Dublin to bank a Grand Slam and the 6N title, and anew world record of 19 consecutive wins. The Irish thought otherwise.

This was a disappointing campaign for the Irish. The Grand Slam and the title were there for the taking and the fact that Ireland let both the Welsh and Scottish games slip at crucial moments. At no point during this 2017 campaign did Ireland hit the level of performance that they achieved in 2016.

The Irish game style seems to have regressed somewhat. They rely on a pack of forwards that provide clean set-piece ball, and then they play crash-ball rugby, using beefy runners to get over the gain-line. In 2016 the forward oriented game worked a treat. In 2017 they found their line-out malfunctioning and coughing up possession at critical moments. Their scrum held, but did not dominate. The result was fairly good ball to the midfield runners, but without momentum going forward.

The loose-forwards and ball carriers also found the gain line a long way away when they got the ball in hand.

At times I seemed to be watching Australia playing in Irish jerseys. Ball retention was superb as they went through phase after phase, yet went nowhere on the field. If you struggle to score after ten phases, you will not beat the All Blacks.

The Irish seem to have the player depth, but they have a poor game plan.

Now, France.

Ahh the French! The most distractingly inconsistent side in the world.

If they wake in the morning and all is well with the world, they will beat all-comers. If one of them is in a bad mood, the entire team rapidly adopts that bad mood and anyone in the world can beat France. The problem really is that you never know which team will pitch up at the stadium on match day.

A happy team and you might get some glorious rugby, or a sulky team with the mutters, and a disinterested undisciplined display of rubbish rugby.

They beat Scotland, Wales, the Italians too. And they ran it close against the English and the Irish.

For a change, there has been some selection consistency. Their half-back combination, Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez, could develop some continuity, and it’s no surprise as a result that Lopez in particular, had a great tournament. He was the 6N’s top scorer, allowing France to move away from using their scrumhalves as goal kickers. (Think of Yachvili, Elissade, Parra, Machenaud…)

Their scrum was a whole lot better in 2017 too. Louis Picamoles was very good at number eight, ably supported Kévin Gourdon as blindside flanker.

That was the good news. The bad news is that France squandered countless opportunities in all matches in depressingly familiar fashion. You cannot average 1,6 tries per game across 5 games if you want to win trophies. Just 8 tries, with 4 against a hapless Italy, is simply not winning rugby.

Once again, France seem to have the player depth, and they should be doing so much better. But that is the story of French rugby for as long as you care to remember.

Then, Scotland.

After years of finishing last or second last, the Scots will have some optimism for the future. They did finish fourth, but they had 3 wins and two losses, and that is very good for such a young squad.

The future is bright at Murrayfield.

They beat a much-fancied Ireland side 27-22, lost a close one to France 22-16. Then Wales arrived at Murrayfield, and went home having been handed a 29-13 loss.

The 61-21 result Twickenham was the low point of the season.

They redeemed themselves against Italy, with Vern Cotter’s farewell game as the Scots put four tries past Italy and conceded no points in the process.

There is no doubt this Scotland squad is heading in the right direction, with players such as Finn Russell, Jonny Gray and Huw Jones all special talents.

The big question is whether they have the depth?

Next up, Wales.

Somehow Wales always seem to flatter to deceive. They set very high standards, and then produce some truly inconsistent rugby. When everything is working, they can beat anybody, but those moments of brilliance were infrequent during the 2017 Six Nations tournament.

They finished with two out of five wins and second last in the final standings albeit 10 points ahead of bottom-placed Italy.

Yet their eventual log position is not really a true reflection of the season. They had very close finishes against both England and France, matches that could have gone their way.

Sam Warburton’s decision to relinquish the captaincy seems to have done his game the world of good. It has been a while since he played as well as he has done this year. Alun Wyn-Jones seemed to blossom with the additional responsibility of captaincy.

A 33-7 win over Italy, a close-run 21-16 loss to England. The wheels really came off against Scotland as they went down 27-13, but then they produced one of those performances when everything seemed to work as they knocked over Ireland 22-9.

Their season finished somewhat bizarrely with a strange loss to France, where Wayne Barnes allowed 20 minutes of extra-time and all manner of odd things to happened on the field. Weird substitutions, collapsed scrum after collapsed scrum on the goal line, yellow cards, including one that was given in injury time, served in injury time, and the player returned to the field to play on, still in injury time…..

20-18 was not really a fair reflection of the game.

There might be several Welsh players in Warren Gatland’s Lions squad heading over to New Zealand, but I do not see too many of them playing in the Test matches.

Finally, Italy.

It is a measure of the weakness of Springbok rugby at the end of 2016 that they lost to Italy! The Italians were the whipping boys of this year’s Six Nations, conceding 22 tries in just 5 games.

Italy started badly, losing to Wales in Rome 33-7, and then it went really really pear-shaped when Ireland handed them a 63-10 hiding. Nine tries slipped past the Italian defences in that one.

Heading off to England, the Italian brains trust decided to use the law book to their advantage, and refused to contest any rucks or mauls, thus allowing Italian defenders to take up position in what might otherwise have been off-sides positions.

The English were rattled and showed a remarkable inability to adjust their game plan to the Italian tactics. Somehow, Italy went into the half-time break 10 – 5 up!

Eddie Jones worked things out and gave his team a tongue lashing at half time. They figured that Italians drifting all over the place meant there were holes right on the fringes of the rucks and in the middle of the rucks themselves. Six tries later the Italians had lost, again.

The next two games were not much better after a home 40-18 loss to France and 29-0 defeat to Scotland.

Bottom of the log again. I cannot see the Azzurri getting much worse than this.

Some stand out players?

Louis Picamoles caught my eye, as did Joe Launchberry. Perhaps Maro Itoje, if he could only play to his potential rather than trying to be the tough guy. CJ Stander would have captained the Boks if he had stayed home. Sergio Parisse stood tall amongst his Italians as they struggled with the game of rugby. Stuart Hogg did some good things, as did Finn Russell.

The British and Irish Lions Tour

Romain Poite, Jérôme Garcès and Jaco Peyper have been appointed to referee the Tests involving New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions.

Jaco Peyper, who has 36 tests, will take charge of the first New Zealand v Lions test in Eden Park, Auckland, on Saturday 24 June.

Jérôme Garcès, who has 37 internationals on his tally stick, will take charge of the second test in Wellington, with Romain Poite (53 tests) refereeing the third and final match of the series.