Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Six Nations topsy-turvy tournie wide open

February 27, 2006

Ireland pummelled a shell-shocked Wales 31-5 at Lansdowne Road yesterday. The thumping concludes a nightmarish week for the Welsh, who lost coach Mike Ruddock mid-week in mysterious citrcumstances (Did he walk or was he pushed? Was there a player revolt??).

Coupled with England's shocking Calcutta Cup loss to Scotland on Saturday, the tournament is now wide open.

The current standings after 3 tests (with tie-breaker +/- point differential):

England 2-1 (+43)
France 2-1 (+33)
Ireland 2-1 (+24)
Scotland 2-1 (=0)
Wales 1-2 (-50)
Italy 0-3 (-50)

There is a week sitdown and the 6N resumes on March 11th. That weekend features crucial match-ups between France-England and Scotland-Ireland. The championship should presumably be settled then, but given the way things have already transpired, and looking at the all-important point-differntial for the championship tie-breaker, we may be biting our nails waiting for the score of the tournament's final match -- Ireland vs. England on March 18 -- to decide the winner.

If Scotland can get past Ireland and then put lots of points past Italy, it is entirely possible that a Scotland championship might be on the cards, and that was a prediction nobody could have made a month ago.

And full credit to the Scots -- aside from a disappointing loss to Wales a couple weeks ago, the usual pushover Scots have kept the All Blacks close, and knocked-off both England and France. One good performance against a top-tier power might be a fluke, but three huge efforts in the span of 4 tests suggests new coach Frank Hadden has really turned the page and confidence of his squad.

Some Fleet Street scribes are trotting out the lazy cliche about Scotland winning the big test because they *sniff* possessed more heart. Like a wind-up doll, step forward Mr. Stephen Jones of The Sunday-Times of London:

"In the end, [England] lost because of something aside from technical matters, something away from the rugby field altogether. They lost because of something deep in the heart, an area where Scotland were untouchable."

Let me get this straight -- Scotland, a team that had exactly one attack on England's line and came away with zero tries scored in the entire test, we are supposed to believe prevailed because they had something "deeper in the heart" and were "untouchable"?

It is more likely that Scotland won because England had something shallower in the brain.

Jones further lavishes praise on Scotland's "magnificent endurance and defence" that "came from something way deeper than fitness and technique."

While it is certainly true that Scotland were resolute and England failed to score any tries, the "magnificent defence" explanation is only half-true. There were many occasions when England ripped open Scotland's defence like tinfoil, only to see vast bulldozing movements sputter and get wiped-out by the stone hands of backs like Ben Cohen and slow-delivery scrumhalf Harry Ellis. England simply could not finish their try-scoring chances -- and there were many more of them than Scotland's lone chance -- in part because Scotland could have predicted England's minor-IQ gameplan in their sleep.

The former Lions center Jeremy Guscott is much closer to reality, condemning England's tactics in his comments to the BBC:

"Against Scotland, there were times England made 30 yards across the gain line," he added. "From there you need quick ball, but England are just not smart enough."

... "What positives can England take out of the game? I can't think of one."

... "Playing like that they will need a miracle to win the World Cup, they need to be reminded what the game is about."

... "What is the point of being a three-quarter for England?" he said.

Ex-England hooker Brian Moore piles on:

The real problem for England was that whatever the status of their ambition, you will not win games if you cannot produce quick ball, do not retain it in the tackle and fail to execute simple skills like catching, drawing a man and passing. These have nothing to do with 'style', they are rudimentary attributes that international players should have, but all too often were absent among the England ranks.

... As always, there were defining moments in the game. One came just before half-time when Scotland were buckling under the pressure of the English scrum. Having been warned by the excellent referee Alan Lewis of the consequences of collapsing another, they found themselves being shunted backwards.

However, the ball was not controlled properly, though Ellis fashioned a gilt-edged chance for Ben Cohen to score from seven yards out. When Cohen dropped the pass, he did so not because of a lack of English ambition but because he took his eye off the ball momentarily, a simple failure to perform a basic skill.

Former England coach Dick Best also cuts to the quick:

Comedy of errors is no laughing matter

In fairness, England let themselves down and Scotland were defensively brilliant. At the last count, England made eight clean line breaks and the Scots none, yet the men in white were incapable of finishing any of them off.

... Basic skills and old-fashioned nous were absent.


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