Review: The Six Nations 2012

With The Olympics and the UEFA European Championships just around the corner, there is a lot to be said for 2012’s sporting calendar. However, whilst the anticipation of the summer’s events rises, the first sporting major event of the year came to an end this weekend – the thirteenth year of rugby’s Six Nations.  Pulling in an average of 4.6 million viewers, the showcasing of talent was an event that enthralled and excited, aggravated and frustrated several different players, fans and nations alike, as, once again, for the eighth time in thirteen years since its amalgamation, it was a British team that took the spoils.

But, whilst Warren Gatland’s Wales reigned supreme, taking third Grand Slam victory in eight years, there were a lot of positives for every country to take from the seven-week event, producing players that lit-up the tournament, whenever they had a chance.

Scotland

As the firm underdogs of the tournament up until Italy’s inclusion in 2000, the Scottish team were unlucky not to win a game this year. Albeit their play is usually quite stinted, with short passes never equating to much ground made, they are always a team that will scrap their way to victory. Something they proved this year after narrow defeats to France and England – two games where the result could have gone either way.

With the British Lions on tour next year it is the Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg that would be most disappointed if he were to miss out on a call-up. Adding an amount of flair and panache that usually lacks in the Scottish team, Hogg’s formidable gift for running rugby is one that should, soon enough, end Scotland’s long-running losing-streak.

Stuart Hogg slices through the defence

Italy

Italy have developed in leaps and bounds over the past thirteen years. Most notably seen by their unfortunate defeat at the hands of England, after they went in at half time leading by twelve points to six, it seems that inexperience is not longer a problem.  Finishing off the tournament with a (scrappy) win over Scotland, it seems only a matter of time before they start scratching more W’s on to their results board.

If it weren’t for the replacement of ever-reliable kicker Kristopher Burton, the Italians would have embarrassed England in the opening weeks of the tournament, as his absence between the posts lost them the game. A face, and foot, to look out for in the future, as Italy continue look to stamp their dominance on the game.

Kristopher Burton keeps it cool

France

As always, the French produced some beautiful rugby. Fine lines of running, well placed kicks and monstrous tackling were all on the menu whenever Les Bleus took to the field. However, after a crippling draw with the Irish, the French team began to act accordingly, losing their tempers and, subsequently, the following two matches.

Once again the French showed that they do running-rugby better than most, most poignantly proved by their new centre, Wesley Fofana. Finishing the tournament with five caps and four tries, Fofana is definitely a name that will be revered in the future, as experience will only add to his plethora of skills and talents.

Wesley Fofana makes it four from four against England

Ireland

Ending as the tournaments top try scorers, Ireland were, once again, unfortunate not to finish higher up the table. Their dominance in the pack, despite a hiccup against England, was a constant threat, with their backs constantly tearing up opposition defences at breakneck speeds. Yes, their heyday of talent may be coming to an end, with many of the Grand Slam victors of 2009 nearing retirement, but the new wave of talent is developing in abundance, promising to be a danger to any team that comes up against them.

This year, Ireland’s lucky star was shining in Tommy Bowe. Despite a questionable decision taking away a tournament-record for the winger, denying him his sixth of the year, he was always a constant threat for the opposition. With blistering pace, a fantastic chip-and-chase and marvellous covering tackles, Bowe has several years left in him to reach that try-scoring goal.

Tommy Bowe bags another

England

Coming off the back of a disgraceful World Cup, England saw a complete turnaround in personnel. Several uncapped players graced the field in the opening game against Scotland, as England produced one of their more questionable victories. However, the weeks went by, and the nation’s wariness of the team seemed to disperse. England’s new blood fought hard against the French and the Irish, securing victories that would dismiss any uncertainty that lay there before the tournament.

Yes, new boy Owen Farrell was a great asset to the team, scoring an impressive 63 points in 5 games, however it was Stuart Lancaster’s inclusion to the squad that made all of the difference. The question of who should be next England manager has surely been answered after three away wins in the tournament – a record held by no other man to take the reigns of England’s team.

Stuart Lancaster has the players' support

Wales

Another scintillating tournament from the Welsh side saw the team take their Grand Slam, after a final victory in Paris. Perhaps a bit of poetic justice following on from their dismissal at the hands of Les Bleus from the World Cup last year, however a marvellous all-round performance nonetheless. Several players have marked their desire to feature in the Lions’ tour next summer and, with Welsh coach Warren Gatland set to take the helm there, too, it would be astonishing if a lot of the Welsh players did not feature.

With a powerful line-up, their backs averaging an astonishing weight of 1.92m and weighing in at 112.9kg, it was one of the smaller Welsh players that packed the most punch. 5ft 10 fullback Leigh Halfpenny is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to running, tackling and, as he proved in the dying minutes against France, kicking. Pegged as a new JPR Williams, Halfpenny was definitely one of the best things to emerge from this tournament, with his astounding talents helping the Welsh to victory in almost every aspect of their game.

Leigh Halfpenny puts the boot in to France

The tournament itself may have had some negative points; games were not as enthralling as they have been in the past, scores were not as high. But what is certain is that the progression of talent and skill is clear from all nations, proving that the annual event should not be frowned upon, but welcomed by every team looking to develop their reputation in the rugby world.

Images reproduced from belfasttelegraph.co.uk, connector.tv, smh.com, universityobserver.ie, telegraph.co.uk and rbs6nations.com

Some Perspective Before Poland Please…

As I write, journalists across the country are frantically sharpening their pencils. The back pages of our papers will soon be awash with column upon column of conjecture, forecasting the fate of the England team at next year’s European Championship. What we will witness from the media over the coming months is what we always see as England prepare for a major tournament: an endless, contradictory stream of negativity, hype, sniping, hysteria, support, rhetoric and anything else that will undermine any hope Fabio Capello and his team have of success. Amidst all of this drivel, the press will still strive to ensure that the players board the plane for Poland buckling beneath the burden of expectation weighing heavily on their shoulders.

It is irresponsible, inconsistent journalism that has put me right off supporting England. The media circus that surrounds the national team is not only embarrassing but also damaging to our chances of ever winning another international tournament. It’s difficult to forget the absurd emphasis the press placed on Gareth Barry’s battle for fitness at last year’s World Cup, for example. Or the subsequent clamour for the inclusion of Joe Cole that proved so divisive and destabilised England’s entire campaign. Predictably, the majority of English journalists were left a little red-faced when Mesut Ozil sashayed past Barry (who looked like he was running in wet trousers) to set up Germany’s sublime fourth goal and dump England out of the competition.

I can only imagine the extent to which Rooney’s three-match international ban will be covered in the media. How on earth will we cope without our only genuine match-winner? Should Capello even include him in the squad? Every possible scenario will be mulled, chewed and presided over to the point of pre-tournament exhaustion.

Such coverage is confusing and unnecessary but above all, teeth-gnashingly annoying. It fuels the hysteria now synonymous with most England games: the chest-thumping jingoism, the painted faces, the flag-waving, the insufferable ‘England band’ parping plaintively on their bugles as if to salute the death of English football. I find it all quite difficult to stomach if I’m honest. It’s axiomatic that, as an Englishman I want England to win rather than lose. However, there is a callous side to me that is quietly satisfied when we’re beaten and the thousands of fans who were foolish enough to buy into the notion that England are any good, trudge away from Wembley crestfallen. Their face paint smudged and their tails firmly between their legs.

Following an unspeakably depressing World Cup last year, England’s qualification for the European Championships was achieved surprisingly smoothly. I certainly wouldn’t say that we scraped through (as reported on Sky Sports). Despite being a team in transition, performances were, in general, as steady as Fabio Capello’s granite jaw. He even proved flexible enough to alter the formation and introduce new personnel. All that we can ask of the Italian is that he establishes a philosophy that gives us the best chance of success in the future. His attempt to replace the leaden-legged England of Bloemfontein with a more imaginative, nimble side has resulted in some promising displays. Though it is still clearly a work in progress, the performances have at times involved an incisiveness and fluidity that we haven’t seen for many years. It would appear that we are finally taking tentative steps in the right direction.

But please let’s not get carried away. It is imperative that perspective is maintained. As we have seen, reckless journalism can unravel much of the good work we have seen at times during qualification. Whilst the players must believe they can win the tournament, it is still important that we as supporters understand that they probably won’t. As it stands, England don’t have a team good enough to challenge Spain or Germany or Holland and win the European Championships. Well, not without a huge slice of luck anyway. The nucleus of the team that failed so dramatically in South Africa still remains, so expectation of anything more than the Quarter Finals is unwarranted. Just look at the history books – I’m not being pessimistic; I’m being realistic.

It is also important that such equanimity is applied when England suffer setback. The point that secured unbeaten qualification in Montenegro last Friday night was greeted with derision and frustration, more so I suppose because of the manner in which Wayne Rooney was dismissed and England let a two goal lead slip away, yet it was reported in the media as if it were a loss. I think this is unfair. Apparently nobody took the time to consider the possibility that Montenegro might dare to be a well-organised side, with good players playing for qualification to the European Championships.

As the reaction to the point in Podgorica shows, the football press in this country uphold an almost xenophobic ignorance when it comes to acknowledging the footballing capacity of other nations. They made a huge deal of the fact there are only 625,000 people living in Montenegro. So what? A country’s population is irrelevant when it’s 11 vs 11. I don’t understand what is to be gained from such pointless reporting. The truth is, the level of professionalism in football has improved globally meaning the number of truly dreadful international teams is falling year-on-year. Most teams have made themselves very difficult to beat and consequently the vast chasm of quality that used to exist between the best and worst teams is slowly being bridged. As Montenegro demonstrated, the less renowned international teams won’t yield to higher-ranking opposition just because they have the most televised domestic leagues.

I think we all need to concede that English football isn’t necessarily ‘where it’s at’. To think otherwise is old-fashioned. What we must acknowledge is that, though our domestic league is sparkling with superstars, very few of them are actually English. Only Rooney, and possibly Ashley Cole would make my Premier League eleven. You might be able to make an argument for one of our centre halves and possibly Joe Hart, but that’s it. How good can we expect our national team to be when the best players in our own domestic league aren’t English?

What I would like to see before the team depart for Poland is some rational, pragmatic journalism. The type of speculation that pursues the England team is unhealthy and whips up a level of expectation that is naïve and ungrounded. In victory or defeat it is important to maintain perspective and remain logical. We’re not the best team in Europe but we’re far from being the worst. It is the responsibility of the press to provide balanced coverage and help to convert the average England fan from fanatical manic–depressive to philosophical aficionado. You never know though, with a bit of luck we might find ourselves in the Semi-Finals… where’s that face paint…?

Image reproduced from postproduktie.nl