6 Nations: : Lions Watch

After a few Blog-less months (caused by the stresses and strains of a journalism course which has somewhat taken over my life the past few months…), I am pleased to make my return and what better excuse to do so than the 6 Nations and the forthcoming Lions tour.

The British and Irish Lions have a mouthwatering summer tour of Australia lying in wait and as is always the case in a 6 Nations tournament in the lead-up to a Lions tour, competition for places is starting to hot up.

Gatland has much to consider after the first weekend of action

The opening weekend had all British rugby fans wishing that the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse were not Italian and were English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish dynamos instead as they helped inspire Italy to a stunning victory over France.

The opening weekend also saw a rejuvenated Ireland conquer Wales who are continuing their free-fall from their Grandslam-winning pedestal, and England demonstrating the sort of attacking verve en-route to victory against Scotland that helped them defeat world champions New Zealand in the Autumn.

As is nearly always the case in a Lions year, the opening weekend provided a fascinating insight into who might make the trip and who might not.

It threw up the usual blend of ‘dead-certs’ confirming their status as being such (e.g Dan Cole, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Chris Ashton), former favourites for selection on the wane (Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, the latter seemed to just have an off-day) , and young unexpected contenders throwing their hats into the ring for selection (e.g Joe Launchberry, Billy Twelvetrees.

Anyway, now that the dust has settled on the wonderful opening round of this year’s tournament it is time to look ahead to this weekend’s action and I have decided to highlight some of the key British and Irish players and clashes to look out for┬áthis weekend.

Cian Healey Vs. Dan Cole:

Come the first test match against Australia this summer these two could well be partnered as the first-choice tight-head and loose-head props for the Lions but this Saturday they will be head-to-head and it promises to be a snarling battle. Both were true to form on the opening weekend and proved why they are both regarded amongst the very best in the world in their respective positions.

Ben Youngs Vs. Danny Care:

This is an ‘in-house’ battle within the England setup and one which seems to drive both players on rather than inhibiting their performances. They are both world-class, both exciting, both energising, but unfortunately both are still pretty young and each have a tendency to undo some of their fantastic work with some clumsy errors. They are however both in the running for a spot in the Lions squad as well as being locked in a battle to wrestle the number 9 England shirt from one another. Hopefully this battle can continue to inspire the pair of them and we can look forward to a big 60 minutes from Ben Youngs this weekend and an exciting cameo from Care in the last 20.

Justin Tipuric:

 

Justin TipuricLess than a year ago it seemed that Sam Warburton could do nothing wrong. He had performed and led the Welsh side superbly at the World Cup in late 2011 and then he flourished again as skipper as Wales went on to Grandslam glory in 2012. He has however been a steep downwards slide since then and so have Wales as a collective unit. Captain Sam is missing this weekend though and at the moment this actually seems to be a positive for the Welsh as it opens up a space for the dynamic Justin Tipuric. Prior to last weekend I had heard an awful lot about him but hadn’t seen much of him myself, however, his performance after coming off the bench against Ireland made me sit up and take note. Could he be the answer to Wales’ desperate prayers of late? Could he even be Lions material? We might just find out against the French this weekend…

Brad Barritt Vs. Brian O’Driscoll:

Brian O' Driscoll 6 Nations 2013This week Sir Clive Woodward conceded that in England’s last Grandslam winning year in 2003, when Brian O’Driscoll was at his dazzling best, that he earmarked no less than three England players to nullify the Irish master’s threat. If last weekend is anything to go by then Stuart Lancaster may have to follow Woodward’s lead in his team instructions as O’Driscoll returned from injury in stunning fashion. Barritt playing alongside Billy Twelvetrees in the England midfield will surely be charged with such a task this weekend at the Aviva Stadium and the whole game could well hinge on this battle.

Other things to look out for this weekend:

The Irish back-three (even without the absent Tommy Bowe), the battle of the two fly-half Lions front-runners Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the development of Scotland flyer and Lions full-back hopeful Stuart Hogg who made a great impression at Twickenham last Saturday.

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Well Done NZ, but wasn’t it an underwhelming tournament?

Maybe I am struggling to detach myself from my rather futile support of England’s dismal campaign but am I the only one who has been left feeling a little underwhelmed by Rugby’s showpiece event?

As a result of our football’s sides apparent desire to ruin every second summer of mine, the Rugby World Cup has throughout my life as a sporting fanatic become my most eagerly anticipated sporting date on the calendar. As per, I went into the tournament with great optimism about what was in store, not necessarily from the perspective of being an English fan, but more about the competition as a whole.

Would New Zealand put pay to their seeming run of 24 cursed years on home turf? Would reigning champions South Africa find something from deep within to mount a challenge with their much criticised ageing squad? Would the exciting young Australian squad show why they managed to overcome an admittedly understrength New Zealand side in the Tri-Nations? Could the Pacific Islanders mount their first serious challenge for a place in the latter stages of the competition?

These were the main questions to be answered with regards the Southern Hemisphere, as for the Northern Hemisphere… Could England take their 6 nations form into the World Cup? Could the ever-mercurial French find their elusive best? Could Ireland find the form that saw them ruin England’s 6 nations Grandslam? Would Wales’ late 6 nations promise and exciting young back line take them towards bigger and better things?

All of the above questions were there to be answered and in the most part the honest answers would either have to be no’s and unconvincing yes’.

Reigning champions South Africa flattered to deceive with their unbeaten run through the group (not that it went without a hitch), only to lose out to an unconvincing Australia side in the last 8. The Wallabies who had promised so much in the lead up to the tournament surprisingly lacked a spark which many thought would place them in pole position if the All Blacks were to partake in their seemingly ritual choking act. As well as the Southern Hemisphere’s headline acts struggle to find their form, their Pacific Island representatives also struggled to impress themselves upon the tournament. Fiji barely showed up. Samoa performed better than their results might suggest but ultimately didn’t deliver, and Tonga shocked the world with a great win against France but sadly barring a miracle of epic proportions they were already consigned to the fate of a first round exit.

In addition to the disappointing displays of the majority of the Southern Hemisphere outfits, there have also been let downs a plenty for the Northern hemisphere. With regards England’s campaign I’ll keep it short and sweet. It were rubbish. Like South Africa they flattered to deceive with a 100% record in the group only to follow it up with a capitulation against the French.. ‘Nuff said really…

Having been drawn in a tough group alongside England and Argentina, Scotland failed to maintain their run of making it to the last 8 of every World Cup competition. Their performances were as ever committed, which is more than could be said of some of England’s, but their continuing lack of conviction and try-scoring potential came to the fore once again as they struggled their way to a first round exit.

In contrast, Ireland undoubtedly produced the best we’ve seen from them in a while but again failed to make it beyond the last 8. They progressed strongly through the group stage including a shock victory over Australia in one of the best matches of the tournament, but they fell at the next hurdle. They might count themselves a little unlucky to have come up against the form team of the tournament, Wales, but they again failed to push on into the business end of the tournament in what was quite possibly the last chance for many of their old-timers.

Ireland’s conquerors Wales were arguably the side that came out of the tournament with the most admirers. Their performance’s throughout were full of adventure, heart and incredible team cohesion and spirit. Their young back line fired on a consistent basis whilst their forwards, led by their brilliant Captain Sam Warburton, were also outstanding. Coach Warren Gatland had gone into the tournament with several critics for his failure to push Wales on from their Grandslam glory of a few years ago, but he has left as a national hero once more. His inspiration along with that of Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards encouraged the Welsh side to play with more courage, fitness and desire than any other side in the competition. Had they not been on the wrong end of a controversial red card in the Semi-Final then they would probably have been rewarded for their immense efforts with a place in the final against the All Blacks.

As it turned out though France were the Northern Hemisphere’s representative in the final, and in spite of their at times comical stumble through the competition they pushed the victorious All Blacks all the way, and on the day at least, they looked like worthy finalists.

In a fashion now rather typical of French rugby sides, they managed to overcome on and off-field disputes within their camp and a couple of humbling group stage wins to extend their stay all the way up until the final in Auckland and saved the best for last. A committed if not irresistible performance saw them battle back from the early setback of conceding a try, to a final result which saw them deservedly only losing out by a point. Captain Thierry Dussatoir must be praised for his man of the match performance in the final which inspired the rest of his charges to put their differences with eccentric coach Mark Lievremont behind them and concentrate on running the All Blacks as close as they possibly could. Though they just missed out on their first World Cup victory they once again put the frighteners on New Zealand who very much consider the French to be their greatest threat in World Cup rugby. For this they deserve enormous credit, but if their overall campaign is anything to go by then new head coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has an enormous amount on his plate.

In spite of the many tales of under-performing and under-achieving at the World Cup there were another side than Wales that managed to do themselves justice. Any guesses who? That’s right.. New Zealand. FINALLY, the Kiwi’s managed to return (officially) to the top of the International game after a 24 year World Cup winning drought. It is unbelievable that they have managed to go quite such a long time without winning the World’s premiere competition given their domination outside of the competition, but this time around they have won it again and not many could question whether they deserve it. Years of attacking brilliance and defensive strength have continually come undone as a result of one seriously slack performance every four years but this year’s crop of players have dug deep in mental and physical reserves to come up trumps on home turf. Without a doubt home advantage has played a huge part in their success over the past six weeks, but few would begrudge their triumph at home in the wake of last year’s tragic earthquake in Christchurch. Led superbly once again by captain Richie McCaw, the All Blacks performed with supreme confidence and solidity throughout the tournament and overcame the seismic loss of star man Dan Carter (excuse the pun). Of course the major sadness of their victory was that Carter had cruelly been denied his defining moment by an injury sustained in innocuous fashion during kicking practice.

Carter’s absence was one of several disappointments for me over the past six weeks matched only really by Wales’ unjust semi-final exit. Maybe I am just being a sinic, but the competition has this time seemed to drag on a bit. New Zealand and Wales produced some exciting rugby, but the majority of other sides in the tournament were well below their best. Maybe it was the greasy and windy conditions that caused most sides to play within themselves, but even the better matches in the tournament were tight, tense, low scoring and captivating rather than exhibitions of fine attacking rugby. Anyway, enough of my pessimism… Though I felt they weren’t quite at their majestic best, New Zealand more than deserve to have their mits back on the Webb Ellis Trophy so congratulations and good luck with your quest to stay at the pinnacle of the game over the next four years!

My team of the Tournament:

Tony Woodcock, Kevin Meleamu, Adam Jones, Lionel Nallet, Brad Thorne, Sam Warburton, Jerome Kaino, Imanol Harinordoquy, Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland/Dan Carter, Jamie Roberts, Aurelien Rougerie, Cory Jane, George North, Israel Dagg

My Player of the Tournament:

Israel Dagg