Off the pitch – Beer and banter
The first weekend is one of the great sporting moments of the year, a weekend on which the hopes of millions can either soar or plummet. Rationality flies out of the window to be replaced with a patriotism and partisanship which, uniquely, somehow manages to be both rabid and friendly at the same time. Therein lies the beauty of the Six Nations. There will be some sniping of which some will be true and most won’t but there will be no hard feelings, and tongues will largely be lodged in cheeks in those rare moments when they’re not filled with beer. Of all my Six Nations wishes, this is the one I am most confident will come true. It always does.
On the pitch – Blood and thunder
The Six Nations always starts with a bang. It is an explosion of passion and patriotism which often leads to some compelling games. As the tournament progresses, things often get a little more turgid. Much of the intervening weeks is spent doing analysis on self and opponent and, as so often, analysis can lead to paralysis. I would love to see the vibrant optimism and ambition which most teams carry into the Championship survive the second round of games.
By definition some teams will be on the back foot and caution is understandable. But I hope that the coaches don’t drag players back into their shells so that in any given situation they are trying to remember what they were told to do on Wednesday rather than reacting to what they see on Saturday. I hope every match feels like an occasion and that, even if one or two of them are a bit turgid, you never doubt that the players are giving it everything and have been allowed to give it everything.
Remember line breaks? Proper midfield line breaks? A show and go from the 10, a deadly line from the 12, a drift on to the outside shoulder from the 13? They are fewer and further between these days but it would be nice to see attack getting on top of meticulously organised defences. Having an organised defence is the best way for a team to stay in a game and hope to burgle a win. And good luck to them, it’s one way to skin a cat. But I hope that teams who go in like that get torn to shreds by opponents prepared to grab the game by the balls and run with it.
Where in the midfield is this likely to come from? For Wales, Jonathan Davies runs sumptuous lines and James Hook is a bit of a locksmith. Ireland are reliant on BOD recovering his best form as Gordon D’Arcy hasn’t made a line break since about 2004. Scotland, Italy and England look to lack cutting edge in the midfield with Manu Tuilagi needing to graft greater subtlety and understanding on to his extraordinary power. He also needs a threat inside him to give him some space. This leaves France. Wesley Fofana is a throwback to a bygone age; a willowy, quick, skilful centre capable of ghosting through gaps nobody else has seen. He does it several times a game. Only the French would therefore decide to play him on the wing.
Do I like trash talk? I’m not sure. Generally yes but rugby people, particularly British rugby people, are rubbish at it. Maybe that makes it even funnier. We expect everybody to have pop at England anyway. And we know that if any of the England camp dare to have a pop back they will be accused of arrogance. I won’t dare accuse anyone of hypocrisy though. I’d be accused of arrogance. Jim Telfer’s got in first with the arrogance card before anyone has even said anything. It’s the card he played with the Lions in 1997. As an Englishman I hope it is not as successful this time.
Common sense refereeing
Referees have come in for a fair amount of stick this season. I am not one to get on referees’ backs either as a player or a supporter as they have a very tough job but it has to be said that much of the criticism his year has been merited. My gripe is with whoever is instructing the referees. The men in the middle have clearly been instructed to enforce the letter of the law in certain areas with no recourse to common sense.
Too often referees seem to be reffing to their assessor rather than the actual match. Too many referees seem intent on making a decision when none is necessary and they could just let the game flow. For example, the breakdown has joined the scrum in becoming a lottery as referees either focus on only one infringement all game or are intent on running through the rulebook. By my reckoning almost every breakdown sees at least two infringements (at each, count how many players get up off the floor when they should have been on their feet). So either referee them properly and the infringements will disappear or ignore all of them, but don’t just guess, ref by numbers or be inconsistent. ‘If in doubt blow the whistle’ seems to be the mantra – but not for a squint feed of course. This is probably a separate article in itself but it would be great if, from balanced observers at least, referees are not prominent in post-match discussions. And don’t get me started on the tip tackle rule which was clearly written by someone who has never actually made a tackle.
What else I hope to see
At least 20 montages with Eddie Butler voiceovers. After another incorrect scrum penalty, Brian Moore to march on to the pitch and demand the whistle. Pubs overflowing into the street (guaranteed). A win for one or both of Scotland and Italy against someone other than each other (preferably not England).
What I hope not to see
Alain Rolland. Andy Nicol in a studio. Sopranos leading the national anthems. Lazy talk of ‘typical Gallic flair’, something not seen for about a decade. Alain Rolland. Penalties for tip tackles when the torso is not beyond the horizontal (the position of the legs is irrelevant). People over 45 wearing replica shirts. Did I mention Alain Rolland?
by Stu Peel