7 Feb 2011

Rugby 6 nations: what counts most?

After the first series of games held this past weekend, in this 2011 edition of Europe's annual international tournament, it is timely to ask a few questions about what really counts in this competition, especially in a year that will also see a world cup tournament being held on the other side of the world in New Zealand in October and November.

The showings of the three major teams from the southern hemisphere, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (in that order according to their current perfomances), added to those of Europe's sides on their summer tours, have left one with the distinct feeling that it is going to be very hard for any European nation to beat any of the above three, with the possible exception of England who seems to have a certain ascendancy over Australia, having beaten them twice recently. The speed of excecution and skills of both the New Zealanders and the Australians are very impressive, the the All Blacks also have a very good scrum. The fact that they will be playing at home must make them clear favourites for the world cup. Australia tend to be on alternating current, but were very impressive against France. South Africa's second team lost to Scotland, but the main team dominated England. Neither Wales nor Ireland looked consistent or coherent enough to make any southern team worry too much.

So England and France are the two favourites for the 6 nations competition, and both won this weekend, without being particularly convicing. Ireland were very lucky to beat Italy, the weakest team in the competition. England's victory against Wales was probably the best performance, as it was played on Wales' home ground in front of a hostile crowd. And Wales often looked dangerous, although too individual to really test the English defense. The English scrum, usually a strong point with this team, dominated the Welsh one. What is new with England is the sparkle in their back line, with a string of creative players like Foden, Ashton, Flood, Cueto and Hape. They not only carry the ball well and create, they hold on to it for longer than they used to and they are much faster.  Their victory against Wales showed these strengths, but they will need to dominate more to pose a threat to the top teams down south.

Tom Wood, the English flanker, who played a convincing game on Froday evening
France also dominated their home match against Scotland, but it was not as easy a victory as it could have been, since they lost too many balls on turn-overs. Admittedly they also won  quite a few like this and scored from them. Their scrum is excellent and has been together for some time. The most worryng part about their game is their attack. They constantly change players and seem to have little cohesion in the back line as a result. Many of the best backs in France play for Toulouse, but for some reason the French trainer never fields more than one of these at a time. The best player on the field in the back line was Medard, who is from Toulouse. Yet there were few well-constructed attacks during their game against Scotland.

So, is it important for these teams to win the 6 nations? I don't think so. Winning games clearly builds confidence, but confidence is not enough. Look what happened to France in their summer tour games against South Africa and Argentina, having won all of their games in the 2010 6-nations competition! What is far more important, in view of the coming World Cup, is the manner in which they play and the cohesion of the teams. To hope to rival "down under" against the likes of New Zealand and Australia, they must play fast, hold on the ball for long periods and vary their game constantly. England are closer to doing this than France for the moment. We shall see how both teams fare in the remaining games. The game between England and France, to be played at Twickenham, could be interesting.


  1. Apart from some silly penalties given away by England, nothing new there, I thought it was an excellent match. England France will be the one to see though in my view, should be a corker!

  2. Yes Andy, and silly penalties given away by England are not new either! Not as silly as Wales' in this game though, and the Deacon one (with assorted yellow card) did save a try.
    It was a very good game and I am also very much looking forward to England vs France.

  3. I would also say the Flood gets better and more convincing each game he plays.

  4. Agree on Flood but boy was Wilkinson lively and strong in defence when he came on! Sort of gives you hope having a couple of talented characters like that in the team.

  5. Sorry, I know you won’t like this post.
    Professional sportsmen, rugby included, are all of them treated with drugs they shouldn’t be given, either as a muscle development scheme, or as an orthopaedic/physiotherapeutic tool, or as a pain-killer. In a way, they are all junkies. I’ve been active in the pharmaceutical world, I’ve been a hospital physician in an area where bicycle-race is very popular and I’ve been following very closely (almost as a coach) top female fencing (World cup epée), not quite a full-blown “pro” circuit. They all take “things”, all of the time, and to various extents. A “simple” injection of corticoids, of lidocaïne or its derivatives, of anabolic steroids, of EPO is NOT inocuous. And repetition of these is simply blatantly dangerous.
    Look at what happened to poor USAP Maxime Mermoz. Those repetitive injuries are the result of: too competitive a spirit (of their own design or due to staff’s pressure), too precocious return to the training fields, inconsiderate use of drugs on behalf of the sport doctors (not much better than lawyers, these rogue bandits) or just plain doping programs.
    And don’t start your “it’s not true” commedia dell arte. Everybody sees it, knows it and accepts it. The “manufacturers” of illegal medicines are always one step ahead of the official controling labs. From the Six Nations to the Tour of France, over Wimbledon and GP racing: a whole bucket of cheat.
    In Belgium, you buy EPO on the parking at the start of enthousiast amateur cyclo-touring events, needles and syringes included. It costs you one euro per international unit.

  6. Seems the French are the only ones without an ad on their national shirt.
    For this reason (and because I'm French),I will support them. :-))

  7. Well those are two quite valid reasons. I quite agree about adverts on sports shirts, and particularly rugby. I am in favour of the professional game, but not enamoured with the transforming of players into billboards.

  8. On Luc's comment, I suppose that he knows what he is talking about so I will have to defer. I hate the idea of dopage of any kind, and am not in a denial syndrome about this, but hard work and the professionalisation of sport also explains a lot in terms of resistance capacity, muscle development, and the incentive to win. In the latter case, this is an intrinsic part of any competitive sport and includes the will to go beyond what is normally sustainable by mind and body. It can, of course, lead to injuries. I do not think that you can blame the injury to the excellent Maxime Mermoz on dopage or trainers pushing him too hard.

  9. David, I know I have an outspoken tendency towards cynicism. But my eyesight is excellent: never wore spectacles before the age of 48, and my Mumm was an eye surgeon. I used to be a keen sportman myself, liked my female-friends to be ... a good sport, and watched sport events on the tele now and again.
    I quit all that now. I’m truly disgusted at what those wonderful men – there is NO DENYING their skill, dedication, talent, sometimes even genius, efforts ... – are obliged to do to reach top level and stay there. I’m also scandalized at the number of parasites gravitating around them and at the profits the sport gear manufacturers make thanks to them. I even believe (but this is purely conjectural) the scores are mostly set before the matches even begin, as in pro boxing events.
    Would the competition not be as interesting if they all resorted to their “natural” capacity ?
    When we watched Pietro Mennea cut the finish line of a 200 m in roughly 20 sec, with runner-ups just a few inches away from him, wasn’t that nice?
    When Ken Rosewall won a game of tennis at Wimbledon, in spite of his being a diabetic patient, wasn’t that fascinating enough?
    When George Best, or Paul Van Himst, or Robbie Rensenbrink managed one of their wonderful dribbling movements, wasn’t that moving?
    This does not mean to say they were all perfectly “clean” – “le pot belge” has been around quite a while – but at least doping was considered an offense and not the rule.
    Do you know the very junior rugby players (age 15) of a team like Béziers (I know a precise example there, but they’re ALL the same) are given “stuff” by the training staff on the very first day they join the “system”. I suppose it is creatine and some vitamins. But even then.
    As for Maxime Mermoz, full sympathy to the lad, but many an expert (which I’m not, by any means) expresses the view he should not even have been on the bench for that match. His shoulder, this very fragile joint if there is one, has been injured so often, as received so many injections (anaesthetics, but also steroids, other anti-inflammatory drugs, possibly antibiotics, cartilage–enhancing products and so on, I haven’t seen the prescriptions), has had so many revalidation programs applied to it ... I heard him on the radio yesterday, and it was pathetic. The chappy has guts and passion, besides talent, but he believes (wants to believe?, fakes ?) all the bullshit they tell him. So the butcher will cut on him again, the pharmacist will earn on him again, the sport journalist will be offered free meals and possibly more to write on him, the physiotherapist will earn his living on him and, in 5 years time, his drug-dealer and his shrink will make a fortune on him as well.
    “I’d rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool, but I wouldn’t be ... him”.
    Not bad, huh, this pastiche of King Lear’s jester? And I’ve got others in petto.

  10. @ Hervé: the only ad they should exhibit on their jersey is “Label Rouge”, the grain-fed free range poultry.

  11. A quick George Best story that Luc will appreciate. Towards the end if his life, when quite broke, George was asked what he had done with all the money he had earned during the years with Man U. He said "I spent a hell of a lot of it on fast cars, booze and women. The rest I just wasted."

  12. I did not know that one, David. Fully appreciate it, indeed. Who wouldn’t like to be the ... sixth Beatle? Léon, perhaps.

  13. Goerge was...the best. I have given up on football since way back (for reasons explained in my article on an ancestor and international footballer of the 19th century), but watching him play was always exciting. I suupose the French equivalant (didn't they both play on the right wing?) would have been Dominique Rocheteau.

  14. I played some football at school, and in parks and public greens, of course. But I wasn’t very good at it. My main asset was I could run fast and knew where to stand. Apart from that: just a peeper.
    But you must have heard of Constant Vandenstock. He was the owner of the – very run-off-the-mill -Gueuze company “Bellevue”, the worst around, but also the chairman of Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht. And I think he did a better job at sports than with ales. He was a platonic lover of elegant and skilled players. The one he admired most was Robbie Rensenbrink, though he was a Dutchman. I must admit the chappy was a pleasure to watch: grace, elegance, explosivity, surprise and enthusiasm. In a way, the Thierry Henry of the bygone good days ... except he never used his hands!
    Since I don’t possess a tele, I’m not aware of which players are in the same league now.

  15. Thanks for the information. I bet 6 nations hospitality is a really cool event to attend.