25 Feb 2013

6 nations rugby, round 3

England vs France is always the scene of some folklore

The big match of the weekend was of course the France vs England game (aka "the Crunch"), played this year at Twickenham. I had bet on a close voctory for England, and the game should probably have had a closer end score than it actually turned out (23-13). With France having its back to the wall after successive defeats against Italy and Wales in the first two games of the series, despite being one of the favourites for this year's tournament, they were likely to be dangerous in this game and they did in fact pose serious problems to England's defense during the first half, scoring a brilliant try through Wesley Fofana and finishing just ahead at half-time (10-9).

France's Wesley Fofana goes over for his try, the most spectacular action of this game, after a 60 metre run and five avoided tackles. You can see some helpless English defenders on the floor in the background.

But the French team then tired in this very physical game after 60 minutes, and lacked both discipline and clairvoyance at crucial moments. The only English try was a lucky one, scored by Manu Tuilagi, who had always looked dangerous, making several breakthoroughs bofore this effort that more or less sealed the fate of the game.

Tuilagi scores England's only try, after a ball flies out of a ruck into his hands

"There will be blood" could have been the title of the scenario for this game, and Owen Farrell in particular appeared to lose his cool rather unnecessarily at times, although he was clearly tripped when going for a loose ball at one point: a foul that went unnoticed by the refereee and would have cost France a yellow card.

Overall England deserved their victory by their discipline and their constant attempts to vary their play and keep this in the adversary's half, but this was far from an easy victory and France can be proud of their performance. England now look very likely to win this tournament, and only Wales can seriously prevent them from winning all their games and so getting their first grand slam for 10 years.

Keith Earls looked dangerous for Ireland but was held by good collective defense by the Scots

The other games held lesser interest. I watched Scotland courageously defeating Ireland 12-8 in a tight game. Ireland badly missed their fly-half Sexton in this game. Ireland's 2 consecutive losses (against England and Scotland) will make them a difficult adversary for France who will travel to Dublin for their next game and try to avoid the wooden spoon award for being last in the tournament, even if their last game, against Scotland and at home, should be well within their capacities.

Mike Phillips spins out a pass for Wales

I did not watch the Wales vs Italy game but it would seem that the Welsh won quite easily (9-26 in this game played in a very wet Rome). The Italians must have sorely missed their captain, Sergio Parisse, who had been suspended the week before during a club game that I attended and for what seems to have been an imaginary "insult" proferred to the referee of that game, who has since been suspended himself for his poor performance on that day.

21 Feb 2013

A good read: books of the past year

I tend to read episodically and mostly when travelling, at least as far as spending hours with a book goes. Maybe I need to get rid of my TV to push up my reading capacity? But there is rarely a day that passes without my dipping into some book, even for a few minutes. I also tend to read several books simultaneously, and of different natures. Not novels: these I read one at a time, but non-fiction of different kinds plus a novel. An acquaintance of mine who also has a blog (in French) recently published a list of the books he had read over the past year, with comments on each of them. I was impressed and thought I might do the same. However this list will not include comments on each work as, for many of these I have already written articles on this blog, and, if you are interested, you can find these in the section names "Read on".

I will try to separate the titles into categories. They are not in any specific order by the way and in no way indicate a preference. I am also quite certain to have forgotten some of the books read in the past year, including ones I have really enjoyed or which have taught me things, as I don't write them down as I go along. Maybe I should in the future...


Siri Husdvedt: Living, Thinking, Looking (essays)
This I am currently reading, in bursts and in an excellent French translation published by Actes Sud. Very thought-provoking, often brilliant, and sometimes quite hard to follow, at least in the essays that dip into neurology and pychoanalysis.

Etienne Klein : Discours sur l'Origine de l'Univers 
Also very hard to follow for a non-scientific, but the concepts make one dizzy as he approaches Planck's wall and discusses the varous theories of the origin of the universe, and even the concept that there was an origin.

Michel Serres : Petite Poucette (essay)
A bit drawn-out and chatty. He has a point but he labours it too much and I couldn't finish this, short as it is

Benjamin Lewin, Wine, Myths and Reality 
Good, well written and clear. Debunks some things, explains many more. Very wide ranging and takes into consideration the markets for wines and their influences through history on the wines produced, an essential point totally ignored by most books on wine.

Martin Gayford: A bigger message, conversations with David Hockney 
Fascinating. I have already written about this here, and discussed Hockney's work which I greatly admire.

Gustav Herling : Un Monde à Part (memories of a Polish prisonner in Stalin's camps)
See article. Horrifying, obviously. Makes one admire human endurance also.

Steven Clarke: 1000 years of annoying the French (history revisited with humour)
Indispensable for anyone living between the two cultures of England and France (see article)

Fiction (crime etc)

Michael Connelly: The Black Box
Masterly: see article. I am pretty much a Connelly unconditional but this has to be one of his very best.

Jo Nesbo : The Leopard
First and only book I have read so far by this Norwegian crime writer. Very impressive (see article)

Philip Kerr: The Berlin Trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminel, A German Requiem)
Excellent dip into the murky past of nazi Germany and the suite of that war. He must have researched this extensively. There are another four in the series out and I will surely get to them some day.

James Lee Burke: ???
Read one book by this author of the US's deep south and loved it but I cannot for the life of me recall the title. I will return to Burke soon!

Fiction (other)

Albert Camus: L'Etranger
Re-read this short, relentless masterpiece in French after a 40 year interval. Indispensible

Sébastian Faulks : A Possible Life
Very good, with an unusual structure that sets up questions (see article)

Philip Roth: The Human Stain
This has to be one of the greatest novels I have ever read (see article)

John Fante: The Brotherhood of the Grape
Maybe not the best Fante but still a good read. Clearly very autobiographical

Julien Barnes: The Sense of an Ending
Moving and beautifully written in a low-key style (see article)

Denis Lehane: The Given Day
Brilliant "historical" novel that taught me a lot about aspects of US culture and early 20th century history (see article)

Sarah Blake: The Postmistress
Not indispensible. Has its moments though (see article)

Branimir Scépanovic: La Bouche Pleine de Terre
How fate and misunderstanding leads to horror. Short and pitiless story from this author from Montenegro, read in a French translation (see article)

Jean-Michel Guenassia: Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes
The best French novel I have read this past year.

Read on...

19 Feb 2013

In praise of (some) older wines, of accessible pricing, and of Zinfandel

The world of wine seems increasingly turned towards a double polarity in the organisation of taste, media coverage, prices and even producers' discourse. At one end of the scale we have usually inexpensive wines that are made to an increasingly high technical standard but which can come from just about anywhere. These wines sell for, let’s say, between 3 and 10 euros mainly in supermarkets around the world. They use grape variety (or appellation) as their essential selling point, apart from price. At the opposite end of the scale we have very expensive wines that claim to be more « authentic »; in any event which are clearly signed by a producer who usually has high media profile in connoisseur circles. These wines are often (but not always) the object of considerable speculation on the part of intermediaries and thus end up in markets at prices than can and often do exceed 100 euros per bottle, and sometimes much more. The gap between these two price extremes, which can be situated at 1 to 1000, has never been so great, but it has also never been so hard to measure in terms of perceived quality. Such is the folly of man, his appetite for things that other men cannot possess, and the distortions of levels of personal wealth throughout most countries in the world. 

Of course this considerably simplifies the reality of wine, its diversity as well as its markets, but I find that the discourse on wine is becoming increasingly polarised, rightly or wrongly, between these two extremes. The whole debate on the role and impact of « terroir » on the flavour of a wine is just a part of this. For those who defend the role of the environment on a wine as the be-all and end-all of quality and interest, the natural tendancy seems to shift towards various forms of elitism within whatever the respective price range may be. And, by the same token, these same people tend to condemn wines that are made to suit markets and price points as indifferent, indeed unworthy examples of the vinous offering.

Another factor in the contemporary wine scene that strikes me as an impingement on diversity is the gradual but significant shift in taste from mature wines (one can read « old » for « mature » if one likes to) to young wines. More and more consumers never taste older wine (ie wines that are over 10 years old), including in the upper echelons of the rapidly stretching price scale. Indeed, as their palates are formed to the tastes of young wines, as soon as they step outside this taste frame they tend to reject the type of smells, flavours and textures that are the necessary result of a wine’s ageing process. Yet the joys and surprises that can be supplied by older wines was brought home resoundingly to me recently when tasting a bottle that had been lying around in my cellar for some time.

Apart from California, where it is widely planted and, in some circles, very well regarded,, Zinfandel is not a grape variety that is well known elsewhere in the world, with the exception of Puglia in Italy, where it is known as Primitivo. In particular, it is not often considered as a variety that ages well, probably on account of its relatively light tanninc structure and high alcohol levels. Apart from the two aforementioned regions of the world, Zinfandel has rarely been planted elsewhere. It has been proven by DNA analysis that it is identical to the Italian Primitivo, and that it originated, in all probability, along the Dalmatian coastline of Croatia, where one can still find fairly rare plantings of its synonyms, Crljenak ou Tribidrag. Croatian origin of this cultivar is not now disputed amongst most experts and would tend to be confirmed by a synonym found in Puglia: Zagarese, meaning « from Zagreb ». The oldest name for the variety is Tribidrag, and can be found  mentioned as from the 15th century in the region of Split. Interestingly, this fits both the sense of the Italian name Primitivo and the Croatian Tribidrag, which derives from the Greek πρωι καρποζ, and which signifies « early ripening ».

So what was the wine that I tasted and which released all this flow of thought?

Blaauwklippen Zinfandel 1996, Stellenbosch, South Africa 

This bottle was given to me by a journalist colleague in South Africa during a trip there several years ago and, I am ashamed to say, has been severely mistreated since by being first stored for years in my garage (too hot in the summer and sometimes too cold in the winter) before finally, for the past few years, gaining a more appropriate place in my electrical wine-cellar that has constant temperature.

I openened this bottle recently at lunchtime, just out of curiosity and expecting to find a thin weedy, acidic and totally oxidised wine. In fact I had brought another wine to the table as a backup, fully expecting to open it. Yet sharing this 17 year-old South African Zinfandel with my colleague Sébastien Durand-Viel was a source of immense pleasure for both of us, as the wine was well alive, vibrant and still full of fruit, showing its age with grace and having developped the level of complexity and subtlety for which one hopes in an older member of this world (vinous or human). We did not open the other bottle!

Blaauwklippen (meaning blue rocks, I believe) is one of Stellebosch’s historic estates, having been founded in 1682. They still produce a Zinfandel and current vintages on the market (2006 or 2007) retail in Europe for around 17 euros a bottle. I am not aware of other Zinfandels produced in South Africa. In Australia, which also has several regions with the mediterranean-type climate that suits this variety, I only know of Cape Mentelle, in Margaret River, that produces some. There are of course many very great Zinfandels from various parts of California (Lodi, Sonoma, Napa) and some, such as the admirable blended versions from Ridge (Lytton Springs and Geyserville) have proven their capacity to age very well. I have also tasted one from France’s Languedoc region, from Domaine de l’Arjolle, although curiously the variety was not officially authorized in France until very recently, so the producer just called it « Z ».

Here are my tasting notes on this wine:

The colour shows considerable evolution with brownish, brick-red edges. Perhaps normal given the above history. The nose is rich and complex, with cooked fruit and leather as the dominant tendancies. Plum pudding also comes to mind. These aromas are born and lifted by considerable freshness, probably quite volatile. This vivaciousness is equally apparent on the palate, but the fruit is still sufficuently dense and smooth to balance the acidity. This wine feels succulent and rich without being overpowering. Its refinement and silky texture makes me wonder just why we tolerate drinking so many wines whose youth tends to produce adolescent agression from most angles. This wine provided sheer pleasure and we easily finished the bottle between us and worked well afterwards all afternoon and a lot of the evening!

16 Feb 2013

More thoughts about Edward Hopper

I published, about 10 days ago, an article on Edward Hopper and promised to return to this subject shortly, so here we are. 

As a form of alternative to Hopper's painting of city life and cityscapes, with those clearly defined lines and forms, the highly contrasting tones with bright, diagonal, often very theatrical lighting and deep, menacing shade, as well as the paradoxical loneliness of the scenes shown (yes, we are so alone but yet with so many people all around in the big city!), there is also his equally realistic and demanding take on landscapes and seafronts along the windblown north-eastern coast of the USA. But, despite the feeling of rural tranquillity that so often pervades these works, Hopper was never afraid of introducing the 20th century and its mechanical inventions into that rural scenery, almost as a way of using strong contrasts, just as he did with his works showing both the inside and outside of buildings, light and shade, intense against subdued colurs, and so on. These contasts I tried to show, to some extent, in the previous article. The watercolour below is a good example of this organic/mechanical antithesis and it does not shirk the fact that there is something ominous in the encroachement of man and his objects into the natural world.

As indeed is shown in the above engraving, where nature is literally cut in two by the railroad. Hopper is, to me, a master of engraving, and perhaps even more so than that of oil painting or watercolours.

The above engraving, which I find admirable, is not of the rural category as to its subject matter. But it perfectly illustrates Hopper's skills as a draughtsman and engraver. The composition leans on the dynamics provided by diagonals, held in check and balance by vertical lines and the rythm inherent to the framework of the subject (a subway train at night) whilst adding intensity to the central subject (a man and a woman engaged in conversation). The use of black and white, and the nuances of shading that bridge the gap of these contrasts, are also very finely handled. Drama and intimacy are latent in both subject matter and the composition that serves this.

This one, which is clearly part of the meticulous build-up of preparatory studies that led Hopper to his Nighthawks masterpiece, uses the diagonal element in composition almost to an extreme and to the point of imbalance. What finally holds it together is the solitary human figure in the foreground.

If we take a closer look at certain of his engravings, the influence of the great masters of the past, such as Rembrandt, become very clear. And to what extent the use of strong side-lighting produces both contrasts and dynamics in the whole composition.

Strong lighting is a regular feature of Hoppers paintings as well and this can have an artificial as well as a natural source. In this sense, Hopper shows very clearly the interactions between his painting and contemporary cinematography. I mentioned Lang and Hitchcock in my previous article, but they are not the only examples. And the way the subject matter is treated has an obvious cinematogaphic feel to it. In the above painting, one can image the scene before, just as well as the one to follow.

In this painting too, one is intensely aware of possible scenarios into which it slots. In fact someone once said of this painting that you can imagine in that the bank robbers have just left to commit their hold-up, having filled up with gas served by the man at the pump who barely looked at them as he cleaned the car's windshield before closing down his station.

Another painting that also shows just how daring Hopper could be in his compositions is this one, which again clearly illustrates the apparent antagonism between the city and the country, the man-built and the natural, the well-lit and conforting against the dark and menacing. His way of cutting off part of the building, both horizontally and laterally, is reminiscent of the use of a zoom on a camera.

As I started this article by talking about Hopper's vision of rurality, I should perhaps finish with one of his paintings in which neither man nor man-made objects (apart from a suggested track) play any part. Hopper is a painter of apparent tranquillity who manages, somehow, and quite subtly, to distill in most of his work a subterranean dose of anguish that is perhaps part and parcel of the 20th century.

12 Feb 2013

6 Nations Rugby 2013: chapter 2

Last weekend's round of international games between Europe's six major rugby nations held its fair share of confirmations, as well as a couple of surprises. Rugby is a complex game and hence fairly unpredictable as to its results. It is also very much a team game in which individuals can influence the course of the game by their inspirations, skills and courage, but never dominate it. Modern rugby is also highly athletic and combative, and, without being on top physical and mental form, with a very strong will to win, any team can be in for an upset. And the result of a game can also depend on a string of technical details that need to go the right way. There must also be a solid game plan, subtly combined with the capacity of both individuals and the team to adapt and adjust as the game unrolls. All of these parameters were in evidence this weekend. 

Tim Visser goes over for Scotland's first try and Sergio Parisse can do nothing about it

Scotland well deserved their convincing home victory over Italy, who played as the shadow of the team that had defeated France in Rome the week before. The Scottish backs ran as well as usual and were higly complementary, and their forwards matched and countered the Italian scrum effectively. I would not have bet on this last point having seen Scotland so dominated by England the week before...or Italy dominating the French scrum in Rome.

George North scores the only try in Wales' 16-6 victory over France in Paris

Wales came to Paris badly needing a victory after 8 defeats in a row from their last games, despite having won last year's tournament. France also needed to win, after their surprise defeat against Italy. So we were in for a tight battle, with defenses taking the upper hand. And so it was throughout the first half. But Wales were more agressive and better organised than France. They clearly took the upper hand in the second half and made the break with a fine try by winger George North after an inspired kick pass by the fly half Biggar. France looked messy and uninspired and will have to pull a major surprise out of the bag if they are to do anything at Twickenham in 2 weeks time for their game against England, which many thought would be the key game of the tournament before this series started.

Davies and Roberts are rightly pleased with their well deserved victory

I thought, before Sunday's game between Ireland and England in Dublin started, that this would be the toughest and tightest game of the weekend (in every sense of the word). I was not disappointed. Under constant rain, this was one of the most ferocious battles that I have seen for some time on a rugby field. Both sides played with rare intensity throughout, the Irish strongly supported by their army of supporters against a traditional enemy. No tries, and so not a spectacular hoooray rugby game. But for connoisseurs of the game it was fantastic and a true heart-stopper. 

The English team showed admirable solidarity in their battle in Dublin, won 12-6

England won on account of their capacity to keep or win the ball in the combat situations: rucks, scrums and line-outs, as well as on their better occupation and defensive organsation. The Irish defense was just as tight, simply they gave away penalties in the wrong places. Robshaw was again exemplary as a player, as was Farrell, whose defense, ball play and kicking were all excellent again. Cannot see anyone taking his place at fly-half for a while, and he can play centre as well. 

Goode at full-back played with skill and authority under constant rain... and a rain of high balls

What is most impressive with this English sqaud is their calm and maturity, despite their youth. They do not seem to panic easily, as was shown by their reaction when Haskell got sent off for a really silly piece of gamesmanship in a ruck. During the 10 minutes when they were 14 against 15, they scored 6 more points though penalities by Farrell and prevented Ireland from getting any. They can also play faster and with far more variation than I can remember seeing with previous teams. England are now clear favourites to win this tournamant, and have the opportunity to make the grand slam by winning all their games. The game against Wales, to be played at Cardiff, could well decide this one, as I don't see either France or Italy beating them if they stick to current form.

The English coach, Stuart Lancaster, who has done an excellent job forming this young team, seems to congratulate James Haskell after the game, but he must have been cursing him earlier on when Haskell got sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes. This could have turned the game in Ireland's favour.

5 Feb 2013

Edward Hopper: light, shade, and composition

Nighthawks, 1942

Most people will have already seen, in some form or another (usually a postcard or a poster) the above painting of Edward Hopper, called Nighthawks. It is undoubtedly his most famous work and was part of the recent and magnificent exhibition of Hopper's work that I finally saw last week in Paris, at Le Grand Palais. This exhibtion, which was on for 4 months, has broken all attendance  records here in Paris for major exhibitions, apart from that devoted to Monet. It received some 780,000 visitors. This is a problem for the attentive visitor as the crowds are so considerable that it can be hard to spend time in front of some pictures. But back to the real subject, which is of course the work of this considerable artist.

The above work contains many of the the recurrent themes and techniques used by Hopper in his paintings : Light and dark (chiaroscuro for those who have studied Italian painting), the power of colour, the dynamics provided by the diagonal in a composition, the play of inside/outside (generally through windows), and the obvious loneliness of his human sujects. Usually these elements are used two by two, or three by three, in his paintings. But in Nighthawks they are all there at once. It should be added that this painting also illustrates the considerable interactions between Hopper's work and films. Fritz Lang and Hitchcock, amongst others, surely influenced him, while he in turn certainly influenced both Wim Wenders and David Lynch. Perhaps all of this explains why this painting can be considered as Hopper's masterpiece. 

Room in New York, 1932

Taking the last theme, that of loneliness, this is well illustrated in many of Hopper's works and it is often (but not always) loneliness within the couple as in the above painting. The tools of strong horizontal and vertical construction, just given a flick of dynamics by a couple of diagonal directions and strong use of light and shade, are well in evidence here, as is the use of colour contrasts (red against green).

Conference at Night, 1949

Few of Hopper's paintings use the power of the diagonal and the contrast of light and shade with such power as this painting, called Conference at Night, which also shows his clear will to symbolise, as well as to dramatise scenes by removing almost all details that do not serve the construction of the painting. This is why it is inexact to describe Hopper as a "realistic" painter. He uses a form of realism to make a symbolic representation of a stutuation or theme.

Cape Cod Morning 1950

The above painting plays directly on the contrast between the inside and the outside, man-made and natural, while showing how the two are indispensable to each other. Hopper clearly experienced this intensely in his regular stays and through his many works produced along the north-eastern coast of the States where he had a studio, using his wife as his sole female model (I believe she was intensely jealous). The ouside lights up the interior, whereas the interior puts the outside into perspective through the contrast between rectilinear, man-made shapes and the softer forms of nature. Again, diagonals subtly point the eye to the right side of the painting, which is apparently less intense than the left side.

Early Sunday Morning, 1930

Hopper is perhaps never stronger in his daring use of composition and his subtle use of colour as when he stays in town. In this picture, the influence of the cinema on Hopper and his subsequent influence on it are both very evident. One can in fact imagine the travelling shot or the next scene.

Pennsylvania Coal Town, 1937

Light, once again, strong but subtle use of colour, compositon that mixes verticals and horizontals with a dash of diagonals to give directions to the eye. And of course light, the all-powerful, all-embracing light that is life, both to us and to Hopper's pictures. Hopper is, in a real sense, a "timeless" painter as his work seems to form a continuuum in which it is hard, apart from his early work, to situate a sequential evolution in his style. Twenty years separate the Early Sunday Morning painting from Cape Cod Morning, but one could never tell that just by looking at them. Maybe that is why his paintings come through so very clearly to us today. 

I will be returning to Hopper shortly, as there is much more to be said.

4 Feb 2013

Rugby 6 Nations starts again

Well, the first round of matches in the 2013 edition of the European 6-nations rugby tournament was played this weekend and saw the victories of Ireland over Wales (in Cardiff), England over Scotland (in London), and, more surprisingly, of Italy over France (in Rome). Following on from the autumn test matches, which saw a few upsets to the traditional supremacy of teams from the southern hermisphere, what conclusions can be drawn from these games and how did they work out individually?

the captains of the 6 national teams for 2013: left to right France, England, Wales, Ireland, Italy and Scotland

The first game was played on Saturday afternoon at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and saw Ireland off to a terrific start in the first half, clearly dominating a lost-looking Welsh side. The Irish team looked well-oiled and, with the legendary O'Driscoll on top form, the new hope winger Zebo showing his speed to score the first try, and the boot of Sexton on the mark to get the ball between the posts and over the bar, not to mention the always redoutable Irish scrum and defense, it looked as if the game was over at half-time, when the score stood at 23-3 for the men in green. 

Decorous outfits for the Welsh supporters were not quite enough to tip the balance

Wales fought back bravely, urged on by their singing supporters, and showed lots of action in the 2nd half, scoring another 19 points despite some gritty defense from Ireland, who played very well to win 30-22 depite being short of a man twice through yellow cards. A great game of rugby.

Simon Zebo, one of Ireland's wingers, after scoring his try

The England vs Scotland game followed, later on Saturday afternoon at Twickenham. Scotland, depite a sparkling row of creative backs, were hardly favourites. England were under observation and some pressure to repeat their great performance in beating the All Blacks back in November, after narrowly losing both to Australia and South Africa. Some pundits predicted that their back row would suffer on account of the temporary loss, through injury, of Manu Tuilagi, who had played so well against New Zealand. But new cap replacement Billy Twelvetrees played a superb game, constantly pushing through the lines and showing speed and agression, as well as defending well. He well deserved his maiden try. The domination of England was impressive from the start, although they were quickly punished by the Scottish back line for losing balls in turnovers. The final score was 38-18 and could have been heavier still. It naturally remains to be seen how the English will fare against sterner opposition up front.

Billy Twelvetrees, the new England centre, makes ground once again, breaking through the tackler to score.

Man of the match was fly-half Owen Farrell who only missed one difficult kick for goal and distributed the ball with speed, intelligence and lucidity throughout the game, including a magnificent long lobbed pass that got lock forward Geoff Parling over the line. It looks like he has the number 10 seat for a while. And the pair he formed with Ben Youngs at fly-half looked very strong.

Owen Farrell kicks another one over during his impeccable performance

Most of the other players deserve a mention for their performances, with special mentions for all the back row forwards, Morgan at 8, Wood and Robshaw at 6 and 7. They totally dominated in the rucks and kept the attack moving forward. Robshaw as captain set the perfect example in this respect. 

Ben Morgan at number 8 seemed unstoppable at times, and less ponderous than in past games

Chris Robshaw led from the front as captain, always available, always moving forward

The final game of the weekend was played in Rome on Sunday afternoon and provided the only real upset of the first round, since Wales had been on a losing streak for all of their four past home games played in the autumn, and their vicory in last year's tournament seems years ago. Of course France had already lost (by one point) to Italy in the last game played between the two teams in Rome, back in 2011. But then they had won all three of their autumn test matches in 2012, and in a convincing manner too, including a thrashing inflicted on Australia (who went on to beat England, it should be remembered). Their line-up was however somewhat perturbed by injuries and some playars were not used in their normal places. This could explain why their defense at times seemed not very coordinated against a very enterprising and tough Italian team. The Italian scrum and line-out also matched or bettered the French in this game. The Italians played excellent rugby, with Orquera (man of the match at number 10) inspired at times and regular with the boot as well. Parisse at 8 played a great game both as captain and as player. 

Sergio Parisse goes over for Italy's first try

They were always courageous and thoroughly deserved their victory which confirms that they are now on the list of the world's best teams, capable of beating almost everyone at some point. We should remember that they were only narrowly defeated by Australia last autumn.

The Italians celebrate a well-desreved victory over France in Rome's Olympic stadium

Some conclusions?
On the strength of what I saw last weekend, Ireland and England look to be playing above the levels of the other 4 nations. Their games were cohesive and I was impressed with the new-found speed at which the ball was ejected and passed by England during their game. They looked less predictable than they have in recent years. But every game is a new challenge in rugby and one should probably beware of France as a wounded beast. This defeat in Italy will have hurt their pride and we will see how they react next weekend when they play Wales in Paris. It is a great thing for rugby to see a nation emerge on the international scene as Italy is doing. They have narrowly missed winning some major games over recent years and this victory, over a major rugby nation, is a sure sign of progress. It needs to be confirmed by others in this tournament.