Only round one and already it's memorable
ON RUGBY:Think back to last season’s RBS Six Nations and it’s hard to recall much in the way of outstanding rugby. About the most memorable event was the bizarre and pathetic circumstances in which Ireland’s original fixture in Stade de France was cancelled at virtually the last minute.
As Shaun Edwards reminded us last Friday, Ireland scored the most tries and made the most line breaks, yet their attack was largely pilloried. Wales won a decidedly non-vintage tournament.
Last year’s opening round consisted of the same three match-ups and yielded 10 tries, whereas last weekend 16 tries were liberally dispersed across all three games, with each of the sides scoring at least two.
For all the high stakes associated with winning, or losing, the opening games, this was indicative of the positive intent displayed by all six sides. Even Italy, under Jacques Brunel, are coming to the party intent on playing. The intentions to do so last season under the Azzurri’s new French coach were generally met with the conclusion that he didn’t have the players to execute more of a running and passing game.
Those misgivings remained despite giving the All Blacks a good work-out and nearly beating Australia last November. Cue Saturday and Italy effectively out-Franced France. Heretofore, despite the huge influence of French rugby on the Italian game, the Azzurri had invariably based their tactics around a potent scrum and maul, one-off runners and a kicking outhalf.
But on Sunday they matched the French for passes, carries, line breaks and offloads. Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse remain the standardbearers and, fittingly, were the two try-scorers on Sunday in the Stadio Olimpico, but the latter especially was seeing the ball in wider areas, where he could do even more damage.
Alessandro Zanni was again displaying his under-rated offloading skills, and Tommaso Benvenuti’s talent is flowering under the Brunel regime, but the real sensation was Luciano Orquera.
The well-travelled, Argentinian-born 31-year-old of Italian descent has never exactly been from the Jonny Wilkinson or Jonny Sexton school of tackling outhalves and while capable of lining up a prop occasionally in a home game for Brive during his five years there had never produced a performance like last Sunday’s. Now, with Zebre, he looks reborn.
Landing three from three along with a drop goal, he was creator in chief of the two tries, with one slicing break and a stunning offload, and the Azzurri didn’t even lose anything when Brunel brought on Edoardo Gori and Kristopher Burton for Tobie Botes and Orquera.
Both those tries came from long, exhausting passages of play of more than two minutes with France initially looking like scoring before the ball was turned over. Not only were Italy prepared to counter from deep and keep the ball in play, but France hadn’t the legs to live with them.