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.
For this, and other reasons, the French media haven’t been as severe on Philippe Saint-André and the French team as they were on Marc Lièvremont and co following the defeat to Italy in Rome two years ago, even if it looked as if the French didn’t treat their opponents with the respect they deserved.
Getting his excuses in first, on the eve of the tournament, Saint-André had again observed that the Top 14 may be laden with dosh and imports from abroad, but it doesn’t especially serve their international team as well as it might. And it’s hard not to have some sympathy for him.
Vincent Clerc has again been ruled out this week after suffering a back injury playing for Toulouse last Friday week – his second game in five days and already his 21st of the season.
Fullback Brice Dulin has been ruled out of the tournament after suffering an abductor injury in his 21st game of the season. Their captain, Pascal Pape, who suffers from sciatica, has been sidelined for Saturday’s high pressure game at home to Wales after suffering a back injury last Sunday in what was his 19th game of the season.
Frederic Michalak is an injury waiting to happen, given last Sunday was also his 21st game of the season already and he has been on the treadmill since the start of last year in Super rugby with the Sharks. Whereas he and his team-mates were still relatively fresh during their impressive wins over Argentina, Australia and Samoa last November, they weren’t last Sunday.
Given that Sexton will probably end up in Racing Metro for the next two seasons, this is especially relevant, as he would scarcely have a couple of weeks holidays before joining the Parisians in a shortened pre-season for a mid-August start to the Top 14 (not to mention the possibility of them reaching the play-offs and clashes with Irish tours).
Just as pertinently, despite being injury free, ala Jamie Heaslip, last Saturday’s match in the Millennium was his 15th game of the 2012/’13 campaign. Coupled with the 1.30pm kick-off, which enabled the squad to fly home last Saturday evening and the eight-day turnaround, the Player Welfare Programme does give the Irish squad every chance of recovering from the physical exertions in Cardiff last Saturday for what is sure to be another bruiser.
Whereas the loser of the France-Wales game will be pointless after two rounds, were Italy to win in Murrayfield in Saturday’s opener to record their third Six Nations win in a row to assume temporary leadership of the table – to be joined by the winner of Ireland-England on Sunday. The first weekend has also set up the second rather nicely.