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The first weekend of the Six Nations and the first upset

One of my very favourite blogger quotes of 2005 was this, just after the July 7th London bombings:

A friend of mine visits a strip pub, once a week, down by the Gray’s Inn Road. Despite the bombs, he went along this afternoon, as usual, and was the only guy with four strippers. But, he told me, he had to go – ‘otherwise the terrorists would have won’.

In that spirit, I will tell you, not about how I feel about Those Cartoons – no need for any link, see just about everything else here at the moment – but about the Six Nations. Rugby. American Football without the poofy protective clothing. Or: “All those men’s bottoms”, as my now very elderly but still just about functioning mother put it to me yesterday, explaining why she prefers regular football to rugby football. Yesterday, Ireland stuttered to victory against Italy in Dublin, and England powered to victory against last year’s Grand Slammers Wales, at Twickenham. But what lifted this first weekend of the tournament out of the ordinary was the game today at Murrayfield. It was between Scotland, who have been squabbling with Italy for the Wooden Spoon with the brave but still learning Italians for as long as any of us can remember, and the team that many people are (or were) tipping for the next World Cup, namely the hosts of that tournament, France. France did superbly against the Southern Hemisphere sides they played before Christmas.

So, France to beat Scotland by thirty points, right? Wrong. At one extraordinary moment in this extraordinary game, Scotland were 20-3 up, and although France finally pulled themselves together a bit and got some points, they didn’t get enough, and Scotland hung on to win 20-16.

The moment of the match, which Scottish sports TV shows will no doubt be wallowing in during the next few days and weeks, was the try that Scotland got at the beginning of the second half, to go 20-3 up. It was a classic men’s bottoms try of the sort my mother would have found very unappealing, but to rugby fans of any proclivity it was a thing of beauty. Scotland got the ball on the French twenty two, and then they did something that usually only England can do. They got together in a great scrum, as you can do in rugby union, with the ball tucked up someone’s jumper, metaphorically speaking, and then shoved themselves and the ball for twenty five yards and over the French line. The French are not just elusive and speedy threequarters. They have fearsomely belligerent forwards. But they could not stop that Scottish drive. Amazing. It says a lot for France that they scored all the points that followed, because a thing like that really takes it out of you.

I wrote a bit on my personal blog about the Six Nations last week saying that “animal spirits”, as I called it, can make a hell of a difference in this tournament, as they can in almost all sports, and thereby cause huge upsets. I predicted, that is to say, the unpredictable. So I am now feeling very smug.

For the point is, this Scottish team that just beat France was exactly the same bunch of miserable bloody no-hopers that all the other teams – even Italy sometimes – have been rolling over for the last half decade. All that changed is that they swapped their misery-guts All Black coach for a Scotsman. He must have reckoned that he had to try something different, and what he tried was making the Scottish players happy instead of bloody miserable. By not snarling and bitching at them every time they fluffed it in training, presumably, but instead smiling and laughing and making a fuss, nicely, when they were doing it right.

Yesterday the Italians did their best to stop Ireland beating them, which is the only way they know how to win, given that they never have enough pace in their backs to cut loose and really win, as in really winning. The commentators were saying today that this was a very good “technical” performance by the Italians, which means that they have a sneaky foreigner (at the moment it is a French ex scrum half) who teaches them all the sneaky little tricks that the ref cannot see because of all those men’s bottoms in the way, and they get to lose by fewer points. But until the Italians start converting star soccer players into star rugger players they are going to go on propping up this tournament.

And then England smashed Wales. Of course I am delighted that England won, and by what eventually became the handsome margin of thirty four points. But I have never seen an England Wales game with so little star quality on show. Remembering as I do the days when Bennett, JJ Williams, JPR Williams, Gerald Davies and the rest of them, above all Bennett’s predecessor at fly half, the sublime Barry John, would dazzle their way past England, while England’s dancing David Duckham was doing his considerable best to match them, and then having purred with pleasure at the gliding perfection that was Jeremy Guscott and most recently having exulted at the twinkling toes of Jason Robinson, I had to make do yesterday with a bloke called Cueto. Cueto is one of those slightly fat men who is actually faster than he looks, or than even seems possible for somebody that shape and size, and his try, scored quite early on in the first half to get England motoring, was the one moment of true, crowd-on-their-feet, individual class in the entire game. Of the entire weekend, now I come to think of it. He ran right past a little Welsh bloke, probably also called Williams but I really do not remember, who was supposed to be quick himself but who was made to look flat-footed.

Apart from that, it was just a case of the bigger and rougher boys trampling all over the smaller ones. Wales suffered a lot from “turnovers”, which is when a bigger boy scrags you and takes the ball away. But there was no poetry in it that I could see.

It did not help that at least half the many England tries seemed to involve infringements of various kinds (Guscott called one of the offending passes “not all that forward”, which got a laugh) of the sort that only commentators can see but which referees cannot seem to, despite all their cameras and communications devices.

The other memorable moment of the England Wales game was when the England scrum did another of those twenty five yard shoves. This time it did not result in a try, but you could tell at that point that Wales were going to lose. After you have been on the receiving end of some of that, your animal spirits evaporate. It is as if you are playing twenty people instead of fifteen, an effect no doubt strengthened in Welsh minds when, after an hour of a couple of other blokes playing, England brought on Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson as substitutes. They both played for England in the last World Cup final, but then took a bit of a breather. And they both celebrated coming on by scoring tries. Dallaglio, who looks good enough to play in the next World Cup as well, was helped by the ref getting in the way of the poor wretch of a Welshman who trying to stop him. Dawson was helped by knocking it on just before gathering it and running over to score.

Tonight, live in its entirety, on ITV regular non-digital telly if that is all you have, Super Bowl XL, the one with the poofy protective costumes. The Pittsburg Prettyboys against the Seattle Café Lattes. Just kidding, I love the Super Bowl. (Didn’t mean to upset your feelings. Oops, linked to them after all.) And personally I love the fact that the Rolling Stones are doing the half time entertainment, although what with it being in Detroit, home of Motown, not everyone was at first quite so happy.

9 comments to The first weekend of the Six Nations and the first upset

  • But there was no poetry in it that I could see.

    You obviously never got down in the steamy heat of the wintertime scrum, then Brian; you must have been the skinny one out on the wing freezing to death. To those of us who do know how to laugh in the face of underhand second row punches or Jujitsu knucklings on the frozen cold swamps of England, it was all poetry of the finest pure wine.

    You can take all these gallivanting backs, and their exhausting looping ways, but the basic truths of Rugby Union still hold true; and long may they do so. That the forwards in the shield wall decide who win. The backs on their fine chivalrous charges merely decide by how much.

    And congratulations to our Celtic friends in the Kingdom of Strathclyde for achieving that classic rolling maul against the Gaulish Franks. Even Dean Richards, may the Lord praise him, would have been proud of shepherding that one in. It was a beauty.

  • Pete_London

    Jack Maturin

    Hear hear. As a scrum half who spent many a winter’s morning behind a phalanx of raised, fat, hairy arses, I can only recognise the wisdom of your words.

  • RAB

    Well as a wing, and a Welsh wing at that, I had only the anecdotes of my fellow team-mates to go on as to what illegal activity went on in the scrum! But it was plenty!
    That Scottish pushover try by the forwards was just awesome to watch. In fact their whole team performance showed a spirit that they have not had for years. Well done Scotland you could take England next week who knows.
    As to Wales/England , what can I say. Wales wern’t exactly crap, there were flurries and moments, but we were too slow and static The support didn’t arrive quick enough when someone made a killer break, only to be tackled for a turnover. Wheras England played an efficient game as usual with flashes of the speed and style that Wales displayed last year. Hell last year, the welsh team looked more like the Harlem Globetrotters than a rugby team, with handling and imagination like that.
    Ah but this year we will be also rans I fear.Due to injury and suspension, we have lost last years flair and we have no reserves. Alas there are no more mines to shout down and call up a pit/prop forward anymore.
    As a corollary, why is it that rugby fans can be the most deadly rivals, and yet understand and applaud the moves of their opponents and win or lose, meet in the bar later and have a great night out, when other sports (naming no names here) cant?
    I back England for the grand slam.

  • dum jake

    Jack, wrong race and country ! Murrayfield is in Edinburgh. You could make an argument for it being in kingdom of Northumbria. But Strathclyde ? never !

  • RAB

    Bugger! Sloppy writing on my part again.
    I didn’t mean that I had played for Wales, merely that I was Welsh and played rugby once upon a time.
    Like Richard Burton, who said that he would have traded his movie career to run out onto the Arms Park, wearing a red jersey just once, well I’d like to think that too, but I think he was being a bit fanciful don’t you?
    Ah but when THAT anthem comes up and the crowd roars you never know…

  • My maternal grandfather was Welsh, so I support Wales in this fight. Poor old Wales :(

  • Dale Amon

    Be careful what you say in the presence of a Pennsyltuckian native born Pittsburgher with Steelers engrams grown into the lower brain stem from birth… a genuine former tailgate party goer and Monday night case of Iron City with the boys type of guy!

    A really great game. We won and we won against a team that gave us a bit of a fight.

    And most importantly, after 25 years, we have have the “one for the thumb!”

    It’s one of those things you grow up with: I watch a football (soccer) match and I only see the superficialities because I did not grow up with it. But when I watch a football (American) match, I know what is going on, what the coach is going to do, I feel the pain of the running back when he gets slammed (having usually, as a little guy, played QB or a wide reciever in pickup games) and in general have my head in the game.

    And wasn’t that handoff and touchdown pass by a person other than the QB *incredible*?

  • Kim du Toit

    Best sports of the day: Chelsea 2, Scouser Bastards nowhere close.

    As for the “Super” Bowl: it was two fairly mediocre teams who were the beneficiaries of upset losses by the actual best teams (like when Chelsea, Arsenal and Man U are all out of the FA Cup by the fourth round — you just know the Final won’t be a dazzler when you end up with Accrington Stanley and Rushton Hope and Diamonds at Wembley Millennium Stadium).

    And I find Motown only slightly less painful to the ear than the Rolling Geriatrics, or Ancient Runes or whatever they call themselves these days.

    Haven’t seen the rugby yet — Fox Sports takes a while to show the matches Over Here — but anything which stops that bloody Sospan Bach nonsense can’t be all bad.

  • Actually Kim was right in that Chelsea vs Liverpool was a cracking match. Benitez must be spewing he didn’t cough up the money for Michael Owen now.