Six Nations 2009 Grand Slam Goes to Ireland

Six Nations Rugby Countries Flags

Saturday, March 21st 2009 was a great day for Six Nations rugby. Each game seemed to have something riding on it.  There was some great rugger. The end of a 61-year journey. Some pride recuperated (France). Two away wins. Some things better left unsaid (Italy). Aside from the glorious sunshine that swept through the day from Murray field to Rome, the sporting entertainment was top notch.

Ireland beat Wales 17-15 to claim the Grand Slam for the first timeIreland Wins Six Nations Rugby 2009 since 1948, beating off the incumbent as well as the other pretender for the 2009 title in a tense, up and down match which saw the lead change hands 4 times, twice in the last 5 minutes via reciprocal, beautifully struck drop goals. Wales’ last gasp penalty kick, like their game, just fell short. Congrats to the men in green.

England handed out a 26-12 defeat of Scotland with some very enjoyable rugby (albeit mediocre kicking) to win the Calcutta Cup.  I can remember when rugby had very little kicking, then went through a phase of too much kicking. Yesterday saw some great running, 8 and 9 phase balls.  Scotland made a game of it, especially in the initial few moments with a penalty conversion and a startling run down the left flank by Thom Evans that was brilliantly stopped by Ugo Monye.  Then, with 10 minutes left, Scotland closed to within 6 points.  England then managed another score to put it out of reach for the Scot.  Overall, the game was most enjoyable to watch.

And, finally, albeit in reverse order for the day’s play, there was France’s drubbing of Italy 50-8, a fitting reminder that it is truly a Five plus 1 Nations tournament. Italy (who have won just 6 matches out of 50 since the beginning) typically plays the role of spoiler in the Points For/Against category.  The second, third and fourth places were decided on points (all on 6 points), with England, pipping France for second.  


Springboks’ De Villiers as Coach

Springboks LogoPeter de Villiers Springboks CoachAnother move for equality

Peter de Villiers has been named as the first black coach of the rugby union world champions South African Spingboks. Coming on the heels of the World Cup victory (in October 2007), this is quite a move. And, after just having posted about Norway’s historic move to increase the presence of women on corporate boards, this news from South Africa represents another very strong statement in creating an equitable world. I add a prior post about Cheeky Watson for some background context for RSA rugby.

A controversial decision

Currently the successful coach of the Springboks’ under-21, Peter de Villiers (right courtesy of Getty Images) takes over from Jake White, who led the Springboks to victory in the World Cup. Jack White, whose contract expired at the end of 2007, goes out with the highest distinction, although on an acrimonious ending (dispute with the SARU). That de Villiers led the under-21s to the IRB world title in 2005 is certainly a worthy achievement. He also produced a third place finish in 2004, a second-place finish to the hosts in France in 2006 and, last year, coached the Emerging Springbok side to the IRB Nations Cup title in Romania. All very good results. Nonetheless, the decision to select de Villiers trumped a vote of 77% by the South African Rugby Players’ Association (SARPA) in favor of the acclaimed Pretoria Bulls Super 14 coach, Heyneke Meyer, raised eyebrows. It is worth noting that of the two other candidates, there was also Chester Williams, a black Springboks’ winger who participated in the Boks’ 1995 RWC victory.

Rugby Reasons

Being upfront about the political nature of the appointment, South African Rugby Union (SARU) president Oregan Hoskins said in a press conference, “I want to be honest with South Africa and say that the appointment was not entirely made for rugby reasons.” As the UK Times says, de Villiers’ request to fans to look beyond the colour of his skin was undermined by Hoskins, when he said that race had been a determining factor. We’ll have to see how the governing organizations get behind him.

Certainly, given the lopsided presence of white players in the national rugby team, it is time that RSA rugby reflected and took advantage of the great pool of athletes from their entire population. De Villiers has created history by becoming the first black person in the role. I hope that he is able to produce good results — it is hard yet to imagine that RSA will replicate in 2011 its IRB World Cup. That said, de Villiers’ contract is only for two years! I will be curious to see if/how he includes Cheeky Watson’s son, Luke Watson, in the Springboks team.

In any event, I salute the decision and wish the Springboks success with this landmark decision.

Others blogging on the topic, although I notice a dearth of personal commentary outside of the RSA blogs:

KEO.CO.ZA – the official online partner to SA Rugby (and Cricket) – tons of threads including:
De Villiers wants Meyer in the mix
The Return of Quotas
Ou Grote (South African Rugby News)
Rugby Heaven (NZ rugby blog)
22 Drop-Out
Bruin Developement Forum

News articles on the appointment:
BBC report
ABC from Australia
Scrum
UK Times on Line

Rugby World Cup 2011 – Still 20 Teams

Rugby World Cup RWCI wrote right after the Rugby World Cup that there were likely to be many changes needed to the rules and regulations for the 2011 RWC in New Zealand. Among the proposals was the notion that the field should be reduced from 20 to 16. Personally, I was in favor of this idea. It would have meant that the competitivity of the matches, on balance, would have risen. It would have meant that certain teams would not “waste” themselves in irrelevant pool games. This BBC report explains the decision to stay at 20 teams (see also IRB.com report). The article cites the following “performance” of the minnows:

“Fiji defeated Wales to reach the last eight and were level at 20-20 with South Africa after an hour of their quarter-final, while Georgia came within four points of defeating Ireland in their pool game.”

I believe that Fiji’s beating Wales or nearly beating Ireland is not exactly “giant killing” stuff. The 20-20 halfway score of Fiji against South Africa, like many other half-time scores was not representative of the match nor the final score. BTW, the final score for RSA v Fiji was 37-20. And I’d rather point to Japan’s performance against Fiji (losing 31-35). Fiji has a stronger tradition of playing rugby than many of the other minnows… How about the twelve matches where more than 50 points were scored on an opponent, or the sixteen (out of 40 total pool) matches with a 30 point difference?

And, not to belittle the Puma performance in the 2007 RWC by any means, the other quote from the BBC article, below, is borderline tautology:

“The forum also agreed that Argentina’s future lies in the southern hemisphere, ruling out the possibility of the Pumas, who finished third at the World Cup, joining the Six Nations.”

Clearly, politics and money are as much involved as any rational justifications. Perhaps there were some unknown binding promises and some people who needed to justify the large investments made to upgrade the international level of rugby. In any event, I have to hope that the changes in the regulations are more soundly reviewed. (Plan 2011 here!)

Rugby World Cup – Change of rules

Rugby World Cup change in rules?Should we make new rules for the Rugby World Cup (RWC)? In light of the various criticisms that have surfaced regarding the “boring” matches at the RWC (for example, see NZ Herald: Has Rugby Become Boring?), I have heard that they are looking at changing some of the rules. The criticisms largely revolve around the lack of daring (little breakthroughs) and too much kicking (punts, up and unders, drop goals, penalty kicks…). A good article on the topic of the proposed Experimental Law Variations (ELV) that are being proposed down under is here from Rugby Rewind.

I have heard that the IRB are reviewing the ruck (merci Matthieu!). The rule change would be to disallow the opposing team to handle the ball once a ruck has been formed in order to get the ball out faster. The second proposition I have heard is that they are considering eliminating the ability to throw back into your 22m in order to kick directly into touch.

I have been pondering a couple of other suggestions that I thought I might start here for you rugby fans.

1/ You can only kick directly into touch from behind your goal line. Considering the hefty boot that players have today, maybe this won’t stop the kicking, but it will make the act much more perilous.

2/ To the extent you could only kick into touch from behind your goal line, another idea would be to make the 22 dropout a 0 dropout. In another words, if you touch back, the drop must be taken on your goal line. This will make you think twice whether or not you should run out or kick from deep within.

2/ Disallow forwards [e.g. front and second row] from joining the back line. This would be awfully difficult to arbitrate, but American Football finds ways to keep certain players from changing function. The idea here would be give more space to the back line and stop, what we saw frequently happening, a massive line of defenders through which it was often just impossible to break.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, I read with great surprise the New Zealand Herald’s 1000+ page thread on the “crisis of All Blacks rugby.” The “Why do you think the All Blacks lost?” site has become a national obsession it would seem.

And, in a final point of interest, have any you ever witnessed the kicking competition at the end of a drawn match? This is the mechanic that is brought into play if after regulation period, prolongation and sudden death periods, the match is still tied, there is a place kick competition. Scroll down to see the “Kicking Competition” rules. Throughout the RWC this year, we saw a few close games but not even one game was tied at the end of regulation… much less after a sudden death period. Would that we had THAT kind of excitement!

Rugby Rumpus cartoon courtesy of Rugby Rewind.

Stade Français beats Clermont Auvergne

Stade Francais wins against ClermontStade Français beat down ASM Clermont Auvergne 23-17 this weekend in a rematch of last year’s Top 14 final which Stade Français [wiki reference of SF] won to make them French Champions. Aside from the great seats (thank you Alessandra), the game was a real treat for Oscar (my son) and me. The match was firey and well played with plenty of flare and scoring (3 tries by the SF 3/4s). And, since I had had the opportunity to watch two RWC matches (including the Opener) at Stade de France, I could also compare the level of entertainment. And, it was a no-contest winner: the Top 14 match was decidedly more fun. The ambiance, with basically 90% of the 75,000 fans sporting the somewhat ‘interesting’ [see photo] pink & brown colours, was great. ASM Clermont Auvergne put on a good fight, having a try ruled out in the closing minutes. There was music, loads of chants, waves and videos. And the pyrotechnical show AFTER the game was absolutely magical. It literally blew me away. It also left its mark on the field and track I’m sure.

I look forward to following Stade Français’ 2007-08 season.

Formula 1 Brazil Miracle GP, RWC 2007 Final & Tennis Masters wrap up

Formula 1 Miracle meets Mighty Masters Nalbandian Victory meets Boks Clean Sweep at RWC 2007.

A truly gripping weekend of sports. And if that weren’t enough, on Saturday night, the Boston Red Sox won again to bring back to even (3-3) the Best ofFormula 1 Brazil Final GP Seven series against the Cleveland Indians in the ACLS (baseball ‘semi finals’ for those who don’t know) after being down 3-1. The clinching seventh game is Sunday night.

The F1 race at the Brazilian [Sao Paolo] Grand Prix today was quite astounding. But, if you didn’t watch it, surely it was because there just was too much good sports to watch all over the globe. The two other contests of the weekend (not over) that commanded my attention involved the wilting of the Roses of England against the indomitable South African Springboks and the fact that Nalbandian broke the Federer voodoo in the Masters Finals.

Turning to the Formula 1 final race of the season, three racers wereAlonso, Hamilton & Raikkonen - 3 GP Finalists jockeying for the World Champion F1 title: Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), Fernando Alonso (McLaren) and ‘teammate’ and Formula 1 rookie Lewis Hamilton. The way the cards were laid out after the last Grand Prix (GP) in Shanghai, you begin to wonder whether there wasn’t an element of rigging going on to heighten the suspense in the final GP of the season. Hamilton’s mistakes in China meant that he lay 4 points ahead of Alonso and 7 points ahead of Raikkonen. What transpired was hard to imagine to conjure up even Kimi Raikonen Brazil Championfor a fairy tale (from Kimi’s perspective). Hamilton’s messed up start and mistake at the first turn meant that he was pushed sufficiently way back such that he finished seventh. Alonso finished third, stymied behind both Ferraris, with Raikkonen winning his sixth GP of the season. The net of it? Raikkonen (pictured left) wins his first ever F1 championship, ending up with 110 points, ahead of Alonso AND Hamilton (who got second because of his higher number of second place finishes), both on 109. The final score: 110-109…More like a basketball game, won at the buzzer. But it feels a little too exciting, if you know what I mean. BCC Report; Indian Cricket League Info (love that title; despite the title, the analysis is very complete!); F1 Fanatics.

As for the Rugby World Cup Finals, I am a little dejected by not overly surprised to see England finish second behind the South African Springboks. My son, Oscar, and I went to the Stade de France last night (Saturday night) to try to find some last minute tickets at a reasonable price (after the kickoff). Wishful thinking which turned into a fun and rowdy night in the neighbouring Saint Denis village to watch the game (at least the first half) on a big screen with new found Aussie mate, ASpringboks win RWC 2007 Finalndy, and a few other England supporters. Cueto’s near try and Wilkinson’s two missed drop kicks kind of say it all. England played a great tournament, beating two favorites to get to the Final. And, just like Oscar and me, we were close to the final objective. But no cigar. England had 55% possession and were in the Boks’ 22 for nearly 7 minutes (compared to just over 3 minutes for the Boks in the English 22). But the Boks’ defense was strong and stingy in penalties. All said, hats off to the Boks who deserved the victory. If not a trying final, a tryless RWC final (for the second time in a row) is not a good sign for rubgy, though. BBC Report; Bleacher Report Blog; Life is Grand Blog.

And, the final sporting achievement of the day, was David Nalbandian’s victoryFederer beaten at Masters in Madrid over Roger Federer (pictured right) at the Masters in Madrid which was simply epic. Fact #1, unseeded Nalbandian had to beat both the number 3 and (Novak Djokovic) number 2 (Rafa Nadal) seeds before meeting World number 1 Roger Federer. Fact #2, Nalbandian had lost 8 times against Federer in their last 9 encounters, although the record is 7-8 lifetime. Fact #3, it was Federer’s first loss since the finals of the Montreal Open in August and just his 7th defeat this year. Enough to say, kudos to another Argentine (whose Pumas destroyed France on Friday night 34-10 at Parc des Princes in the “little final” of the RWC). BBC Report<
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Protennis Blog; the Sports Journal.

All in all, a fascinating weekend of sports. The underdog that triumphed against three top dogs in a row. The underdogs that lived up to their name only after the third match in a row against three successive favourites, only to go down to the Boks down under. And, finally, the dogs that nipped at each others’ heels all season for a supreme FINNish.

Rugby values multi-cultural – RWC 2007 commentary

rugby's mission valuesmulticultural valuesRugby values are truly multi-cultural if they can cross the Channel. I was enthralled by a couple of articles written in the “Coupe du Monde — Plantète Rugby” magazine by Le Nouvel Observateur (the article is no longer available on line). Even though it was published in early September, it is still worth a read. Unfortunately, the articles are written in French and I’m afraid that Google Translator just does not do them justice. But it’s a great chance to practice your French if you’re up for the task.

The first is by Jacques Julliard, Editorial Writer at Nouvel Obs: La Balle Au Coeur

Mr Julliard starts off by refering to the ceremony after someone scores in football (mad adulation) as compared to rugby (tap on the back). He writes about rugby’s down-to-earth humour (after steamrolling a team with 77 points, the remarkable Ricahrd Astre, the Béziers captain said: “they just didn’t have the same strong points as us.” He writes about the true nature of teamwork whereby, because of the rule no forward passing, every team member knows that he must get behind the man with the ball…in every sense of the word. And that the ball is always carried close to the heart.

I include the comment I deposited on Mr Julliard’s article translated into English:

“As a rugby player brought up in England, I found your article a real pleasure. Indeed, I entirely share your views with two qualifications. The first is that rugby is not in fact the only game to carry the ball close to the heart. One should not forget the cousin games (American Football, Aussie Rules Football …). Secondly, what captivate me in rugby are the lessons for life. Your first paragraph grabbed my attention. The role of the three quarters is to score a try. Thus, he is only fulfilling his role to do so, just as when the hooker heels the ball back. To that end, everyone should know their role and respect the role of others. This is a game where we find a real esprit de corps—however much the body (‘corps’) is thrown around, the spirit remains. A good leader on a rugby field is much like a great leader in times on the battlefield. The truth is transmitted by the eyes, by example and by humility. Insofar as rugby is a ‘sport’ still amateur in terms of pay (unlike football), the players generally are more educated and are able to exercise a profession after (or even during) their careers (I pay tribute for example to the magnificent Dr. JPR Williams from Wales).

Fabien GalthiéThe second article from the Nouvel Obs magazine is by Fabien Galthié, former captain of the French national team: Le jeu des Sept Contraires. In his piece, Galthié refers to the game of rugby as a game of contrasts, between going forward and passing backwards (many not familiar with the game find the way the backs line up so far behind the scrum bizarre), the effort of the team and the specific roles of the individual (different from American football where everyone plays in both offense and defense). But it is the seventh point that I enjoyed the most: the aggressivity on the field, and the passivity of the spectators. At the Argentina versus South Africa RWC semi-final to which I went last Sunday (hearty thanks to Lloyd in Seattle), I heard at numerous occasions the Springbok fans behind me compliment a Puma player or an Argentine action. Attractive spectatorship.

For my last point on Galthié’s article, I will give you the link to the automatic (read dumb) translation of the article which you are offered in the links under it and which merely has comic value… I note that the French national team, commonly referred to in French as “Les Bleus” is reduced to “overalls” in the translation. And essence of the game is translated as gasoline… (yes, it means that too).

As for a third link of interest on the good values of rugby, I would also like to note Denis Charvet’s blog Denis Charvet(and specifically guide those of you francophones to the post Seven Minutes) where Denis valiantly stands up for the game of Rugby after the French defeat and I noted the sad reduction in the comments that follow. In those comments, sometimes you can detect the true rugby players and those that like to sit on the couch. What I liked was Denis’ comments about how both teams (England and France) came together after the emotional battle in a show of classy sportsmanship.

And, one final fun twist of fate : rugby as fashion statement. As I began the article, rugby’s values are able to cross the Channel. They also enter into the value-added Chanel. Yes, it’s hard to conceive, but Chanel has come out with a rugby ball for 130 euros (blogged by Chic Shopping; but you can only order the ball from the parent company). Several other brands (other than Ralph Lauren and Eden Park) have also inspired themselves from rugby collateral and uniforms. I cite: Santoni’s special RWC shoes for 1500 euros with crocodile skin and suede [couldn't find a photo for you, but you'll have to imagine it].

RWC 2011 Minnows to be fished out – IRB Millar Proposal

The IRB’s President Syd Millar has stated that he wants to reduce the number of teams competing in the Rugby World Cup 2011 (to be held in NZ) from the current 20 to 16 teams. This would mean that there would be just four open slots for which the lesser teams can vie. The large scale massacres that occurred in the pools have clearly prompted this decision. I suspect this is probably a wise decision in order to keep the pool play more respectable and competitive. Except for two upsets (Fiji v Wales and Argentina v France) in the 40 games played in the pool phase, the results (if not the scores) seemed far too predictable. With just 16 teams, the interest and intensity in the ‘pool’ phase will surely be dramatically increased. In any event, as we now know, the real excitement happens in the knockout phase — which per the new proposal would be reduced to four teams. The proposal also features the creation of Minnows’ tournament (16 teams) being played simultaneously.

Report from down under NZ YahooXtra
BBC commentary

Blogs on the topic:
Long and interesting post in favor from Red Terror (plus a long comment against)
Fiji Rugby Blog: Fiji Chairman speaking out on Millar’s plans
Cage of Monkeys in favor of reducing to 16, with good insights
A meaty post from Independent.ie on the state of affairs for the downed ‘mighty’ minnows in 2007 (plus another stinging article on the state of rugby today Independent.ie)
Sports Industry report
And finally, from 22dropout, the fact that school terms will be altered in NZ to accommodate viewing of the 2011 final. Got to love that.

2 by 2, France joins England (En-glad!) by beating NZ All Blacks 20-18 in RWC quarterfinals

What a day! First England and then France down the mighty teams from down under on the same day in the RWC 2007 Quarter Finals. Historic? yes. Unimaginable? Totally.

I got off the plane at noon yesterday in Paris and my parting words to my French colleague, Boris, were “oh, we’ll just see by how much the French lose today!” And the same thought was true for England. So, France pulls off the great upset #2 of the day. That leaves Scotland and Fiji to make it 4/4!

The tactics were all there. The lucky white shorts (echoing England’s white). All Blacks in All Grey. And the kicking game. And some nifty substitutions. Not that I want to credit the French performance to the perky rose of England, but maybe there was something in the air that day, and more specifically before the French took the field.

But, there were two moments that stuck out for me in the psychology of the game. The first was before the whistle blew. Right after the haka was performed, the television caught a French player looking back into the eyes of a kiwi and he just lifted his head a tad, as if to say, “we’ll see.” There was a confidence in the eyes.

The second moment was after a poor punt by Dan Carter. Carter smiled as the kick barely made any yard pick up as the ball was miskicked off the outside of his foot. It was a smile as if to say, sorry lads, but don’t worry. We’re up by too much to worry about such a mistake. Considering Carter’s missed drop kick and conversion, there wasn’t much to smile about.

After a dominating first half, NZ just seemed to lay off the pedal. The tackle stats were quite revealing: 36 out of 47 for the All Blacks (76%). And a monumental 178/197 (90%) for Les Bleus. The territory occupation and domination was quite comprehensive for the Blacks (possession 71% and territory 63%). But just 2 penalties conceded throughout the match was the most impressive stat in a wholly amazing defensive exploit by the French.

Once again, the Blacks will go back thinking “what happened?” The poly-multi- non ending phase after phase balls didn’t faze the French. The five minute pack attack by the Blacks with McAlister sinbinned was brilliant tactically, but the pressure didn’t result in the necessary goods. It seems that the Blacks’ cockiness just plain caught up with them. And the French resolve, watched on by Sarkozy, was at its highest. A well deserved win against the number 1 seeds.

There were a number of similarities between the upsets that are worth mentioning. Both games had extremely high expectations of victory for the Southern Hemisphere teams. In both games, heavily the favoured Southern Hemisphere teams were leading (if not cruising) at the end of the first half (10-6 and 13-3 in chronological order). Both Australia and NZ missed key kicks (but England missed an equal number of penalties compared to the Wallabies) that could have hammered the lead home. Both games were won with a change of momentum in the second half, and both were won because of defense. Both games were won by two points.

Now, I must admit that next weekend will be very difficult for me; but I will also admit that my loyalties lie fully with the English who, according to the prior form, remain the underdogs.

All in all, a riveting day. Two upsets by two points. The ants go marching two by two, hurray, hurray! razz

RWC writeup and BBC report.
Report from the First Australian… a good read.

Other blogging on the match: Richie McCaw, Oogifu

England downs Australia 12-10 at RWC Quarters

The first quarter finals match-up of the RWC 2007 between Australia and England has just ended with an absolutely stunning 12-10 win for England. This match reminds me why I love rugby and truly lets me feel patriotic for the Rose of England. Following the game alone in Paris meant that my only outlet was twitter and sms. But Twitter doesn’t exactly allow a conversation to ensue.

The emotion that I experienced in the 2nd half was very intense, an intensity that is missing in so many sports games I watch. Pure gutting it out. And the late game misses-by-inches by both Wilkinson and Mortlock absolutely kept me holding my breath.

I must admit that I had written this game off. The chances that Australia would let England beat them again… seemed obscenely unlikely. The warmer weather eliminated the “fault of the rain loss” in 2003. This was a game won on defence and by the scrum in particular, with several lost rucks and set scrums for Australia. England only conceded 5 penalties to 9 against Australia. Possession was basically evenly split, with equal occupation in the opponent’s 22m.

This was a truly exhilarating match up, with a fully surprising result, but, to my reckoning well deserved. Now to see if France can replicate this evening against the Blacks!

See BBC report and RWC 2007 on the match.

A couple of blogs that have commented:
Someone caught the BBC with a little error 129-10, Signs of Emergence
From down under, Global Warming Watch, with gentlemanly wishes to England.

P.S. What curious timing for Gordon Browne to call off an early election!