Ecstasy and the agony
Stuart was carried away by the heart and soul of the rugby on Saturday, but left cold after Sunday's action...
Last Updated: 15/02/10 3:48pm
That was a wonderful Saturday afternoon of rugby. I watched events unfolding from the awful press box position (far too low to the ground, if you want to know) in Cardiff. I have hardly ever seen such a finish.
It was an incredible game and one where the heart had to go out to a Scotland team undone as much by the savage injury toll as the inspired individualism of Shane Williams and a few of his talented friends. (On that note best wishes to Thom Evans from all of us within the rugby community.)
It was a game where a life in the media threatens to muddy one to the essence of the game. It is easy when the sport is your nine-to-five working life to become cold and analytical, but surrounded by the ever-growing insanity of the match and the changing faces of agony and ecstasy on the home and visiting supporters, this was a reminder that technical expertise is not the be and end all. This was heart and soul - mixed in with some Welsh magic.
In the end it prevailed but Andy Robinson's team played with more shape and structure than Warren Gatland's. The individuals won Wales this game; this was one not won on the training grounds of wherever Scotland prepared so well.
It was cruel on the better team but in an age where we have seen genius dismissed and berated, it was wonderful as a neutral to see the impish marvel, Shane Williams, winning the match with un-coached, woven spells. It was a glorious game as was the performance to follow from France.
Had they taken all the chances they made this would have been a great performance but on the back of a solid start in Edinburgh this French team has the look of one moving in the right direction. Or should that be directions? They are full-steam ahead towards a Grand Slam but also, as it has ever been with the stupidly maligned Marc Lievremont, the World Cup. France has pushed the boundaries on what works and does not for them.
How many times did I hear the fact he has used 71 players in his brief reign this last weekend? Okay, maybe that is a touch excessive but better to be too far wrong that way than the other where experience is the major criterion for selection but, of course, until he has several caps, a player will always suffer from the tag of being inexperienced.
France, for all its critics has a coherent selection policy and those who believe in the brain as part of the game will rejoice that things seem to be going France's way. Wales away appears to be France's for the taking on current Welsh form but the return of Mike Phillips would boost Wales enormously.
Neither Ryan Jones or Gareth Cooper offered a threat from the base and while Richie Rees speeded things up, Stephen Jones requires more happening inside him to give that extra split-second in which to slide his clever passes to the potentially match winning combination of Jamie Roberts and James Hook... and there is always Shane waiting to pop out of his box like Pandora with an array of frightening tricks for opponents.
Sing when you are winning...
But France will look forward to the next game having made major progress in their game. The English supporters who criticise my criticisms of England will, I assume, be delighted with England after recording two straight wins; after all, winning is all that matters, so I am told. If Ireland bounces back and beats England I hope this section of loyal support will quietly accept the defeat.
Those who would prefer England to plan for the future as well as the present (and the two are not mutually incompatible) have a right to be dejected after Sunday, when England's win against Wales (which was no better than their performance in defeat against New Zealand, just an inferior class of opposition) was backed up with a few steps backwards in Rome.
Give Italy credit but they have no penetration behind and are past their best with this particular front five. Yes, they were passionate but that should not be enough... and not would it have been had England managed to maintain the early flat alignment with Jonny Wilkinson passing into gaps and chances being made but squandered.
Martin Johnson knows that had England taken a few of these chances in the first hour the result would have been far more comfortable but isn't Johnson the manager who ignores the best finisher in England in the shape of Chris Ashton. Neither he nor James Simpson Daniel is perfect but while they were scoring five Premiership tries between them England were incapable of exploiting the Italian weaknesses wide where anyone with rugby knowledge knew Italy were vulnerable.
He had the option to be brave and take a look towards the future in a game England should have won well but where his French equivalent is brave Johnson is tentative. Having been pushed this close in Rome the chances of a bold selection have diminished greatly and it appears that fast tracking has become a back-burner business while players with known limits to their game continue to hold back progress.
Come Sunday night the benevolent mood that had enveloped this old rugby bugger all Saturday would have entirely dissipated if not for a decent effort from a Bath team re-ignited by Butch James. The fly half could be the answer to Bath's dire problems in the first half of the season.What with Gloucester overrunning Harlequins there are signs that the west is awaking. Now to this week's mail...
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Bending the rules
Stuart, I was going to start this email with "Cheating, cheating Irish!" as I have been dismayed by what they have been able to get away with over the years. However perhaps I am being a bit unfair on them and this sort of carrying on is indicative of the modern game. Referee Wayne Barnes could and should have given the Irish a couple more yellows and even a red in that game. Please don't say that the French are not exactly blame free because hat is not the point I am making. Teams are getting away with too much and this consistent cheating is spoiling our game.
STUART REPLIES: Lewis, Hard on an Irish team that has only done what all good times have managed since rugby began and played the referee as well as the man. It may have upped itself a notch or two in recent times but it has been part of rugby as long as competitiveness has been part of human nature. Maybe the extra TV coverage simply exaggerates this unappealing fact of sporting life.
Stuart, so England battled to a win against Italy. Are Italy that bad that any side can expect to go there and beat them convincingly? If they had a few backs they would give most sides a run for their money and perhaps we should give them a little credit for running England close rather than having a go at England and booing them? Just a thought.
STUART REPLIES: Michael, You give England credit and I'll continue to berate them for not playing or picking teams that aspire to being world class. It's a good tournament in its own right, the Six Nations, and if you are happy with being competitive in that then good for you. But no moaning when the autumn comes because you'll have no leg to stand on.
Stuart, In your opinion should the game have been restarted after Wales had drawn the scores level? The restart happened a good 10 seconds after the full 80 mins. Surely after the penalty was taken and scored, the ball is deemed to be dead. Why then, were Scotland allowed to restart the game ?
Regards, Tim Dakin
STUART REPLIES: Tim, sitting in the worst positioned press box in world rugby I had no idea of whether the seconds were gone but if the conversion was kicked AFTER 80 were up, clearly the game should have ended. I presume George Clancy had more idea of time-keeping than me.
Stuart, I tend to think that you spend all your weekend watching as much rugby as you can occasionally stopping to replenish your glass of red so please forgive me asking you about the Super 14. Have you managed to watch any of the first round games and who impressed you the most from the first round? With the world Cup looming I always like to try and spot some young talent to tell my mates to look out for - any suggestions?
STUART REPLIES: Tony, I saw The Bulls win at Cheetahs and the Waratahs pinch the win against an improved Reds team but trying to watch three internationals, broadcast from London Irish and be a perfect Valentine means some of the other games will have to wait until Tuesday and Wednesday. A fuller answer therefore in the post but again, Will Genia showed his ability didn't he? And to think, England wouldn't have selected him yet...
A vote of confidence
Hi Stuart, how badly would that loss have affected London Irish? They seem to have lost their confidence and I was wondering what you would do to stop the slide?
STUART REPLIES: Confidence seemed low before the match and that is no surprise given not just the number of absentees but the importance of many of them. The immediate future appears bleak without any obvious remedies but I think Irish must settle on a fly half and try and boost his diminished confidence. Ryan Lamb is talented but flawed; he needs to be cosseted and trusted to run a game. Let him take charge of a few sessions (training that is) and give him command at Newcastle in what is looming as a tough away game next Saturday night.