Thursday 20 July 2017

Roll up, roll up for the Six Nations festival of fumbling

A drop in skill levels has left European rugby miles adrift of the Tri Nations, writes Neil Francis

Luke Fitzgerald reacts after just failing to catch a pass from a team-mate near the French try line last Sunday. Photo: Brendan Moran
Luke Fitzgerald reacts after just failing to catch a pass from a team-mate near the French try line last Sunday. Photo: Brendan Moran
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I n the movie Meet the Fockers Robert De Niro's character Jack Byrnes is astonished to see that Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) has certificates for finishing 12th in the school gymkhana adorning the family sideboard. "I've never seen people celebrate mediocrity like you do."

We are two matches into a Six Nations championship that begs a question: have we turned into the Fockers?

We see seven tries in a video montage of the French match in Paris two weeks ago and suddenly the French are swashbucklers again. Five-minute highlight packages seriously distort reality.

RTE on their Aertel page described last Sunday's match in the Aviva as a 'classic'. Madre Deo, a classic? No question my pulse quickened when the great escape beckoned in the 78th minute, but I've seen much intermittent quality over the years which has been better in terms of skill levels and entertainment quotient and you'd be embarrassed to bring them up in the same sentence as last Sunday's game.

We want our team to win but we also want them to perform to an acceptable level. No team in the championship thus far has breached adequate levels of competence, in terms of playing a brand of rugby that is commensurate with the game of union. We, as a European audience, have suspended rational expectation which is unacceptable. If Scotland and Wales played a two-Test series in Christchurch in New Zealand and they performed the way that they did in Murrayfield, you wouldn't get 100 to watch the second game. "They'd be laughing atcha," as Dr Bill would say.

I was watching an old episode of Cheers the other night and Norm came into the bar and Woody says, "Can I pour you a beer, Mr Peterson?"

"A little early isn't it, Woody?"

"For a beer?"

"For stupid questions."

The All Blacks came to this part of the world a few months ago and laid waste before them. If Graham Henry was given the pick of any player in Europe to augment his World Cup squad, how many would he choose? That's right, it's a stupid question. Harinordoquy might get a few seconds' thought. If he was cheeky, he'd ask for Hayman back. There is no player who is distractedly good enough to get close to consideration. No team unit, no segment, nothing. The skill levels are so poor in every section.

A common inflection in rugby circles is that in Test rugby skill levels break down under pressure. In this Six Nations championship, skill levels are breaking down and there is no pressure -- not even 10 metres away.

A friend of mine texted me from Australia after the Ireland game in Rome, 'the worst Test match' he'd ever seen. Two days after the Twickenham turkey shoot, I got another text saying, 'ignore my previous text'. If you weren't English why would you watch 80 minutes of that? The only thing you could say about England was that they arrived with batteries supplied. Competence does not beget quality Johnno me ould mate! If England are our ISO9002, the game in Europe is in trouble. If Chris Ashton is the best winger in our isles, we have a quality control issue. Rory Underpants was a boring old fart -- but the excellence of his finish didn't require the theatricality of a swallow dive.

We always admire the chilling accuracy and unambiguously brilliant handling skills of the All Blacks and as an afterthought we flatter ourselves with thoughts of imitation which we never can really realistically aspire to match.

I watched all of the Tri Nations matches this year. As the blurb says, 'Excellence simply delivered'. Same laws, same referees, same pitch, and same ball -- the difference being that I am fulfilled after 80 minutes of a Tri Nations game.

The new laws in relation to the tackler and offside in front of the kicker were designed for the Tri Nations. They haven't made a whit of difference to the Six Nations. Ireland and Scotland think that by blandly and blindly giving width that space opens up. They drop the ball long before it does. Creeping anxiety in possession or just plain inability to observe the fundamentals.

I pulled off a stat sheet from the Tri Nations series. The South Africa versus New Zealand game at the national stadium in Soweto was a -- better not use that word classic -- heck of a game. The All Blacks won it at the death, controversially. The stats don't really reflect how good the All Blacks were that day. Some of the key indices were goddamn average. They were 77 per cent at lineout time and 89 per cent on the tackle. The indicator of relevance was metres run with the ball -- nearly 600 -- which is almost four times what the Irish managed against France. That tells you how comfortable the All Blacks are on the ball. It's just a natural thing to be able to hang onto it.

Their offload figures throughout the series were always in double figures. Ireland's offloads were placed at nine, which is high, the highest in the Six Nations. Yet they doubled that in errors -- mostly unforced. The All Blacks had two handling errors in the whole match. As near to perfection as you can get in a Test match of that magnitude.

You appreciate the commitment and endeavour all the more when there are fewer mistakes. The European game has too many errors and too many poor passages of play to counter-balance the intermittent flashes of quality. I'm not looking for flawless but I am looking for an upward trend and I can't see it. We are half an infinity away.

The other reason that the product stinks, other than the failings of the players, is that the applications of the law by the cretins with the whistles is abysmal. I have already run Romain Poite through and I see no reason to put the blade back in its scabbard for Dave Pearson, who was just awful last Sunday. Yes he did smile a lot during the match, a chirpy, cheeky, chipmunky type of simper. Smiling as he gave those penalties like a parking warden handing tickets to pensioners. The sort of referee who pulls you back on a legitimately taken quick-tap penalty because he wants to be seen to admonish the perpetrator. He was every bit as unsympathetic as he was in the Toulon v Munster game a few weeks ago.

Once again, the penalty count went against Ireland 10/9. I would say that six or seven of those penalties were legitimate and France got away with murder, sealing the ball offside from the breakdown and two or three men into the tackle without re-engaging. Ireland got no levity from the Englishman. That's not the point. The game and its flow were impaired by an inferior display of refereeing.

Inconsistencies are one thing, but the blinkered and structured application of the laws are counter-intuitive to the easy flow of a good game. Nobody who watched that game left the ground thinking that Pearson had connected with the same frequency modulation as the players. When we were looking for common sympathy, sporting understanding, spiritual recognisance of the needs of the game, he failed. He was a referee most unsuited to take charge of such a critical match.

The referee blazers said that they would only award matches to their best referees. You earn your spurs at a lower level. If you are poor, you don't get the big games. A meritocracy as opposed to turn taking, a step in the right direction. Then they appoint Romain Poite and Dave Pearson!

We are a season or two away from the Heineken Cup superseding the Six Nations as the premier rugby competition. I wonder whether they realise that and, more importantly, whether they realise why.

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