Thursday, February 04, 2010

Six Nations to savour could be rugby's saviour

If RBS is still synonymous with inflationary excess followed by a crippling crunch and an enforced bail-out, then it is perhaps appropriate that the bank-fallen-upon-hard-times remains the principal sponsor of the Six Nations. Rugby has suffered plenty of bad PR in the last couple of years, as the game bulked up on muscle and money only to be sucked into a downward spiral caused by contentious rule changes, tactical wrongheadedness and the odd scandal or two.

So a rescue act is required, but who will provide it? The public may still be putting its hand in its pocket when it comes to attending Premiership and international rugby, but the game needs more enterprise on the pitch if it is to avoid a recession in popularity off it.

Saracens, who currently lie second in the Premiership and could return to the top with victory in their game in hand over Leicester, have epitomised the grinding, ultra-pragmatic approach to the sport that has become prevalent in recent seasons. In 12 matches, Sarries have run in 14 tries and conceded just eight - that's less than two tries a game for the paying spectator. It's true that Northampton have scored 26 to 14 conceded - their aggregate of 40 tries in 12 matches (3.3 per match) equalled only by bottom club Leeds, who have conceded 30 - but Saints are running against the grain.

After a grim series of autumn internationals, in which England scored one try in three games against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand, and a 2009 Premiership final which is etched on my mind only because of the weight of its dull, thudding tread, coaches have begun to face legitimate questions about their modus operandi.

Martin Johnson, England's team manager, and Saracens coach Brendan Venter are easily made into straw men to take the brunt of public criticism, but ever since the advent of professionalism in the game the focus has edged more towards pulling together a physically imposing XV, fine-tuned to the last tree trunk-like quadricep, than cultivating exceptional ball-handling skills. Simon Shaw spoke out against the dominant 'gym monkey' culture last October - but we are yet to see a popular uprising against reps and sets, and the pervasive 'kick and tackle' approach.

That there are coaches out there who buck the trend, the 2009 Lions tactician, Ian McGeechan, among them, is a reason for optimism. Keith Barwell, chairman of Northampton (those side-stepping Saints again), made a point of praising the Scot in a Donald McRae piece for today's Guardian:
"I remember Geech telling me the problem with the England coaches, particularly the dour ones, is that when they get the team together all they do is beast them and work them. Geech opens his players' minds. That's the difference."
McGeechan, who is currently mentoring younger coaches away from the front line, was responsible for the best advert for Test-match rugby of the last 12 months: the Lions tour. Three fixtures produced an average of more than 40 points a game, and close finishes in the first two Tests (albeit both won by South Africa) coupled with a win for the tourists in the third helped to revive a concept that was beginning to seem anachronistic.

The Six Nations needs a similar splash of cold water across the face. We've had the crash (crash ball, crash tackle, crashing boredom) ... now must come the bail-out. Johnson has certainly selected his most adventurous line-up yet. A back line including Delon Armitage, Riki Flutey and Matthew Tait is shaped to punch holes in Wales when the sides meet at Twickenham, and one can only hope for the sort of display that England produced against France last year.

That sparkling performance must sit in the the history books alongside a particularly horrific display against Italy (surely one of the worst five-try victories ever). The grisly spectacle of the autumn series and this season's Premiership has cast an even greater shadow. Rugby now needs a Six Nations to savour.

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