How d’you solve a problem like Italian rugby?

Which sadly doesn’t quite scan to “how do you solve a problem like Maria?”

For the non-rugby union peeps reading, the 6 Nations is the Northern hemisphere annual international competition. Before 2000, it was the 5 Nations. In 2000, Italy were invited to join England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to make it six.

Before Italy joined, it was a toss-up whether it would be them, Georgia or Romania who would be invited to join (it was one of those rare, three-sided coins). The International Rugby Board (or whatever they’re called this year) may have claimed to have a legitimate reason to choose Italy over the other two, but there was always a distinct hint that it was because the bigwigs would rather spend time in Rome than in Tbilisi or Bucharest.

This wouldn’t be a problem if Italy had done better. Only they haven’t, they’ve finished dead last 12 tournaments out of 18. Because of this, there are once again the regular calls to get rid of Italy and replace them with Georgia, or Romania.

I don’t think that will solve the intrinsic problem. This is not because I don’t think Gorgodzilla and friends won’t be awesome and try hard and compete.

None of those have been Italy’s problem either.

I’m a fan of Italian rugby; my heart was won by the Bergamasco boys, so I am biased. Their problem has never been lack of effort.

Their main problem has been having fewer resources than the other five teams. I don’t just mean money, I mean things like strength in depth of players. There was the famous case when England’s reserve players had more caps than the entire Italian team plus reserves. There’s always been a couple of positions where they’re significantly weaker than the other sides. Which particular position changes, the fact of it doesn’t.

Changing which team is the 6th team in the 6 Nations would not solve this problem. Georgia would have it, Romania would have it, just as much Italy have it now. Kicking Italy out and bolting the door would be a waste of the time, money and effort that have gone into Italian rugby in the past 20 plus years.

That doesn’t mean I want to keep the status quo. Locking out the teams in the European Nations Cup is a really bad idea.

Everyone agrees that there is no way that rugby players on the various national teams can play more games. They’re already the walking injured most of the time.

I’ve been informed that there’s no way that the Six Nations can be made less frequent. It was a suggestion I made only to hear the squeak of protest from certain people.

The most sensible thing would be to have a relegation play off between the team last in the 6 Nations and the team coming top of the European Nations Cup (ENC). Then host the game at the ENC team’s home stadium. This plan has several advantages. It gives the teams in the ENC something to play for. It gives a bit of extra money to help the top ENC team to bridge the gap if not that year then the next if they lose. It also gives whichever team finishes 6th (which isn’t always Italy) a chance to save themselves. A win all round I think.

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For They’re Jolly Good Fellows – A Fond Farewell To Paul O’Connell and Daniel Bryan

I’m not sure where to begin when talking about Paul O’Connell. For Munster and Ireland he’s been involved in and been one of the motivating forces behind several sporting triumphs which have given great joy to both me and my Mum.

If Brian O’Driscoll has the happy knack of making the impossible look easy, and his play had the beauty of artistry, then O’Connell’s play showed the starker beauty of hard work and grit. O’Connell in full flight, monstering the opposition (and his own players) is one of the most glorious sights in sport.

From one of the biggest players on any pitch (to quote friend L, O’Connell can loom sitting down) to a man who was one of the smaller guys in any wrestling ring.

American Dragon, as was, was one of the participants in one of my favourite series of wrestling matches. He and Danny Williams wrestled in FWA, ROH and somewhere else, which I have managed to forget. I caught the FWA match on The Wrestling Channel and I just had to, absolutely had to, see the next one (which was the ROH one). I was even willing to suffer ROH’s camerawork for them. My problem with old school ROH’s camerawork wasn’t anything refined as artistic issues, no, it made me seasick and I do actually mean that, no hyperbole is involved. But that match was worth it.

Sadly I missed most of Daniel Bryan’s WWE run, including Team Hell No and his championship run, but I’m happy he made it.

And, while I’m sad to see him go, I’m glad he’s made the sensible decision to quit given his health.

That’s true in both their cases actually, because they’re both the kind of stubborn who might not, and both rugby and wrestling are littered with people who should have quit for their own good but didn’t.

I think that’s something lots of pro-sports, but particularly wrestling (at this point, I’d like to say how sorry I am to hear about Axl Rotten and Balls Mahoney), need to look at – an exit strategy for people too injured to carry on, and too stubborn to realise it.

But to return to my original purpose – let us now raise a virtual glass to Paul O’Connell and Daniel Bryan, for every shout, cheer, curse and delight they’ve given us.

Of Warren-Ball and Clive-ball

Note: I am a fan of the Irish rugby team. Nothing to do with heritage, more that tap tackle on Dan Luger by Peter Stringer. After that my heart belonged to any team with Stringer on it.

I am also a rugby league fan who is still somewhat convinced that union is what happens to rugby when it’s been bad and needs to be punished. This year’s Six Nations is not helping that feeling.

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The present discussion in the UK (for which read London) press of Warren-ball, it’s strengths and limitations, and the damage it causes to players seems to be willfully ignoring that it’s an adaptation of the Clive Woodward playing style.

Clive-ball, for those of you who luckily missed those years, is possession-based. Keep the ball, maintain pressure, wait for the opponents to give away a penalty, give the ball to Jonny. (Those people who go on about how many tries the Woodward England team scored missed that they were often because the opposition had someone in the sin-bin and/or were chasing the game.)

Now there are some limitations to this plan, which we’ll call ‘needs Jonny’. It’s also quite hard to come up with a plan against.

All the plans seem to involve some form of ‘fronting up’ or hitting the team playing Clive-ball hard so that your team get the ball. Now Ireland also added the choke tackle to that plan but that also has certain personnel requirements vis-a-vie the now retired Paul O’Connell and stop-getting-injured Sean O’Brien (also known as stop-getting-caught-punching-Pascal-Pape Sean O’Brien). But the “purest” form of fronting up to confound Clive-ball is Wales’s Warren-ball.

It’s an intrinsically destructive form of the game where, because the players are picked for size as much as skill, doing something once they’ve got the ball is the problem.

Warren-ball and its variants are also incredibly wearing. When Courtney Lawes (highlight reel here) complains that English players (or players in the English Premiership) play too many games and are, pretty much, always sore, it’s not coming from a dainty player doesn’t enjoy contact.

The other problem is that you end up in an arms race. If their fly half is 6 foot tall, then yours has to be that too and the next one will be 6 foot 1. (Compare the vital statistics of Neil Jenkins [1.78 m, 86 kg], Stephen Jones [1.85 m, 94 kg], Dan Biggar [1.88 m, 89 kg] in the Wales fly-half position.) This has two effects, 1) the slightly smaller than Superman get locked out of the professional game and 2) any contact has more force about it because goodness knows they’re still moving at speed. This is true in both open play and the scrum.

I swear that’s where most of the sudden increase in injuries has come from. Obviously injuries happen, and always have done, and you’ll never have a contact sport (or any sport) where no injuries occur but the number of players of middle career age (25-29) retiring with degenerative joint issues is ridiculous. Oddly, I don’t think there’s been as large an increase in concussions, I think we’re just more aware of them and how serious they are now.

The other problem with Warren-ball is that once your opponents know you’re playing it, it’s possible to get round it, although this too involves “fronting up” and can lead to the aforementioned injury issues. Last year, for instance, Ireland finished higher than Wales last year but I swear that was at least in part because they were more terrified of their captain than their opponents (now is a good time for that Paul O’Connell clip).

And while Warren-ball might win you the 6 Nations, it seems to be utterly useless at World Cup level, where the Southern Hemisphere players are big *and* skillful (sneaky evil is a skill and it lies at the heart of New Zealand’s game). A variety of reasons has been suggested as to why this is, but while New Zealand remain the pinnacle, I doubt population size is the reason. I do however agree with the general view that the way NZ junior rugby is divided into weight as well as age categories probably helps retain the late growers better, and means that the bigger players have to be skillful (and learn skills) because they’re playing against players as big as they are so they don’t have the size advantage that you can get between a 13 year old who has had their growth spurt and one who hasn’t.

Since that kind of thing, if the Northern Hemisphere unions ever take it on-board, is going to take a generation to work through, I fear I am going to have to rely on an Australian who reminds me of a malicious Yoda to produce fun rugby in the 6 Nations, and since he’s the England manager, this fills me with woe.

Rugby World Cup final in diagrams

Even if, annoyingly New Zealand’s name gets cut off when the image is exported from Gephi. (Again, if anyone has any suggestions on how to fix that, I am all ears.)

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The Waratahs are the most represented club side with 10 players in the final, with the Brumbies, the Crusaders and the Hurricanes next with 9 players each.

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At least this diagram is cuts both team’s names.

With the late withdrawal of Wyatt Crockett, both teams have used the same number of players overall.  The Waratahs are still the most represented club side with 12 players, the Crusaders come next with 10, followed by the Brumbies and the Hurricanes next with again 9 players each.

Rugby World Cup Semi-Finals In Diagrams

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New Zealand remain in splendid isolation, while Toulon are the only team guaranteed to have a player in the final. That noise you just heard was European rugby union fans going ‘blasted Toulon’ or something stronger. Australia are the national team closest to the centre while Toulon are the club team closest to the centre, probably because they’re the team holding South Africa, Australia and Argentina together. The Argentine Super Rugby side remain the team with the most players represented with 20, followed by the Waratahs and the Crusaders with 10.

The total players used diagram is now a lot more even, with all the teams having only had to add 1 or 2 players to their original starting squad. Something which may also have helped their teams gel and their overall performances.

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Four Thoughts About The Rugby World Cup Quarter-Finals (And Some Diagrams)

1 – I don’t think this is the end of Northern Hemisphere rugby

All of Ireland’s injuries (and one idiotic suspension), and several of Wales’s, were starting players.  So we know that Ireland B and Wales A minus can’t beat full strength South African and Argentine sides.

Scotland were done out of their match by a mistake.

France had their first choice kicking person off-injured and seem to have a thing against choose Trinh-Duc, who is better than Michalak anyway.

Reports of the death of Northern Hemisphere rugby may have been greatly exaggerated.

2 – New Zealand look to be terrifyingly good

Because France were not bad in that match, despite what the scoreline says.

But Julian Savea is something else.  Mum’s boyfriend was cooing over him.

3 – If this is how Argentine play after getting Super Rugby, think how good Japan will be

Stolen from a friend, but so true.  The possibilities for Japanese rugby are magnificent.

4 – Bringing in the new concussion protocols was a good idea.

For evidence see Scott Baldwin’s ‘no, I’m fine’ after being knocked spark out and also Dan Biggar’s.  We can’t expect players, who are desperate for their team to succeed and see themselves as part of that, to declare when they’re injured.

The diagrams took longer than expected to produce because of the number of teams that were removed and size of each team.

New Zealand are now drifting along in splendid isolation, with the loss of the Tongan and Samoan players that play for New Zealand teams.

Argentina are the national team closest to the centre, while Bordeaux Bègles are the club team closest to the centre.  Leinster and the Argentine Super Rugby franchise are the teams with the most players represented with 20 each.

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The important advice remains ‘don’t be Wales’ but don’t be Ireland is also important.  When all players used are counted the Argentine Super Rugby franchise has the most players represented, followed by Leinster and Glasgow Warriors.

Rugby World Cup player usage up to the end of the group stage

Running late because of RL stuff.

The most important thing is, as I’ve said, don’t be Wales.  In this graph, paler is worse and they are the palest nation by some way.

(As an aside, does anyone know any way of adding colour spectra to Gephi?  I find the automatic ones to be unsuitable for what I want to do.)

Several of these injuries occurred before the World Cup, in the “friendly” match against Samoa (which also cost Samoa a few players).

Interesting questions include did Wales etc really get more injuries than say Namibia and Uruguay, or is it that Namibia and Uruguay couldn’t call up players so they just had to rotate their squads more?  And are Wales doing something particularly wrong in their training, as a lot of their injuries came in training not in matches?