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Is the RBS 6 Nations is in danger of becoming more about the size of the hits and the performance of the man in the middle than the rugby being played? As we go into the first rest weekend we look back at the opening rounds.

TEAMPLWDLPFPADIFFTFTAPTS
ENGLAND2200683335844
IRELAND2200441430214
FRANCE210126260112
WALES21014244-2342
SCOTLAND20023141-10320
ITALY20022073-53380

Ireland are sitting where they want to be, with two from two, but there hasn’t been too much rugby played. An eventual wearing down of Italy, in a poor match, was followed by an exciting enough climax against France in a game made memorable by the brutality of the hits rather than on the silky skills of the players. Still, it’s now a two horse race between the impressive England and the dogged Irish with Scotland the team most likely to cause an upset.

My suspicion is that Joe Schmidt is trying to forge a team with a little more guile than grunt and I suspect we’ll see a different game against England as Joe starts to get his blocks in order ahead of the World Cup. Don’t be surprised if there are a few more changes to the starting line up over the next three games!

I certainly hope that Joe does swim against the tide for, as we go into another World Cup year, it is that hateful word “physicality” that seems to be at the forefront of the minds of players and coaches. It’s filtered down to the club teams with the PRO12 going through one of it’s poorest seasons, in terms of skill and European results, as they insist on playing a style of rugby typified by ever increasing injury lists. It’s disappointing; and to me it shows a lack of imagination in the collective coaching set ups that physically dominating your opponent, more often in defence than attack, is the leading tactic being deployed.

The physical strength of the players, coupled with the systemic “cheating” of blocking players through dummy runs and taking players out of the game past the ball has ratcheted up season after season since the game turned professional. It’s no coincidence that the current World Champions are the leading proponents of this coached “foul play” but at least they have managed to combine pushing the rules to their absolute limits with their inherent ball handling skills, switching seamlessly between the two. For the sake of the players, and our beloved game, I hope that this increasing reliance on brute force has reached it’s zenith with coaches focusing on running round rather than through their opponents!

With players coached on how to push the boundaries of the game we all need to have a bit of patience and understanding for the poor old referee who has to process all the shenanigans in real time and decide which one of the many offences being committed at any one time is actually affecting the flow of the game. Given the huge amount of data they have to process at any contact situation it’s no surprise that they are blowing up more and more on the clear cut technical offences to the detriment of the flow of the game.

In any given tackle situation the tackler can be slowing up the release of the ball, the person being tackled can be holding on to the ball too long, there can be a couple of supporting players driving past the ball and going off their feet and blocking it off in an offside position and another couple going past the tackle all together and taking out defenders. There can be defenders going in at the side to slow the ball down and similarly they can be going past the ball to take out attackers or they can be flopping like a fish on the wrong side of the ruck to create the illusion that they are trying to get out of the way while they are really just slowing the whole thing down. Take into account the tackle itself, was it too high, were the arms used and process at the same time if any biting, gouging, punching or stamping is going on in the surrounding area and are all the other players not involved in the tackle/ruck situation in an onside position. All this it to be processed in seconds and weighed up with an “inherent” empathy for the game. Blimey!

Little wonder so few balance all this to everyone’s satisfaction, Nigel Owens being one of the few that manages this difficult balancing act with wit and wisdom, but most tend to get majority of he calls right despite what us partizan supporters might think! Lets not forget that without the much maligned man in the middle we wouldn’t have a game.

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