Lions Post #3: Our Friends in the North

Given the rather protracted downturn in fortunes of the Scottish rugger team, in the last two Lions squads Jocks have been pretty thin on the ground. In 2005, of the 51 players who went out at any point (51!), just four were Scottish, and of the 46 2009 Lions, there were once again just four Scots, with two of those (Ross Ford and Mike Blair) late replacements for injured Liginds (Jirry and Tomás O’Leary).

This time round, it looks like the Scots might do a little better than four – while the team isn’t tearing up any trees, some individual performances are good:

  • Ross Ford: there isn’t any hooker making an undeniable claim for a shirt – Ford is good in the loose, offloads well, and offers something a little different
  • Ryan Grant: Loosehead is very competitive, but Grant has played his part in a solid Scottish set-piece, while his defence has been excellent
  • Euan Murray: ARE THERE ANY TESTS ON A SUNDAY??
  • Richie Gray: the blonde bomber hasn’t been as prominent as he was last year, but, as modern mobile locks go, he’s pretty much the best available
  • Nathan Hines: Hines isn’t playing for Scotland since retiring a year ago, but he’s been hugely prominent for Clermont Auvergne as they tear it up in the HEC – Australia must be wondering how he slipped through the cracks
  • Johnnie Beattie: carrying well, and the standard of play in the Top14 seems to have benefitted him. Number eight is competitive, but nobody’s hooting the lights out, so he’s in the mix
  • Wee Greig Laidlaw: No, really! Laidlaw is the best kicking scrummie, although he offers zero breaking threat. He can play outside as well and versatility is a plus on attritional tours
  • Sean Maitland: has a touch of Kiwi class about him, a really intelligent player with excellent defence. There aren’t many wings demanding a shirt, and Maitland is as likely as any to go
  • Tim Visser: scores tries for fun at Pro12 level and continues to impress at international level, in attack more so than defence.  Like Maitland, he is in the mix because the wing situation is so fluid with Bowe out and Ashton playing like a bag of nails
  • Stuart Hogg: pretty much inked in to tour, if you believe Inverdale. He’s certainly the form pick at the moment, but Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny, Ben Foden and Alex Goode could yet have their say
  • Graeme Morrison: boshing inside centres are in fashion these days, and if Brad Barritt gets injured … nah, we’re only messing!

In truth a lot of those look more possible than probable, and even then the more likely lads have a midweek look about them.   We have Gray pencilled in provided he recovers from injury and Stuart Hogg looks made for the hard Antipodean grounds.  Ford could be the odd man out at hooker, placed on standby for the second tour in a row (last time he made it out and started the third test).  His fate could depend on what sort of view Gatland takes of Dylan Hartley.  We think at least one of Maitland or Visser will sneak on to the plane, where there is suddenly a shortage of form players.  Laidlaw and Beattie will be close, but neither is a sure thing.  Sundays or otherwise, Murray’s star has waned and Ryan Grant, again, looks more likely to be on standby than getting picked in the first draft.

The most interesting one is Nathan Hines.  There are no tighthead locks who offer his imperious combination of regal handling skills and grunt in the tight.  He reneged on his Top 14 commitments last time to go on the tour, but appears to feel he has unfinished business in that regard, so may not do so again.

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The Cup, the Plate and the Bowl

A non-vintage Six Nations campaign is heading for a straightforward blitz-tournmanent style finale.  In the last week, Wales and France will meet to decide the championship winners (The Cup).  England and Ireland will play for the Plate, or third place, and Italy and Scotland will tough it out for the Bowl (or to avoid the wooden spoon).

The Cup

Some of the mythology around the enormous Welsh backline was exposed this weekend.  Mike Phillips got overly involved in a fight with the English backrow, and Wales never looked like getting around England, so they just kept trying to go through them.  Getting into a boshfest with the Kings of Bosh is a risky game, and Wales were in a tight spot for much of the afternoon.  In the end they had just enough class to win out, with one of their smaller backs, reserve centre Scott Williams (weighing in at a puny 97kgs) coming up with a dash of brilliance to win it.  The Triple Crown is in the bag, and they are in a good position to deliver the slam, with France coming to Cardiff.

Here in Ireland we love nothing more than fawning over the French.  We’re spellbound by their pristine blue shirts, intimidated by their scrummaging power, awestruck by their handling skills, and swooning over Morgan Parra’s classic good looks.  But for all their Gallic genius, they rarely play all that well.  Truth is, they’re masters of just doing enough (unless they are playing New Zealand).  Not much has really changed under the new coach.  Sure, the selection is consistent, but the mentality is harder to shift.  France sleepwalked through the first 25 minutes here, and while their two tries were brilliant, there was no sustained greatness.  Trouble is, they are usually good for one outstanding performance a series.  One of Ireland, England or Wales will get it.

The Plate

England: played three, two tries, both chargedowns.  They’ve Strettle, Ashton and Foden in the back three, but they can’t service them with three midfielders with the distribution skills of combine harvesters.  Brad Barritt fought gamely again, and he’s not a bad player, but the lines of attack are too predictable.  For all that they probably scored a good try at the death, and after last week’s bottling exploits for his club, we’d all have loved to see the theatre of the last-kick wide conversion from Toby Flood to save a draw.  Two players who won’t enjoy looking at the tape this morning are Courtney Lawes, whose upright carrying style led directly to the Welsh try, and Mike Brown, who failed to fix his man with the non-try scoring pass to Strettle, and gave him an awful lot to do, when a stroll in was possible.

Declan Kidney is starting to get the hang of this newfangled ‘bench’ thing that other people keep banging on about it.  We’d heard of it ourselves, but weren’t quite sure what it was.  Turns out you can replace players during the game, sometimes even improving the side by bringing off a guy who’s tiring or not playing great and putting another player in his position.  Who knew?  All the talk this week will be that Ryan and Reddan should be starting in Paris (they won’t).  Both players are getting a raw deal.  Ryan is clearly the superior player at 4 to O’Callaghan, and is probably among Ireland’s best performers in the series so far, and it appears Reddan has never really earned the trust of the management.  He started their two best performances last year, and was influential in both, but found himself overlooked ever since.  Dropping a young player like Murray after two poor performances is not an easy call, but you feel that if Ireland are to have any – any! – chance of winning, Reddan needs to play.

The Bowl

Hard times for Scotland, who have improved out of sight this year, without getting the results to show for it.  Their handling and offloading was terrific yesterday.  Management are culpable for some outrageously bad team selections.  How was it that Hogg, Laidlaw and Blair had to wait until the third game in the series to take to the pitch together? Still, credit needs to go to them for making the changes. Scotland look like a team who might just win a few … if they can just win one.

It’s proving a difficult season for Italy, who haven’t really improved as much as people are letting on.  They were much more competitive last year, when they should have beaten Ireland and Wales, and toppled France.  The wooden spoon beckons methinks, as Scotland look to have too much for them – thouh they can be a different proposition in Rome.

It’s not been a classic series so far by any means, which had us wondering when there last was a classic Six Nations. Wales’ and Ireland’s grand slams in 2008 and 2009 were up against mediocre post-World Cup fields (France were off experimenting).  The best in recent times is probably 2007’s tournament, when strong France and Ireland sides went toe to toe, with France securing the Championship with the last play of the game against Scotland.  It’s been a while…

Six Nations Week 1: Wayne (Barnes)’s World

Week 1 has passed, and nothing really has changed. France are still great, England are still rubbish, Ireland still have no gameplan, Scotland can’t score tries, Wales are quite useful and Italy don’t win away.

But we decided to flesh out the above into something more concrete instead.  Our Week 1 Review, split by champions and old nags:

The Winners’ Enclosure

France

A four try win with a minimum of fuss is a reasonable start for France.  They didn’t look any great shakes for large stretches, but late in the second half you could see them start to enjoy themselves.  Wesley Fofana had a good debut, and his partnership with Rougerie is going to cause a lot of teams a lot of problems.  Louis Picamoles was transformed from a pussy cat at the World Cup to his wrecking ball best here.  Happily for France, their favourite opponenets, Ireland are coming to town for their habitual beating next week.  The fixture list is set up nicely, and the final game against Wales could be a decider.

Happiness Index: 3/5 – decent start to the new campaign, but the French public will demand a more complete performance next week

England

Ugh, that didn’t make for pleasant viewing.  New players, new captain, new gameplan… but the song remains the same.  It’s reassuring to see some things never change, and England just can’t fall out of love with the bosh.  Their backrow was thouroughly outplayed, and only when Morgan came on did they have any decent carrier on the pitch, but they defended doggedly and allowed Scotland to shoot themselves in the foot just enough to win the game.  For a scratch team it’s not the worst of starts, but going to a passionate Stadio Olimpico in Rome will be tough. The media loved it though – Stephen Jones was even saying how good Botha, Dowson and Farrell were.

Happiness Index: 3/5 – one away win in the locker, if they can get another next week they are looking at a successful championship

Wales

Missing four tight forwards, losing Warburton at half time, and with Rhys ‘Toto Schillachi’ Priestland having a shocker, you’d think the writing was on the wall.  But oh me oh my, what a group of matchwinners these guys have.  A sensational backrow, and the biggest, bruisingest, and skilfulest backs in the competition.  Roberts looked short of form, but Jonathan Davies boshed hole after hole in the Irish defence, while George North looks like the player of the age.  Hard running, clean lines, great angles. 

Happiness Index: 5/5 – Wales will be thrilled.  Gatty once again outfoxed Kidney and is a shoo-in for the Lions job.  Scotland at home next, and a great chance to build momentum.

The Losers Corner
Ireland:

Gerry Ending: Blind Dave Pearson! *foam* Wayne Barnes!! *froth* Les Kiss does know how to run an attack!!! *thumps desk* Mother Deccie of Kidcutta!!!!

Farmer Farrelly Ending: Sexton missed kicks! *thumps desk* Miniscule Leinster centres!! *foam* Where is Ooooooooooohhh James Downey!!! *froth* Padre PiO’Mahoney!!!!

Mega Happy Honest Ending: Ireland were like pussycats at ruck time – only substitute Donnacha Ryan attempted to slow Welsh ball, and he got speared for his troubles. Without BOD, Ireland were clueless at the breakdown, and clueless on how to play. Oh how we hoped the noises about an actual gameplan were true – why we believed them is another thing. The personnel sweep all before them in Europe at provincial level, but look like befuddled fools in a green shirt – it’s time for some coaching please. And by coaching, we don’t mean putting the video analyst in charge of attack. 

Happiness Index: 1/5 – very difficult to see how Ireland can have a good championship from here.  Paris beckons. Tomorrow we’ll be looking in more depth at Ireland’s woes.
Scotland:

Now, this is a tough one. Yes, Scotland lost in desperate fashion. Yes, they butchered countless chances. Yes, Robbo did select Dan Parks, who will surely never play for his country, or Scotland, again. And yet. We felt there were some chinks of light. When the Embra halves came on after 55 odd minutes, they played with real speed and purpose. The laughable handling of the players outside killed a lot of moves, but in at least some cases, they were genuinely unfamiliar with the whole “gainline” thing Greg Laidlaw was at and had to reach for flat passes. And the Scottish back row were brilliant, Ross Rennie’s mastery of ruck time harking back to the days of JJ and Finlay Calder. Robbo made a serious boo-boo in picking this team, and confidence is no doubt rock bottom, but they might actually have something to build on – if Laidlaw gets picked to start, Scotland might actually have *whisper* a platform.

Happiness index: 2/5 – at least they’ll get the right team on the pitch now.  All is not lost, but that was a huge opportunity blown

Italy:

An 18 point defeat was within the bookies pre-match spread and Italy will be happy with that. Granted, the French barely broke sweat, but this was a match Italy were never going to win – what they needed was to leave Paris with their dignity intact. And they did that. They looked pretty breezy, contributed to a good quality and open match, and looked kind of rejuvenated. Clearly, without a 10, they are going to struggle, but they have a great back row, a good coach, a decent pair of centres and, now, a spring in their step. In terms of next week, they got the ideal result from England – an absolutely dire performance with a win, which means few changes are likely. Italy have never beaten England, but they will be waiting in the long grass of the Stadio Olimpico this Saturday.

Happiness Index: 3/5 will feel they’ve a good chance of grinding England into the dirt

Six Nations: Match Previews

After all the drama surrounding team selections, squad announcements and even refereeing appointments, the small matter of the actual games of Six Nations rugby take place this weekend.  We’re looking forward to it.  Now for the bit where we put ourselves in the firing line and predict what will happen.

Scotland v England

We hummed and we hawed.  We saw the England squad and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we saw the Scotland team, with Dan Parks at 10, and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we cried for a bit thinking about the two hours of our lives we’d each be giving up to watch the blasted game.  Then, finally, we saw the England team and went back to thinking they wouldn’t win.

This one’s all about the New England – new captain, new players, new attitude, new interim coach, new playing style.  The trouble is none of it looks all that great.  Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling and Phil Dowson are adequate Boshiership journeymen rather than exciting new talents, while England appear to be looking to the least creative of the good sides in the country for their midfield (10 – 13 all Sarries!). Chris Robshaw captains the team, and he’s a good player, but looks a bit knackered and will be out of position on the openside.


Verdict: We’re going for Scotland because we just can’t see how England will be able to deliver the gameplan they’re talking about.  Lancaster says they’re looking to play at a high tempo, but high tempo requires quick ball, and just who is going to serve that up? The Scottish back row will be licking their chops at the lightweight trio England have served up – Scotland to shade a dour affair.

France v Italy

France will be looking to hit the ground running and have every chance of doing so.  They seem to have the right team on the pitch, something they haven’t had for some time.  Louis Picamoles keeps out Harinordoquy in what looks a position of real strength (Fulgence Ouedraogo can’t even make the 22), while Trinh-Duc is welcomed back to the starting line-up, with Beauxis a handy reserve.  All eyes will be on Clermont’s razor-sharp Wesley Fofana, who looks like a potential star of the tournament.

It should all be too much for Italy.  The Italians were poor in the World Cup, and never looked like troubling Ireland or Australia.  They just don’t travel.  Their home games, now in the Stadio Olimpico, will be worth watching and they may try to keep some of their powder dry for England’s arrival there next week.

Verdict: this one is set up for France to rack up some points; we expect them to win by a couple of scores.

Ireland v Wales

Obviously, this is the most interesting game from our perspective. Even before the Welsh squad started dropping like flies, we fancied that this was a game Ireland were targetting – the noises from the squad echo those we heard prior to England in March and Australia in October. Now, with the Welsh down several front-liners, Ireland will be confident as well as motivated.

We foresee an urgent and effective Ireland performance with some tries thrown in. Wales will play a smart game and target our weaknesses (second row in the loose and Earls’ defence at 13) but it won’t be enough. Ireland really want this one, and nearly all the squad go in brimful of confidence after the HEC group stages – stark contrast to Wales.

Verdict: We don’t think Ireland will blow Wales away early like they did to England, but they will have enough. This could be quite high-scoring – the Welsh backs are more than useful – 30-20 or something. Ireland by more than a score

The Corpse is Twitching

Scottish rugby has been the sick man of Europe for the last few years.  The dismal Six Nations results, the awful rugger, the demise of the Borders, the piddling attendances and the lack of playing numbers – the feeling that Scotland will be passed out by Italy has been coming for a while now.  Sure, each of the other Six Nations have endured fallow patches, but none are as sustainedly concerning as Scotland’s.

The recent World Cup only appeared to confirm this.  The Scottish pack manned up fairly impressively, and refused to let the big, brutish fellows from Argentina and England bully them, but Lordy, their attacking play would have disgraced a half-time rugby minis match.  The simple act of passing a ball across a pitch at chest height appeared to be beyond them.  Following that, the news that leading light and poster boy Richie Gray was off to Sale – Sale! – next season was another body-blow Scottish rugby could ill afford.

But if Scottish rugby is dying, then at least there’s a twitch in it yet.  Glasgow and Edinburgh have surprised with their results in the Heineken Cup, while Glasgow are also going well in the Pro12, currently sitting in third place.  Indeed, Edinburgh have a real chance of qualifying for the HEC quarter finals – they sit on 13 points after three wins, jointly top with Cardiff, having slayed the Blues in the Scottish capital in Round Four.  Glasgow’s chances of qualification are slim, as they have the small matter of Leinster to contend with, but have nonethless performed admirably with two wins and a draw so far.  They were, admittedly, drubbed in the RDS, but these things can happen.

So where has it all gone (sort of) right?  In Embra’s case, they have one thing that Scottish rugby has lacked for eons – a genuinely threatening outside back.  Flying Dutchman Tim Visser has 13 tries already this season, three of which have come in the Heineken Cup.  He’s a similar sort of player to George North, a big, strong, quick wing, who uses his long go-go-gadget arms to great effect; he has one of the best fends in the game.  He gives them a focal point for their attack, which has plundered ten tries in four HEC games so far.

A cursory glance at the Rabo Pro12 points scorers table reveals a  Duncan Weir of Glasgae comfortably in the top spot and Embra’s Greig Laidlaw in fourth.  Weir is only 20 and a bit funny looking for a fly-half (let’s just say he’s in the Andy Goode mould of physique) but he has been racking up points at a solid rate.  Ruaraidh Jackson is now back from injury and on his case, but this can only be positive news.  Further good news for Glasgae has been the return of one Lamont (Rory) from Toulon, and imminent return of the other.  It at least partly offsets the desertion of Max Evans and Richie Gray.  For Edinburgh yesterday there was more good news, with two promising 10s, Harry Leonard and Gregor Hunter, signing new contracts.

The question is: can these good results (and positive vibes) be transferred to international level?  Predicting a Scottish revival is a risky business: the Guardian boldly predicted they’d finish second in last year’s Six Nations and ended up looking rather foolish.  The trouble is, they simply cannot score tries, and have a tendency to freeze on the big stage (see last year’s non-performance at home to Wales).  It’s instructive to note that Edinburgh’s match-winning try against Cardiff in the Heineken Cup was created by a scorching break by Nick de Luca.  de Luca has long been touted as the solution to their ills but we are still waiting to see him produce a performance of note at international level.  Unfortunately, Visser doesn’t qualify until the summer tour, so that rarest of breeds, the Scottish try, may not be spotted for a while yet.

Dwarf throwing, Retirements, Eye-Gouges and Fudged Drop Goals: We rate your World Cup

We’ve pored over Ireland’s exit in some detail.  Here’s a run through the other nations who’ll have fancied their chances to do well.

Scotland: Failed to Qualify from Group
Poor wee Scotland.  Pipped by both England and Argentina by last-gasp tries.  Against Argentina they managed to work a drop goal opportunity to win it, but hurried the kick.  Against England they probably would have won had they not needed to win by more than seven and seek a try themselves when in front on the scoreboard.  They manned up impressively in both games, but the reason they failed to qualify is available in just one statistic: no tries in their final three group games.  They have plenty of grunt in the pack and can keep teams like England on the back foot for long periods, but they just can’t buy a try.  Their backs moving the ball look slower and less accurate than most AIL teams.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleepy. Time to wake up and learn to catch and pass the ball properly.


Argentina: Quarter Final exit to New Zealand
Worthy recipients of the medal for bravery and courage in the face of unlikely odds.  A shadow of the force of 2007, but their great warriors Ledesma, Albacete and Contepomi refused to go quietly, even if they couldn’t conjure up the same quality as four years ago, with Juan Matin Hernandez a notable absentee.  Should have beaten England and squeezed through against Scotland at the death, and can take real pride in their showing against New Zealand.  They came up with the try of the tournament, with Conters showing a touch of his fading genius, and held the Kiwis tryless for three quarters of the game.  Not bad considering Lobbe was injured and Nigel Owens was shafting them at every opportunity.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Happy. Can go home knowing the left nothing behind them.


Italy:  Failed to Qualify from Group
Italy have become an obstinate side at the Flaminio, but the task for the next coach will be getting them to perform on the road.  Showed up well against Russia with slick hands and fast-paced attack, but in their final win-or-bust pool game, their surrender to Ireland was meek and indisciplined.  They talked a good game, with Castro declaring himself ‘ready for war’, but when the moment came they were blown away by Ireland’s greater arsenal.  Somehow, somewhere, a 10 has to be found who can organise their backs and dictate the play.  Until then, they’ll continue to struggle.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Grumpy.  Need to keep composure when things go awry.

South Africa: Quarter-final exit to Australia 
Rather unlucky to lose to Australia, but they couldn’t cross the whitewash and paid the price. They brought physicality and certainty to the tournament, and in Francois Steyn, had perhaps the player of the group stages. The problem was, without him, they really showed their limitations. Short of the ability to kick penalties from the halfway line, and without his creativity at 12, they ended up spending 75 minutes camped in the Aussie 22 and losing 11-9. Schalk Burger was immense all tournament, and they played better against Oz than Wales or Samoa, but when you can’t score you can’t win.
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Bosh-ful – kicking, no creativity, physicality – they are England with discipline basically

England: Quarter-final exit to France 
Where do we start? The scarcely-deserved victories over Scotland and Argentina?  The late and nasty tackles?  The lack of ambition? The stupidity of some of the penalties they gave away? The chambermaid incident? A huge pity that Johnno bottled it and let the running game of last November fade into nothingness, for there are some quality players in this side. It may sound harsh, but they brought nothing to the tournament. It appears Johnno has taken them as far as he can, perhaps its time for a new beginning?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleazy Sneezy – go home unlamented
Samoa: Failed to qualify from group
After beating the Wallabies during the summer/winter, Samoa went into the tournament very much on the Welsh and Saffa radar, and any chance of being taken lightly was gone. And they duly weren’t, with both sides playing very sensibly against the Islanders and winning. Samoa themselves rarely took the handbrake off and paid the price. Having said that, they didn’t exactly get the rub of the refereeing green, and generally played well – for example, they might have won Group B (the group of dearth). And although Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu might have a point about IRB bias, he didn’t exactly make it very well, did he?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Dopey – had the talent to go further, but go home frustrated

RWC: Anthemwatch

With Egg and Mini Egg having sat through multiple anthems (and enjoyed some of them), it got us thinking – if the match ended after the music stopped (and, mercifully, before the Haki (plural) begin), who would take home Bill?

Let’s preview:

Favourites:

France: The clear favourite. La Marseillaise is, without any doubt, the best national anthem in the world. Even for non-Frenchies, it makes the spine tingle, and is so republican, it would induce Mike Tindall to start sharpening the guillotine for Granny-in-law. And then induce the rest of les proles rosbifs to start sharpening it for Mike Tindall. Here is a SPECTACULAR rendition, one night in Cardiff in 2007.

Italy: Some anthems seem very much appropriate for their country. For example, Deutschlandleit seems rich, confident and suave, just like the denizens of Munich, Stuttgart and Berlin. In the same vein, Il Canto Degli Italiani seems jaunty, cool, but slightly unreliable (whats with the oom-pah bit?), and is an appropriate combination of boring Milan, dangerous Naples and sexy Rome. Altogether now: bom-bom-be-bom, bom-bom-be-bom, bom-BOM-be-bom, bom-bom-be-bom!!

USA: The best thing about the the Star Spangled Banner is that Americans positively encourage involvement and interpretation, as befits a nation which defines itself by its ability to assimilate. Can you imagine any other country allowing noted rock or rap stars the option of doing their “version” of the anthem at the country’s biggest sporting event every year? Unlikely. Yet the Yanks can’t wait for the anthem before the Superbowl. It’s optimistic, emotional and adaptable – and very hard to dislike.


Contenders:

Russia: Now, Egg Chaser is no flaming Commie, far from it. But there is something powerful about the old Soviet anthem, now adapted for Russia. It’s not without its controversy, as many Russians rightly remember the murder and explotation of their countrymen and women by psychopathic leaders, and refuse to sing along. For most, perhaps, its the perverse pride in remembering when Russia mattered. Anyway, check out the Paul Robeson version from the 1940s and at least appreciate the idealism. And here’s a flavour of what non-Russian former Soviets think of the anthem.


Wales: As befits a nation of choirboys choristers, Land of My Fathers is tuneful, musically sound and enjoyable. The impenetrable Welsh tongue makes this local anthem very much exotic. Maybe its stereotypical, but the Welsh players also seem like better singers than other nations. Or maybe its just the magic atmosphere in the Millennium. Either way, its a dark horse for the title.

South Africa: Like Ireland, the South African ditty is a prisoner of history and politics. The anthem shares the distinction (with the Italian one) of being in 2 keys, although the South African one is in 2 keys essentially because it is 2 songs merged together – Nkosi Sikelil iAfrica and Die Stem. The current anthem contains 5 languages and tries manfully to knit together a desperately fractured country. In spite of the grim music (particularly in the second half), a national anthem is about much more than that, and the sight of 15 proud South Africans singing every word in 1995 was simply incredible, and lifts this to contender status.

Going home early:

England: An absolute dirge. God Save the Queen has bored generations of Englishmen and antagonized generations of foreigners, which is perhaps part of its ongoing appeal at home. In true British fashion however, it has a great backstory. Firstly, no-one actually knows who wrote the song, and there is disagreement over what key it hould be played in. Secondly, it has been continually re-written, and current and former colonies continue to drop it (including England themselves for the Commonwealth games!). According to “protocol”, the Queen doesn’t sing it, we wonder does she just think its shite.

Ireland: Once again, the Irish manage to out-do the English on the rugby field by having not one, but two dirges. The much and rightly-maligned Ireland’s Call is virtually unsalvageable, but Amhran na bFhiann isn’t a whole lot better. Now, Egg Chaser is as patriotic as the next man and sings it with as much gusto as anyone else, that is a medium murmur, but it’s all pretty uninspiring, which is disappointing from a nation which has some cracking old tunes – some close to Egg’s heart are here and here, although Tommy Bowe’s version of one old favourite was fairly … errrrr … average. Despite all that though, this was amazing.

Scotland: Flower of Scotland is so dull that this is generally accepted to be the most rousing version ever performed. The most rousing! Ever!! It’s a pity, because the lyrics very much appeal to the Braveheart Scottish self-image, although it can seem a little incongruous when being sung by Alasdair, Hugo and Hamish the Tartan Tories in Murrayfield, Edinburgh, the most British city in the UK. Scotland deserves much much better.

World Cup Preview: Scotland

Group B Opposition: Argentina, England, Georgia, Romania

Pedigree: Perennial quarter-finalists, never once failing to make the last eight. In 1991, they went one better, and were a Gavin Hastings shanked kick away from the final. Last time out, they nearly took Argentina from the long grass.

Players to watch: Lets be honest, this Scotland squad is pretty low on inspiration. However, that isn’t to say they are hopeless. In Richie Gray, they have a man who will be a Lion in 2 years time, and who the pack will be built around for many years to come. Sean Lamont is a rare example of a leader in Andy Robinson’s team – his criticism of his team-mates during last years 6 Nations showed he was willing to step up. Another potential Lion is Max Evans out wide.

Good Tournament: Given the amount of gloom currently hanging over them, a quarter-final would be seen as an achievement, although a 50 point demolition by the All Blacks is a dubious reward.

Bad Tournament: Giving Argentina and England decent games is the baseline, even if they get edged out in both, but if they come close to humiliation against Romania or (especially) Georgia, Scottish hearts will sink even further.

Prospects: Whiff of Cordite sat in Croker in 2010 and watched in astonishment as the Killer B’s dealt with the much-vaunted Irish back row with ease. That really should have completed a deserved Triple Crown for the Scots – a one in a million collapse against Wales and a draw against England  were both games that should have been won. Come November, when they followed it up with victory over South Africa – their second Southern Hemisphere scalp in two years – we were expecting a big 6 Nations.

But it didn’t happen. Andy Robinson took a step back and let the team take it to the next level – sink or swim time. And boy did they sink. A decent second half against a disinterested France and taking advantage of indiscipline to run Ireland close were as good as it got. At least they beat Italy, but the tournament was hugely disappointing, with the performance against Wales in Murrayfield among the worst test performances in living memory.

After that, Robbo withdrew what passes for his big guns from ML action, targetting the World Cup. Allowing for summer rustiness, a last minute win over (at best) the Ireland reserves was just better than unacceptable. Next up is Italy, then its playing the firsts into form against Romania and (gulp) Georgia. It’s eerily similar to Ireland’s preparation in 2007, and just ask Eddie how that turned out. Mind you, at least they’re skipping the Polish cryotherapy chambers and the Bayonne day trip.

This really is a make or break tournament for Scotland – they pretty much got the best draw possible, and are under pressure to take advantage of it, something they haven’t thrived under in the past. If they do blow-up, Robbo will likely head back home, and it’s back to the drawing board once more.

Verdict: Things are not looking hot. England will have too much, and Argentina should beat them in a mucky kick-fest. The real dread in Scottish hearts is what the Georgians might do to them – it’s safe to argue that Scotland have the worst scrum in Group B. If they manage to dispatch Georgia comfortably, they might just have the confidence to take on the Pumas and battle through. We don’t think it will happen though. A proud record to come to an end – out at the first hurdle.

Going backwards

Last week we handed out our Team FAIL gongs. Now, we present the Individual awards. Step forward the weak-willed, the constantly injured, the thuggish and the just plain useless.

On a fairly disastrous Irish tour to NZ and Australia last June, Ed O’Donoghue played against the Barbarians and NZ Maori and acquited himself well. Ed was coming off a good season for Ulster and had secured a move to Leinster. However, in a season where Leinster’s second row was beginning to creak with Trevor Hogan retiring, Devin Toner not really stepping up and Leo Cullen not getting any younger, Ed disappeared. Completely. He isn’t even listed in the programmes any more.

To be truthful, Delon Armitage never totally endeared himself to Whiff of Cordite, with his ridiculous chest thumping and 2009 “tackle” on BOD. This season, however, having lost his hold on the England 15 shirt, we expected him to put the head down. However, he has turned into a poor mans John Terry – when not screaming at officials, he was punching Stephen Myler off the ball. Whatever happened to professionalism?

Whiff of Cordite was at Croke Park in March 2010, fully expecting an(other) Irish Triple Crown to be wrapped up with victory against Scotland. Especially when we scanned the Irish back row and saw the names Ferris, Wallace and Heaslip. But the best back row forward on the pitch that day was John Barclay, and he ended last season as the front-runner for the Lions openside shirt. This season, the expected kick on has not happened. Showing minimal leadership qualities for an underperforming side that desperately needed them, Barclay checked out mid-way through the 6 Nations.

Speaking of Scotland players who seem to have given up, what about Euan Murray? As sanctimonious as ever, Euan’s performance in the 6 Nations was nothing short of embarrassing. Never mind his powder-puff propping, his lack of responsibility and poor attitude saw him ditched mid-way through the tournament by an exasperated Andy Robinson. Another Lions front-runner this time last season, he would struggle to make the plane right now.

On the topic of stroppy tight-heads, Tony Buckley also seems to have thrown in the towel. Back in October, with John Hayes on the verge of actual retirement (as opposed to retirement from scrummaging), Mike Ross not even on the radar and Tom Court playing primarily at loosehead, the Ireland tighthead shirt was Mushy’s for 3 years if he made even the slightest effort at fitness and application. Nine months later, his place on the RWC11 plane is uncertain and he is on his way to a flailing Sale Sharks side. With Andy Powell. And Sam Tuitupou.

Rocky Elsom arrived in the Northern Hemisphere in November on the back of leading a pretty successful Tri-Nations for Australia and a Hong Kong Bledisloe Cup ambushing of NZ. He departed, having decided abusing the touch judge was the best way to rally his weak-scrummaging troops in Italy, as one of the leading men in a Brumbies side expected to challenge for the Super Rugby playoffs. Player power then struck 3 games into the season with Andy Friend departing amid rumours the senior players wanted Stephen Larkham installed. Since then, Rocky has mystifyingly yet to tog out, the Brumbies sink to new lows virtually every week, and the Australian fans don’t want him in the team.

Oh, and has Mike Phillips been on strike recently? After walking out on his 3 year Ospreys contract? The Ospreys have got a lot of heat from WoC recently, but we are on their side on this one.