Thursday, March 19, 2015

men with funny-shaped balls

Great excitement at Halibut Towers last weekend as Wales managed to hold off Ireland to win a thrilling encounter 23-16 and keep alive their slim hopes of winning the Six Nations Championship going into the last round of matches this weekend. Basically it boils down to either having to rely on a couple of unlikely results in the other two matches (specifically, France beating England and Scotland beating Ireland) or, more likely, having to beat Italy by a hatful of points (probably 40 or so) and then hoping Ireland and England win by relatively narrow margins.

Much hoopla in the aftermath of a heroic defensive effort from Wales, and rightly so, in particular much bandying around of the stat regarding their tackle count, which was quoted as being 289 after the game (37 of them by lanky long-necked lock Luke Charteris), but now seems to have been downgraded to 250 (31 of them by Charteris). Both of those are still apparently records (the previous team record being 208 by Italy against Ireland last year), but it set me wondering: who decides this stuff? Presumably there's someone who sits around watching the game and, in real time, or very nearly, logging when each tackle is made and by whom. Not only that, someone (presumably not the same person) is meticulously calculating how much distance each player has travelled with the ball, and there's also some more general logging of possession and territory stats. We have to also conclude that there's some scope for these things being revised after the game, presumably as a result of a post-match review deciding that some things that were logged as tackles weren't really tackles, and so on.

Anyway, as memorable a game as that was it perhaps doesn't qualify for the list I've just thought of, entitled something like: top ten Five/Six Nations matches I specifically remember watching at a specific venue, usually (but not always) somewhere other than my house.

Wales v France 1978

As I've said elsewhere, this was the first rugby game I can specifically remember watching, though it's almost certain that I'd watched several others before. We would almost certainly have watched it in our house in Three Acre Road, Newbury, here. It was evident even at the time (well, perhaps not to me, as I was only eight) that this was the end of an era for the golden Welsh generation of the 1970s: the last Five Nations match for Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett, and what would have been the last one for Gerald Davies as well had he not been ruled out at the last minute by injury. Quite how much of an end wasn't immediately apparent as Wales won another Triple Crown (their fourth in succession) in 1979, and only missed out on a Grand Slam as the result of a one-point loss to France in Paris. Thereafter they won one further Triple Crown (in 1988) in the next 26 years until the Grand Slam year of 2005 (more on that later). A couple of other statistical nuggets: firstly this match was 37 years ago TODAY, and secondly, and perhaps surprisingly, it was the first occasion where two teams both with three wins out of three played each other in the final round of matches with the Grand Slam at stake. This situation was repeated in 1984, 1990, 1991 and 1995 in the old Five Nations and in 2003 after it expanded to the Six Nations.

Wales v England 1989

This was about the single high point of Five Nations watching during my university days, since the three seasons between 1989 and 1991 saw Wales lose ten games, draw one and win one (this one). This game (it finished 12-9 to Wales) was the last in a glorious sequence where Wales hadn't lost to England in Cardiff since 1963, a sequence that was firmly ended in 1991 when England won 25-6 thanks largely to Simon Hodgkinson's boot. I watched this on the frankly inadequate television in the TV room at Badock Hall, and my recollection is that Mike Hall's match-winning try was a bit of a chip and chase job with a somewhat dubious slap of the ball into the turf at the end which would probably have been disallowed in the modern era of TV replays.

Wales v England 1993

Another Wales-England match in Cardiff, another against-the-odds win for Wales, another chip-and-chase try, this time featuring Ieuan Evans outsprinting a snoozing Rory Underwood. 10-9 to Wales at half-time, and my main recollection of the second half is England camped in Wales' 22 trying to batter a way through and being repeatedly repulsed, the match eventually finishing 10-9 with no scoring at all in the second half. It does seem inconceivable in hindsight that all the pressure couldn't at least have manufactured a chance for Rob Andrew to have a pop at a drop-goal - maybe it did and he kept missing. Anyway, I watched it at my then-girlfriend Posy's flat in Shrewsbury (somewhere near here) - apparently she was rather concerned that I was having either some sort of seizure or a heart attack after the final whistle went. Actually it turns out that YouTube have the whole thing, so you can check my memory for yourself.

Wales v England 1999

Another Wales-England match, but despite being nominally a "home" game for Wales it was actually played at their temporary home of Wembley while the Millennium Stadium was being built (it opened later the same year). Glorious sunny day at Wembley, Wales hanging on by the skin of their teeth thanks to Neil Jenkins' boot, and then the glorious climax of Scott Gibbs thundering through for the decisive try, at which point the small Wales contingent among the horde of baying English supporters in O'Neill's Irish bar in Bath (it's called Molloy's now) erupted in jubilation. All except me, as I was unwilling to assume the conversion was a formality, even though it was Jenkins taking it. Fortunately it went over, and I was free to go a big rubbery one for a couple of minutes. Strangely, once I'd composed myself a bit the white-shirted brigade had drifted away rather than stick around and witness my protracted glee; can't say I blame them. The icing on the cake was that this marked the first of three successive occasions where the Celtic nations took turns to deny England a Grand Slam in the final game - Scotland did it in 2000 and Ireland in 2001.

Wales v England 2005

Well, you see the theme developing by now re. the usual opposition: no great expectations coming into this match after a championship whitewash in 2003 and two wins in 2004, but Wales dominated for long stretches and should have been well ahead. However, Charlie Hodgson's penalty in the 75th minute put England 9-8 up and it looked like another defeat was on the cards. But we'd reckoned without Gavin Henson and his golden thighs silver boots. I watched this in the Old Fish Market in Bristol with Robin and John and Hayley and various others, to whom I retrospectively apologise for shouting so much.

Wales v Ireland 2005

Last game of the tournament and one where I really should have been getting drunk in a pub somewhere. However a terrible failure of planning meant that I was running in the Bath half-marathon on the following day, and, not trusting myself to stay off the sauce if I'd been to the pub, I instead barricaded myself in my Bristol flat with some orange squash and an inflatable daffodil. The match was only intermittently tense as Wales were at one point 29-6 up, but frankly for a first Grand Slam in 27 years I was prepared to forgo a bit of nail-biting.

Wales v England 2008

We'd moved to Newport in January 2008, and we thought we'd celebrate by going to a pub to see the first game of the Six Nations. Not really knowing the area we ended up in the quaint and pokey surroundings of Langton's cafe/bar in the centre of town, watching a game where Wales got taken to the cleaners in the first half, and were at one point 19-6 down before two late tries gave them a cheeky 26-19 win, one that set them on the way to another Grand Slam. Judging by Google Street Maps' time-travel facility Langton's stopped being Langton's not long after we were there and turned into Johnnie Rocco's American Diner, and appears now to have been empty for a couple of years.

Wales v England 2012

Another pub, this time the Hanbury Arms in Caerleon, another desperately tense encounter with the deadlock finally broken with 5 minutes left when Scott Williams dispossessed Courtney Lawes on halfway and gathered his own kick to score. Extra spice was provided by the group I was with mainly comprising English supporters, and Hazel being no more than three or four weeks short of her due date with Nia. We had to promise the landlord that we wouldn't get too excited and induce any childbirth shenanigans - well, we failed on the first count but as it happened Nia stayed put for another six weeks or so, so that was OK.

Wales v England 2013

Another slight failure of planning, combined with the constraints of Ray's availability with his van, meant that we had to set aside the day of the game to build a garden fence, in what ended up being torrential rain. Having received occasional shouted score updates from indoors, when we eventually finished the job and came in it was still 12-3 to Wales with about 25 minutes to go. However pretty much as soon as we'd popped a tinnie and sat down the floodgates opened, Alex Cuthbert ran in two tries and wild celebrations ensued.

Honourable mention, though they're ineligible under my own self-imposed rules, should go to the first and second Lions tests in South Africa in 1997, both of which I watched in the Byron (also not there any more) on the Triangle in the centre of Bristol, where (for the first one anyway) I just wandered in after seeing the rugby on the TV through the window and realising it'd just kicked off. As with the 1995 Ryder Cup, part of the pleasure is the unplanned nature of the whole thing.


The black rabbit said...

I've always assumed that a lot of the in-match stats (certainly territory at least) are automatically produced by the GPS units each player wears between his shoulder blades. Same might go for metres made.
Tackle count might be manually logged and checked post-match via a virtual GPS run through and meticulous re-run I guess (and altered accordingly as you've said).

The black rabbit said...

What does surprise though is the sheer size of each player's GPS unit. We're putting micro units on cuckoos and swifts (albeit basic radio trackers really) but rugby GPS units are huge?! Do they need to be that big? I guess so for some reason.
They'll microchip them soon....

On a side note, these GPS units are illegal in the RFU championship. I have no idea why.

electrichalibut said...

That is indeed quite interesting. The first couple of links I found suggest that the units gather things like heart-rate as well as GPS (which might bulk them up a bit I suppose), but also focus more on the data being used by the teams to monitor fitness and fatigue and stuff than by the stats-gatherers.

Apparently there are companies like Prozone who specialise in gathering and providing these sort of stats - not much detail on how they do it, but it's probably a trade secret. There must be some sort of automated number-recognition software involved otherwise it'd take hours of studying video footage.

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