Action stations: Six Nations 2016

In the 1980s and early 1990s if you were in a movie and you had a problem, you knew who to call. The name of the guy changed from film to film, but the guy was always “the best”. What qualified said heroes as the best was never really quantified, but I just know that in action movies of that era, no one ever said: “Shit, we’re in a tight spot here, we need the third best!” No, it was always the best. In John Rambo’s case, being the best was apparently related to the fact that he could ignore pain and eat things that would make a billy goat puke. I only bring this up because I am in a tight spot deciding who will win this year’s Six Nation’s tournament. Despite almost perfectly predicting (humble brag) the final standings ahead of last year’s tournament (I didn’t foresee Italy beating Scotland), this year I genuinely think four teams could win the tournament (apologies Scotland and Italy. It would only be three but who ever really knows what France might do) but I can’t decide who. So I need to bring in the best. A whole bunch of them in fact, because the 1980s and ‘90s produced a murderers row of great action stars. So here they are, the best action stars of the 1980s and ‘90s as they relate to the 2016 Six Nations.

Wales

In the Pantheon of 1980s action movie stars, one man stands head and shoulders above the rest. Not literally, because Sylvester Stallone is apparently only about 5’7” tall, but if you threw Sly into an action film in the 1980s, no matter how asinine the plot, it was a hit. If you don’t believe me, you should check out ‘Tango & Cash’ some time.

But no matter how flawed the concept or script of the movies, most of Sly’s 80s and early 90s movies made serious bank. After all, every movie doesn’t have to be an Oscar worthy second coming of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ to be a good watch. Likewise, Wales are not the perfect rugby side; they play a pretty basic game plan, they don’t have the depth of England or France and struggle to beat the leading Southern Hemisphere teams Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (three wins in their last 45 tests) but in what is shaping up as the most competitive Six Nations tournament in many a year, I’m willing to bet Wales will come out on top.

I don’t see them winning the Grand Slam, but even Rocky and Rambo suffered some setbacks along the way. At the Rugby World Cup the Welsh team were looking like Rocky after he’d gone 12 rounds with Apollo Creed or Ivan Drago, so ravaged with injury were they and yet were probably still the best performed Six Nations team at the RWC. But like Rocky after Clubber Lang has given him a proper hiding in Rocky III, Wales are back healthy and set to take some retribution.

Wales also have a ‘home’ draw this year. They should win those three games against Scotland, France and Italy. On top of that, they get an injury ravaged Ireland first up in Dublin. If they can win in Dublin and hold serve at home, the title will probably be theirs (assuming they have a reasonable points differential). Really, coach Warren Gatland couldn’t have asked for a better run of games this year. I guess despite Lincoln Hawk claiming in the arm wrestling classic (and possibly the only ever movie that has arm wrestling as its central premise) ‘Over the Top’ that “the world meets nobody halfway”, it has sure meet Wales two-fifths of the way there this year. 

Also working in their favour is a squad that is settled in addition to healthy. Getting centre Jonathan Davies back is a big boost, as is the ascension of flyhalf Dan Biggar to the ranks of genuinely world class #10s.  

The worry for Wales is that teams have figured them out. It wasn’t hard. It was like trying to figure out Rocky Balboa’s boxing strategy. Effectively he is going to stand in front of you and get punched in the face in slow motion so many times that not only will you get to see about three litres of spit fly across the ring by the end of the movie, but his opponent will eventually wear himself out and Rocky will come storming back. But coach Gatland is suggesting they might play more rugby this year. That will make a change from their normal game of attrition where they just pick the biggest blokes they have and try and run over their opposition. But hey, it worked for Rocky.

England

In the 1980s and 1990s there was no bigger action star in the world than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Literally. The future governor of California was a seven time Mr. Olympia and stood 6’2”. By Hollywood standards, that’s like a normal bloke being 6’8”. Think of England as like Arnold; the Rugby Football Union’s huge financial resources and player pool make England a similar behemoth and means they should be a contender in every Six Nations and for the most part, they are. 

The problem for England is that while these significant advantages are nice to have, they are no guarantee of success. After all, in possibly his most famous role, the seemingly indestructible Terminator ends up being defeated by an average looking bloke and the woman from Beauty and the Beast (Linda Hamilton). Albeit she looked more beast than beauty by then. And in ‘Commando’, Arnold’s character John Matrix cuts a swathe through about 200 of Arius’ soldiers and henchmen only to reach a showdown with his former comrade Bennett. Arnold, sans shirt at this point has large muscles popping out of his skin on top of even bigger muscles. All of which are glistening from approximately 2.5 litres of baby oil that’s been smeared all over him. It looks like a bigger mismatch than Bill Gates squaring up to Mike Tyson, and yet Arnold all but gets his arse handed to him by a fat, moustachioed Bennett who is rocking a chain mesh vest of all things and looking like a reject from a Village People tribute band audition. England cannot afford to have Scotland pull a Bennett on them in the first weekend or new coach Eddie Jones may find the wolves at his door very quickly.

Much of the talk in the wake of England’s ignominious exit at the Rugby World Cup has centred around the need for England’s forwards to toughen up; to regain the ruthless streak of old. A lot of that talk has come from Coach Jones, oddly enough. Not odd in the sense that he is talking. To use the generally accepted media euphemism for a mouthy little gobshite, Jones has “plenty to say”. The odd thing is he should be talking about the lack of hard edge in the England forward pack, given the book on the Wallabies during Jones’ time in charge was that if you got stuck into them they didn’t like it much. The most graphic example of which being a 33% win ratio against the Springboks during his time as Wallaby coach. He also had a two win, five loss record against England as Australian coach. No wonder the RFU just had to have him.

To bring the biff back into the England team, Jones has of course named as captain of England hooker Dylan Hartley. It’s probably no exaggeration to say Hartley is the dirtiest rugby international rugby player of the professional era. He has achieved a pretty unique hat trick in his career, being suspended for the most unholy trinity of offenses on a rugby pitch: eye gouging, biting and abusing a match official. Throw in suspensions for headbutting and punching and it’s quite a resume. On the bright side, he has yet to attack anyone sitting in the grandstand like former Manchester United captain Eric Cantona or former Irish lock forward Trevor Brennan and to my knowledge has never taken off his skate and tried to stab someone with it.

Whether Hartley proves to be a more inspiring captain than the man he replaced, Chris Robshaw will be proven with time. Robshaw came in for plenty of criticism from Jones in the aftermath of the RWC for his failings as an openside flanker. He remains in the squad though, albeit as a blindside flanker. Oddly, England’s number 7 in the opening match against Scotland will be James Haskell. Like Robshaw, Haskell isn’t a ‘pure’ openside either.

One thing that will be different about this England team is the press conferences, Like many of Arnold’s characters, the Terminator, Matrix and Ben Richards, Eddie ‘Moans’ as he was known during his time as Wallaby coach, loves to drop a zinger or two. Being the first non-Englishman to coach England he doesn’t sound like previous coaches and neither does his captain. It’s not unlike Arnold himself. Ostensibly all the characters Arnold plays in his career are Americans, and yet in every movie he speaks with his thick Austrian accent and it is never explained away in the script except for a ham fisted attempt to account for it in ‘Commando’. The scene has Matrix and his daughter Jenny sitting in the dining room when Jenny comes in with a plate of sandwiches. In perhaps a nod to the level of intellect the writers felt like viewers of the movie might possess, they have Jenny announce her actions just in case people can’t follow along. “Here come the sandwiches,” a young Alyssa Milano cheerily says. Matrix, chowing down replies “what’s in this?”

“You don’t wanna know,” Jenny says. Laughs ensue all around. Then Matrix, without any provocation or context whatsoever says: “You know when I was a boy and rock and roll came to East Germany, the communists said it was subversive. [pause for effect] Maybe they were right.”

I imagine at the time the screenwriters were sitting in the writers room high fiving themselves at such a seamless diversion to explain away Arnold’s accent. I’m also sure someone born in East Germany would have been welcomed into the American special forces in the 1980s. Although the aforementioned Bennett has an Australian accent so maybe nationality was neither here nor there in the US military back then. Much as it isn’t with the England rugby team really, so having a foreign coach seems like a natural progression. After all, aside from France (who could probably do with one) every other team has a foreign coach.

But will England’s first foreign coach make much of a difference? Despite the poor RWC result, England have finished second in the last four championships and won in 2011. The four runners-up finishes under former coach Stuart Lancaster were all on points difference so frankly anything less than second has to be an enormous failure by England, and they clearly have the players capable of winning the tournament. Will they though?

With the resources at their disposal England should never be terrible. Like an Arnold Schwarzengger film in the 1980s and 1990s, generally you were in safe hands. The entertainment might have been big, but it wasn’t especially clever. But that’s not why you bought a ticket. How safe will they be in the hands of their ANZAC leadership combination? With an ‘away’ draw this year I think England will be lucky to win, but can see them sneaking into second place.

Ireland

Remember that movie where Hugh Grant plays the bumbling but likeable, slightly dopey and scruffy, but charming and affable Englishman? No, of course not. For one thing you would never watch a Hugh Grant movie (or certainly not admit to it), and secondly, all his movies melt into one in your mind because he plays the exact same character every time out. Well, Hugh wasn’t the first guy to do that. Back in the 1980s Chuck Norris build a solid career playing the same character by a different name in a string of 80s action flicks: ‘Lone Wolf McQuade’, ‘Missing in Action’, ‘Code of Silence’, ‘The Delta Force’ and ‘Invasion USA’. I wouldn’t recommend you go out of your way to track any of them down on Netflix (well, maybe Delta Force), but they were solid entertainment for entertainment’s sake. In a sort of uniquely tacky 80s way.

Each time out, Chuck played a bearded man of action, not words. A guy who fought for right but on his terms, by his own rules and took no prisoners.

To some degree he looked like a poor man’s action hero because he didn’t have the bulging biceps of Messrs Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme, but what he did have were round house kicks that could knock you into the middle of next week.

In the same way, Ireland don’t have the natural advantages of population and a wealthy national union like England and France, but they do have Chuck Norris-like grit and determination. A quiet steely strength and ability to get the best out of their resources. Resources that have led them to two straight titles it must be said. But can they three-peat?

I don’t think so. Losing Paul O’Connell is a big blow because he encapsulated their identity for so long. A guy who wasn’t the most physically large, skilful or gifted of players but who was a fairly good combination of a bit of all three with a ticker the size of Limerick to match. His will was so powerful he successfully willed himself to go bald because that was preferable to being a ginger. Iain Henderson is a fine player and Devon Toner isn’t the worse either, but neither have O’Connell’s presence.

On top of that, flyhalf Johnny Sexton has regressed noticeably from his form of two or three years ago and his confidence appears to have been affected by a worrying number of head knocks. Now, Chuck Norris would never let such things bother him, but Chuck did always have a bit of a feeling of being a one trick pony. Sly could be a boxer, a soldier or a cop. Arnold a solider, a (Russian) cop or someone gallivanting around on Mars or in a deadly futuristic game show. Chuck just said next to nothing and ultimately kicked a bunch of dudes in the head or filled them with piping hot lead. This failure to adapt saw him become as much of an anachronism as his beard.

On the bright side, Ireland have a home draw this year. If they can beat Wales in Dublin in week one, they finish off with home games against Scotland and Italy. Not givens, but they are capable of winning all three games and if they do, they’ll be in with a sniff. It then just comes down to how they do in their away games in the middle of the competition, against France and England.

Also on the bright side, Ireland have coach Joe Schmidt in their corner. Renowned for being one of the most meticulous planners in the sport, Schmidt will no doubt have his Ireland team ready to go, and they will need to be against Wales in the opening weekend.

Like Chuck’s act, it all looked a bit tired at the RWC though and the form of some of Ireland’s test players in the Pro12 this year hasn’t been great, with really only Ulster giving the quarters a decent nudge in the European Rugby Champions Cup before they ultimately missed out as well. They also have a large number of key players out with injury. But we should remember, Chuck Norris came roaring back into public consciousness in the mid-2000s thanks to the emergence of ‘Chuck Norris facts’ email chains which extolled the rugged virtues of the former action hero: Featuring such nuggets as “Chuck Norris rides shotgun when Stevie Wonder drives” and “There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of animals Chuck Norris has allowed to live”.

But despite all those Chuck Norris facts, it hasn’t exactly turned back the clock to the 1980s and resulted in box office gold. Aside from ‘The Expendables 2’, Chuck’s latest credits are ‘The Cutter’ and ‘Walker, Texas Ranger: Trial by Fire’ the TV movie. I’m not sure Ireland will sink that low, but see them falling off their title winning place this year, finishing third.

France

After four mostly torturous years under the stewardship of Philippe Saint-Andre, France are now coached by former long-time Toulouse coach Guy Noves. Indications were that the head scratching selections were now a thing of the past with Noves at the helm. I’m not saying we won’t see something of a return to normality for French rugby under Noves, but his first squad features a few ‘bolters’, shall we say.

The most out there selection has to be Fijian-born winger Virimi Vakatawa. Not because he is Fijian, but because he apparently hasn’t played 15-a-side rugby in three years. For such a maddening selection policy, the obvious comparison for France is the 1980s most eccentric action star, Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD).

Now better known for his love of Coor’s Light, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s JCVD had a nice run of action flicks going. Another who made his living with roundhouse kicks rather than blowing things into the smithereens, ‘Bloodsport’ and ‘Kickboxer’ especially featured a level of violence that was like crack to teenage blokes fuelled up on more testosterone than an East German hammer thrower of a slightly earlier era and few viable outlets for it. It wasn’t the cartoonish violence of classical kung fu movies or Tarantino-directed movies of today, it was violence that took itself pretty seriously. Looking back, it really is incredible people didn’t laugh their way through the movies. What was more difficult to take seriously was the standard of JCVD’s acting. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, mesmerised as I was by him soaring through the air delivering kicks to the jaw with the regularity of a postman dropping bills throw your mail slot, hawking piss weak American beer was really the best his acting skills deserved.

Unlike JCVD, France do have a decent amount of talent. Whether they pick the talented players is the question. Brice Dulan has looked electric at times for Racing 92 this year and yet didn’t make France’s squad, with the starting spot going to Maxime Medard, who must be older than JCVD himself.

So I don’t have a huge amount of faith in Noves turning things around rapidly. That said, through the sheer level of talent they possess alone, I think France will be competitive in most games and they have some interesting players, like debutant against Italy Jonathan Danty and who knows what the aforementioned Vakatawa will do. The problem is at international level, if you slack off for a few minutes it can cost you the game quicker than a few straight to DVD releases can cost you a film career. In recent years the French players have slacked off more than road workers and thus have struggled for any consistent success. So for all their collective eccentricities, France and Van Damme make a nice couple, but that only gets them fourth position in this year’s championships.

Scotland

If England’s RWC is regarded as an epic failure, then Scotland’s is regarded in most corners as a roaring success. Although it ended painfully and with Gavin Hastings, often considered Scotland’s greatest ever player disgracing himself in the aftermath, even the most positive (or drunk) of Scottish fans couldn’t have really expected they would be leading the Wallabies 34-32 with just a couple of minutes to go in their RWC quarter final match. Of course, they still lost and really in the cold light of day, they were outscored five tries to three and Australia made most of the attacking play. But Scotland showed plenty of grit and no shortage of innovation to be able to compete with a more talented football side. Kind of, wouldn’t you say, like Lt John McClane.

Outnumbered and outgunned by Hans Gruber and friends when they storm the Nakatomi Plaza in ‘Die Hard’, nuggety New York cop McClane was able to give them all they could handle using just his street smarts and an arsenal of one liners. Bruce Willis doesn’t cut the figure of the classical 80s action star. Sure, he wears a wifebeater in Die Hard, but he doesn’t have a set of Schwarzenegger-like guns bulging out of it. He’s also not a highly trained special forces killing machine; he’s more of a street scrapper who’s much too fond of a drink. All of which makes him a suitable facsimile for Scotland.

While they have some very good players Scotland, Stuart Hogg, Mark Bennett and Finn Russell in the back and Richie and Johnny Gray and David Denton in the forwards, they aren’t exactly bursting at the seams like the sleeves of JCVD’s shirts with world class players. Which is why despite their encouraging performance in the RWC, I don’t think Scotland will really compete for the title this year. For one thing, they don’t have the quality of Wales, England, Ireland and France, and they definitely don’t have the depth; if they suffer injuries to key players they could really find themselves in the sort of trouble not even New York’s finest can get himself out of.

However, under Vern Cotter they make the absolute most of their resources, hang in games and make their opponents beat them. It might be enough for them to win a few games in the tournament this year, but to win it outright you need talent of the quality they don’t have from 1 to 15. I mean honestly, for all McClane’s “yippy ki yay mutha f*cker”-bravado, could he really go to Vietnam and give half the Russian army what for? Or make nice with the three boobed woman on Mars?

I see Scotland running most teams close, but ultimately not having enough to win consistently.

Italy

I hate to say it, but I think Italy will be rooted to the foot of the table this year. They have some new, young players coming through, but whether they are up to the task is another question.

Coach Jacques Brunel was supposed to retire as Italian coach after the RWC. However, he has agreed to stay on for another Six Nations, when, if the rumours are correct, Harlequins coach Conor O’Shea will take over. That’s something to look forward to at least. The present is less positive. In the last year, including the 2015 Six Nations, the Italians (or the “pizza munching wog boys” as an Australia newspaper described the Italians when they knocked the Socceroos out of the 2006 FIFA Football World Cup) have won just three of their last 15 test matches. One of those was against Scotland in the 2015 competition, and if you were looking to be positive you would say they gave Ireland all they could handle in the RWC pool clash and maybe should have even won. But they didn’t, and struggled to beat Canada in the RWC as well. At the very least they need five credible performances to hush the growing talk for some form of promotion and relegation between the Six Nations and the European Nations Cup (effectively the second tier Six Nations which has been won every year since 2011 by Georgia). Talk which always seems to centre around Italy for some reason, even though Scotland has finished with wooden spoon twice in the last four years and France and Ireland propped up the foot of the table in 2013, while Italy have finished in last position once in that time. But that’s another story.

Italy have only two homes games this year, against England and Scotland. One imagines they will really be targeting the Scotland game as their best chance to turn someone over in 2016. So really, Italy have to be the ‘80s and ‘90s poor relation amongst the galaxy of action stars, Steven Seagal.

Like Italy, Seagal is also the late comer to orgy of movie violence in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with his first such move, ‘Above the Law’, only released in 1988. It is still unquestionably ‘80s though, with big hair and shoulder pads NFL players would find excessive. Seagal definitely had his moments, never moreso than as former Navy SEAL turned Navy chef Casey Ryback in ‘Under Siege’. Although if most blokes are being honest, they really went to see the movie to see ‘Baywatch’s’ most famous slow motion runner of the day, Erika Eleniak (Shauni McClain) get her rack out. She didn’t disappoint. But at least the movie didn’t look like it was shot on a Sony Handycam, like some of his earlier movies, the aforementioned ‘Above the Law’ and ‘Hard to Kill’ did. Italy will have their moments too, I just can’t see those moments being frequent enough to lead to any victories this year.

Seagal also delivered one of the great action movie lines, albeit his character Mason Storm wrote it in blood, rather than said it. Which is probably for the best because Seagal generally mumbled his way through most of his celluloid classics. Anyway, the line “anticipation of death is worse than death itself” takes some beating, much like Italy’s number 8 and captain Sergio Parisse. But unfortunately, like Mason Storm’s blood-based graffiti, I think Parisse will have as much success lifting the Azzurri off the foot of the table as Storm’s prose did pulling ‘Hard to Kill’ out of the toilet.

Making matter worse, Italy have a horrendous injury list at the moment, including key ball carrier Josh Furno. Flyhalf Tomasso Allen is also out which is a shame as he seemed to be genuinely progressing at the RWC. Zebre flyhalf Carlo Cana has apparently been performing very well in the Pro12 and might now be ready to make the step up to international rugby and centre Michele Campagnaro has looked solid for Exeter. Let’s hope so, otherwise Italy’s season might end up like some of Seagal’s latter releases ‘On Deadly Ground’ or ‘The Patriot’ (I have never even heard of that) ie of the straight to DVD variety.

Hopefully Italy can take inspiration from the killer pony tail Seagal rocked in his early movies and the fact that truth be known, if all the action stars mentioned in this column had to throw down, seventh dan aikido expert Seagal probably wipes the floor with everyone else. Time for Casey Ryback to make another appearance.

 

 

 

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