THERE ARE ONE OR TWO SPORTING EVENTS THAT SEEM TO GUARANTEE DRAMA, DEBATE AND LIFELONG MEMORIES EVERY TIME THEY SWING AROUND; THE RYDER CUP IS ONE, THE TOUR DE FRANCE ANOTHER BUT THE PICK OF THE BUNCH IS THE SIX NATIONS. IT IS UTTERLY COMPELLING.
Fittingly as we pass the halfway point of this year’s RBS Six Nations Steeplechase, we are down to three; the ante-post co-favourites – England and Ireland – who both have their balls in their own hands and the dark horse – Scotland – who’re tucked in on the rails and may yet gatecrash the winners’ enclosure should either of the bigger beasts falter. Alas, the French ‘cheval’ is short of steam, the Welsh thoroughbreds are out of ideas and the Italian Stallion has become a pantomime horse, not that anyone at Twickenham seemed to be laughing.
Much as all this is a frolic in which you’d prefer to be gainfully employed, watching someone else do the work does have its compensations. Thus did I pull up a beanbag and a stiff whisky and soda to watch Auntie in Edinburgh, not just the familiar knotted scarves but a mighty graphic which showed – I think – how rubbish Wales are at turning possession into points. There were so many rows and columns – it looked like a timetable for the Flying Scotsman – that by the time the indefatigable Jonathan Davies had finished explaining what it was, he had no breath left to offer any whys or wherefores, a shame given it was the most prescient moment of the Six Nations so far.
We kicked off. Dan Biggar looked stroppy – always a good sign – Ken Owens was picking off his jumpers and Rhys Webb was making Scotland itch. Defensively too Wales were ruling the roost. Warburton and Tipuric were a hammer and nails, Owens slammed the door on a succession of marauding Scotsmen and Wales looked to be holding all the cards, not least when Stuart Hogg leveled the BBC’s corner camera with a textbook tackle but missed the try-scoring Liam Williams. Chalk up those five points to Rhys Webb who, when it comes to sensing when to strike, has a mind like a scorpion.
But in the second half Scotland rejigged and ran riot. A question mark going backwards but an exclamation mark going forwards, Stuart Hogg dovetailed delightfully with Tim Visser to make room for Tommy Seymour – the tryline’s as far as you need to go, Tommy – and it was Hogg’s pass in the blink of an eye which put Visser in for his team’s second. It’s not often you spill your whiskey watching Scotland but when you do, it’s generally Stuart Hogg’s fault.
Indeed the second half was a twenty-point shutout and the win so convincing that the boys in blue walked up the eighteenth fairway with a three shot lead. But as much as Seymour, Hogg, Russell and Visser caught the eye, it was the forwards who took the shortbread. Hamish Watson was – is – a dervish, John Barclay a dynamo and the game finished on – yet another – turnover from Ryan Wilson. On average the Scots forwards made more than seven carries a man, the Welsh forwards just three. It was a telling statistic.
Wales – clearly – have hefty issues. I started making a mental note of how many times they turned over priceless possession in the Scotland 22 – Jiffy’s aforementioned numbers – and very quickly lost count; a litany of dropped balls, dodgy offloads and daft options. Leigh Halfpenny – bless him – looked bereft. Another 2013 Lion Rampant, George North, got stood up on a sixpence by Tim Visser, and then lost his compass as Visser again – he had a fabulous afternoon – scored Scotland’s crucial try. In all, North missed four tackles: clearly he’s a class act but you wouldn’t have guessed that on Saturday.
It was also a game Alun Wyn Jones will – doubtless – want to erase from his Lions’ Captaincy Portfolio. John Lacey is a genial man but Jones’ querulous presence – he wasn’t quite as irritating as Sergio Parisse but he was definitely a mosquito in a hot room – didn’t appear to endear him hugely to the Irish referee. Four years ago, Gatland plumped for Sam Warburton as his Lions’ captain specifically for his bedside manner with the whistlers. Alun Wyn Jones – as his hard-earned degree from the University of Swansea will attest – is a lawyer not a doctor.
There was also the shemozzle over the ‘shot, actually no, corner’ call when Wales – 16-13 down in the second half – spurned a poke at the sticks, opted to kick for position and bungled the line-out. What stuck in the craw afterwards wasn’t so much the poor decision-making – Wales did the same thing against England in Cardiff two weeks ago – but Jones’ somewhat disloyal comment that ‘I would’ve liked to take three …. but the kickers said no.’ Hmm. Surely if you’re wearing the armband, it’s your call; what’s more if it goes wrong, you oughtn’t really to be pointing the finger at someone else.
What also lingered in the mind long after the final whistle – again, from a Lions’ perspective – was the thought that if you were looking to recruit an attack coach for New Zealand, then – on the day – Scotland’s Jason O’Halloran would have trounced Wales’ Rob Howley all ends up. Yet Scotland – it’s said – won’t release O’Halloran and Howley already has his boarding pass for the flight to Auckland. Of course, the one coach Scotland are quite happy to release – full stop – is the Head Coach, Vern Cotter, the one who got them to within a point of a World Cup semi-final. No disrespect to the incoming Gregor Townsend but dispensing with Stern Vern is the worst call since a New York modeling agency advised a teenage Marilyn Monroe to do a secretarial course.
Onto Dublin where France – Picamoles and Fickou excepted – exasperated in whatever the French is for spades. When did you last see the stony Scott Spedding drop a high ball? He bungled two. Bernard Le Roux, who makes a mistake once every blue moon, fumbled the soap twice. The French restarts were ‘une catastrophe’ and they spent the entire afternoon either chasing green shirts – 227 team tackles in all, that’s not a misprint – or catching their breath, the two, you suspect, being not unrelated. When the whistle blew for half-time, the French forwards looked out on their feet.
(They also spent much of the game getting on the wrong side of Nigel Owens – 14 penalties – who wigged them for eighty minutes in his inimitable fashion, not that they seemed to understand – understandably – too much of what he was saying. Surely the vocabulary of rugby isn’t so vast that professional referees – all of them, not just Owens – can’t master the art of speaking it in French? Or is it just me that finds English speakers lecturing non-English speakers in English a little bit Benidorm? Maybe England against Scotland should be refereed by a Paraguayan who speaks only Guarani and we’ll see how the two teams cope.)
Ireland, though, were ruthless. Heaslip and Stander got through a mile of work – whether they had the ball or whether they didn’t – and Gary Ringrose is growing into the shirt with every game. He’s hotter than mustard. The critical difference, though, was at nine and ten where Murray and Sexton burned brightly for eighty minutes while Serin and Lopez flickered and died. Dare I say it but had the two teams swapped half-backs as they were coming out of the tunnel for the kick-off, France might well have won.
What you have to admire about Ireland, though, is the slide-rule precision; Exhibit ‘A’ the Conor Murray try which had Joe Schmidt’s fingerprints all over it. You blast Robbie Henshaw over the gain line from a short-range scrum, Ringrose hits the breakdown from eighty degrees west, Sean O’Brien from eighty degrees east and Jamie Heaslip – like an offensive lineman from the New England Patriots – sweeps round the open-side of the ruck to remove Baptiste Serin by the scruff of his neck ahead of Conor Murray’s perfectly-timed quarterback sneak. Ireland’s choreography wouldn’t look out of place at a ballroom dance.
Which brings us to Twickenham and the Italian pantomime horse; no surprise whatsoever to discover afterwards that the ‘it’s-only-a-tackle-so-I’ll-stand-where-I-want’ tactic had been fashioned by Brendan Venter or that Matthew Dawson should be the one squealing the loudest. You can understand why Conor O’Shea went along with the idea – he urgently needs to imbue his team with a bit of bullishness – but the very fact that Italy felt the need to come up with such a cheap, spoiling tactic merely reinforces the critics’ point; namely, they’re not up to it. That said it’s not often sport goes bonkers and it made for mesmeric viewing. In fact, it was like watching Chaplin’s utterly sublime boxing sequence from ‘City Lights’ only without the humour.
If your glass is half full you’ll toast the fact that England yet again found a way to win – and not just to win but with a bonus point – when they were totally bamboozled and playing like drains. If your glass is half empty, you’ll wonder why Hartley and Haskell – 153 caps between them – had to ask the referee what the hell was going on and why it took England forty minutes to work out that the obvious answer was to pick and drive.
Clearly England aren’t quite as bright as they’d perhaps like to think. And in truth not even the Italian offside trap masked a shocker of a performance from – among several others – Owen Farrell, who can scarcely have performed so miserably in any of his – previous – forty-nine England appearances. Fortunately for a peeved Eddie Jones, he had the likes of Launchbury, Itoje, Daly and Nowell to spare his blushes. England shouldn’t play anywhere for the next five years without those four names somewhere on their team-sheet.
So – two weeks hence – Ireland need to beat a chastened Wales in Cardiff to keep their destiny in their own hands; mind you, that’s a Welsh team with umpteen of their number desperately trying to salvage a seat on the plane to New Zealand. And if Wales prevails, a drooling Scotland will head to Twickenham a day later knowing that the rarest of wins would yield a jackpot; a Calcutta Cup, a Triple Crown and – odds on – a Six Nations Championship given their last match is at home to the scheming Italians. Conversely should England and Ireland win, then we have a Cup Final in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Weekend with England going for a double Grand Slam and a world record nineteen straight wins. No disrespect to the irresistible Scots and the proud Welsh but – as Brian O’Driscoll’s chipmunk smile attested on ITV on Saturday evening – there is a game for the ages. Fingers crossed.
27 FEBRUARY 2017