ONE OF THE GREAT BEAUTIES OF THE SIX NATIONS IS THAT EVEN WHEN IT’S OVER – ENGLAND, LET’S FACE IT, ARE WORTHY CHAMPIONS – THERE’S YET MORE DRAMA TO COME. BUT WHATEVER HAPPENS IN PARIS, EDINBURGH AND DUBLIN NEXT WEEK, ROUND FOUR OF THE 2017 CHAMPIONSHIP WILL LINGER LONG IN THE MEMORY.
Yet another surreal weekend in the RBS Six Nations’ Championship where there is nothing so ordinary as the extraordinary. When, for example, did you last watch a broadcaster – in this case the BBC – kick off its coverage of a rugby international with a song by Petula Clark? Or see the sartorial Jonny Wilkinson out-dappered by a man – Greg Laidlaw – in a tweed waistcoat? Or watch an unbeaten team win a tournament hands down with a week to spare and not get presented with its prize? Rest assured if Ireland win in Dublin next week then England’s big RBS Six Nations’ Championship trophy shot is going to look about as happy as herpes.
But even in as gloriously unpredictable a box of tricks as the Six Nations some things are immutable, most obviously context. Who you are as a team, what you do as team – they’re both important, no question – but where you are as a team is so often the defining ingredient. Wales – after their submission in Scotland – spent a fortnight being pickled in vinegar and turned up on Friday night in Cardiff cranky, cussed and more than ready to give someone a good slap; England – in the same vein – spent two weeks being lampooned and lambasted for ‘il fiasco italiano’; the harbinger of their ill intent being Eddie Jones’s testy news conference last Thursday. ‘It was the hurt,’ said George North after the Ireland game, four words which – by the close of the weekend – spoke volumes for two teams.
Certainly Cardiff on Friday was febrile; ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ sung so lustily that on the big notes you could count the fillings in eighty thousand heads; the Welsh dogs straining so hard on the leash that – twixt anthem and kick-off – they hunkered down in the far corner and mashed some tackle bags. No question it set the tone for the next eighty minutes in which the two teams slugged the stuffing out of each other, the Welsh – crucially – obeying the First Rule of Playing Ireland; namely, get to Murray and Sexton. Jonny – bless him – was six feet of lumps come the final whistle.
Wales – as good teams do – rediscovered themselves. Rhys Webb wasn’t perfect on the day but his pass to set up George the First – inch perfect across twenty yards at full tilt off his left hand – and his quick thinking for George the Second – only the best tries look that simple – again marked him out as a man to give New Zealand palpitations this summer. George himself was all bristle, Liam Williams could yet be the fifteen in the Lions’ fifteen and Owens, Jones, Tipuric and Warburton melted the tacklometer. Ireland may have had more territory and more possession but even so they were scrabbling for inches.
And yet they could so easily have won it. Three key lineouts went astray, most notably the five-metre throw in the first half which was picked off – majestically – by Alun Wyn Jones, and had Robbie Henshaw left Rory Best and the forwards to their own devices in the second half, Ireland would have headed into the final furlong leading by a short head. It’s not often Joe Schmidt’s finely tuned, well-oiled Green Machine splutters but – fatally in Cardiff – it stalled twice when it had the line at its mercy.
Instead Wales’s finishers came on and finished. Luke Charteris – the Inspector Gadget of Welsh rugby – burgled a lineout, Taulupe Faletau charged down Sexton and Jamie Roberts hammered the last nail in the Irish lid. It was sweet redemption not least for Rob Howley who – under the most acute pressure – backed his horses and watched them romp home at a canter.
Wales’s heroics meant Twickenham was – virtually – a straight shoot-out for the Championship; an England win would lock it up and a Scotland win – with Italy at home next week – would, effectively, lock it up. ITV – bizarrely – seemed to miss this point; indeed it was left to Nick Mullins in commentary to put the game into its Championship context when this should have been in the programme’s opening paragraph. Mullins, by the way, is mustard; like listening to Rubenstein playing Chopin at Carnegie Hall.
Nicholas apart, what you also get with ITV is a pitch side interview that’s six feet ten inches tall and – every week – it’s unmissable viewing. Just how do you deal with the Bayfield eye-line? Scotland coach Vern Cotter – gamely – tried to take him on and, despite being taller than a telegraph pole himself, looked like a child explaining his homework to his teacher. The shrewd Eddie Jones – who is no periscope – talked directly to Bayfield’s navel, thereby dictating most of the terms and avoiding a pain in the neck. Unfortunately I was so busy lapping this up with a spoon that I can’t remember a single word that either of them said.
But Bayfield was the least of Vern’s problems given he was seven points and a hooker down after just three minutes. The eager Fraser Brown was – let’s be very charitable – one whisker shy of a red card but Alex Dunbar was barely in the same postcode as the lissom Jonathan Joseph cantered past, the first of three first-half tries each conjured directly from clockwork England lineouts. Joseph took the plaudits, Ford and Farrell pulled the strings but let’s give credit – where it’s due – to the England boffins who spotted the fault line and mercilessly, meticulously calculated the trigonometry to best expose it. Scotland looked as though they were trying to defend against the Red Arrows.
Indeed this was as good as England have looked under EJ. We know they’re resilient, resourceful too, but there’s long been a question mark over the width of their ruthless streak and the fact that they spent three minutes and thirty-nine seconds of stoppage time straining every sinew to turn a 54-21 hiding into a 61-21 whipping emphatically answered that one. It was certainly fitting that their darkest, most ominous performance should come on the day they equalled the All Blacks’ eighteen-game winning run; worth noting too that for all Joseph’s beauty and Lawes’s beast, Dylan Hartley had – arguably – his most effective game of the Eddie Era.
Scotland will be spinning. The start was awful, the middle was a muddle and the less said about the ending the better. Tim Visser didn’t touch the ball for an hour; four players were concussed and John Barclay looked totally befuddled by referee Mathieu Raynal who whistled them hard, although not hard enough at the ruck where the Scots’ habit of hanging onto the England players’ coat-tails was – to be honest – cheap. What’ll kill them this week, though, is that they arrived at Twickenham sniffing blood. Thus is expectation the root of all heartache.
Warren Gatland will have enjoyed his weekend. The Welsh answered some pertinent questions – more of those to come in Paris – and England’s all round edge will prove priceless in New Zealand. The Lions will clearly have superior place-kickers to the Kiwis – Farrell, Sexton, possibly Halfpenny – and arguably the finest bench ever to grace a Test match but what’ll unnerve Wazza ever so slightly is that – Rome apart – four weekends have brought just one away win for the Home Nations. He urgently needs players who can front up in hostile territory.
Which leads us to Dublin next weekend with England chasing a Triple Crown, a world record win and a double Grand Slam. It was Ireland of course who punctured the last team to try to blow up their nineteenth balloon – New Zealand in Chicago – and here they are again; ready, willing and more than able to poop the party, assuming, of course, they can do what England and Wales did last weekend and channel the pain of the previous game.
But even that may not be enough. If there’s an obvious difference between Ireland and England it’s that when Ireland lose their grip on a match – Scotland in Edinburgh, Wales when Sexton was on the naughty step – they give up ground they struggle to recover. When England do the same – Italy at Twickenham, Australia in Brisbane and Sydney, Wales in Cardiff – they somehow find a way to stay in touch and give themselves a chance to regroup and regain the initiative.
Tiger Woods – in his pomp – used to do exactly the same thing, frequently winning majors not because he was brilliant – although there was a bit of that too – but because his one crap round of the week was never quite as crap as everyone else’s. So while Montgomerie or Westwood would play like a drain on a Saturday and shoot 78, Woods would play just as badly and – somehow – shoot 73. England aren’t Tiger Woods by a long chalk but they have that quality, that bloody-minded tenacity to be lying five in a bunker yet somehow make a four. No question Ireland can beat them but they’ll need to be as good as they can be and, right now, however Irish you are, you’d be a brave man to bet the housekeeping against England.
12 MARCH 2017