THE 2018 SIX NATIONS HAS GOT OFF TO ITS USUAL HUMDRUM START; DRUBBINGS, DRAMAS, COMEBACKS FROM THE DEAD AND BURIED. YES, THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE MIGHT PLAY A PURER GAME BUT – AND IT BEARS REPEATING – THERE ISN’T A JAMBOREE ANYWHERE IN THE RUGBY WORLD TO MATCH THIS ONE. HEREWITH, A COUCH POTATO’S A TO Z OF A LOST WEEKEND WATCHING ROUND ONE.
A is for Any Superlative, Your Choice; because rarely has a seventy-eight minute crock of shit come up with a more startling denouement, a little like sitting through an Ingmar Bergman film and finding Alfred Hitchcock had written the ending. Indeed has there ever been a better come-from-behind, fourth-quarter, bottom of the bucket win given it was tipping with rain, the fly-half was cramping up and Ireland drove the ball for five and half minutes through forty-two plays when one mistake would have been Goodnight and Good Luck? Move over Tom Brady and make room for Jonny ‘B Good’ Sexton, will you? And while we’re there, had Jonny jumped a plane from Paris to Minneapolis on Saturday night and arrived at US Bank Stadium on the two-minute warning, the Patriots – no question – would be wearing their sixth Superbowl.
B is for Belleau – French fly-half Anthony Belleau – who had the hammer, the nails and as much time as he needed to bang down the lid on Ireland’s Grand Slam Plan but who chunked a doozy of a penalty with two and a half minutes to go in Paris. (B is also for Berk.)
C is for Credible Feed, which is what scrum-halves now have to deliver at the chalk face in the 2018 Six Nations. Referee Pascal Gauzere gamely tried to enforce this in the first few scrums in Cardiff but quickly got bored and swallowed his whistle. ‘Credible Feed’? Excuse me? What’s wrong with ‘straight’?
D is for Director, specifically the BBC’s Wo/Man in the Van in Cardiff who – rather brilliantly – found a fabulous, full-fat close-up of Josh Adams at the end of an anthem which – understandably – the young man couldn’t quite finish given the enormity of the debut that awaited him. And a very decent debut it was too. True, he couldn’t buy a try-scoring pass out of crowbar Leigh Halfpenny but defensively he was mustard.
E is for Embarrassment, which seemed to sum up the expression on Kiwi, Hadleigh Parkes’ face when he caught sight of his globetrotting Mum and Dad waving in the big screen in Cardiff. Indeed Bill and Janet cropped up four times in the TV coverage, twice as often as Scotland’s Cornell Du Preez.
F is for Forwards, not least Welsh ones who now play Hot Potato better than the backs; witness Samson Lee’s no-hands pop to Ross Moriarty and Cory Hill’s backdoor ball – Retallick-esque – to Scott Williams which bamboozled the Braveheart defence ahead of Leigh Halfpenny’s first try. Not forgetting, of course, the full-steam, forty-yard, frolic between Aaron Shingler, Cory Hill, Rob Evans and AW Jones. Five yards from a yawning try-line they finally handed the ball to a back who dropped it.
G is for George Ford whose rapport with Owen Farrell in Rome looked positively symbiotic. Rumour has it they wait until everyone’s asleep at Pennyhill Park and sneak out to practice in the dark.
H is for Honesty, namely BBC Gabby Logan’s refreshing and cheerful admission at half time in Paris that there was bugger-all worth analysing from the first forty minutes of France/Ireland so she wasn’t going to bother. Tough to make a gripping fifteen minute summary out of two mammoths wrestling in a pit of tar but thank you, Mrs. Logan, for not insulting the viewers’ intelligence by trying.
I is for Ireland, who having had 65% of the territory and an eye-watering 26:01 minutes of possession in Paris, were still behind as the clock went red. When, you wonder, will Schmidt fully embrace the Leinster credo in the same way that Gatland is beginning to embrace that of the Scarlets’?
J is for Jrawing Board – early days to be struggling for letters, I know, but Martin Johnson didn’t say anything silly in the BBC studio in Cardiff, so I’m a bit stuck with ‘J’ – the jrawing board being where Gregor Townsend will be tethered this week. And if he’s going to run that gameplan again, he urgently needs one more playmaker behind and two more ball carriers up front.
K is for Kicks, as in which of Jonny Sexton’s three kicks in his five-minute, buzzer-beating, game-stealing drive in Paris was the most exquisitely executed? The inch-accurate drop out to Iain Henderson; the balls-of-stone crosskick to Keith Earls or the final, heart-piercing coup de grace? I still can’t make up my mind.
L is for Leprechaun, the Leprechaun in question – oddly – being the mighty Paul O’Connell who’s – clearly – shrunk in retirement. Jeremy Guscott was at least two inches taller than him in the BBC studio in Paris.
M is for Mullins, as in ITV’s Nick Mullins who, as the teams and the band gathered front of stage for the anthems in Rome, deliciously described the Six Nations as ‘an age-old fizz … which starts with a couple of songs.’ Compare and contrast with the BBC’s John Inverdale – age 60¼ – who summed up the Wales/Scotland game with the word, ‘mental’. Auden, eat out your heart.
N is for None of My Business Really, but could someone ask Anthony ‘Maserati’ Watson to dive into the end-zone in a photo-finish? If he’s airborne, he doesn’t run the risk of dipping toes, knees and arms into the whitewash. Right now, I know he’s not getting his shorts dirty but he’s giving England supporters palpitations.
O is for Organised Chaos, Scotland’s – soi-disant – swashbuckling game plan. In fairness, they’re half right.
P is for Philippe St Andre, who, as he demonstrated in Paris, speaks better English than any other French coach but in an accent so heavy it’s almost impenetrable. Thus ‘November’ becomes ‘Nov-hem-bear’, ‘Second’ becomes ‘Sir Gond’ and ‘Responsibility’ turns into ‘Raze-ponz-zab-ille-ee-tay’, a six-syllable steeplechase where you could very easily trip over any one of several hyphens. He talks an awful lot of sense but – bless him – it can be tough to decode. Kingsley Jones, by the way, does a very good impression.
Q is for Quip, or, more accurately, the contemptuous retort from the BBC’s forthright Brian Moore as French scrum-half Antoine Dupont spent seventy seconds flat out on the turf being tended to for a nasty leg injury before hobbling off for a concussion check. ‘Is that an HIA?’ mused Eddie Butler. ‘It is if he’s got his brain in his knee,’ snorted Moore. By some distance, the line of the weekend.
R is for Rhys Patchell, who’s not only a very fine footballer but who’s also – and this has to be said – exactly what William and Harry would look like if they were merged into one prince. Or is this just me?
S is for Style, specifically the dead ocelot the BBC’s Sonja MacLaughlin was sporting to keep out the cold in Paris and the sawn-off, champagne pink number with the buttons the size of ginger nut biscuits that the BBC’s Lee MacKenzie was wearing in Wales. Wife and daughter – chez nous – were divided on the pink tunic coat; daughter who wasn’t sure about it and wife who wasn’t sure about it at all. In fact they were still bickering during Gareth Davies’ try, which was nettlesome. More pertinently, Sonj’s post-match interviews in Paris were a tutorial. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done.
T is for TMO, as in what’s the point in having a bloody TMO if he’s asked to review a try and can’t spot a pass that’s two yards forward? Indeed if the extra point Wales acquired thanks to Steff Evans’ TBP score against Scotland ends up nicking them the Championship, David Grashoff – along with Pascal Gauzere and touch-judge Romain Poite – should be asked to shave their heads and leave the country.
U is for Understatement, the only possible summary of the redoubtable John Barclay’s post-match confessional with the BBC’s Lee MacKenzie. Eighteen turnovers, nine penalties and three bungled lineouts? ‘Yes, well, that’s a pretty good recipe for losing a Test Match,’ said the crestfallen skipper. Ah, truly, it’s the hope that kills you.
V is for VT, as in what – please – were those weird segments where a BBC camera hunted down be-suited Six Nations’ Head Coaches standing on a lonely path in a draughty park and staring vacantly into the lens? Joe Schmidt looked as though he needed a blanket and a cup of hot broth. Jacques Brunel appeared to have lost his Poodle. Hello?
W is for ‘Whippet Quick’, David Flatman’s description during commentary of ‘Steaming’ Sam Simmonds – England’s most exciting discovery since Oghenemaro Miles Itoje – yet the man whom Eddie Jones still doesn’t seem to think has the heft for Test Footie. ‘If he was a cricketer, he’d be playing Twenty20,’ said Jones after the Italian game. Er, from where we’re sitting, Eddie, he looks pretty good playing the five-day stuff.
X is for X-factor, which the wonderful Sam Warburton clearly has off the pitch in a TV studio as well as on it in the Welsh back row. Microphone in hand, he’s a natural – ‘they’ and not ‘we’; ‘Navidi’ and not ‘Josh’ – which, frankly, is as unsurprising as it is irritating. Charming, approachable, successful, multi-talented; be honest, what’s to like?
Y is for Youngs as in wishing you well, Ben. And the very best of luck too to Richard Wigglesworth who now has to eat the England playbook in four days. Forgive me, but if he’s the third scrum-half, shouldn’t he have been with the squad a fortnight ago? And what’s Eddie’s issue with Wasps’ Dan Robson?
Z is for Zanni, the mighty Italian war-horse who, last weekend, won his 100th cap two years and three operations after he won his 99th. That’s a sod of a time to be stranded one run short of your century. Complimenti, Alessandro.
05 FEBRUARY 2018