auntie mabel’s dog and other stories

NOT PERHAPS A SCRAPBOOK WEEKEND IN THE SIX NATIONS BUT, IN THIS TOURNAMENT, EVEN THE ORDINARY GAMES ARE COMPULSIVE VIEWING. SO HEREWITH AN ATOZ OF WEEK TWO AS SEEN FROM A PLUMP SOFA IN THE COMPANY OF A QUIET BEER. LOVE IT.

A is for ANSCOMBE; Gareth Anscombe, who chalked up his first try for Wales on Saturday. As we all know, it wasn’t given but, as we all know, he scored it. It was a bit like that funny smell at Auntie Mabel’s eightieth birthday party; clearly the old girl fluffed but in the car on the way home, Mum says it was the dog and there’s an end to it.

B is for BUGGER, as in how is it England are such a bugger to beat? This is not a rhetorical question. I’d like answers.

C is for CHEMISTRY, or in this case, the startling lack of it in the ITV studio for Ireland/Italy. Individually, Brian O’Driscoll, Maggie Alphonsi and Marco Bortolami were rock solid (Maggie is twenty-four-carat television gold) but collectively it looked as though they were waiting for a train.

D is for DOPPLEGANGER, as in does Jamie George look to you to be a younger version of Ray Winstone? In much the same way – while we’re there – that the All Blacks’ Captain Kieran Read is the spitting image of Ralph Fiennes? Or is this just me?

E is for EVANS, the outstanding Rob Evans whose ursine roar six inches from Dan Cole’s nose as Wales won a fifty-second minute scrum penalty at Twickenham was priceless. If he could just work on his kicking game, he’d be the complete footballer.

F is for FARRELL, who seizes moments like no other player in the championship bar Jonny Sexton. The man is elemental. Mind you, Owen’s ‘inch-perfect’ kick through for Jonny May was, if we’re being that picky, nine inches short and – rather more seriously – the stats show that seven tackles got away from him on the day. Josh Navidi’s disdainful hand-off which threw him to the floor in the first half will have stung in more ways than one.

G is for GREGOR. Just how much faith does Gregor Townsend have in his mercurial genius of a fly-half? Alas, Finn Russell’s had a couple of shockers so far; does Gregor stick or twist against England in a fortnight’s time?

H is for HOLD ON A MINUTE BUT, as in hold on a minute but have you ever seen a better offload in your entire life than Joe Launchbury’s assist for Jonny May’s second try against Wales? Two defenders all over him, inches from the touchline, off-balance and with a split second to size up his options yet, seemingly from nowhere, he serves up a ball – one-handed round the back of two Welshman – so perfectly weighted that it seems to hang in the air like a whiff of perfume right under the nose of Jonny May who could’ve caught it blindfold and scored. Joe Launchbury is about as good as it gets, whatever Warren Gatland may think.

I is for INJURIES, which might be all that end up standing between Ireland and a Slam. Robbie Henshaw and Tadgh Furlong are mighty boots to fill, although Andrew Porter turned in a stout, stand-in performance on the tight-head and other long-term casualties – Gary Ringrose – aren’t miles away from returning. Ireland certainly remain Sergio Parisse’s favourites for the title; ‘I think Ireland play much better rugby than England … it’s much more difficult to defend against them … I like the way they play … yeah, they are better than England.’

JJ is for JONATHAN JOSEPH, who, along with Keith Earls (see W) must be the neatest rugby player in the world. There are no loose threads at all. Rumour has it that when he gets out of the bath he doesn’t even leave a puddle.

K is for KISSES, of which Teddy Thomas now has three after his exploits in Paris and Edinburgh; one from Remy Lamerat after the try against Ireland and two from Virimi Vakatawa who snogged him after both tries against Scotland. And why not? They were lovely scores and he’s a good-looking boy.

L is for LAUGHABLE; specifically Eddie Jones’ post-match response to being asked how well he thought Rhys Patchell had played for Wales. ‘I don’t coach him, mate,’ he snapped. ‘Ask Warren.’ This, of course, is the same Rhys Patchell whom Jones stuck in a Petri dish last week and shoved under the media microscope. Make up your mind, Eddie.

M is for MEN OF THE MATCH, each of which in Round Two was a small, screaming injustice. Yes, Conor Murray was mint (when isn’t he?) but Aki, Stockdale and Earls – arguably – were all mintier. Mike Brown? Again, good but Joe Launchbury was peerless. Greg Laidlaw? Yes, he kicked France to death but had Jonny Gray not played the game of his life, he wouldn’t have had the chance. Six MOMs so far in this Championship and only one forward? Hmm.

N is for NICK; ITV’s Mullins Man who – again – came up with a peach of an opening at Twickenham last Saturday as the smoke cleared ahead of the anthems; ‘England against Wales,’ he said, pausing for a perfect millisecond before adding. ‘Just about all you need to know.’

O is for ONSIDE, as in has anyone in this Championship been onside at a ruck or maul? Hindmost foot is, supposedly the line, but it seems it’s a law, Horatio, more honoured in the breach than the observance.

P is for PISSY, which this weekend perfectly defined Eddie Jones’ ludicrous, blunderbuss assault on BBC Radio’s Chris Jones post the Welsh game and Joe Schmidt’s petulant cancellation of a scheduled briefing with the Irish Rugby Writers after the Italy match; ‘an all-time low’ in the relationship between scribblers and union, according to the ‘Irish Independent’. And these are coaches who’re both winning. How much more childish are they going to get if and when they start losing?

Q is for QUICKSILVER, a word which, in some ways, hopelessly undersells the speed of Jordan Larmour’s footwork. Let’s not get too excited too soon – defensively there’s plenty to learn – but his schimmy-and-go-on-a-sixpence against Italy was a genuine pie-dropper of a moment.

R is for RADIO, which would’ve been much the better medium for ITV’s build-up to the England/Wales game; nine talking heads, scarcely any pictures and a complete waste of a cathode ray tube.

S is for ‘SCOOFLE’, referee Jerome Garces’ description of the collective spat between the Welsh and English players during the first half on Saturday which, predictably kicked off with a feisty Farrell and finished with Alun Wyn Jones’ condescending pat on Maro Itoje’s cheek. At the risk of sounding a bit Brian Moore, I wish the players would stop doing this. Either punch each other properly or get on with the game.

T is for TENACITY, as shown in spades by Sam Underhill (his last-ditch tackle on Scott Williams when he was on his arse in midfield earlier in the movement) and Keith Earls (his lung-sapping pursuit and arrest of Tommaso Benvenuti from at least a postcode away). Both were harder to shake off than a mosquito in a hot room.

U is for UNPERTURBED, which, whatever the score, is the expression you get from a Gregor Townsend cutaway in the coaches’ box. He appears to have the pulse rate of a turtle. Down by ten? Up by ten? Do not play poker against this man.

V is for VUNIPOLA. No disrespect to the sizzling Sam Simmonds but England are missing Billy.

W is for WHEN, as in when, exactly, is Keith Earls going to make a mistake in this Six Nations? The way he’s playing, I’m not holding my breath.

X is for EXASPERATION, written all over Rob Kearney’s fluorescent, pink gum-shield as referee Romain Poite inadvertently came between Peter O’Mahony’s try-scoring pass and Kearney’s ten-yard run to an unguarded Italian line with three support runners on his inside. But then as Nigel Owens always says in these sheepish situations, ‘Look, boys, I’ve got to stand somewhere.’

Y is for YOU, as in You won’t see a better try in this Championship than Conor Murray’s against Italy; flawless pairs of hands in a phone box and a line and pass from Jack Conan that was nothing short of perfect. Simples but sublime.

Z is for ZEBRE’S Matteo Minozzi, a litre of talent in a pint pot and who, at just 21, is going to be a star of Italy’s future. Still not sure about the pink boots, though.

13 FEBRUARY 2018

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