CLEAR, GREEN WATER IN THE SIX NATIONS’ CHAMPIONSHIP AS IRELAND TRUMP WALES IN DUBLIN TO OPEN UP A FIVE POINT LEAD AT THE TOP; FRANCE – FINALLY – FIND THE WINNING FORMULA ‘ON TOUR’ IN MARSEILLES AND, IN EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND’S JONES STICKS IT TO ENGLAND’S. THREE ROUNDS DOWN AND TWO TO GO. IT’S BREWING NICELY.
A is for Anonymous, specifically, the nameless Sky Sports Rugby Producer who wagered several Murdoch shillings on a three-away-wins accumulator in last weekend’s Six Nations. Yes, 40/1 was extremely generous but there was a reason for that, Tom. Don’t worry. I won’t breathe a word to Sarah.
B is for Bastareaud. B is also for Bosh, Bash, Beast, Brute, Bruiser, Bludgeon, Battering Ram and Bull in a china shop. No question, Matthieu has a potty mouth and some discordant views on the subject of male sexuality but you need dynamite to level him and, for a big bloke, he has a pianist’s hands. Incidentally did Jiffy Davies in the BBC commentary really say, admiringly; ‘he’s a big Bastareaud’ as he plunged over for his – almost inevitable – game-clinching try in Marseilles?
C is for Coverage, in which the BBC continues to eat ITV’s lunch in this Six Nations. The countdown to the kick-off in Edinburgh had everything; warm and engaging films, a hefty, lively, well-informed studio (if we’re picking nits, one plus three is always better than one plus four) and a reporter in the tunnel with a hard-boiled eye for the scoop. Eleven out of ten all round. Actually, make that ten out of ten. One point off for the graphic which said Nigel Owens was from the WFRU.
D is for Discrepancy, the discrepancy being Danny Care’s view of England’s preparation ahead of the Scotland game – ‘we couldn’t have had a better two weeks … we thought we’d trained brilliantly … the boys were fired up and ready’ – and Eddie Jones’s view – ‘we lacked intensity … it’s my job to get them ready for the game and I clearly did not do my job well enough.’ It’s not easy being a journalist and trying to make any sense of Eddie’s England.
E is for English, as in since when did English become the referees’ lingua franca in this Six Nations? What, even France/Italy? ‘Taken back,’ screamed Wayne Barnes as France shuffled the ball to Geoffrey Doumayrou who – sheepishly – hoofed it out of his twenty-two on the full. Look, if the referee’s going to shout warnings to the players, could he at least do it in a language they understand?
F is for Finn. And for fabulous. To play like a dream after two matches playing like a drain took, as Jerry Guscott put it in the BBC studio, minerals.
G is for Garb; Gareth Thomas’s languid cravat from the England/Wales game upgraded for Ireland/Wales with a daring yellow and brown checked jacket, a dapper, Oxford blue waistcoat and a polka dot tie. By some distance, he’s the Beau Brummel of the Six Nations thus far, although an Honourable Mention to the winter Pashmina worn by Joe Worsley in Marseilles. Brave is the only word for it.
H is for Hughes; Nathan Hughes who, as he was introduced to the Princess Royal ahead of the anthems at Murrayfield, went down on one knee and appeared to propose to Her Royal Highness. Never mind the punch-up in the tunnel, did she say ‘yes’?
I is for Indiscretions, which clobbered each of the losing sides this weekend. Italy gave away sixteen penalties, Wales ten and England thirteen. England’s penalty epidemic has been threatening to catch up with them for a while now, that and their manifest shortcomings at the breakdown.
J is for Johnson; Martin Johnson, famously ‘the grumpiest man in rugby’ – quote Graham Rowntree – who offered the BBC studio in Edinburgh a glimpse of what a genial presence he can be; bright, bushy-tailed and, as ever, right on point. ‘On days like this you wake up hating the world,’ he said. ‘You just have to do it to them before they do it to you.’ Ah, what would England have given on Saturday for a bit of Johnson in their pencil.
K is for Kooky, which is the politest word I can find to describe the French TV coverage of the anthems ahead of France/Italy. Even in a half empty stadium, there is nothing anywhere in rugby – and I mean anywhere – to top ‘La Marseillaise’ when it’s sung in Marseilles yet the director missed every shot. And, while we’re there, his replays were krap too.
L is for Last Quarter, otherwise known as Anscombe O’clock or Ireland’s Afternoon Siesta. If Wales open up (England away and now Ireland away) only when Gareth goes to fly-half, maybe someone should consider starting him there? And why do Ireland’s tight defensive lines get so many rings run round them in the last twenty? Three tries conceded, at home, in successive matches? They need – still – to sort out their edges.
M is for Man of the Match; no issues with Bastareaud or Russell – and I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the Oscar-winning performance of the green Farrell – but Ireland against Wales was incontrovertibly Jonny Sexton’s flick. The Stockdale try: made by a flat, fizzer straight across the face of the Welsh defence; the Aki try: set up by Sexton’s wrap for Earls and the fly-half’s bossing of Bundee’s crash ball; the Leavy try: the initial break made by Sexton’s pump-pass to Kearney and finally, the Healey try, which started with Sexton smashing Moriarty behind his own whitewash and then picking and going into Steff Evans to breathe new life into a dead move. And all this when his first three shots at goal had looked like man kicking dead fish. Sexton is bestriding this narrow Six Nations like a Colossus.
N is for Negri, as in Sebastian Negri, truly a man amongst men not just because he played a blinder for Italy against France – thereby besting the outstanding Yacouba Camara – but because he swapped shirts at the final whistle with a man who, last month, reportedly, called him a ‘fucking faggot’. Now that is pure class.
O is for Objects; in the sense that – as it was once explained to me – men see objects, women see the relationship between objects. This presumably explains why, as thirty, hairy-arsed rugby players headed back down the tunnel to the dressing rooms after the warm-up at Murrayfield, the only person who saw them slapping each other was the BBC’s Sonja McLaughlan. Hats off to John Barclay, though, who, hot on the final whistle, had his ‘fracas alibi’ ready and waiting. He was, he said, in the cludgie.
P is for Prophecy, not least John Barclay (him again) and his prescient hunch that Finn Russell would be Man of the Match against England, a prophecy trumped – just – in Marseilles by JP Pietersen’s prediction that Matthieu Bastareaud would not only win ‘L’Homme du Match’ but also score a try. I’d like JP’s lottery numbers next week, please.
Q is for Questioning, as in will Scotland – amid the orgy of self-satisfaction in stuffing the Auld Enemy – be questioning what happened to the try bonus point? You have three scores in the bag at half time, you should really be knocking off the fourth, assuming you’re in this Championship to win it rather than just settle a few age-old gripes with the neighbours. Had they done so – eight points becomes nine – they’d be travelling to Dublin with their Six Nations destiny in their own hands.
R is for Racy; namely, the rather racy knickers worn by Matteo Minozzi which, as revealed during a ruck in Marseilles when his shorts got tangled round his socks, appeared to be some kind of tartan. Matteo McMinozzi?
S is for Stool, which is what Martin Bayfield needs to sit on when he’s pitch-side with the likes of Shane Williams and Gordon D’Arcy, otherwise you end up with something that looks like the Head of Geography talking to a couple of Year Sevens about their rivers and estuaries project. It was tough to believe the three of them were the same species.
T is for Time; specifically how much time was ‘lost’ during the Ireland/Wales game while kickers lined up pots at goal? Take a guess. Five minutes? Ten minutes? How about nearly a quarter of the match or, to be exact, nineteen minutes and one second, this being as exact as you can be when you’re on a bean bag looking at your wristwatch and holding a cold beer. That’s no criticism of the kickers – who get 90 seconds for a conversion once the try’s scored and 60 seconds for a penalty once a shot at goal’s been indicated – but that’s an awful long time for the rest of us to be watching Leigh Halfpenny taking off his scrum-cap and Jonny Sexton doing deep breathing exercises. How about ‘Time Off’ during penalties and conversions and ‘Time On’ at the restart? That gives the boot-boys the time they deserve and the crowd twenty minutes of action it’d otherwise be missing. Just a thought.
U is for Unquestionably, as in unquestionably The Hit of the tournament so far was Simone Ferrari’s shutdown of Geoffrey Doumayrou’s tap-and-go penalty five yards out from the Italian line in Marseilles. It was like watching a head-on collision between a Porsche and a Chieftan tank.
V is for Verily, as in, verily do England need to up their game in the contact area. Samoa broke up their breakdown routine back in the autumn and Scotland tore it to shreds in Edinburgh. ‘We thought the contact area offered opportunity,’ said Gregor Townsend afterwards. ‘The breakdown is the game,’ agreed Martin Johnson, or in this case, it’s The Game, The Set and The Match.
W is for Worse, as in which looks aesthetically worse; Italy’s gold numbers or Scotland’s white socks? I think it’s the socks. What happened to the blue ones?
X is for XXXXL, this being the size of Wenceslas Lauret’s biceps. I don’t wish to sound homoerotic but each is about as big as Bournemouth.
Y is for Yoda, Joe Worsley’s short, sharp description of his former boss at Bordeaux-Begles, Jacques Brunel, who now has the thankless job of guiding France; not sure, though, whether this was a reference to Brunel’s looks, his longevity, his anastrophic speech patterns or his dexterity with a light-saber. Alas, the BBC’s interviewer, Lee MacKenzie, didn’t ask.
Z is for Zero, being the number of times Ireland lost the ball at the breakdown against Wales. The Irish side of a ruck is harder to get into than a miser’s purse and – judged solely on the tackle area in Dublin and Edinburgh last weekend – England against Ireland on 17th March looks set to be the mismatch of the Six Nations thus far.
27 FEBRUARY 2018