SO IT’S IRELAND’S CHAMPIONSHIP AND WHAT MORE BESIDES AS ‘YONDER WAITS THE SAXON FOE’; EDDIE JONES REACHES FOR THE STICKING PLASTER POST PARIS AND THE WOMEN OF WALES ARE OUT IN FORCE AS ITALY TRY TO FIND SOME ‘COMPOSTEZZA’ AMID THE BEETROOT SALAD. THE PENULTIMATE SIX NATIONS WEEKEND – ONCE AGAIN – IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER.
A is for ALL OVER BAR THE SHOUTING and with a week still to go. Ireland – and I’m sharing no secrets here – are clinical, crystal clear in what they’re doing and a country mile ahead of everyone else. And they’re not only winning but growing as they do it. Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Bundee Aki and Jacob Stockdale have all – almost seamlessly – been added to the mix this season (and that’s before you start talking Carbery, Conan, Murphy, Farrell and Larmour) and the depth can now be measured in fathoms; ironically, the only area where it can’t be measured in fathoms being the one area – half-back – where it might end up being needed the most. That’s – surely – Joe Schmidt’s No.1 priority between now and Japan in 2019.
B is for BELEAGUERED, which, by contrast, is where England suddenly find themselves. The warning lights were winking furiously during the autumn but suddenly the klaxons are in full cry. Never mind the breakdown, there isn’t a single part of England’s game that’s working; set-piece, maul, restarts, attack, defence; they look like fifteen oranges with no juice and – unlike Ireland – how many fresh faces have been integrated this past year aside from Sam Simmonds?
C is for COMPOSTEZZA – noun (f): translation, ‘composure’ – a liberal dose of which is all that’s keeping Italy from becoming a serious team. In tennis terms, they don’t play the big points with their heads on, the exact antithesis of Ireland who invariably strike when the iron’s hot and never pass up a break point. But if the Azzuri can fix that, they’ve the players – and now the coaching team – to become genuinely competitive.
D is for DALY – Elliot of England – whose wow-factor tap down to Jonny May will have scouts from the New York Knicks all over his mobile phone this week. ‘He’s the best back in the Northern Hemisphere’, says Jeremy Guscott. And probably the best point guard too.
E is for EIGHTEEN MONTHS, for EDDIE JONES and for ENGLAND, the first being how long the second reckons it could take the third to sort out its yips at the breakdown. E is also for EXCUSE ME? Eighteen months? Eddie, you get the same amount of time with your players as every other coach in the Six Nations and, trust me, Twickenham Man’s not going to wait until Japan 2019 for a remedy. Besides you’re playing Ireland on Saturday. You’ve got a week either to fix it or to find a mile-wide strip of sticking plaster.
F is for FLYING DOCTOR or, if you prefer, FLYING SCOTSMAN; either fits the fabulous Dr. James Robson who was bedside with Ryan Wilson precisely ten seconds after the Glasgow skipper fell stone unconscious onto the turf in Dublin on Saturday. Six World Cups with Scotland, six Lions Tours and, somewhere in between, a father to two daughters. ‘The players are the sons I never had,’ he once said. James, truly, is one of the rugby greats.
G is for GUSCOTT, yes, him again, who had a forthright afternoon in the BBC studio in Paris. ‘The England forwards are plodding.’ he said. ‘The attack is so passive; there’s no direction, no force, no intensity … there are no leaders out there and the execution is amateurish’. Always an unalloyed pleasure to listen to Jeremy politely, calmly, forensically sticking the boot in. G is also for GUARDIAN, one of whose online readers suggested England’s attack would struggle to score against a row of dustbins. Criticism is one thing. Mockery suggests patience is beginning to wear dangerously thin.
H is for HADLEIGH PARKES, who sounds like a stately home but who was the obvious Man of the Match for Wales against Italy; Jamie Roberts with knobs on, which is laurels indeed. Again, though, not at all certain about the MOM awards for Rob Kearney and Remy Grosso – no disrespect to either – but who were surely shaded by the indomitable James Ryan and the omnipresent Yacouba Camera respectively. Twelve MOMs in this Six Nations so far and who’s been the only forward chosen? Aaron Shingler.
I is for INTERCEPTION, the easiest five points – usually seven points – on the pitch and, no question, the party trick of Jacob Stockdale, who’s the Julian Savea of Irish rugby and the man everyone’s now wishing they’d picked in their Fantasy Six Nations’ Team. Interceptions, though, are everywhere in this year’s Six Nations – I’ve lost count to be honest – and you can see why teams are hunting them down; not just the soft points but the psychological damage it does to the ‘interceptees’. One minute you’re on the attack, the next you’re under your sticks, you’re seven points to the bad and you’re fit to spit.
J is for JACO PEYPER, the South African referee who was, clearly, separated at birth from Andy Robinson. You don’t think so? Well, how about Welsh prop Thomas Francis and French centre Matthieu Bastareaud? I’m deadly serious. Take a look.
K is for KINGHORN, another privately-educated Blair from Edinburgh, who had a more than impressive debut against Ireland and not just because he adroitly finished a quite beautifully worked 3D try, the one time in the match where the Scottish backs managed to pass the ball accurately from left to right. Swell name, too. Would I rather, I ask myself, be called Blair Kinghorn or Jefferson Poirot? It’s a tough call.
L is for LIAM WILLIAMS, who – along with Gareth Davies – will be peeling potatoes at the Welsh Training Camp this week; two sloppy yellow cards which led to both getting the Shepherd’s Crook from a glowering Warren Gatland. Williams was fortunate not to see red; he was head-high, he was reckless, he clobbered Minozzi two seconds after the whistle had gone and, in Jerome Garces, he was dealing with the referee who sent off Sonny Bill Williams in the Lions Series for a very similar offence. Silly.
M is for MARIO BASTAREAUD, as rechristened by the BBC’s Brian Moore in Paris – hey, we’ve all done something similar – and for which he humbly apologised. ‘I’ve heard you say worse,’ said Eddie Butler, which was the line of the weekend from the commentary box, just pipping Andrew Cotter’s, ‘hmm, cagey affair this’, as Wales and Italy served up three tries in the first ten minutes in Cardiff.
N is for NUMPTIES, which is the only polite word to describe the England team’s inability to adapt to its environment. Seventeen penalties in Paris, nine of them when they had the ball, but four of them for offside in one twelve-minute spell in the first half from which Maxime Machenaud kicked nine points. How does an international team give away four penalties for the same offence within little more than ten minutes without wising up?
O is for ONE MINUTE AND FIFTY-EIGHT SECONDS, which is precisely how long it took for James ‘Cubby Boi’ Davies to turn over his first ball in international rugby. By his standards, let’s be frank, that’s a little sluggish.
P is for PURPLE PAINT. Look, if the Six Nations is going to paint the pitch purple to puff the sponsors, could it at least use a dye that dries before kick-off? At times, Wales against Italy looked less like a game of rugby and more like a beetroot salad.
Q is for QUIDS IN, a – forgive me – vulgar reference to the €70,000 bonus supposedly awaiting the Irish players – according to the ‘Irish Independent’ – should they Slam the English in south-west London. And if you’re going by Brian O’Driscoll’s chipmunk grin – he was wearing the full-on, eighty-minute smirk in the ITV studio last Saturday – then history is beckoning like never before, ‘Everest the hard way’, as he put it, given the fixture list. But, then again, one small word of caution. Aside from the game in France they should’ve lost – Anthony Belleau’s missed penalty could yet prove The Decisive Moment of the Tournament – they’ve only beaten Japan, the USA and Italy away this past year, losing to both Scotland and Wales. Everyone’s looked good at home; can Ireland look equally impressive away against a steaming, vengeful England? It’s looking like a defining question.
R is for RINGROSE, who made just his seventh start of the season after returning from the operating table and played like a dream in Ireland’s win over Scotland. Peter Horne and Huw Jones are both fine players yet Gary ran Ringroses round them all day. He’s maturing into one hell of a player.
S is for SCOTLAND, who’ll be kicking themselves all the way back to Edinburgh Airport. A shambles at the line-out, soft penalties, poor execution and yet, for all that, no question they’re bang on track. McInally, Gray, Gilchrist and Barclay have been heroic.
T is for THUMBS UP, Taulupe Faletau’s comradely gesture to Tommaso Allan having just sawn him in half in Cardiff with the tackle of the tournament so far. Allan’s rueful smile was equally uplifting given the only thing still intact was his ‘Thunderbirds’ haircut.
U is for UNLESS, as in, unless I’m very much mistaken the youthful Sydney-sider, Angus Gardner, has the whistle on Saturday for England against Ireland, a referee who’s two years younger than Rory Best. Given how febrile the atmosphere will be, rather him than me.
V is for VAHAAMAHINA, the 2.02 metre, 126kg French second row whom the 1.74 metre, 87kg Danny Care was all set to pummel to a pulp during a brief second half dust-up in Paris until, that is, Yacouba Camera stepped in and dragged – a doubtless hugely relieved – Vahaamahina away. The narrowest escape of the Six Nations so far.
W is for WOMEN, as in, was there a woman in Wales who wasn’t at the Italy game on Sunday? The only men I could see beyond the ropes were Warren Gatland, Rob Howley, Shaun Edwards and Taulupe Faletau’s Dad. Just about every other crowd cutaway was wearing lipstick, a red shirt, a daffodil and a beaming smile. Utterly wonderful. Contrast with – for example – TW1, where Twickenham often looks like a cross between Boodle’s and the Wheeltappers’ and Shunters’ Social Club.
X is for X-ACTLY, as in exactly what was Lionel Beauxis doing in the last gasp of the England game? All he had to do was turn round and wallop the ball over the dead-ball line. Why try to find a tight touch under pressure and miss it, the imbécile?
And still with the rhetorical questions, Y is for WHY, as in why do French TV Directors find low-angle, close-up shots of whitewashed vertices so endlessly fascinating? Once a game is plenty, thanks very much.
Z is for ZILCH, which, alas, is what stocks and shares in Eddie Jones will be worth next Monday morning if England don’t turn up against Ireland on Saturday. And absolutely no one will understand that better than the Australian.
12 MARCH 2018