ambrosia, anchor chains and the immense, improbable atlas …

A GREEN SLAM FOR IRELAND, A CALAMITOUS, FIFTH-PLACED FINISH FOR THE DEFENDING CHAMPIONS, AN ‘IF ONLY’ TOURNAMENT FOR FRANCE AND WALES, A CLOSE SHAVE FOR SCOTLAND IN ROME AND A TON OF GRIEF FOR SERGIO PARISSE; A COMPELLING 2018 SIX NATIONS – ALAS – DRAWS TO A CLOSE.

A is for AMBROSIA, which is what Rory Best and friends will be dining out on for the rest of Irish Rugby History after their coronation in the ticker-tape sleet of Twickenham. Indeed so comfortable were Ireland that – in terms of the match – ‘A’ was for ANTI-CLIMAX. England – let’s not kid ourselves – were never even close.

B is for BRIAN O’DRISCOLL who had a cheeky €150 on an Irish Clean Sweep at 7/2 back in early February and who’s now three and a half times the richer; delighted, I’m sure, but, presumably, wishing he’d been bolder. Proof positive – were it needed – that no one has ever bet enough money on a winning horse.

C is for CREDIBLE FEED, the preposterous edict from World Rugby at the beginning of the Six Nations to encourage scrum-halves to put the ball in straight which was refereed for the first ten minutes of the first match and forgotten thereafter. Gareth Davies poured the ball under Rob Evans’ socks throughout the Wales/France game. Presumably referee Ben O’Keefe had left his protractor back in the dressing-room next to his glasses.

D is for DROP GOAL, the one from Ronan O’Gara, which sealed a Slam for Ireland in the final game of the 2009 Six Nations in Cardiff, and the one from Jonny Sexton, which – effectively – sealed a Slam for Ireland in the first game of the 2018 Six Nations in Paris. Anything you can do …

E is for EDDIE JONES whose aim for the season – this is going back to October last year – was to ‘make the England team more uncomfortable … not have everything nice and rosy … have a bit of chaos in the camp’. He’s clearly succeeded.

F is for FRANCOIS TRINH-DUC, who had a seamless opening three minutes for France against Wales in Cardiff culminating in a sweetly-taken drop goal and then – bless him – had the longest brain fart in Six Nations’ history. What was he doing on the Liam Williams try? He looked like a man wearing a blindfold. And as Martyn Williams cruelly, but correctly, pointed out in the BBC studio, he was – after the peerless Alun Wyn Jones – Wales’ second-best player.

F is also for FRANCE, who should’ve beaten Ireland, Scotland and Wales and who did beat England and Italy. When they work out the difference between the penalties you need to concede and those you don’t – take a look at the thirteen Ireland gave away at Twickenham and learn the lesson – they’ll be a very decent team. For now, though, the ‘If Only’ award in the 2018 Six Nations is theirs and theirs alone.

G is for GATLAND whose Welsh team were runners-up both in the tournament and in the ‘If Only’ award, given they could’ve won in Twickenham and were one Hail Mary pass shy of a TBP win in Dublin. Wales now have depth like never before and, if and when the halt and the lame return, they’ll be in good fettle for Japan.

H is for HOOKER, specifically the French replacement hooker, Camille Chat, who is built from anchor chains. At one point during the Wales/France game in Cardiff, he tossed Aaron Shingler out of a maul like a sweet wrapper. The man has a neck that’s wider than his head. He is a muscle in a jockstrap.

I is for ITALIA, who did everything bar beat the scrapping Scots and their pizza-hatted hordes in Rome last weekend. It was little short of heartbreaking. On the plus side, the electric Matteo Minozzi became the first Italian to score four tries in a Six Nations but, less happily, the mighty Sergio Parisse has now lost 100 Test Matches, a distinction few deserve less and which, in all likelihood, will never be equaled. His Herculean one-man pick and go-and-go-and-go in the opening minutes against Scotland was one of the gems of the weekend’s action.

J is for JOE SCHMIDT who, right now, looks untouchable. Put it this way, if New Zealand don’t reclaim him post 2019 they’re fools and if they do, I’ll cheerfully bet the ranch that no one will beat the All Blacks ever again. Who else quietly noted – quite rightly – that Anthony Watson isn’t always the Bank of England under the high ball and that a cute variation of the Sexton/Furlong wrap would unpick the lock on England’s front door? There are microscopes that cannot focus on details as sharply as ‘Uncle Joe’.

J is also for JACQUES BRUNEL, who, however ludicrously his French team is behaving, never flickers in a television cutaway; forever a man in a deckchair at the end of the pier quietly considering the immense, improbable atlas.

K is for KEN OWENS, who gives his anthem as much as he gives his matches; a full-bore, five hundred per cent vocal in which, on the top notes, you can count every filling in his head. This man should be on ‘The Voice’. Someone – please – find him an application form.

K is also for KNACKERED as in – no excuses but – England’s Lions look so tired they probably have to sit down to pee. Owen Farrell, to take one example, has supposedly played 1,084 minutes for Saracens this season whereas Johnny Sexton’s played 434 for Leinster. Physically it’s sapping but it’s the brain that really needs refreshing. Stale is as stale does.

L is for LINES, specifically the Dead Ball lines at Twickenham which England – quite legally it should be said – shifted back into the one and nine-pennies ahead of the Ireland game to give themselves more room; the very room exploited to the last inch by Jacob Stockdale as he scored Ireland’s Slam-winning try. ‘The game does not love us at the moment’, said Eddie Jones, ruefully. Then again, there are times when, as someone once said of Jonathan Miller, England look too clever by three-quarters.

M is (yet again) for MULLINS; ITV’s Nick who remains one of On Air’s freshest breaths. Two of his colleagues – no names, no pack-drill – had reached deep into their bag of clichés in ITV’s build-up to England/Ireland to talk about the White Team looking to ‘spoil Ireland’s party’ whereas Nicholas, as he picked up his microphone post the anthems, suggested instead that they were looking to ‘stamp on Ireland’s Grand Slam balloon’. Yes, it’s small beer in the grand scheme of things but it does make a difference. M is also for MAGGIE ALPHONSI, the other very classy presence in ITV’s coverage.

N is for NUMBERS (TEAM) which show that in this Six Nations – big breath – Ireland averaged a try bonus point in every match, had the most possession per match (23mins 15secs) conceded the fewest penalties per match (7.6) and – surprisingly, perhaps – made the fewest turnovers per match (5.2). France averaged the most offloads (9.8) and had the best tackle percentage (92%). England conceded, on average, the most penalties per game (12.8) and – this is a genuine surprise – had the worst goal-kicking percentage (65%), whereas Scotland lost the most lineouts per game (2.4) and Italy had the least possession (16mins 6secs).

N is also for NUMBERS (INDIVIDUAL) which show that – another, even bigger, breath – Hogg, Watson(H), Parisse, Bellini, Parkes, Farrell, Itoje and May played every second of every game – if you like, the 400 minuters – and, on the flip side, Antoine Dupont of France had the smallest Six Nations cameo (7 minutes). Maxime Machenaud scored the most points (50) and Jacob Stockdale the most tries (a record-breaking 7). CJ Stander – surprise, surprise – made the most carries (96), Conor Murray the most kicks in play (42) and Stuart Hogg the most offloads (9). Jonny Gray racked up the most tackles (100), which was a staggering 25% more than the next best, Hamish Watson (80); Owen Farrell – honestly – missed the most tackles (17) whereas Leonardo Ghiraldini nailed his man 100% of the time, a stupendous 60 tackles out of 60 attempts. John Barclay and Matthieu Bastareaud made the most turnovers (7); Finn Russell conceded the most turnovers (14); Dean Budd and Mario Itoje gave away the most penalties (8); Itoje won the most line-outs (21) and Aaron Shingler stole the most line-out ball (3).

O is for OPEN-SIDE, the kind of rugged, all-court, ball-stealing, metre-munching, tackle-machine that England have been crying out for all Six Nations and …

… P is for POLLEDRI – Jake Polledri – who, twelve months ago, was buttering sandwiches in ‘Subway’ but who, last weekend, made his debut on Italy’s open-side against Scotland. In just over an hour, he made 13 carries, 12 tackles and 2 turnovers at the breakdown together with a midfield bust and a perfectly timed pass to set up Tommaso Allan for his second try. Polledri qualifies for Italy via his father, Peter, but was born in Bristol, educated at Filton College and Hartpury and plays for Gloucester. (See ‘O’)

R is for RAMPAGE, the only word to describe France No.8 Marco Tauleigne’s 67th minute twenty-metre rumble through the Welsh team in Cardiff. He threw away Ken Owens, shrugged off Cory Hill, fended off Alun Wyn Jones, broke clear of Dan Bigger, brushed aside a tenacious Jones – who’d typically come back for a second nibble – and skipped through the tackle of Josh Navidi. In fact, he beat more defenders in five seconds than Benjamin Fall managed in four matches. How he didn’t inspire his team to win that game – what with all the ball and all the grass France had in the second half – will forever remain one of rugby’s great mysteries.

S is for SEVENTY, being the years past since Ireland’s first Grand Slam in 1948, secured with a 6-3 win against Wales in front of 30,000 at Ravenhill; a victory inspired by the so-called ‘Boot, Bollock and Bite’ battle cry of captain Karl Mullen. The Slam was sealed with a try from Cork prop, JC Daly – a veteran of Monte Cassino and the London Irish Rifles – whose shirt was torn from his torso after the game and, reputedly, sold in one hundred shreds in the bars of Belfast that evening. Daly ended up spending a night in the cells after a run-in with some Orangemen and, as the team puffed back into Dublin Station the next day, he – reputedly – jumped into a sports car with a dashing blond and wasn’t seen again for a week. No question, my kind of man.

T is for THIRTY-ONE; the number of points scored by Ireland in this Six Nations when the clock was in the red zone; Sexton’s drop goal in Paris (82mins), Aki’s converted try against Wales (41mins), Stockdale’s converted try against Wales (81mins), Stockdale’s converted try against Scotland (41mins) and Stockdale’s converted try against England (41mins). No one has squeezed more juice out of the fruit than Ireland.

T is also for TEN which, as the excellent Rob Kitson pointed out in ‘The Guardian’, is the difference between the points scored by England in this Six Nations (102) and by Italy (92), not forgetting the fact that, as Kit-Kat deliciously put it, ‘Italy did not have the luxury of playing themselves.’

U is for UNFATHOMABLE, which, for a while now, has been the only word to describe Eddie Jones’ selections. He implies – post the Six Nations – that it’s but a staging post to Japan 2019 yet he starts against Ireland – no offence, Richard – with a scrum-half who hasn’t begun a Six Nations’ game for a decade and who’ll be 36 at the next World Cup. He – incorrectly – berates the BBC for disrespecting Mike Brown after the Wales win and then drops him for the France game. Brown then comes on as an injury replacement against Ireland and plays a 47 minute blinder. Ford and Launchbury – two of England’s recurring inspirations who between them have been MOM five times in the last thirteen England matches – are dropped for Ireland and Simmonds – again – played out of position at Number Eight. And where – you wonder – are the Porters, the Ryans, the Leavys, the Murphys, the Conans, the Carberys, the Akis, the Ringroses, the Stockdales and the Larmours of English rugby? As one frustrated England fan put it on social media: ‘For Sale – One chariot: needs two wheels and a driver.’

V is for VAHAAMAHINA; Sebastian Vahaamahina who, I swear, levered himself to his feet after a ruck in the Wales/France game in Cardiff by leaning – fist first – on Rob Evans’ testicles. Can you be cited for this?

W is for WORST, fifth place being England’s worst finish in the Six/Five Nations since 1983. Worst, though, is a relative term if you’re Eddie Jones. ‘It’s been our best Six Nations in terms of moving forward,’ he told BBC 5 Live after the Ireland game. ‘We’ve learnt a lot.’ This is the same Eddie Jones who, two years ago at a training camp in Portugal, said – without equivocation – that you never learn anything from a loss. As they say over the pond, go figure.

W is also for WORLD CUP, where Ireland – should you need reminding – will be in Pool A with Scotland, Japan and two minnows and where they’re unlikely to meet New Zealand until the final. Look, try to keep your lids on over there in Eire but, let’s be honest, opportunity will never, ever knock any louder than this. And, in a land of writers and rhymes, how poetic would it be if Ireland, having lost the 2023 World Cup, were to win in 2019?

X is for XPLAIN, as in, can you explain to me, please, why with eighteen minutes to go when you’re one point down yet comprehensively bossing the moss, you’d substitute a 90% goal-kicker – Maxime Machenaud – and thereby leave the potshots in the hands of a man – Francois Trinh-Duc – who’s having an afternoon that’s flakier than dandruff? Jacques? Hello? This from the same team that pulled off Machenaud after 73 minutes against Ireland whereupon Anthony Belleau missed a penalty from – almost – under the posts that would’ve left Ireland 16-12 down with two minutes to go and – probably – changed the shape of the 2018 Six Nations. Zut alors, indeed.

Y is for WHY, as in why does rugby tolerate players – usually scrum-halves – tapping and going when they know damn well the penalty’s been awarded to the opposition? I’m not going to point the finger here, Gareth Davies, because lots of people do it but, in future, could we recommend a ten-yard march back against the offending team, please?

Z is for ZLOTY, as in had I been given a zloty for every Australian player, coach, former player, ex-coach, media pundit and journalist on England’s tour Down Under in 2016 who’d said to me: ‘Eddie’ll be mustard for two years and then it’ll all fall apart’, I’d have two pounds fifty. And if I did have two pounds fifty, I’d cheerfully stick all of it on Ireland at 5/1 to win in Japan 2019. Brian? Who’s your bookie?

19 MARCH 2018

 

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