NOT OFTEN YOU GET AN INSIGHT INTO THE ALCHEMY OF SELECTION; THE HORSE-TRADING, THE HAGGLING, THE FORENSIC ANALYSIS OF THE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF RIVAL PLAYERS. BUT, HEREWITH, A RARE PEEK THROUGH THE KEYHOLE INTO THE CUT AND THRUST OF PICKING AN INTERNATIONAL RUGBY TEAM.
There’s no shortage of idle moments in the television business. Invariably – in the words of Debbie Harry – you hurry up and wait; a loitering which invariably leads to the savage character assassination of mutual acquaintances, some of whom – sadly – aren’t there to defend themselves but – much more enjoyably – many of whom are. Why, for example, would you want to stab Stuart Barnes in the back when he’s sitting right there in front of you sifting through the team wine gums and stealing all the red ones? He is a nefarious man and, rest assured, this is gleefully – rightfully – pointed out to him on a regular basis.
And last weekend in Dublin ahead of the Pro14 Final was no different. Slouching in the back of the OB truck like reservoir dogs, we’d already dissed Shane Horgan for turning up in clothes made of cardboard and ribbed Ieuan Evans for flogging all the way from Cowbridge at the crack of dawn to find he had no pass to get into the stadium. In fairness you don’t need to be as illustrious as Ieuan to find this an excruciation and it pained me to knife him. But, let’s be frank here, we both knew he’d have done the same to me.
So having wearied ourselves of each other and still with time to kill – the later the kick-off, the earlier you seem to get to the ground – we fell into an unruly discussion on an Old School Hollywood Leading Ladies XV, a vigorous debate which was still raging as the Leinster team bus pulled up at the front door. In fact had those entrenched in the ‘Elizabeth Taylor at fly-half’ corner not manfully conceded to the rebels in the ‘we’ve got to go with Judy Garland’ camp, we could well have missed the entire first half.
As ever with these selections, eligibility was a big issue. It’s like picking an Animal XV; if you go with the octopus at scrum-half and bench the monkey, is this going to prompt protests from SeaWorld about pilfering players and, at the same time, alienate the apes? Will baboons everywhere be on social media saying; hoi, why am I busting my – bright red – ass week in, week out if you’re just going to parachute marine life straight into a Beasts Fifteen? And, as I’m sure Brad Shields would agree, they’d have a point.
So in this instance – as we old timers hunkered down to debate the gain-line impact of Sophia Loren and the scrummaging technique of Gina Lollobrigida – we were interrupted by greener, tighter-skinned members of the team pitching for the likes of Juliet Binoche in the second row. Excuse me? Granted, she was fabulous in ‘The English Patient’ but there have to be serious doubts about her ball-carrying and her work at the line-out.
And, more importantly, how does she stack up against the Screen Goddesses of the Fifties? Could she hold a candle to Ava Gardner? Could she bring down Merle Oberon one-on-one? Thus did the Assistant Producers, Runners, Editorial Assistants and – frankly – anyone in the immediate neighbourhood under the age of fifty, slink off to the VT Truck to leave the pensioners to it.
Barnes wanted Catherine Deneuve at full-back. I’m not entirely sure she even counts as ‘Hollywood’ but he seemed to think there was a touch of the Blanco about her with pace to burn on the outside arc. Needless to say, he was roundly accused of spending far too many evenings watching ‘Belle du Jour’ and, in fairness, he didn’t disagree but, come what may, she was in. In hindsight I think he just shouted a lot louder than anyone else. This is often a winning gambit in selection meetings, that and the grim consensus that Deborah Kerr might be vulnerable under the high ball.
It was Miles Harrison who wanted Doris Day at nine; this being one of the many reasons why Harrison is (a) a dark horse and (b) a shrewd judge of rugby cattle. A renowned thigh-slapper with a pinpoint box-kick, DD was an obvious choice or, at least, she was once Milosh had insisted on her. No arguments there.
Claudia Cardinale at inside-centre was – I confess – my call; a hard-running, free spirit with a bit of ballast on the gain line and plenty of edge. I was after pairing her with the redoubtable Olivia de Havilland on the basis that if the high-flying Olivia – still going strong somewhere in Paris at the age of 101 – could famously keep pace with Errol Flynn back in the thirties, then holding the fort outside Claudia would be a breeze. But alas, I was out-voted and the majority was with Grace Kelly. A calumny. Inch perfect in ‘To Catch a Thief’ I can’t help but think she’ll be exposed defensively in the wide channels.
Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot got the wing positions. I don’t want to sound churlish given my – almost – unhealthy infatuation with all things Audrey but these two struck me as ceremonial selections. Both look short of pace and – like the porcelain Princess at thirteen – appear to be defensive liabilities. Personally I’d have gone with the fast feet of Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers but, as ever, I bow to democracy.
Fly-half, though, was the real bugbear. Elizabeth Taylor gave way to Vivien Leigh (Evans at full throttle) who in turn was superseded by Janet Leigh (Evans, again, at full throttle) before a Judy Garland rearguard won the debate. I’m not sure Alex Payne has even watched ‘The Wizard of Oz’ but his insistence that Judy’s kicking game would be ‘inch-perfect’ carried the day. I still have my doubts.
The forwards were much, much easier to pull together; indeed the pack is as workwoman-like as you could wish for. I particularly like the all blond ‘Pontypool’ front row – Monroe, Harlow, Mansfield – which has real torque and the kind of close-quarter grappling technique to put the fear of God into anyone. Out on the Lansdowne Road pitch, I even cross-checked this selection with the loveable Leinster scrum coach, John Fogarty. ‘Chest is important in props, no question’, he said, graciously mulling over our teamsheet. ‘Look at Tadhg and Cian. Big across the pectorals; it’s a must.’ This is arguably the first – and last – time that the breasts of Jayne Mansfield and Tadhg Furlong will ever appear in the same sentence.
Second row – again – was a no-brainer. Raquel Welch gives you genuine heft and edge – for those of you who’ve seen and admired ‘One Million Years BC’ – and Lauren Bacall, I’ve always thought, has a real presence. Who – let’s face it – hasn’t watched ‘The Big Sleep’ and thought, hey, that’s Brodie Retallick in a cocktail dress?
But it’s the back row that has me drooling; Joan Crawford at six, Bette Davis at seven – Hollywood’s answer to Cubby Boi – and Sophia Loren at Eight to give you some serious Vunipola on the gain line: now that’s a threesome that’s giving away absolutely nothing at the breakdown. Clearly we run the risk of Crawford and Davis getting sidetracked into an internecine bitch-fest but that’s a gamble we’re going to have to take. Head Coach, who else, would be Katherine Hepburn.
Admittedly it’s a starting fifteen that’s tough on Gina Lollabrigida and Barbara Stanwyck and – in terms of the twenty-three – even tougher on Liz Taylor, Vivien Leigh and Merle Oberon. But we’re expecting some serious impact from the bench with the straight-running Hedy Lamarr and the irascible Lana Turner. Greta Garbo – alas – didn’t make it. She wanted to be a lawn.
So we have …
- Catherine Deneuve 14. Audrey Hepburn 13. Grace Kelly 12. Claudia Cardinale 11. Brigitte Bardot 10. Judy Garland 9. Doris Day 1. Marilyn Monroe 2. Jean Harlow 3. Jayne Mansfield 4. Raquel Welch 5. Lauren Bacall 6. Joan Crawford 7. Bette Davis 8. Sophia Loren
- Lana Turner 17. Gina Lollabrigida 18. Ava Gardner 19. Marlene Dietrich 20. Barbara Stanwyck 21. Kim Novak 22. Hedy Lamarr 23. Natalie Wood
Head Coach: Katherine Hepburn.
All we need now is a team to play against …