Who doesn’t love a good denouement? I mean, really, what beats it? Why else, for example, would you wade through as portly and as ham-fisted a film as ‘A Few Good Men’ if it wasn’t for Jack Nicholson – a bulldog in close-up – finally and memorably licking the piss off Tom Cruise’s nettle? Indeed, the crackle, the tremulous uncertainty, the climactic intensity of the final reel – of any final reel – is very often better than sex. At least, it is if you’re my age.
Which explains why – when ‘Super Saturday’ came – I was entrenched in front of my free-to-air TV with sandbags at the door, the phone off the hook and my slide rule sharpened, not just to compute the ebb and flow of the final day of the Guinness Six Nations but to stab anyone barging in to ask where the extension cable was or to catch up on ‘Neighbours’. In a strictly segregated household, the dog – and the dog alone – was Access All Areas.
And yet as engrossing, as hectic and – at times – as baffling as the final day proved to be, the flames flickered but never quite took hold. England did their best to keep everyone’s door wide open; France – briefly and brilliantly – threatened a miracle, and Ireland fought tooth and nail but, in the end, the bookmakers had it right; ‘Fast Eddie’ was 1/3 on going into the weekend and, as much as the rest of us were gagging for a three-way, adrenaline-fuelled crapshoot, it just wasn’t to be.
But there were compensations. Certainly, if you cheerfully subscribe to the view that war is a catalogue of blunders, you’ll have loved Wales against Scotland. The Welsh were a riot of penalties – an eye-watering 16, 11 of them at the ruck – and neither Ryan Elias nor Fraser Brown could have found a first-half jumper had they be given a compass and a map. In fairness, the weather didn’t help; it was so windy even the seagulls were walking.
When the BBC graphics team posted 15 hard-boiled Scottish mug shots on the screen prior to the kick-off, at least 13 of them looked guilty as charged.
Wales – unusually – looked bereft and five defeats in a row rounds off a tough opening year for coach Wayne Pivac; then again, he had a torrid honeymoon at the Scarlets and ended up bathing in asses’ milk, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too judgmental about the defending champions besting absolutely no one in the final table bar the abject Italians.
And there were plus points; not least the redoubtable Will Rowlands, the unimpeachable Liam Williams and the debutant Shane Lewis-Hughes, who put in 21 tackles and made a couple of quite sumptuous offloads. If AWJ is looking to hand on his torch anytime soon – unlikely, but you never know – then SLH could well be as safe a pair of hands as he’ll find.
Scotland, though, look to have ditched fantasy rugby in favour of pragmatic rugby and, in so doing, discovered some edge; indeed, when the BBC graphics team posted 15 hard-boiled Scottish mug shots on the screen prior to the kick-off, at least 13 of them looked guilty as charged.
Certainly, no one shipped fewer tries in the 2020 Six Nations – a meagre five, with England a distant second on nine. On top of that, the Scottish scrum has grown horns, Zander Fagerson’s all-court excellence is rattling cages and, in the final 10 minutes, the game-management of Ali Price was exemplary. At the final whistle, coach Gregor Townsend unwrapped a smile that was almost as wide as his monogrammed mask.
ITV had Italy against England; a carriage which, in televisual terms, was drawn by a troika of Jonny Wilkinson, Sir Clive Woodward and Lawrence Dallaglio. Either Italy weren’t deemed to be worth representing in the studio or Lawrence was doubling up. If he was, no doubt he’ll invoice twice. Trying to pull a fast one on LBND is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.
Tom Curry is becoming almost unplayable, Maro Itoje is what makes the opposition wake up the night before a game in a cold sweat, Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph are, without doubt, the prettiest centre combination England have ever fielded.
England were a bafflement; up and running from the ‘B’ of the bang but, thereafter, strangely content to hoof the ball to an Italian team they should have been blowing clean off the park. Arguably, half-time was their smartest 15 minutes of the game but, even so, watching Owen Farrell clatter conversions off the uprights, you wondered whether leaving Ireland with the ‘luxury’ of a single-digit winning margin in Paris was too much of a hostage to fortune.
Truly, it was scruffy but, then again, this was England’s first hit-out in seven months with umpteen alterations and no warm-up game; that said, you’d have backed New Zealand in similar circumstances to have stuck 60 on the board and – ultimately – that’s the measure that matters. Put in this way, if you play Italy and Anthony Watson is totally anonymous, you’re doing something wrong.
There were plus points for England. Tom Curry is becoming almost unplayable, Maro Itoje is what makes the opposition wake up the night before a game in a cold sweat, Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph are, without doubt, the prettiest centre combination England have ever fielded and Ben Youngs doesn’t look a day older than the kid who ran round Australia in Sydney on his first start in 2010.
Tellingly, Italy’s best player on the day was an Englishman and as much as Eddie Jones appears to be spoilt rotten with back-row sweetmeats, Jake Polledri might yet prove to be the gobstopper who got away.
But, to put England’s performance into unvarnished context, Italy are penniless and, loath as I am to agree with ‘The White Knight’, their insistence on continually hitching their wagon to the latest four-year plan would make even a Stalinist weep. Tellingly, their best player on the day was an Englishman and as much as Eddie Jones appears to be spoilt rotten with back-row sweetmeats, Jake Polledri might yet prove to be the gobstopper who got away.
All of which left France and Ireland wrestling to try to better England, a flawed gem of a game in which – effectively – both teams beat each other to leave the English holding the pot. That said, there was a point in there – a couple of points in there – where you genuinely thought that the indomitable CJ Stander and James Ryan would swing it Ireland’s way or the irrepressible half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack would work wonders for Les Bleus. It was a cracker of a match impeccably refereed by Wayne Barnes who, these days, is the best whistle in the world.
The Green Machine were a puzzle; here, they took the three, there, they went for the seven. Stranger still for a team who almost guarantee you clockwork basics, the cogs clogged up and the wheels fell off the set-piece. And, while you’re there, when was the last time you saw Ireland substitute both Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton when the result was still in the balance? In his merrier moments, the skipper has an infectious, almost boyish smile; suffice to say, it was not readily in evidence as Sexton left the field in Paris 12 minutes shy of the final whistle.
In Dupont and Ntamack – the Smith and Mo’unga of northern-hemisphere rugby – the French have a half-back combination that runs like hot butter off a dumpling.
France, though, are finally playing to their DNA; Julien Marchand… Bernard Le Roux…. François Cros, captain Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt are one of the best back rows anywhere… Virimi Vakatawa has alchemy in his fingertips… and in Dupont and Ntamack – the Smith and Mo’unga of northern-hemisphere rugby – the French have a half-back combination that runs like hot butter off a dumpling. The 2023 World Cup on home soil is already looking like a long shot for anyone wearing anything other than a blue shirt.
Overall, though, it was the strangest of Saturdays and the strangest of Six Nations; elongated by the pandemic, you could’ve conceived a child on the opening weekend and given birth to it on the last. The anthems, understandably given the vacuum, were depressingly, almost excruciatingly, threadbare and it was grim to see the likes of AWJ, Youngs, Jamie George and Cian Healy – worthies all – miss out on the full-throated fanfares they so richly deserved.
The broadcasters made the best of it. ITV got some decent access to the England bunker, although the effects they used to dress the barren Stadio Olimpico sounded a little like teeming rain; far better the naked noise of Paris where earthy expletives were a dime a dozen and Bundee Aki’s match commentary was almost uninterrupted.
In fairness, Aki still has a way to go match the outstanding Andrew Cotter – commentator, dog whisperer and, on a blustery day in West Wales, bamboozled meteorologist – who dovetailed delightfully with Jonathan Davies and Chris Paterson. Equally entertaining – but, you suspected, nowhere near Rome – were Ben Kay and David Flatman who were, in turn, observant, incisive and witty. A small bouquet here, too, to ITV’s lead singer, Nick Mullins, who knows exactly when to supply the lyrics and when to step back and let the rest of the band expand the riff.
Twosomes in commentary seem to have outlived their shelf-life these days; even more so the idea of – almost provocatively – pairing a moderate with a militant.
In the studio in Paris, sorry I meant Salford, the BBC had a monstrous combination in Martin Johnson and Paul O’Connell, two rugby leviathans whom you’d cheerfully listen to all night long. You wouldn’t always agree but you’d definitely walk away warmer and wiser. Both made umpteen telling points, not least that while France will kill you faster than cheap whiskey, their innate indiscipline will always leave them wide open to a counter-puncher and so it proved with 14 penalties and yet another sin-bin on Saturday night. Discipline, clearly, is the Eiffel-sized issue that Fabien Galthie needs to address over the next three years.
The other double act on the BBC’s bill was the fabled Eddie Butler and Brian Moore. Twosomes in commentary seem to have outlived their shelf-life these days; even more so the idea of – almost provocatively – pairing a moderate with a militant. On paper, it looks perfectly balanced but, in practice, it can often sound as though you’re listening to a middle-aged married couple having breakfast. Curmudgeonly camaraderie is a tight line to walk.
But whatever style of game you’re trying to play, commentators, like the teams they’re talking about, need to get their basics right. You simply can’t be misidentifying players or the clubs they represent, or barging in unannounced on each other’s sentences, or missing substitutions or pontificating on the referee and the TMO when they’re discussing a potential penalty try. To borrow a well-worn word, it’s dull.
On a wider and happier note, if you’re looking to pull some threads out of the Six Nations, then rarely has the northern hemisphere been better blessed with back rows. Of the 15 MotMs on offer in this Championship, 12 went to No6s, No7s and No8s – Aldritt (3), Jamie Ritchie (2), Stander (2), Justin Tipuric, Hamish Watson, Sam Underhill, Courtney Lawes and Will Connors – and the remaining three to half-backs – Youngs (2) and Ntamack. And for what it’s worth it was another back-row, Ollivon, whose four tries made him the tournament’s top scorer.
But while it was England who worthily walked away with the pot – and, fair play, they had just the two home games, while France, Ireland and Wales each had three – the headline of the 2020 Championship was the resurgence of France. Much has been said and written about the Shaun Edwards effect and their new-found defensive tenacity and, no question, they’re better without the ball than they were. But they conceded 13 tries; indeed, only Italy – a hopeless 25 – gave away more.
In truth, what France appear to have done is rediscover their romance with rugby and, with it, their ruthlessness. Unlike lesser teams, they don’t need a bundle of ball to rip you apart; indeed, it’s their clinical ability to punish the smallest of errors and convert the slimmest of chances that makes the Blues look so strikingly similar to the Blacks. Once Edwards seriously gets to grips with the defence and the fourth-quarter fitness, they’ll be hotter than mustard.
And let’s not forget that on the opening night in Paris back in early February, when France led England 24-14 in the 80th minute, they mistakenly kicked the ball dead with 10 seconds remaining. From the resulting scrum, England got a penalty that Farrell kicked to make it 24-17 and snaffle the losing bonus point which – ultimately – nicked the Six Nations Championship on points difference ahead of – ahem – France.
On such slender margins are trophies lost and won.