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FEATURE The Last Chance Saloon

The Last Chance Saloon
3 months ago

Into the closing furlong of what’s been a rousing, rip-roaring Six Nations and, at the risk of sounding small-minded, one last chance for certain TV co-commentators – no names, no pack-drill – to learn how to pronounce Uini Atonio. For the record, Atonio is a Bunyanesque, tight-head prop from La Rochelle while Antonio was a merchant from Venice with a cash-flow problem; the contrasting pounds of flesh are the giveaway. Apologies for opening up with what appears to be a pettifogging gripe but it’s been nagging like toothache for the past six weeks.

So, theoretically, four teams still have a whack at this, assuming the Age of Miracles isn’t dead. But in a level reckoning – a risky phrase to type in this year’s Six Nations – you’d gather that a meagre, losing bonus-point would statistically suffice for Ireland, unless, of course, England wallop France in a flurry of tries by – what – 80+ points in Lyon or Scotland stick an unanswered 40+ on Ireland in Dublin or France win by … look, enough of all this tarradidling. It’ll be Ireland’s pot – no doubt swept up in some style – and deservedly so. Anatomy of a Fall last week, they’ll be much more Oppenheimer this and, thereby, round off a scrapbook seven days for Cillian Murphy.

Ireland may not have been at their tyrannous best on the pitch at Twickenham last weekend but off it, they were as classy as ever. Peter O’Mahony reaching across the aisle in the tunnel to shake Danny ‘Centurion’ Care’s hand – the one that wasn’t full of small children – was a typically generous touch; so too Andy Farrell’s news conference afterwards. ‘I thought England deserved it so congratulations to them,’ he said. ‘We’ve been very good at winning. We now have to be good at losing.’ It’s a rare thing in sport to find that level of emotional intelligence. Or, perhaps, as Auden put it: ‘it’s defeat that proves we’re alive’.

Danny Care
Danny Care hitting the 100 caps mark saw his brood of children taking centre stage (Photo by Dan Mullan – RFU Getty Images)

Scotland – Poor Things – have a notional shot at a Triple Crown in Dublin and given their results so far in this Six Nations shape up like a cardiogram, perhaps we shouldn’t write them off. But, increasingly, this looks like a team which clears its throat and then finds it has nothing to say. The measure of the madness is that they scored a try-bonus point in Rome but still lost; novel enough but still a nonsense. The Calcutta Cup may be theirs but the Cuttitta Cup is very much Italy’s.

Frankly, there are instruments of torture – racks, thumb-screws, keelhauling – that are but a pale insignificance set against the excruciating agonies of being a Scotland supporter. Isn’t there a United Nations Convention that outlaws this sort of thing? Certainly, with calmer heads and clearer thinking, their team would be heading to Dublin this weekend hunting down a Tartan Slam; as it is, it’s by no means implausible that they could finish fifth. Like Schubert’s Eighth Symphony, they’re joy to behold yet they remain, somehow, Unfinished.

Wales will be smarting. Not only were they  overpowered by the French on their own patch last weekend but they were also out-sung by the chicken-hatted boulevardiers in the stands; bizarrely, there were times when the Principality Stadium sounded more like Le Parc des Princes.

Arguably, the most intriguing game of the final weekend – unusually so for what is, to be blunt, a fool’s face-off – will be in Cardiff as the Welsh and the Italians try to ram the wooden spoon down each other’s throats. Wales will be smarting. Not only were they  overpowered by the French on their own patch last weekend but they were also out-sung by the chicken-hatted boulevardiers in the stands; bizarrely, there were times when the Principality Stadium sounded more like Le Parc des Princes. Warren Gatland afterwards pointed to a lack of game management in the final quarter while the Welsh supporters pointed to Gatland’s decision to change both half-backs just before the hour. Both had a valid point.

Wales’ other ticklish issue was the gameplan; specifically, the limited usefulness of ‘running the big, French forwards off their feet’ given the six lumps you exhaust in the first half will be replaced by six other lumps in the second. Le Bench French had – as they say over the Narrow Sea – trop and while there were holes to exploit in a disjointed defence, you do sort of need the ball to be able to take advantage, tricky when France, as Gregory Alldritt deliciously put it afterwards, were dominating the colly-johns. It was tough on the Welsh players who gave it every last hywl; indeed, as Dafydd Jenkins proved in his post-match interview, a heavy heart bears not a nimble tongue.

Alex Mann
It was a familiar tale for Wales as they fell away in the closing stages to a jumbo-sized French pack (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Italy still don’t seem to have convinced the bookmakers who make them a 13/5 shot to win this weekend in Cardiff. I’m not sure gambling has ever offered better value. Ball in hand in Rome last weekend they were, at times, operatic: without it, their sod-you, not-this-time defensive effort was eye-popping. Top that off with a Lynagh scoring a try in a Test match for the first time in 29 years and it was some story.

The numbers give you the context; those surrounding the fixture – 26 home defeats in a row in the Six Nations – and those Italy had to overcome to win it – 3-14 down after 13 minutes and 10-22 down after 33. What Gonzalo Quesada seems to have done in double-quick time is marry the fervour to a framework and instil both composure and self-belief. Certainly, on the back of the French game in Lille, this was the most significant and most stirring Six Nations win we’ve seen anywhere in this tournament in many a long year. In short, it was an absolute joy.

Sharper than a shard of glass, Le Garrec gave the Welsh seven tons of trouble, his reward for winning Player of the Match being several, hefty slaps on his tête from his forwards.

France appear to have rediscovered the spirit of Charlemagne or, more prosaically, their oomph, although quite why it’s taken four games for Fabien Galthié to start with Nolann Le Garrec will remain one of the mysteries of this or any other Six Nations. Sharper than a shard of glass, he gave the Welsh seven tons of trouble, his reward for winning Player of the Match being several, hefty slaps on his tête from his forwards. If this was a congratulation, what, you wondered, might they offer him as a chastisement?

From a personal point-of-view, Nolann owes me a glass of single malt, this being what fell to the floor when he unleashed his retreating, off-balance, forty-metre, reverse spiral to Thomas Ramos, an audacity matched only by his unerring accuracy. Antoine Who? You just hope that rugby history’s – still – most venerable and notable nine was in the stadium to see it; the smile on Sir Gareth Edwards’ ever-generous face would’ve been something to behold.

Pierre Schoeman
Scotland ran into a steadfast Italian defence as their Six Nations campaign imploded in Rome (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

France will fancy rounding off their Six Nations salvage job back in Lyon but, equally, England will be fancying much the same. Tough week, no question, for the one-eyed, wax-jacketed Borthwick-haters – ‘can I recommend the humble pie for you this evening, sir?’ – but twilight at Twickenham last Saturday felt like The Last Night of the Proms; not just the Glory but – bugger me – Hope to go with it. As history has proven, an underdog England in south-west London is capable of biting absolutely anyone.

Certainly, after five years of – too often – onion-patch rugby, here, finally, were some petunias. Defensively, England infected Ireland like a disease – ruck, line-out, James Lowe’s left boot – and, ball-in-hand, were almost unrecognisably slick and inventive, at times going through the storied Irish defence in much the same manner as crap goes through a goose. The measure of Ireland’s excellence was that they were – still – just sixty seconds shy of keeping the Grand Slam train on the rails but George’s boys were having none of it. ‘Probably,’ said the skipper afterwards, ‘one of the most emotional and proud days of my career.’

The incongruity of England’s performances against Scotland and Ireland feels almost inexplicable. At Murrayfield, they looked like the missing link between potatoes and pebbles yet at Twickenham they were bristling with intent and smarter than spit. Go figure.

Even now, a week on, the incongruity of England’s performances against Scotland and Ireland feels almost inexplicable. At Murrayfield, they looked like the missing link between potatoes and pebbles yet at Twickenham they were bristling with intent and smarter than spit. Go figure. No question, backing it up in Lyon this weekend would feel truly conclusive and if they can handle the French heft, there seem to be glaring fault-lines in Shaun’s defensive screen which the English can gleefully expose.

Yet again, though, it’s a Six Nations which engages all the emotions yet remains delightfully counter-intuitive. Last week the Scots had their fingers crossed for the English, this week the English for the Scots. Ireland’s Slam was, in no small part, undone by a Dublin-born Munsterman – Felix Jones – while an Italian son of Carmarthen – Stephen Varney – will this weekend be looking to condemn Wales to a wooden spoon. Time, once again, to stock up on the single malt. Nolann, I’m sending you the bill.

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