Note the date. Saturday 21st March. Super Saturday, although that turned out to be somewhat of an understatement. Staggered kick offs across the last round of the Six Nations meant seven hours of rugby, calculations and hope. All emotions came and went. And in conclusion, overwhelmingly, despite this phrase being overused to the point of comedy, rugby was most definitely the winner.
When you close your eyes and try and recall defining moments of the afternoon, there is a good dozen clamouring for your attention; Halfpenny downed and Liam Williams running in open spaces; Warburton’s high knees and Lydiate’s low tackles; the Italians, off script, going the length of the field and Wales fearing the worst. Irish eyes smiling as they opened up Scotland; O’Connell and O’Brien both stretching for the line; Heaslip’s bear like paw dislodging the ball from Hogg’s desperate grasp. England starting as they meant to go on; France remembering that they too could trust a wide game; the thrust and counter-thrust of a match to top them all; Haskell’s headless lunge; and of all people, a prop-forward, there on the end of a 70 yard score to break English hearts.
For all the incredible and positive rugby, there was a healthy sprinkling of peculiarity. The difference between the first and second half in Rome was odd. The hyperbole ushered forth as Wales ran in seven tries was due mainly to the contrast of the two periods. The greatest Welsh performance? Perhaps not, but it had the valleys dreaming. Peculiar too was the way that Scotland appeared to walk to Ireland’s heel. With everything to play for and nothing to lose, the boys in navy blue seemed, with only the briefest of interludes, to offer little resistance. For a team that, for me, has wonderful potential, the opportunity appeared to pass them by. Scottish pundits lamented and everyone north of the border prayed for a dour England performance to lift their spirits. They got the opposite.
The best, and most unusual game of rugby, was certainly saved for dessert. England, like a golf pro out on the course looking at a scoreboard of players back in the clubhouse, knew what they had to do. They fizzed into action and to continue the golfing analogy, birdied the first; Twickenham began to believe. But for the impossible to happen, there was the small matter of the French. All they needed to do was play the blunt, narrow, unimaginative rugby they’d been peddling for the last few months. Not a bit of it. Seemingly kicked into gear by the openness with which England wanted to play, France fell in love with rugby again. It was bizarre; it was England who needed to score tries and yet this positive mindset had the French saying ‘Mai oui, of course, we shall too!’ It was glorious. The spirit of Sella infused les Bleus, so much so that at one stage I swore I heard Nigel Owens, the referee, shout the famous centre’s surname at a break down. Maybe I was starting to hallucinate, heady mixes such as this can do things to you.
Let’s just mention Owens here. He more than contributed to this majestic game. He allowed an ebb and flow that had us all smiling and mouthing the words ‘let the boys play’. Yet, he was didactic when necessary; his stern words with Mike Brown had England’s Mr Angry avoiding eye contact and shuffling his feet like a kid being told off by a teacher in front of his parents. There was also heavy intervention from TMO Ben Skeen. In what must be seen as a direct tribute to the man Owens had replaced, the quite beautiful Steve Walsh (pic left), the big screen involvement was almost record breaking*. And these referrals only served to crank up the tension to beyond bearable.
The eccentricity of the whole match up was summed up when Owens and Skeen were asked to work their hardest. Noa Nakaitaci, the French winger, ran through to score one of France’s unplanned first-half tries. And in attempting to steal an extra yard nearer the post, the French Fijian suddenly found the dead ball line looming and himself running out of room; he had to get the ball down ‘tout suite’. Infinitesimal moments were examined, fingertips and stud length came into the reckoning. Owens and Skeen deliberated back and forth. And, as though not giving it would not be in keeping with the overall mood of the afternoon, the try stood.
Another contentious moment; Lawes on Plisson. A devastating tackle that was part rugby, part seatbelt-free car crash. Slo-mo and freeze frames were once again called into action. Lawes knew the ball would have gone by the time he hit the French fly-half. But his timing was such that he knew the ref would apply the laws to say it was fair. It was perfect angle-shooting form from the Saint with a sinful reputation for realigning vertebrae.
The game tumbled on, pulling us in every conceivable direction; the length and breadth of Twickenham was utilised. Every cliche was met. It wasn’t even over until the final whistle. With the clock gone red, France quick-tapped a penalty from their own line and with England only needing a converted score to take the trophy, Ireland reached in unison for their French obscenity phrasebook. Eighty minutes, ninety points and two sides who tried everything they could but came up short. Ireland lifted the trophy in Murrayfield and Joe Schmidt, the Ireland head coach, who had masterminded a worthy championship victory, immediately mentioned plucky England. I’d go one step further. The Northern hemisphere should be very proud. Rugby like this comes along very infrequently. To have three matches of such quality will have had Steve Hansen, the All Black supremo who was so dismissive of the Six Nations last week, choking on his breakfast.
If only we were hosting a World Cup sometime soon. It would give us all something to look forward to. I mean, with rugby like this, one of us could win it, couldn’t we?
(*The actual record is held by Walsh – in a Super Rugby game in 2007, Stevo asked to look at the action and himself, an incredible 134 times. On two occasions, he asked the man upstairs whether the colour of his shirt clashed with his complexion.**)
(**all, unfortunately, untrue)
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.