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Dai against Goliath

Graham Simmons

Was it inevitable that Covid-19 would find a way to bugger up the Six Nations? Given it’s buggered up everything else, you’d have to say ‘yes’. But given there are ever-so-slightly broader issues besetting the world right now, rugby should perhaps temper its understandable frustration over this year’s Six Nations being holed below the waterline. 

No question, though, it’s a mess given the rigidity of the oval calendar. Retaining the integrity of not just the France/Scotland fixture but the tournament as a whole appears – right now – to be a tough circle to square and the horse-trading behind the scenes will be frantic. But a spring Six Nations was always a gamble and it appears this particular betting slip is now confetti. Hey, sometimes you’re the windscreen and sometimes you’re the fly.

The Scots – privately – will be fit to spit. A fortnight ago, Gregor Townsend’s team went to Twickenham and unearthed a rare, exquisite, Tartan vase containing the elixir of eternal. life

The Scots – privately – will be fit to spit. A fortnight ago, Gregor Townsend’s team went to Twickenham and unearthed a rare, exquisite, Tartan vase containing the elixir of eternal life; a week later they took it home to the Murrayfield mantlepiece and dropped it in the hearth. Lord knows, it’s the hope that kills you. And now, on top of all that, hours of furious graft out on the gallops ironing out the wrinkles and rebuilding a head of steam has gone up in smoke. The rugby Gods are not being kind. 

And despite the Welsh pratfall, the Scots were looking hot. Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg, transplanted to Devon soil, are both ‘Baxtering’ beautifully; for anyone not familiar with this term, it’s a word which describes the inevitable, all-round growth and development of any player fertilised by the Exeter Chiefs. Added to that, Matt Fagerson too has been a force of nature and Hamish Watson – with or without the ball – has no reverse gear. The resemblance may not be immediately obvious but Scotland’s stand-out middleweight puts you very much in mind of Marvin Hagler. You can shove a stick of dynamite down his shorts but he’ll still find a way to put you flat on the floor. 

Stuart Hogg
Stuart Hogg had been looking very sharp in the opening rounds (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

There has to be some sympathy too for France. Whispers abound about whether Covid-19 snuck up on their blindside or whether someone left the front door of the bubble wide open but, no question, they were humming. No one else in this Six Nations has converted turf into tries with such ruthless brio; defensively brutal – tighter than Moliere’s ‘Miser’ – and with ball handling mules, an obdurate back row and a backline of musketeers they were – and they probably remain – the team to beat. Twickenham in a fortnight will tell us more. 

So, yes, the loss of McParis is a body blow; all the more so since, in the opening fortnight, the tournament was delivering in spades; indeed, aside from Ian ‘The Postman’ Poulter in a Ryder Cup, little in sport hits the spot with quite such monotonous magnificence. Yes, there are crepehangers and nit-pickers who mutter – perennially – about the lack of intrinsic rugby quality and – this year – about stadia with ‘neither body nor soul’ but, for sheer thrills and spills, the tournament – yet again – was mustard. 

No question, there’s a juicy grudge. For the Welsh it covers roughly eight centuries from the slaying of Llywelyn the Last through to the Tidal Lagoon in Swansea Bay; for the English it’s fifty years of being tolled a fat fiver just to drive over the bloody bridge.

And while we down to two courses this weekend, each is mouth-watering, not least the Dragon hosting St George or, if you prefer, Dai against Goliath; the iconography a testament to just how much history and hurt bubbles beneath this game. ‘Everything goes up a few per cent in the England week’, says Dan Biggar. ‘We once had a bloke head-butt the bus as we drove to the ground,’ says Clive Woodward. And, no question, there’s a juicy grudge. For the Welsh it covers roughly eight centuries from the slaying of Llywelyn the Last through to the Tidal Lagoon in Swansea Bay; for the English it’s fifty years of being tolled a fat fiver just to drive over the bloody bridge. Either way, it’s an unforgiving fixture.  

Wales thus far: are they good or are they lucky? Who cares? What matters is that they’re finding ways to win and swelling in confidence with every game. They appear to have oiled the line-out, shored up the defence, rejuvenated George North and discovered yet another Jones who’s turning in bravura performances week in week out; all this without mentioning the anointment of the Llandaff Lightning. Truly, that young man is faster than a wicked rumour. What is it with Wales and wings?

We should also give a knowing nod here to Wayne Pivac. Twice now his team have rolled off the ropes into the interval and twice they’ve come out for the second half and outpointed the opposition. Clearly, his team are scrappers but whatever the Head Coach is saying down there in the dressing room at half time is proving not just inspirational but astute; more than that, his deployment of his cavalry has been masterful. 

Kyle Sinckler
Kyle Sinckler’s return for England sparked a more dynamic performance against Italy (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

No question, the Welsh resurgence will be stinging the English, yet another reason perhaps why past and present are currently snapping towels at each other. Matt Dawson said Owen Farrell was ‘holding England back’; Ellis Genge said Matt Dawson was an ‘absolute tool’. (I love Ellis Genge). We then had Mike Brown, in the ‘Daily Mail’, suggesting Eddie Jones was dictatorial; ‘he’s entitled to his opinion and I’m sure he gets well paid for it’, retorted Jones, and given Eddie too once wrote punchy copy for the very same newspaper, he should know. 

But all of this, hopefully, just adds salt to the meat. There’s never any mistaking the difference between a charred Eddie Jones and a ray of sunshine, so England’s Aussie will be chafing a team who, despite one very poor and one very middling performance, will still – quite rightly – reckon they’re contenders. The return of Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler has upped the ante in the tight and – especially – the loose and if the midfield can find a way to feed the speed – a big ‘if’ on current form – they’re more than capable of tearing it up. The forwards cutting out the cheap penalties would also be a bonus.

Ireland have been the enigma with no variation. There’ve been individual pluses, not least the dynamic Tadhg Bierne, the unflagging Robbie Henshaw and broad-backed Andrew Porter, but two games and just two tries illustrates the lack of incision.

Which leaves us with the Wooden Spoon Decider as Ireland travel to Italy, a subtitle guaranteed to test the fabled Irish sense of humour. Certainly, Ireland have been the enigma with no variation. There’ve been individual pluses, not least the dynamic Tadhg Bierne, the unflagging Robbie Henshaw and broad-backed Andrew Porter, but two games and just two tries – and one of those a bonkers bounce – illustrates the lack of incision. 

These are unsettling times for the Head Coach as the ship appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place, the more so with impatient, Irish eyes already straying over the water to La Rochelle. No question, it’s not been a scrapbook Six Nations thus far for the Family Farrell but both, as has oft been said, are Test-match animals: you’d be mightily surprised if they failed to bite someone before the tournament’s over.  

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton still sets the emotional tone for Ireland (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Italy – again, alas – are a conundrum. As every schoolboy knows, Rome wasn’t built in a day but had the ‘Imperium Romanum’ taken as long to establish itself as the ‘Azurri’, Caesar wouldn’t have made it past Perugia. There were signs against England that an exuberant, youthful team can throw some leather but, at the risk of sounding mean-spirited, Italy’s collective, defensive awareness is a shambles and Franco Smith will be burning midnight oil. The Six Nations is applied mathematics: it is no place to be sorting out your basic tens and units.  

So while we’re a game short this weekend, the two we’ve still got come loaded with ifs, whats and maybes, much like the tournament itself. Mind you, I suppose there’s now the distinct possibility that Zander Fagerson might yet get to pull his boots on again in this season’s Six Nations. There’d be a few who’d say ‘amen’ to that. 

More stories by Graham Simmons

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