The battered champions will be wincing through their pain today at a pearl of wisdom first spoken by an Anglo-Irishman just before he won the world heavyweight title: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
Bob Fitzsimmons, the seventh son of a father from Tyrone and a Cornish mother, is credited with coining the phrase on the eve of his fight against a taller, heavier opponent whose parents came from Ballinarobe in Mayo, ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett.
What good old Bob did to his formidable opponent at Carson City on St Patrick’s Day 1897 before a crowd that included the gunfighter and occasional boxing referee from Tombstone, Mr Wyatt Earp, was pretty much what England did to Ireland on Saturday evening.
It was not, of course, remotely close to David’s king-hit on Goliath but learned rugby men had been queuing up pre-match on both sides of the Irish Sea, united in their belief that while the visitors would give it a bash, there would be only one winner. The Times of London polled no fewer than 13 experts, each and every one vouching for Ireland by up to 11 points.
And why not? The champs had picked off the world’s top 10, one by one, including the All Blacks. If they couldn’t live with Ireland’s cyclonic fury, how could England, large in stature but infinitely shorter in global status?
History, as ever, provided a jolting reality, its pages littered with examples of how every defending Grand Slam team has been counted out. Fitzsimmons’ simple application of the laws of gravity to any sporting arena can never have been applied to more devastatingly recurring effect than in the Six Nations.
Ireland have done their fair share of the slamming, most notably at Twickenham 15 years ago when they had the brass-neck to outplay the World Cup holders. They did the same to Wales in Cardiff ten years later and at home to England in 2016.
As befitting a man of his vintage, Rory Best might have thought he had seen it all. He saw the first Irish Six Nations Slam vanish before his eyes as a second-half substitute for Jerry Flannery in Paris in 2010, then helped relieve the Welsh of their title in 2013 despite 10 minutes in the bin.
"We've enjoyed some real highs with this team and sometimes you have to suck it up and take moments like these, turn the page tomorrow and try to be better next week"
No Six Nations champion stays unbeaten for long because their competitors won’t stand for it but it is a fact that nobody has ever endured a more severe beating in the opening round than the one inflicted by a mighty impressive England team excellent value for all five points.
Their pulverising mixture of power and panache had the best of all Ireland teams on the floor 92 seconds after the opening bell. And for most of what followed, they couldn’t live with the relentless intensity generated by the supposed underdog.
There is not much consolation to be found in knowing that a veritable phalanx of heavyweights have long beaten them to the punch, from Jack Dempsey to Muhammad Ali, all victims of Bob Fitzsimmons’ adage about the harder the fall. Murrayfield promises to be a severe test of character.
If CJ Stander is privileged enough to receive a text message from Shaun Edwards any day soon, it will be no more than Munster’s battering ram deserves for his courage.
When it comes to gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, few know their oats better than Wales’ favourite Lancastrian.
Assuming he keeps abreast of events, as usual, Edwards will be impressed to read that Ireland’s No. 8 played 62 minutes against England despite fracturing a cheekbone and eye socket in the first 20 minutes.
Edwards suffered the same injury nine minutes into the 1990 Rugby League Cup final at Wembley, for Wigan against Warrington.
Somehow he survived, with a bit of tough love.
“I couldn’t see, what with the double vision, and I couldn’t move the cheekbone,” he recalls.
“The lads made it clear right away that I wouldn’t be much use in that state so I ran around with one eye shut for a while and kept going. We won, which made it worth the pain.”
Not surprisingly, Edwards received the Man of Steel trophy.
Never can League’s coveted individual award have sounded more appropriate.
CJ kept going but without anything to show for his suffering.
It remains to be seen if he will be welded back in one piece by oxyacetylene.
Other casualties over the weekend included France hooker Julien Marchand with ruptured knee ligaments, Scotland flanker Sam Skinner, at least two second rows (Maro Itoje, Devin Toner), one wing (Keith Earls) and one fly half, Tommaso Allan, whose head blow allowed the be-goggled Dubliner Ian McKinley to make his Six Nations bow for Italy at Murrayfield.
By the sound of it, a fairly routine weekend…
In olden times when referees applied the laws to the scrum and hookers really did hook, strikes against the head used to be almost as relevant as the numbers on the scoreboard.
Post-professionalism, the game plays out to the clattering sound from a rising stampede of statistics.
There are numbers now for everything with the odd glaring omission, like how many balls are fed straight into the scrum?
Answer: none, so why has such a basic requirement not been erased from the law book instead of gathering dust in the pretence that it is meant to be enforced?
Some figures are worth noting, like tackle counts.
France-Wales got through 322, Scotland-Italy 352, Ireland-England a monumental 401.
Mako Vunipola has been credited with an equally monumental 31, with England team-mate Mark Wilson next on 24, one more than Leinster’s Josh van der Flier.
Ball-in-play time is also worth a mention. France- Wales came in at three seconds short of 36 minutes.
Scotland-Italy managed 40 minutes 30 seconds before Dublin’s epic topped the bill in every sense at one second longer than 42 minutes.
The nature of France’s self-destruction has provoked rumours that the Ministry of Justice has put Inspector Clouseau in charge of an investigation into a capitulation unprecedented in its absurdity.
Even Peter Sellers’ bungling alter ego will be hard pushed not to see it as an open-and-shut case of French incompetence after 14 points were gifted by Yoann Huget’s fumble and Sebastien Vahaamahina
offering George North free catching practice.
Wales, 16 points down at halftime when it ought to have been 25, deserve credit for being the first to win a Six Nations match from such a handicap but their claim that they ‘found a way to win’ hardly bears much scrutiny.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland:
“We’ve forgotten how to lose games, for the moment. It’s nice to get out of jail.”
Nicer still when the jailers are considerate enough to leave the key in the cell door and knock off early for the night.
English referee Luke Pearce reprimanding the Scottish and Italian props over another nonengagement at the scrum:
“Listen, listen — if we’re going to mess around like this I’ll give penalties all day long. We’re here to play rugby, not to re-set scrums.”
Thankfully they got the message.
15 Elliot Daly (England)
14 Blair Kinghorn (Scotland)
13 Henry Slade (England)
12 Manu Tuilagi (England)
11 Jonny May (England)
10 Owen Farrell (England)
9 Ben Youngs (England)
1 Mako Vunipola (England)
2 Stuart McInally (Scotland)
3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
4 Maro Itoje (England)
5 George Kruis (England)
6 Sebastien Negri (Italy)
7 Justin Tipuric (Wales)
8 Ross Moriarty (Wales)