Peter Jackson breaks down the 2019 Six Nations Championship.
England scored as many tries as the new champions and the old ones put together and still ended up looking like a bunch of clowns, noses as red as their roses. It could only happen in the Six Nations.
At roundabout the same time, 150 miles due west in Cardiff, the hot pre-tournament favourites had been counted out sitting on their stool in much the same way Sonny Liston sat on his more than half a century earlier. As title surrenders go, it felt like the rugby equivalent of the night the supposedly unbeatable heavyweight champion of the world gave his to a brash kid from Kentucky called Cassius Clay.
Only in the Six Nations.
Nobody scored fewer tries throughout the tournament than Wales and yet they turned the last leg into an 80-minute procession against an Irish team as wretched as the weather. Why bother with anything fancy when your opponent can be picked off with a volley of penalty shots most of them conveniently conceded in front of the posts from anywhere up to 45 metres?
England bagged 24 tries over the course of the championship, Ireland and Scotland 14, France 12, Wales 10 alongside the pointless Italians. In that respect, the team that has forgotten how to lose finished alongside the team that can’t remember the last time it won, never mind how.
Only in the Six Nations.
There is, of course, more than one way to skin the Grand Slam cat. Wales, their ruthless streak unrelenting once they had pulled themselves together after the first half shambles in Paris, have shown that stopping tries counts for more than scoring them, conceding fewer than the rest just as they had done during their two previous Slams under Warren Gatland.
Only two got through the red wall in 2008, three in 2012. This time they were relatively profligate, conceding seven when nobody else was mean enough to keep the count against them in single figures.
One turned out to be more than enough to see Ireland off in a manner which nobody dared imagine. Without exception, the great and the good of the punditry game had been united in the solemnity of their prediction, that there would never be more than a point or two in it.
Instead when the clock turned red, the scoreboard showed Wales ahead by 25, over the hill and out of sight. Nothing, least of all the scarcity of home tries, could dilute the ecstasy of the home supporters, by then feasting on their bread of heaven.
Besides, tries can cause unnecessary complications as Scotland and England will testify. The Scots scored six at Twickenham and still haven’t won there since 1983. England scored five, barely enough to avoid the daftest of defeats but not enough to avoid making themselves a laughing stock.
Eddie Jones may have had worse weeks in his nomadic rugby life but never one that contributed as much gaiety to Six Nations addicts beyond the English shires. He could do worse than spend a few weeks in a Trappist monastery, embracing the sound of silence.
Just about every verbal broadside from an Aussie schooled in the home of the sledge came straight back like a boomerang to smack him between the eyes. There was that guff about Wales running out of steam, an assumption based on the erroneous claim that having made more tackles than anyone else they would be too knackered to reach the winning post.
His Welsh counterpart, Warren Gatland, didn’t let him forget it, either: ‘We didn’t look too tired, did we?’
By then Jones had upset the Scots with what they saw as a mocking reference to their 36-year wait for a win in London: “1883? Oh, 1983! OK.” Maybe he meant no harm, unlike his careless ‘hit and hurt’ reference before the Italy game in the previous round. Before Saturday many neutrals would have acknowledged that England had played the best rugby of the tournament and Jones addressed that very subject when he might have been wiser to have left it alone.
The Calcutta Cup match was, he said, “a chance to show we are the best team in the Six Nations”.
The gods rarely take kindly to that sort of talk and so they duly put Eddie back in his box to consider the folly of a team that scores five tries and then lets in six.
At least he was in good company. Joe Schmidt, forced to pick his way through the rubble after the roof collapsed on Ireland, tried to make himself heard above the alarm bells by pleading with the fans to ‘keep the faith.’
Scotland’s Gregor Townsend finished up looking like a man who had won the lottery but lost the ticket. Jacques Brunel seemed suitably bemused at being asked to make France a team and Conor O’Shea must have felt like a lie down in the Sistine Chapel after witnessing Italy’s extravagance in Rome.
All of which left Gatland in a league of his own.
The odds against him reappearing in a different Six Nations guise as England coach post-World Cup are shortening by the day.
Teams going to the World Cup as Grand Slam champions have never failed to reach the last four. The first, France in 1987, went all the way to the final and ‘succeeded’ where everyone else had failed in getting within 20 points of an All Black team from a different planet.
Will Carling’s England emulated France four years later only to fall predictably short of Australia after trying to take David Campese & co on at their own running game.
Slammers again in South Africa in 1995, England advanced to the last four only to be run over by Jonah Lomu on his unforgettable four-try rampage in Cape Town.
The next England team, the best English side of all time, took flight for Australia after blitzing Ireland 42-6 in Dublin and duly brought the Webb Ellis pot of gold home.
As the first winners of Europe’s top prize going into a World Cup since then, Wales arrive in Japan come September expecting a semi-final place as minimum requirement. They may have to remove England along the way to Yokohama on November 2 in which event Eddie Jones will take care to avoid casting aspersions over their fitness.
Alun Wyn Jones is a prickly character who does not suffer fools gladly, which may explain why he can be an awkward interviewee. He is also, according to no less a judge than former dual-code international Jonathan Davies, the greatest Welsh player ever.
Now that is some claim. Greater than a scrum-half who never missed a match for Wales over 11 years? A player at the heart of the Lions’ winning Test series in New Zealand and South Africa on successive tours? A gymnast who, like Jones, also won a hat-trick of Grand Slams?
Greater than Gareth Edwards? Impossible.
Law 19, section 15 (f) had been battered intopulp before the Six Nations began but it’s still there, a reminder that the ball is required to be fed straight into the scrum so that it becomes a duel of hooking skill and propping power.
The 15-match Six Nations will have generated more than 100 scrums and nobody can remember seeing the ball put in as the law requires. Straight now means straight into the second row in which event what’s the point of keeping the law there for all to see and every Test referee to ignore?
15 Liam Williams (Wales)
14 Damian Penaud (France)
13 Jonathan Davies (Wales)
12 Hadleigh Parkes (Wales)
11 Jonny May (England)
10 Dan Biggar (Wales)
9 Tito Tebaldi (Italy)
1 Rob Evans (Wales)
2 Jamie George (England)
3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
4 James Ryan (Ireland)
5 Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales)
6 Justin Tipuric (Wales)
7 Hamish Watson (Scotland)
8 Sergio Parisse (Italy)