Peter Jackson gets over the gain line, behind the headline
When it comes to inviting a global superstar from another theatre of sport to address an international rugby team, Ireland set the bar at an all-time high shortly before the World Cup in 2003. Nobody has come close to matching it during the 16 years since, as England reminded everyone this week.
Instead of opting for an Olympic colossus like the oarsman Steve Redgrave on the subject of what makes a winner, they made do with the former Chelsea footballer John Terry. Scotland tap into Pep Guardiola through his friendship with head coach Gregor Townsend and Wales can always count on a little motivational free-wheeling from Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas.
When Ireland, then coached by Eddie O’Sullivan and managed by ex-Shannon, Munster and Test centre Brian O’Brien, wanted someone from the very top drawer they found him in Italy – ‘Marvellous’ Marvin Hagler.
They flew one of boxing’s all-time great middleweights in from Milan, unannounced, to the jaw-dropping delight of Brian O’Driscoll & Co. Hagler left mightily impressed by the warrior spirit of those whom he had addressed.
“Gee, those rugby players have some courage,” he said during a chance encounter at Dublin airport that same day. “In the boxing ring you know the punches are coming from one man. On the rugby field they could be coming at you from so many opponents at the same time that you need eyes in the back of your head.
Alas, it never came to pass but maybe someone ought to advise The Marvellous One that he might like to keep the first weekend of November clear for a dash to Yokohama, just in case…
A concussed Finn Russell will be missing from Scotland’s line-up in Paris on Saturday and a similarly concussed Sergio Parisse will not be at his post in Rome the following day. Blows to the head remain the game’s single most pressing issue and yet Wales refuse to rule out another longer-term victim, Leigh Halfpenny.
The Welsh Lion has not played since being flattened by a late tackle during the narrow home win over Australia more than three months ago. Five weeks later his club, Scarlets, announced that he had ‘ticked all the boxes’ and was ready to start against Ospreys on December 22.
He didn’t make it. They picked him again the following week against Cardiff Blues and he didn’t make that one, either. Pronounced fit and raring to go last week after a full-scale Scarlets’ practice, Halfpenny had been released by Wales to make a PRO14 comeback in Italy last weekend.
For reasons that have not been made clear, amid suggestions that the player is still suffering from headaches, it didn’t happen. Yet despite all that, Halfpenny is back in the Wales camp with their team to be named today.
His defensive and positional skills will be needed as never before to nullify England’s multi-dimensional kicking strategy but it seems almost beyond belief that he will start. If the talk is merely designed to keep England guessing then nobody must lose sight of the fact that what matters is Leigh Halfpenny’s health. Everything else pales into insignificance.
When Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care spoke yesterday about England players being ‘hated’ in Wales, he was not exaggerating.
Martin Johnson tells of how, when leaving the Millennium Stadium, a human missile launched himself at the England coach – the bus, not Clive Woodward.
“One Welsh fan actually ran up and head-butted the coach,” Johnson says. “He turned away, head streaming with blood and a big, silly grin of triumph on his face.
George Cawkwell made his debut for Scotland so long ago that he checked into the Hotel Lutetia in central Paris not long after the Nazi high command had been forcibly checked out. The liberation of the French capital had put an end to the building’s grim years as headquarters of the Gestapo by the time the Scots bowled up for the first post-war international on New Year’s Day 1947.
A classical scholar and fellow of University College, Oxford for more than 65 years who died this week at 99, Cawkwell had a wonderfully cavalier attitude to rugby which may explain why his presence in the second row lasted for one match only.
“I suppose I was a moderately good player but the truth is that my heart was never really in it,” he said once. “I can remember reciting Greek verbs as I jogged around the field.”
Imagine Peter Clohessy taunting the opposition with a barrage of Oscar Wilde’s lacerating wit or, better still, the late Willie Duggan quoting chapter and verse from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ during a match against England.