The never-ending saga of France-Wales in Paris generated scenes of such absurdity that it really needed Inspector Clouseau with his white mac and magnifying glass to complete the farce to complete the farce.
Wayne Barnes is to be congratulated on his handling of a trying scenario but where was Peter Sellers’ alter ego when you needed him?
Not surprisingly, the Six Nations wasted no time yesterday launching an inquiry into one aspect of the antics which contributed to prolonging the general mess and mayhem. into a Test of unprecedented endurance.
In real time, the second half dragged on for 75 minutes 55 seconds and the whole match for two hours, two minutes, eight seconds. The official time, as shown on the game-clock, exclusive of stoppages, still made it the longest international of all time – 99 minutes 55 seconds.
The inquiry will revolve around France changing props in the 81st minute. Before the front rows went through the first of umpteen engagements, Barnes asked the replacement prop, Uini Atonio: ‘’Are you fit.’’
Atonio, a Kiwi and therefore scarcely in any position to claim something had been lost in translation, promptly found himself taken off the field by a French team doctor. Rabah Slimani, the starting tighthead, returned, refreshed no doubt by half an hour’s rest and therefore better equipped to ensure the trapped Welsh conceded the match-winning penalty try.
Barnes, his suspicion probably aroused by Atonio’s sudden volte face, consulted the medic for an explanation. Told that the player required a head injury assessment, Barnes had no option but to take him at his word and get on with it.
Penalty followed penalty as Wales manned the barricades. On one of the few occasions when France moved the ball, George North came out of a tackle claiming he had bitten. He confronted Barnes with the apparent evidence on his arm and the English official dutifully referred the matter to the TMO, Ireland’s Peter Fitzgibbon.
Cue another delay while Fitzgibbon rummaged through reels of videotape. ‘’Just checking, Wayne,’’ he said. And, then, after further checking, he said: ‘’Wayne, no conclusive footage. Play on.’’
Penalty followed penalty, nine in total and yet escaped Wales with nothing worse than one yellow card. Samson Lee has now gone down in history as the first player to be binned in stoppage time and then come back ten minutes later to find there were almost ten still to go.
O’Mahony makes waves but what of Lions ripple effect?
And so another clapped-out English chariot floats off down the Liffey, making enough waves for a few ripples to reach the shores of New Zealand.
For their starring roles in Ireland’s thunderous example of how one bit of Six Nations history keeps repeating itself, Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson have surely changed the look of the Lions. They didn’t just ask to be considered for a seat on the plane, they demanded it, and up front in business class far from the goats at the back.
What they achieved has not so much put the cat among the pigeons as changed the prospective Lions pecking order for the back row and, to a lesser extent, the second row. The ferocity factor around the two most competitive areas has suddenly become a whole lot more so.
Delaying selection until after next month’s European club semi-finals means Warren Gatland has made due allowance for those players, like O’Mahony, whose Six Nations had been truncated by injury. All the Munster captain needed was a lucky break and Jamie Heaslip, the most durable No 8 in the game, provided it. Tweaking a hamstring in the warm-up is never a good idea at the best of times. The full extent of the damage will not be known until the Lions declare their hand on April 19, but already it threatens to deny Heaslip a third tour.
Henderson’s response to the ultimate challenge illustrated why he has long been seen as the player best equipped to fill the void left by Paul O’Connell. When it mattered most, the Ulsterman delivered and he has the precious double asset of being a proven Test-class specialist at blindside as well as second row.
Gatland took seven back rowers on the last Lions trip four years ago, Heaslip, Taulupe Faletau, Tom Croft, Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric, and Sam Warburton. Unless he increases it to eight this time, the casualties will extend far beyond Heaslip. Ross Moriarty, James Haskell, Hamish Watson, and Josh Strauss are all likely to miss out, and that’s assuming that England’s current blindside flanker, Maro Itoje, goes as a lock. O’Brien, a Gatland favourite, could not have done more to justify a reprieve after his relative anonymity in Cardiff the previous week.
Whether others have done enough — in an Irish context, most notably Rory Best and Robbie Henshaw — who knows? Maybe not even Gatland at this stage. There are plenty in the same boat, such as Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, Dan Biggar, Finn Russell, Rob Kearney, and Johnny Gray.
Marmion comes of age and ready to kick on
Nobody will have taken more satisfaction from Kieran Marmion’s newly-acquired status as a Grand Slam-buster than the Welshman who set him off on his journey from nowhere to Test-class scrum-half.
Mike Ruddock, the former Leinster coach now in charge of Lansdowne, first heard of Marmion during his student days in Cardiff.
“Once the Exiles made me aware he was Irish-qualified, I delved a bit deeper,’’ Ruddock said. “I found out that he was at university in the city but that he hadn’t made the first team.
“We gave him a trial, he impressed and hasn’t looked back. That happens to some players. They get a chance and, all of a sudden, they kick on.”
Marmion, whose late schoolmaster father came from Loughrea, Co Galway, arrived at Connacht via school on the Lancashire coast and the Welsh market town of Brecon where Marmion, senior, taught.
How proud he would be this morning to know that his son has made everyone in the Six Nations all the wiser, that Conor Murray isn’t Ireland’s only matchwinning No. 9