Peter Jackson: Kissing goodbye to Grand Slam riches

Of all the implausible scenarios for the opening round, nobody mentioned the one that came to pass, that only two contenders would still be standing for the Grand Slam.

The idea of four being wiped out at the first fence sounded too preposterous even for the most elastic imagination, not least because it had never happened before.

Besides, how could there be four casualties when there were only three matches? One of Ireland or Wales would, for sure, go the way of the perennial wooden- spoonists Italy and Scotland. But both at the same time, when they hadn’t drawn a match since the one at Lansdowne Road on the same first weekend of February in 1974?

Even way back then in Gareth Edwards’ youth it required Ireland to miss nine (yes nine) shots at goal during a match blown off course by high winds. Full back Tony Ensor failed with seven out of ten, stand-off Mick Quinn with two out of two and the nine misses added up to a 9-9 draw.

Johnny Sexton, in contrast, never missed off the tee yesterday in ensuring Ireland a draw, considerably more than many feared given they had been stripped of almost half a team. Justice may have been done but never in Test rugby can a draw, a point gained by Ireland against one lost for Wales, come at such a price.

By cancelling each other out of the equation, the countries who have shared the last four titles have been eliminated from the unprecedented riches on offer for a Slam. Wales head coach Warren Gatland likened the draw to kissing his sister except that for everyone it means kissing goodbye to an awful lot more.

The prizemoney this year is up towards €20m and, with the cookie crumbling in ever bigger pieces, the bonus for a clean sweep amounts to around €1.2m which might explain why neither side took the soft option of booting the ball out in stoppage time. All that going down the drain would have explained the unusual gurgling sound in Dublin last night.

One or the other may yet extend their monopoly of the championship in which event there will still be the best part of €5m to be won. The equivalent of two-thirds of a Grand National field coming to grief at the first hurdle leaves the pantomime villains of the World Cup, England and France, on their own.

To describe France as still standing for Le Grand Chelem, in their shambling state of disarray from front to back is stretching a point. While stranger things must have happened, it’s hard to imagine them winning another game, let alone going the distance.

For all its unpredictability, some things about the Six Nations never change.

Scotland keep failing to score a try against England at Murrayfield, as they have done now since Simon Danielli 12 years ago, a long-term consistency spanning four coaches – Matt Williams, Andy Robinson, Scott Johnson and Vern Cotter who might have sensed what was to come with his pre-match pearl:” It will be what it will be, I suppose.’ Italy always discover a way of losing in Paris although Saturday’s took so much discovering that even Christopher Columbus might have missed it on a bad day.

England always win in Rome except that by Sunday the peerless Sergio Parisse will be fired up by a gutfull of hard-luck stories, eager to realise Eddie Jones’ worst fears by making the Red Roses look ‘like the old Stoke City.’

Noves set up to become France’s fall Guy

Peter Jackson: Kissing goodbye to Grand Slam riches

Guy Noves could be forgiven had he woken up earlier than usual yesterday with a disturbing thought uppermost in his mind: ‘Mon Dieu, what have I let myself in for?’

A win about as hollow as a Donald Trump apology would probably have left the oldest new coach in Test history doubting the old proverb about everything coming to he who waits. Noves had waited 37 years, so long that when France last required his services, the Fifth Republic as headed by Charles de Gaulle had only been going for two decades.

On the day Noves the wing made his last stand for France, against Wales, on February 17, 1979, a boy nobody had heard of called Michael Jordan turned 16 in Wilmington, North Carolina, where nobody was in a rush to give him a basketball scholarship.

The Toulouse wing, whom they dropped at the age of 25, finally made it back to Paris on Test duty for the first time the day after turning 62. Even his best friend would have been hard pushed to argue that the occasion had done justice to a coach who won 14 major club titles in 24 years with his hometown team.

And he had waited for what, exactly? To see France steal a match they ought to have lost, against opponents who have never won in Paris in the Six Nations?

The visitors should have been home and dry long before France compounded Italian sense of injustice by turning the dodgiest of late penalties into a reprieve.

From the look on his face, Noves will have gone to bed feeling as though he had aged 10 years in a day.

His employers, like Napoleon, will hope they have found a lucky coach, but even old Bonaparte would have baulked at the notion anyone could be this lucky for long.

Ireland will hope to prove him right in Paris next Saturday.

Luckless Canna looks set for bright future

Carlo Canna has still to win a single match on foreign soil as a full-time professional, but Italy’s newest fly-half has done something that none of the most revered members of his breed had done before.

As introductions to the Six Nations go, there hadn’t been anything like it.

Zebre’s new No. 10 went through the card, ticking off every scoring box — drop goal, penalty, try, conversion, in that order. Nobody had done that before on debut — including Dan Carter.

According to my records, it had only been done four times before in the Six Nations — by Neil Jenkins for Wales (France, Paris, 2001), Jonny Wilkinson for England (Wales, Twickenham 2002, Scotland at the same venue five years later), and James Hook for Wales (England, Cardiff in 2007).

Not surprisingly, all four wound up on the winning side. That Italy still fell short in spite of Canna’s efforts was a crying shame but at least the 22-year-old from Benevento , a hillside town near Naples, offers the promise that his country has at last found a successor worthy of Diego Dominguez.

Drop kick debacle

The drop goal took something of a battering over the weekend with more than enough shanks to last Rory McIlroy all year long.

Five misses out of six attempts begs the question about the drop as a neglected, if not a lost art.

Naas Botha, the Springbok whose mastery of the skill earned him the nickname ‘Nasty Booter,’ would doubtless agree, even if he hadn’t sat through this opening round.

Sergio Parisse, who has dropped a Six Nations goal, might have been excused his last-minute hook against France but not those for whom it is supposed to be part of their arsenal.

Finn Russell missed for Scotland, George Ford for England and Rhys Priestland for Wales, twice.

And to think another South African, Jannie de Beer, kicked five against England in the 1999 World Cup.

Team of the weekend

15 Simon Zebo (Ireland).

14 Andrew Trimble (Ireland).

13 Gael Fickou (France).

12 Jamie Roberts (Wales).

11 Jack Nowell (England).

10 Carlo Canna (Italy).

9 Conor Murray (Ireland).

1 Rob Evans (Wales).

2 Dylan Hartley (England).

3 Dan Cole (England).

4 Devin Toner (Ireland).

5 George Kruis (England).

6 CJ Stander (Ireland).

7 John Hardie (Scotland).

8 Sergio Parisse (Italy).

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