1. Dumb and dumberer
I was watching the England v Ireland game in a pub and a host of voices immediately declared Charlie Ewels’ hit on James Ryan a yellow “at worst” because it was an accident. It turned out to be a red, an obvious and inevitable red under the not-very-new guidelines. It was an accident, but only in so far as Ewels didn’t go into the contact intending to ring Ryan’s bell. It was an entirely preventable accident in that a sliver of common sense sees the English lock lower the point of contact and keep his (and Ryan’s) noggin out of the equation altogether. Ewels stays on the field as a result. England, perhaps, win the game, although I doubt it! The players know this. They see red cards flourished every weekend in their own domestic leagues for exactly this sort of idiotic challenge but pumped up players are desperately slow to learn. Ewels has just given everyone another lesson, so it will sink in eventually. Or maybe not?
2. Matches last 80 minutes, Scotland play for about 30-40
And not 30 successive minutes either, but rather Scotland play in patches, bits and pieces, here and there, when the mood takes them. So they were poor in the third quarter against England but salvaged it in the fourth. They were decent in the first half against Wales, woeful thereafter. They had a reasonable 15 minutes against France in the second quarter but were poor either side of the break. Good for much of the game in Rome until conceding twice in the final quarter. And Wales’ nail-biter with France does rather put Scotland’s six-try whipping into some sort of context. One pal reckoned that Scotland have been below their best simply because they won the Calcutta Cup on the opening weekend and had downed tools ever since. It’s a worrying theory because you can’t entirely discount it.
My mum was a heavy smoker back in the day and having left me in nappies to holiday in Africa for a few months I showed zero signs of recognising her when she returned … until she stuck a gasper in her gob, or so the family history would have it. I felt a little like that when watching France in Cardiff. Here was the France I knew and loved. Instead of looking like a well-oiled rugby machine, imagine the All Blacks partnering with Audi, it was the France I recognised from my youth, sublime one week, abject the next, with no rhyme or reason behind it. France were utterly appalling in Cardiff, leaderless and listless, playing some of the dumbest rugby we have seen from any team this season. They will surely learn from that horror show and, yes, they did win the match but only because Jon Davies, of all people, dipped his mitts in Brylcreem at half-time. They can thank Shaun Edwards for keeping their Grand Slam hopes alive. But if Les Bleus play like they did in Cardiff against an England side who can still salvage their season by pissing on the French parade, they will lose. Badly. But, of course, they won’t. Probably.
4. Friday Night Lights … dimmed
A few years back, pre Covid etc etc, I read an article claiming that the Six Nations had just pipped the NFL for the best-attended tournament in world sport. In other words, a higher percentage of the available seats were occupied over the course. Yet on Friday night in Cardiff the camera caught sight of great swathes of empty seats behind the goal posts after Dan Biggar did his thing off the tee. There were about 11,000 empty seats in the Principality Stadium. In Cardiff! Against France! A Welsh pal of mine blamed the price of tickets (circa £100) and the fact that many of her fellow countrymen figured their team would get their backsides skelped on the night. Whatever the reason the Six Nations simply cannot afford that many empty seats because without the fans there is no ‘event’. CVC might be mulling over their investment. Hopefully it means we have reached peak ticket price, at least for the time being
5. Tadgh Furlong hung out to dry
England had a man sent off but it was Ireland that conceded a chaotic 15 penalties in all compared to England’s eight at Twickenham. The difference was at the set scrum where Ireland found themselves on the back foot for the first time in recent memory. They coughed up an astonishing six scrum penalties, many of which appeared to go against Tadgh Furlong, the Lions starting tight-head in case you had forgotten, and a prop who is the closest thing to an immovable object that we have seen. Until Saturday that is. He was up against Ellis Genge, the English loose-head very obviously fired up by that early red shown to Ewels. Genge seemed to have Furlong on toast although Irish eyes will swear Genge was pushing at an angle and the partisan crowd got into the referee’s head. Will Pierre Schoeman be inspired come Saturday or will Furlong bounce back to prove a point? It promises to be one of the key contests in Dublin.
Back in 2020 I wrote that Scotland’s defence coach Steve Tandy had salvaged Gregor Townsend’s career and his reputation as an international coach. After a calamitous World Cup in Japan had finally laid to rest Townsend’s favoured ‘fastest rugby’ ethos, Scotland went back to basics. In the following Six Nations the normally ebullient Scots scored just seven tries in five matches, one more than Italy, while conceding a miserly five, four fewer than table-toppers England. Just as the UK chooses Prime Ministers as far removed from the last one as possible (Boris will be followed by a technocrat), so Townsend’s team was the diametric opposite of the one that lost 27-3 to Ireland in Yokohama when throwing the ball about like it was an end-of-season sevens jolly. It played very little rugby but Rory Sutherland squeezed the opposition in the scrum and the entire team defended like it mattered. To explain this volte-face in terms of personnel: Chris Harris replaced Huw Jones. Enough said. After conceding two tries in the opening two matches, Scotland’s defence has now leaked nine in the last two rounds. Italy’s unheralded attack made seven line breaks against Scotland, the same number as they achieved against France, England and Ireland combined. Unless Scotland tighten up, next Saturday is going to get ugly.
7. Wales are sticky in a way that Scotland are not
I wrote as much a couple of weeks back only to replace the ‘takeaway’ with something else but it’s even more obvious now than it was then. Wales stay in the fight, with the exception of that opening weekend in Dublin when they were blown off the field. Otherwise, what looks like a mediocre Wales team continues to punch well above its weight. At 17-0 down to England they should have been dead and buried but had the second half extended an extra five minutes Wales would surely have won. Against France, the ‘best team in the world’, Wales again should have won. Scotland looked better than Wales for much of the first half but failed to put them away when they had the whip hand and the Welsh Dragon bit back. The Welsh hang tough, it’s a wonderful thing to behold, a show of real character, even if it pains me greatly to admit as much.
8. The Six Nations has long tentacles
I was sat in the nose-bleeds when France came to Murrayfield. I had two mates to my left and a random Russkie on my right. We got chatting, as you do. Although he was Russian, originally, he had grown up in Latvia, spoke that language better than his mother tongue and considered himself Latvian, which is hardly surprising in the circumstances. He now works in Sweden and plays on the wing for Gothenburg Rugby Club. The club boasts a few Frenchies in their squad so a group of them decided to make the trip to Edinburgh for the Scotland v France game. As you do. Isn’t rugby wonderful?
9. Ben Vellacott
I interviewed Scotland scrum-half Ben Vellacott a few years back, when he was doing good things for Gloucester and, briefly, sneaked into a wider England squad. He had come through the Scottish youth system and I, somewhat naively, imagined that he saw himself as Scottish. This was not the case. Vellacott saw himself as, well, a malleable commodity, because of the rules and regulations surrounding English-qualified players in the Premiership. At the time, Vellacott was English (as well as Scottish-qualified) so he didn’t take up a precious “foreign” place in the Gloucester squad. He was hedging his bets, keeping options open, trying not to antagonise anyone, and I don’t blame him for his survival strategy. Eddie Jones called him in to ‘train with’ England but only, you suspect, to annoy the Scots and muddy the waters, something it seems that the little scrummy eventually understood. Now that Vellacott has thrown his lot in with Scotland, I hope he gets some meaningful game time.
10. A not-so-happy meal
If you are English and still scratching your head over that Calcutta Cup loss I may have an excuse for you. A pal of mine arrived in Edinburgh good and early on the morning of the match, well ahead of kick-off. He was wasting time in the West End when he spotted a few of the English subs, trying to remain incognito under their hoodies, walking back to the team hotel laden with several bags of McDonald’s goodies. We all indulge from time to time but on the morning of an international!