Saturday, March 28, 2015

Superb Saturday

No matches nowadays can simply be matches; they are events. These events don’t come alone. They come with pyrotechnics, dance music and a supercilious moniker to appeal to a wider market. When people started talking about the final day of the Six Nations as “Super Saturday,” it was hard for die hard, passionate fans to feel enthused. However, a nickname has rarely been more fitting.
It’s difficult to recall a finale to any sport that could surpass the final day of the championship. 221 points scored, 27 by way of tries; three title contenders playing in three different games… in one day! By the time Nigel Owens blew his whistle on a 90 point thriller at Twickenham, ‘Super Saturday’ appeared somewhat understated and modest.
Not that you would have thought that after 40 minutes in Rome. The first half was packed with more awkward fumbling than an unsupervised teenage disco and another Fiji-esque performance looked on the cards. As half time quickly approached it was difficult to know if the Welshmen were more nervous about the title chase or being stuck in a room with Gatland and Edwards after such a dire start.
Wales needed something different after the break, but what they produced wasn't a world away; it was a whole new galaxy. The second half played out like a highlight reel. Wales ran in tries like a training session, running the ball from deep and punishing errors. A week before against Ireland, the second half performance was all about the grit and determination of defence; here it was the flair of free flowing attack.
Some compared it to the Grand Slam winners of 2005. The truth is however, this display was far more ruthlessly efficient. Led by Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton and Liam Williams; Wales functioned to highly tuned perfection and set a point target that neither England nor Ireland could have imagined before the day began. That target could have been stretched even further bar for a late Italian turnover that saw the Azzuri turn defence into attack and a 14 point switch.
And so on to Edinburgh, where almost 70,000 Celts waited with nervous expectation. Ireland still held dreams of back-to-back Six Nations crowns – even if the slam had slipped through their fingers – whilst Scotland prayed on victory to lift them from the gloom of a wooden spoon.
To see Ireland vying for Six Nations success was a surprise to nobody, they entered the tournament as favourites mid winning streak that included South Hemisphere heavyweights. Scotland were a surprise to many, as any promise all bar washed away. With each week they slid further in people’s estimations; from dark horses to also-rans to barely-rans.
With diginity and pride on the line, Scotland again slipped to defeat with little resistance. Scotland needed to call on the spirit of William Wallace to lead them to victory, but barely summoned the fight of Jessie Wallace as Ireland ran riot.
If there is one flaw in Irish plans, it is how rigidly they stick to the game plan; it’s a criticism that has been levelled at Wales numerous times in the past. This time however it would play into their hands. When chasing a large target it can become easy to try to walk before you can run. To look so far ahead at your destination, you trip over your own feet. Ireland approached the game with their usual style of forward dominance to build the platform to work forwards, to earn every metre. By the time Paul O’Connell scored in the opening minutes, the game already looked beyond the Scots.
Scotland did show the occasional glimpses of skill and intent but these moments were so rare they are in trouble of being placed on the endangered list. Ireland strolled their way to the summit and when Stuart Hogg showed his usual skill and pace to canter over, only for the ball to squirm from his grasp. It served only to make England’s job against France, all that more difficult.
At Twickenham the day and tournament would reach it’s close. England’s target looked insurmountable, but this was the best attack side in the competition against a French team that looked like they couldn’t care less about rugby for much of the competition. Any hint of Gallic flair had been replaced by Gallic nonchalance. It was difficult to know which France would turn up; would it be the inept and lacklustre France or the terrible and down right useless France? After Scotland it was difficult to even know what colour they would turn up in.
England started with a bang that reverberated all the way to Murrayfield where Irish fans still waited in hope and expectation. More French folly led to England’s opener; this campaign has the biggest export of French foolishness since Marcel Marceau. England were rampant then suddenly trailing. France twice sucker punched the home team with long range efforts and – despite Noa Nakaitaci’s best efforts to blew France’s second try – Le Bleus took le lead.
England needed tries and tries they got. Back they came, battering at a sea of French defenders with Jonathan Joseph and Ben Youngs leading the cavalry’s charge. By half time England found themselves 12 points ahead and needing 14 more. It France was though who started with a score; Maxime Mermoz crossing under the sticks and piling the pressure back on the men in white who answered only to be pegged back again. Possession rolled end-to-end and scores rattled up like a basketball game.
The only constants were the thrilling entertainment and the excellence, authority and humour of Nigel Owens. Never has the mention of the name “Christopher” reaped so much obedience and laughter.
With minutes remaining England struck again. 55-35 and six points from glory, on final flourish from silverware. As the clock ticked over 80 minutes England edged closer to the tryline with a rolling maul. Down it went, but no hint of anything untoward ruled Nigel Owens until Billy Twelvetrees gave away a penalty. France only had to put the ball off for it was all over for England, all glory for Ireland. But this is France, that isn’t how it’s done. On their own line they tapped and went. Irish hearts skipped a beat; English hearts leapt. However there would be no final twist in an extraordinary tale. The ball found it’s way into touch and the title was – deservedly – Ireland’s.
At a darkened Murrayfield, Ireland reappeared led by the mercurial O'Connell. On a day of countless heroes and icons; they emerged as victors and - for the first time in 7 hours - could breathe a sigh of relief.
Boring, Mr Hansen? Not on your life. That was entertainment.

The Jam - That's Entertainment 

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