There are plenty of things imperfect about rugby union’s Six Nations tournament – not least the fact that it is a hugely commercial sports product of a cosy, self-serving cabal of ‘old world’ countries specifically designed to preserve the existing Northern Hemisphere order – but each year it never fails to produce occasional moments of compelling excitement and drama.
The 2014 version has been no exception. If you are an Englishman (or woman), the victories over Ireland and Wales to secure a first Triple Crown in nearly a decade were heart-warming, but the denouement yesterday, which opened with three countries potentially capable of winning the Championship and ended with Ireland clinging on, was agonising.
Nobody could begrudge the iconic Brian O’Driscoll an Irish Six Nations championship as a send-off. An open and humble character, he’s been one of the all-time greats and his legend is secure. Mind you, this would have been the case even if he’d retired last summer after the British Lions tour to Australia, when – in truth – he probably should have done. Frankly, being given the ‘man of the match’ award yesterday did him a disservice, because it was not one of his great days. But then, every Irish person alive would disagree with me because, for them, BOD can do no wrong – even when he does, e.g. his yellow card for stamping against Italy last year.
At the end of the day, however, as we all know, a league table can tell no lies. Overall, Ireland just about deserved the championship.
For an English television spectator yesterday, willing France to push on and claim victory last night – they were awarded a penalty to do just that with about five minutes to go and fluffed it – the climax of the tournament was both thrilling and disappointing.
My personal sense of English frustration was compounded by the performance of starting Irish scrum-half, Connor Murray, in the French match.
Scrum-time remains an enduring nightmare and an aspect of the rugby that desperately needs sorting before it can become a truly world game, but not once in the 63 minutes he was on the park before being substituted did Murray put the ball in straight, as required by the laws from the beginning of this season. He put it in squint at best, and at times diagonally, virtually into the Irish second row.
That’s one of the troubles with allowing Southern Hemisphere referees to officiate Northern Hemisphere matches. Generally-speaking, Steve Walsh – the Kiwi-turned-Australian with a notorious drink-related past – had an excellent match, but he’s engrained with the belief that the game must flow, even if the rules are not quite paid their dues.
If it had been me, I’d have pinged Murray every time (as the rules demand) and, on the third occasion, sent him to the sin bin for persistent offending, so that Ireland could then try to bring on someone capable of recognising a straight line when he sees one.