A REST weekend in the Six Nations championship provides a chance to take a deep breath and consider the extraordinary results we have seen so far. Nobody, probably even in in Wales, can understand how their unfancied team have already won the Triple Crown by beating Ireland, Scotland and England.
Their narrow victories over Ireland and Scotland were both achieved against 14 men and their triumph at Cardiff last weekend included two converted tries that the referee himself has admitted he got wrong. He also gave 14 penalties against England, a number of which were borderline or dubious - “pernickety” was the word I heard used by a seasoned rugby observer about the French referee, Pascal Gauzere.
Deducting the two dodgy tries brings the score down to 26-24. The four penalties that Wales converted into points were correctly given, but the disruption caused to England’s momentum by some other bad penalty decisions, including at least two of the five against Maro Itoje, took the heart out of them. This does not excuse their appalling second half performance. Three stupid penalties were given away by replacements – Ellis Genge, Charlie Ewels and Dan Robson.
The conclusion one has to reach from this is a failure of captaincy by Owen Farrell. Martin Johnson made a good point immediately after the match when he said: “Once it was clear that the ref had it in for England, the players should have been told by the skipper to stop taking risks. The word should have gone out: Back Off!” – and one can just imagine Jonno himself shouting it. One cannot imagine Farrell saying it, however, and certainly not with that kind of force. The fact that he is a back, not a forward, makes his position more difficult.
But it isn’t the first time Farrell has gone into his shell when England were being hammered. It happened two years ago, when England allowed the Scots to convert a first half deficit of 0-31 into a lead of 38-31 – until George Ford scrambled a draw with a late try and conversion. It also happened in the World Cup final against South Africa and again this season when England were outmuscled by the Scots at Twickenham.
He stands by looking dazed and helpless against the onslaught, providing no leadership. Again he is handicapped in his response by not being a member of the pack and not, therefore, in the front line. He also lacks a captain’s precious gift of getting on with referees. They clearly don’t like his confrontational style.
It is probably no coincidence that apart from the first two World Rugby Cups, when New Zealand and then Australia were led by scrum-halves, David Kirk and Nick Farr-Jones, every other winning team has had a forward as captain.
Which is one reason why I don’t think Farrell will get the nod from Warren Gatland if the British and Irish Lions tour goes ahead this year. The case for Alan Wyn-Jones has been greatly strengthened by Wales’s Six Nations victories, even though many judges would choose Itoje and Ireland’s James Ryan ahead of him in the second row.
Oddly enough, the England players most criticised by commentators and fans in recent weeks – Farrell, Elliot Daly, Ben Youngs and Billy Vunipola – all had their best games of the season in England’s defeat, perhaps in response to suggestions that they should be dropped. Eddie Jones will not be doing that now.
Nor is he likely to replace Farrell, his so-called “talisman,” as captain, though I think he should – and I was glad to see the level-headed Lawrence Dallaglio, generally a Jones loyalist, advocating that. Itoje is the obvious successor, the one truly world-class player in the team, who led the Under-20s to World Cup victory a few years ago. It might seem strange, however, to promote him now, so soon after he has given away so many penalties, no matter how harsh some of those refereeing decisions were.
Apart from Wales’s Triple Crown, the other surprises of the tournament have been Scotand’s muscular resurgence and the welcome return of France to playing with their old Gallic flair under their new coach, Fabien Galthie. Ireland played well against them, and against Italy, and were unlucky to lose to Wales.
They could still surprise England in Dublin.
The joy of the Six Nations is that anyone can beat anyone else on the day – except, of course, for poor Italy, who haven’t beaten anyone for 28 games over six seasons and don’t ever seem likely to. Pleasant as it is for fans (and their wives) to spend a weekend in Rome, it is surely clear that the Italians have become an embarrassment and no longer deserve their place at the top table. It is time for another second tier nation to be given a chance.
PR boob by the Palace
Why on earth, one has to wonder, made the Royal Family brief against Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and report alleged claims by Palace staff that she had bullied them? The Queen’s whole life has surely shown that the essential quality in boosting the Royal mystique is discretion.
Trading anonymous insults is descending to the level of the gutter press. If it was done to counter any expected anti-Royal barbs that the much-publicised Oprah Winfrey interview may bring, it was very badly judged.
The public can make up their own minds about anything Harry and Meghan have to say about them. Leaking alleged dirt to get their retaliation in first demeans the Royals, encourages the idea of a family at war with itself, and only serves to boost interest in the programme.
Fun day out with ostriches
Artestruz, the ostrich sanctuary near Campos, is one of the island’s very best places for a day out with the children, as my family discovered last week. They can ride the birds (yes, they are birds and descended from dinosaurs), as we learned from the fascinating talk given by one of the sons of the founder, Uri Loffler, an Israeli who came to Mallorca from South Africa 23 years ago.
There are 46 ostriches there now and they can run at 50 kph (the record is 87 kph). The males are black and the females sandy brown. They can even kill a lion with their foot, though they would be hard-pressed to find any to kill in Mallorca. Our son Ben, aged 10 (shown here), was thrilled, not just with his ride, but with the lovely ostrich egg he bought in the shop. Sadly, it was knocked out of his hand a couple of days later when he was scratched by one of our kittens and it smashed to pieces on the floor. He was so distraught that he hasn’t got over it yet.