Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tales of the Six Nations Unexpected

The Six Nations - you gotta love her.

What an unpredictable, idiosyncratic, wilful little maiden she is! Just when you think you've got her measure, she surprises you. When you think she's settled into some discernible pattern of behaviour, she kicks off her shoes and dances on the tables. You think it's going to be a quiet weekend, next thing she has you throwing craps in Vegas.

The girl can't help it.

Sometimes you forget when February comes around exactly why the Six Nations has such a hold on the sporting and cultural imaginations in these islands. You pull on your sneering hat and wax satirical about corporate knees-ups and city break piss-ups. You scoff at men in wax jackets and their befurred wives, after-dinner speeches peppered with decades-old gags about testicles and anyway, how the Tri-Nations is a vastly superior tournament.

Then Spring kicks in and you say "ah, yes, I remember now" as you're captivated by it all over again. The triumphs, the disasters, the passions, the shocks.

As a tournament it seems to abhor predictability. Not in the greater sense of its ultimate outcome: of the seven championships played since Five became Six in 2000, France and England - the powerhouses in terms of playing numbers - have won three times each. Moreso in that, just when it seems that a level of reason can be applied to an upcoming fixture, and all logic points to a certain outcome, it's at this point that events take a turn for the confounded.

Of course, with Ireland confounding expectations is nothing new. Heading to Murrayfield after the bravura dismissal of England at Croke Park, armed with a vastly superior team, as well as an increasingly one-sided recent historical record over the Scots, we talked of pulling away at a canter. We expected the home side, nostrils ablaze having just sang proud Edward's army home tae think again, to charge into the fray fiercely.

But class would tell, and Ireland would respond with steel and skill, being as how we've moved onto 'another level' and all.

At some point, maybe after the first twenty minutes when 70% of the possession had yielded a scoreline of 3-3, or perhaps after Nathan Hines came back from the bin to find his team three points better off than when he had gone off (in contrast to the match-breaking 14 points that Ireland had tacked on in Danny Grewcock's absence two weeks previously) it became apparent that this tournament's persistent awkwardness was striking again.

Scotland slowed the ball down at every turn and ranged their defensive lines right in Ireland's faces. At the same time, however, they drifted sufficiently well so as that, on the handful of occasions when Ireland's line-breaks were shifted wide, they had men over for the saving tackle.

In many ways, Scotland's tactics were identikit to those which beat Wales, their aggressive and mobile pack dampening down the attacking ambitions of a more gifted side and the accuracy of Chris Paterson's boot rewarding the forwards for their exertions.

Thankfully the capricious Six Nations only decided to give us a fright, rather than the shocking loss we could very easily have left Edinburgh with.

France, on the other hand, got the full whammy from the fickle tournament. England's victory was improbable for two reasons. Firstly because the last time we saw them they looked as at home at Croke Park as Kilkenny footballers; secondly because they had made so many changes (enforced and tactical) from that side that it seemed very unlikely that they could conjure a defeat of the best side in the tournament from what was largely a team of strangers.

The ensuing events, happily for Irish title hopes, kept with the Six Nations' tendency toward the unexpected. England's youthful promise, in the shape of Messrs Rees, Flood, Geraghty and the already established Ellis, bloomed gloriously. There hasn't been such brio in a white shirt since the days when Guscott and Underwood roamed the land. Who'd have expected that?

But that's just the way she likes it.

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