Allan Massie: Awarding Scotland a 28-0 win over France would be absurd
Then comes concern about the difficulty in finding a new date. The Six Nations Committee decided months ago that postponement was the proper course, rather than following the precedent established in the Autumn Nations Cup and the European club competitions, which saw the side not responsible for the cancellation on the due date given a 28-0 victory and five championship points. Even a Scot full of admiration for Gregor Townsend’s team must admit that there would have been an element of absurdity in granting us an imaginary 28-0 victory in the Stade de France.
Townsend is right to insist that the match should be rearranged for a date when he has all his fit players available; that is, when he can call on those who play their club rugby in England or France. Some may be unsympathetic to his demand, and say “tough: this is what happens when your domestic professional game is too weak for you to keep your best players at home under your control. Look at Ireland, and see the difference. If Townsend is in this difficulty, it’s because the SRU has managed the transition to professionalism so incompetently.”
A fair point, some may say, but, happily in the circumstances, perhaps an irrelevant one. France too will have difficulty in persuading clubs to release players outwith the dates prescribed by World Rugby. So indeed would England, while, if Wales were in Scotland’s position, Wayne Pivac might be speaking just like Gregor, for he would be in danger of being deprived of Dan Biggar and his new brightly shining star Louis Rees-Zammit. The truth is that only Ireland of the Six Nations countries has unfettered control of its Test match squads.
No doubt something will be sorted out some time and the France-Scotland game will eventually be played. Meanwhile, we have matches in Rome and Cardiff today. Ireland find themselves in the unaccustomed position these days of being two down with three to play. As a losing run this doesn’t compare to Italy’s horror one, but it does mean that this game takes on unusual significance for them. In different circumstances they might have chosen to wrap Johnny Sexton in cotton-wool till they come to Murrayfield in a fortnight. Everyone will expect them to win today, and win by a handsome margin. Italy's young team have played very well with ball in hand, but their defence has been weak and their tactical kicking ill-directed. A close match, even if it ended in defeat, would do them a power of good.
Wales, perhaps to their own surprise, find themselves on the verge of a Triple Crown. I put it like that because, really, both Ireland and Scotland outplayed them for long periods of their games, and should have won. As for England, a routine defeat of Italy scarcely wipes out the memory of just how completely they were dominated in the Calcutta Cup.
There are signs of nerves in both camps, with conservative selections the order of the day. Pivac has Dan Biggar at fly-half, though the Welsh backs looked much livelier when he was replaced by Callum Sheedy at Murrayfield, and in the centre the experienced George North and Jonathan Davies are preferred to the more sprightly Owen Watkin and Nick Tompkins, neither of whom is even on the bench.
As for England, Stuart Barnes reflected a widespread disgruntlement when he complained yesterday that it seems impossible for anyone to play himself out of Eddie Jones’ team. Billy Vunipola, deprived of club rugby because of Saracens’ fall from grace, admitted the other day that he has been playing “rubbish”, but he is still there. So is another out-of-form Saracen, Elliot Daly, though there must be a few full-backs available who are sounder under the high ball and better tacklers than he is.
It was Scotland’s control of the breakdown that kept England on the back foot, and Pivac is able for the first time this season to field what is probably his strongest back row: Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric. They are up against the same English back-row that came a poor second best to Scotland’s, and they may just tip the balance in favour of Wales.
Meanwhile, with no trip to Paris, Townsend has released some players to Edinburgh and Glasgow. So Darcy Graham will play against the Scarlets in Edinburgh, while Oli Kebble, Richie Gray, Adam Hastings and Huw Jones are in the Glasgow XV to face Leinster away. Even though Ireland calls have taken so many from the home club, Richie, Adam & Co may well feel that the trip to Paris might have been no more daunting than a visit to the RDS Arena in Dublin.
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