It is often different in the later stages of a career. A bad match then may be seen as evidence that the player is past it. There were three such cases last weekend. Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray have all had great careers for their countries and the Lions. At different times each was reckoned the best player in his position in at least the northern hemisphere, but now devouring Time is snapping at their heels.
Halfpenny had a dismal game against France. One French journalist wrote, with evidently sad reluctance, of the lack of life in his play; it was as if Halfpenny was writing his last will and testament. But, if he was poor in Cardiff, Sexton and Murray were dismal at Twickenham. Murray was slow and laboured; his box-kicking, which has so often put opponents under intolerable pressure, gave England no trouble at all. Sexton had a horror of a match, one in which nothing went right for him. He was slow and uncertain; even his ability to kick goals deserted him, his first penalty, some 30 yards out, almost in front of the posts, being hooked a dozen yards to the left.
When Ulster’s John Cooney replaced Murray and Sexton’s Leinster deputy Ross Byrne came on at stand-off, one wondered if this was the changing of the guard, not only for the last quarter at Twickenham. Perhaps not. With Ireland’s match in Rome postponed because of coronavirus fears, coach Andy Farrell may stick with Murray and Sexton for the game in Paris a fortnight on, all the more so because Sexton was appointed captain for this year’s Six Nations. Perhaps he will. The Stade de France can be an intimidating place. But is it more likely to intimidate ageing and out-of-sorts heroes than the less experienced but in-form Cooney and Byrne? The end can come suddenly in all sports and the last stages of a great career may be painful to watch.
Some judged Scotland’s game in Rome quite harshly. It certainly wasn’t an exhilarating match, and, though we won quite comfortably and the defence was again very good, it would be generous to describe our performance as competent. Too many chances were created and not taken because of poor decisions , and this was irritating. Nevertheless a victory away from home in which we scored three tries and conceded none is a rare enough achievement. One should remember that this is a team which is not only sadly deprived, for different reasons, of two of our best players, Finn Russell and Jonny Gray, but also one which has lost two former captains and guiding spirits, Greig Laidlaw and John Barclay, who have retired from international rugby. It is indeed quite a young team, especially up front, and it came into this match on the back of three defeats at the hands of Japan, Ireland and England. The fact that these were all close games which might, and perhaps should, have been won, intensified the pressure the players must have been under. It certainly wasn’t an alpha performance, but in the circumstances I would grade it as “beta plus”.
If the match in Rome was a bit turgid, the Wales-France one was often exhilarating. Some of the play from this young French team was delightful, so delightful that they are becoming the darlings of this otherwise wretched spring. One consequence is that when they come to Murrayfield next week, Scotland will find themselves for the second time in six months up against the most popular team in the tournament.
Yet the Cardiff game was spoiled for me – and many others, I guess – by the referee’s weak tolerance of dissent and questioning by Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar. The former, as captain, has some excuse for his interventions, Biggar none.He is a very gifted player and a much better stand-off than he was a few years ago, but his petulant behaviour on the field and his repeated attempts to put referees right are disgraceful, and would not have been tolerated in the past, even the quite recent past.
Referees should come down hard on such behaviour. Awarding a couple of penalties against Biggar for dissent might teach him to keep his mouth shut. But Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes are the only international referees who seem ready to insist that they, and not any player, are responsible for policing the game. Keeping order is the referee’s job. Likewise it was sad to hear the new Welsh coach, Wayne Pivac, complaining about two important decisions which had gone against his team. Both were close calls, but TV replays suggested that the referee had got both right.