Allan Massie: Last word on Six Nations belongs to Sexton

Johnny Sexton celebrates his crucial drop-goal against France. Picture: AFP/Getty
Johnny Sexton celebrates his crucial drop-goal against France. Picture: AFP/Getty
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Two kicks by Johnny Sexton and one pass by Finn Russell will be remembered for a long time. Sexton’s drop-goal against France deep into what we used to call injury time not only won that match; it set Ireland on the way to their Grand Slam. His second kick was that steepling Garryowen which enabled Gary Ringrose to touch down for Ireland’s first try at Twickenham. The pass was, of course, Finn Russell’s audacious one against England which set Huw Jones off on a run which a moment later saw Russell put Sean Maitland over in the corner for a 
second Scottish try.

All three were moments of great skill, also of great significance. If Sexton’s drop-kick had floated wide of the posts, France would have won, and there would have been no Irish slam to celebrate on St Patrick’s Day. The Garryowen was significant because it set Ireland on the path to victory at Twickenham, but it was significant in a wider sense too; it left one wondering why the Garryowen has gone out of fashion as an attacking ploy. Joe Schmidt may have Ireland playing wonderfully disciplined rugby, but this kick was out of an old Irish playbook dating back to Eric Elwood, Ollie Campbell and beyond. As for Finn’s gorgeous pass… suppose it hadn’t been just right, suppose Jonathan Joseph had intercepted it… who would have won the Calcutta Cup?

All sport is full of “ifs”. This is one of its charms, even though the “if” doesn’t appear in the record book. Sometimes, however, we are inclined to think that what happened was bound to happen, but of course it wasn’t. Go back again to that France-Ireland match. If the young replacement French fly-half, Anthony Belleau, had kicked a penalty goal some four minutes from the end, a drop goal wouldn’t have been enough for Ireland. They would have had to score a try, something they hadn’t come near to doing for the past hour and a quarter.

This has been a very good Six Nations and the table fairly reflects performances. Even so, it’s hard to believe that England really are the second worst team, or to suppose that, if they replayed all their matches, they would still lose three in a row. To which observation an aggrieved Welshman might reply that England were bloody lucky it wasn’t four in a row. My own guess is that England were over-trained and are over-managed, with cameras, we are told, recording everything that happens in camp except in bedrooms.

No point repeating what everybody else has said about what Scotland must learn to do next – though one should add that Ireland in Paris and London, England in Rome on the first weekend of the tournament, and Scotland there on the last, were the only teams to win away: giving a total, that is, of four away wins to 11 home ones. In which context one should add that it was no surprise to see Italy play so well last week – so well indeed that even many of us Scots have been heard to say they deserved to win. They are unquestionably improving under Conor O’Shea’s guidance, and I will not be surprised if next year when they have France, Wales and Ireland in Rome, they win at least one of the three games.

For us the most significant
match was in Dublin, on paper a heavy defeat which didn’t feel like one. There is no point going over all the “ifs” – suppose Jacob Stockdale had failed with his attempt to intercept Peter Horne’s pass etc. No, to my mind, the significance of the performance was that, playing away from home, Scotland for long periods of the match looked the better side, just as in different circumstances Wales had at Twickenham. All sport, especially at the top level, is a game of fine margins – the putt that lips the hole and stays out as against the one that rattles the can, the serve that clips or doesn’t clip the sideline, the ball which takes or just misses the edge of the bat. When it’s all over and the result known, victory is usually taken to represent superiority. Often of course it does so truly enough. Nevertheless any coach should sing with Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls “Luck, be a lady tonight”...

Meanwhile journalists everywhere have been enjoying themselves by nominating their team of the tournament, an agreeable exercise which is also meaningless because there is no sensible way of comparing the individual performances of players in winning and losing teams. Actually, though we all enjoy selecting imaginary teams, any sensible journalist or fan knows that coaches usually know better. Which, of course, doesn’t stop us castigating them if we think they have got it wrong.