NO OFFENCE to England – honest, none – but you wanted to see the white shirts fail at Twickenham to make a mockery of the stage-management of the final day of the Six Nations, which seemed to be an insult to sport’s great unpredictability.
The trophy had already been despatched to Twickers where England, playing last, had the advantage of knowing exactly how many points they needed to claim it, while a replica was sent to Murrayfield, just in case Ireland emerged victorious. That outcome would have embarrassed the Six Nations high heid yins, right enough, but not as much as a Wales table-topping triumph in Rome where no cup had been forwarded, not even a cardboard cutout or a kid’s drawing of one, so you craved that as the ultimate outcome.
And Scotland? You wanted them to grab the wooden spoon, the only prize on offer to Vern Cotter’s team, and smash up the jewellery shopping-channel imitation of the official pot and with it the grim predictions they would finish the tournament pointless after all that autumn promise. There were promising moments in the defeats by France, Wales and England last weekend, but set against the Italy game, they didn’t look quite so encouraging. You imagined Scotland yesterday being determined to atone for that crazy capitulation last time out at Murrayfield but they started abysmally. Wales’ thumping win set Ireland a 21-point victory target and the men in green really fancied they could pull it off.
Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe attacked with power and menace. Their charges came down Dougie Fife’s flank and it was no surprise to see the winger go off with a nosebleed after just ten minutes. By then Ireland were already halfway towards their total.
Wales had vowed to use the lack of a trophy anywhere in the Stadio Olimpico as motivation and you wondered if on their dressing-room wall they would have pinned a sad photograph of an empty plinth instead of the usual stinging words from an opponent. Scotland didn’t want for motivation themselves but couldn’t get going and looked all set for a hiding.
The spoon, of course, doesn’t actually exist. No team in any sport wants to go a whole campaign without a point to their name and certainly not in the Six Nations where the organisers seem to be intent on contriving prizes for every round of the competition so you imagine the day is not far off when they’ll turn the mythological utensil into reality, and hand it out at the end to the biggest losers.
But just as Ireland seemed set for their third try – having only managed four in all their previous games, criticised for being one-dimensional and lacking the flair of the Brian O’Driscoll-Gordon D’Arcy era – Scotland snatched one of their own. The game got a bit mad in the sunshine, careering and careening, and this seemed to suit Stuart Hogg, the kind of guy who’ll still attempt a break in leg-irons, and David Denton and Jonny Gray, gamely battling into the match.
Finn Russell got the score and was bright for the rest of the first half, Scotland putting together their best passages of play in this period, just like against England. Unfortunately the beginning of the second 40 was identical to the previous week as well. The Scots resumed sluggishly, Ireland allowed to build up a formidable head of steam. Paul O’Connell, the captain and chief boiler-stoker, was ably assisted by Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, the latter scoring two tries and being named man-of-the-match. The Scots simply couldn’t match their fury and intensity.
Thoughts turned back to the infernal spoon, and the prospect of an outsized one suddenly appearing over Murrayfield and dangling ominously from a helicopter for the rest of the game. Or maybe each of the bottom-ranked players would get an implement of their own, standard-sized. That would be a grim fade-out, the Scots having to stand forlornly on the pitch with their spoons, like they’d just picked them up at the checkouts at Ikea and didn’t really know why.
Imagine Jim Hamilton’s reaction if you tried to hand him a wooden spoon. Most likely he’d produce a runcible spoon from his pocket, the pointy bits all sharpened up. But the big man’s shift would soon be over. He’d not played badly. In common with most, he simply didn’t have an answer. Ireland were superior all over the park.
The Irish, going for their second successive championship, had been hoping half-backs Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray weren’t going to produce two flat performances in a row. Yet a complete off-day for Ireland had been required for Scotland to bend perceptions of how this game was going to finish – to bend the spoon, indeed. Unfortunately Uri Geller wasn’t available yesterday.
Murray fashioned good breaks and Sexton punished with the boot, at least until Jared Payne’s try brought his team within touching distance of the haul established by the rampant Welsh.
That score was converted but then Sexton fluffed two penalties. Nerves, no doubt, probably thinking too much about getting to 21. But he kicked the next one and soon after that Ireland were over the hill and far away.
The challenge set in Rome brought a perverse kind of drama to Murrayfield but fundamentally staggered kick-offs are wrong.
Meanwhile Scotland, a perverse kind of rugby nation, have the sp**n.