Echoes of a bygone era evident in Six Nations
February 25, 2007
Echoes of Dublin in 1920 rang loud and clear through the RBS Six Nations at the weekend, and not only in the obvious place. Huw Richards reports on the latest Championship action
Some months before the bloody Croke Park events which must by now be almost as familiar to any reasonably observant rugby union fan as they are to aficionados of the Gaelic Athletic Association, France went to Lansdowne Road.
This too was not without its potential unpleasantnesses. Prop Marcel-Frederic Lubin-Lebrere, who had lost an eye in the trenches of the First World War (there were five one-eyed men in that year's France-Scotland match) was sufficiently heedless of the possible dangers of a city currently wracked by a civil war to go on his usual late-evening stroll.
Intrigued to hear the strains of the Marseillaise, he sought out and located the singers - a group of Republican gunmen - at more or less the same time as they were uncovered by a British army detachment.
The occupying forces needed some convincing, and the intervention of a visiting French politician, that Lubin-Lebrere, who spoke no English, was not something new and frightening in the way of subversives and exacting the usual penalties.
Evidently unfazed by his ordeal, Lubin-Lebrere played the following day and took part in France's 15-7 win, their first ever away victory in what was then the Five Nations.
It was 14 years since their first match, a war-truncated decade on from when they'd become full participants, and their 16th away match, a notable moment of transition in the growth of a rugby nation.
That was the point Italy, after seven years and in their 20th away match, reached with their extraordinary 37-17 win over Scotland at Murrayfield.
A shattering blow for the Scots, who until now could feel that their revival under Frank Hadden had taken to the point where they could expect to win at Murrayfield, and sobering for Wales - Italy's next opponents - when they consider their own fate against the Scots.
Nothing, though, should detract from Italy's achievement. The match will, reasonably enough, be remembered for its remarkable opening and Italy's three tries inside six minutes.
The rest, though, was pretty impressive, played for long periods at a tempo, that as one colleague said 'made it look as though the tape had been speeded up'.
Italy's resilience under fire through long periods of Scottish pressure and their ability to come strongly again at the end showed the progress they have made.
How appropriate that their victory should have been topped and tailed by two authentic Italian legends - flanker Mauro Bergamasco, who can rarely have played better, and that magnificent veteran Alessandro Troncon, whose ecstatic celebration of his late try showed quite how much it all meant.
It may be worth pointing out at this stage that France took a further 38 years from that first away win to take a championship, but Italy - quite rightly - will not care at the moment. What is clear that they continue to progress.
That miserable first half against France aside they've been highly competitive all season, lasting the full 80 minutes compared to the 60 to 65 that was their limit last year.
And talking of miserable spells against France. Ireland's demolition of England at Croke Park can only deepen their despair at the manner of their defeat by the French two weeks earlier.
By bulking up their points difference, it raised the tantalising possibility of their taking the title on a measure that has so often been their downfall, with the further irony that for this to happen they are probably relying on the team they shattered on Saturday.
Now comes the test for Brian Ashton's strategy - his conviction that he has the right 15 men, that the gamble on Andrew Farrell can work out and that Danny Grewcock's other virtues outweigh his periodic attacks of card-inducing red mist.
Almost alone in the small mercies category was a fine debut by Dave Strettle, who was admirably unintimidated by the occasion and took his try well. His selection to face France at Twickenham on Sunday week will tell us a great deal.
As for the France, their clash with Wales had the air of a high-class sevens encounter in the first half, then almost ground to a halt in the second.
France plough on - and with might-have-beens something of a theme this weekend, it is worth noting that but for that crazy first few minutes after half-time against Wales two years ago, they'd probably be on their way to the next World Cup having won every championship since the last one - and Wales at least had the comfort of a half-decent performance after the debacle at Twickenham.
Three tries by the likely wooden-spoonists to two by the probably champions says something about the enduring charm of this competition. With Shane Williams and Tom Shanklin alongside him, James Hook suddenly looked the player we know he can become.
At the same time the inability to win consistent possession bemoaned by coach Gareth Jenkins bodes ill for the trip to Rome to face Italian's formidable forwards.
France meanwhile can look forward to a final two weekends against teams who have just suffered shattering defeats.
A Grand Slam unquestionably looms, although whether Bernard Laporte or the French public will even notice with a two-test trip to New Zealand in June and the World Cup ever closer is another matter.