Six Nations rugby musters for its last convulsive heaves this weekend and next. Today (10 March) in Edinburgh, the appealing Irish XV should confirm their latest Triple Crown, while victory at Twickenham tomorrow will, to all intents, settle yet another championship for France. Both their matches next Saturday, respectively against Italy and Scotland, should each assume the nature of an emperor’s victory parade. It has panned out roughly as expected — except, bejaysus and godammit, it could so easily have been Ireland going to Rome next week to be anointed with its first Grand Slam in more than half a century if only one of the blithering eejit-heroes had called for, collected, and conclusively kicked the bladder high into the grandstand rafters with the French seemingly beaten on 11 February. Instead, with just a minute left on the clock, the fellows in green fretted and fannied in a dither around the innocently bouncing ball and so gifted that game to France. For want of that one clean catch and hooraying hoof a whole generation of Irish rugby men are going to spend a lifetime kicking themselves. Their only satisfactory act of contrition would be to win the World Cup itself in October.
Italy’s manner and muscle in the past few weeks has provided a hearty bonus for the tournament; now there really are Six. Italy even start favourites to beat Wales in Rome today. Of Wales, Scotland and England, it is difficult to say which has been more disappointingly inept so far.
I would have enjoyed hearing John Reason on the decline and fall of the England XV. Alas, he died, at 77, last month. If the Daily Telegraph obituary page did him proud, I missed it; if it didn’t, for shame. A quarter of a century ago — with Swanton on cricket, Saunders and Oxby on football, Williams on golf and Tingay on tennis — Reason was one of the unmissable big shots when the world and his wife claimed to ‘take the Telegraph only for its sport’. Reason was a precise, skilful reporter, but it was his polemic and the truculent certainty of his opinions that hauled rugby out of its cosy clubhouse clique. The blazers blanched at Reason’s swipes, players cringed at his bluntness: one even sued him for libel. A one-man conservative party, John laid about him with a left-field confidence and gusto. Like the best reporters, he was basically a loner but, on tours, when not striking off solo, he contentedly kept the company of the game’s elders like Clem Thomas and Bill McLaren; us kids he considered slapdash and I can still almost feel his penetrating gaze — aloof, baffled and quizzical — fixing mine across the bar as he shook his head slowly, just the quiver of a mystified grin playing on his lips. He was as brave a writer as he was compellingly readable, and happiest of all with the ungrasping true amateurs and gents who had played on British Lions’ tours of the 1960s and early 1970s.
When a warm-hearted pastime became more coldly professional, it gave rottweiler Reason a few final rabbits to worry and slay. The bellicose England player Brian Moore, known as ‘Pit Bull’, prefaced his autobiography by saying one of his proudest satis-factions was managing to remain in the England XV past Reason’s retirement from the Telegraph. Nicely, Pit Bull’s splendid column in the paper now fills the very same space from which John used to bait him. Life goes on.