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Spectator Sport: Missing out at Murrayfield

11 February 2012

1:00 PM

11 February 2012

1:00 PM

You’ve got to hand it to Princess Anne. She’s been loyally pitching up for Scotland’s rugby matches through thick and thin, largely thin since the battle of Bannockburn, and unfailingly appears to be enjoying herself. She’s a real rugby fan, and if she were 30 years younger, she’d have had her eye, you suspect, on that young David Denton (the man of the match, if you missed it, and a back row forward of immense stature and equally impressive looks).

However, without full hazchem uniform and headgear, I wouldn’t have liked to be anywhere near the Princess Royal if she were called on to deliver her post-match verdict. Quite how Scotland contrived to lose to England is a mystery that makes Fermat’s Last Theorem look like the Daily Star quick crossword. They should have slotted 20 points past England, and the fact that their permanently ballistic coach Andy Robinson has not yet spontaneously combusted can only be explained by the cold weather.

Is the problem that the Scots team has become too urban, representing just Edinburgh and Glasgow? What happened to the big Kelso farmer or the wee Hawick scrum half who could burrow in like a mole and deliver a mighty kick? Where are those teams that used to be the staple of Rugby Special, Heriot’s FP or Melrose? I don’t know, but I’m not Scottish.

This Six Nations is already shaping up well, though let’s hope it doesn’t develop into a two-tier tournament with just Wales, France and Ireland on top. France are already developing into a classic side, with thinking forwards and great running backs. Philippe Saint-André, their new coach, is intelligent, and less loopy than his predecessor. Les Bleus’ next game is in Paris this Saturday night against Ireland at 8.00, a timing which should, I hope, result in the rescheduling of several south-west London dinner parties.

It should be a superb encounter. The Irish will think they should have beaten Wales and be desperate not to lose two on the trot. With due respect to Sam Warburton, this should be the battle of the two best back rows in the tournament. Picamoles is an outstanding addition to the French (you need to be to replace Harinordoquy), alongside Bonnaire and Dusautoir; while in green Ferris, O’Brien and Heaslip are a match for anybody. Meanwhile England, hopefully playing a bit more rugby, should just have enough in the tank to beat Italy.

Meanwhile, this is Ryder Cup year and golf is simmering away very nicely in hotter parts of the planet. You can’t predict what’s going to happen in any event, let alone the Majors. Robert Rock of this parish, a former club pro who in a pleasingly retro way doesn’t wear a hat emblazoned with squillions’ worth of sponsored branding, calmly held off Tiger in Abu Dhabi the other day. At the same time Kyle Stanley blew a three-shot lead in Torrey Pines, before coming back the next week to take the exquisitely named Waste Management Phoenix Open. Paul Lawrie — remember him? — has bagged the Qatar Masters: Lawrie it was who won the Open at Carnoustie in 1999 when Van de Velde blew up at the water. Are any sportsmen as reliant on mental fortitude as golfers? Whatever your gender, whatever your talent or your age,  90 per cent of the game is played between the ears and it’s how well you can home in on those six inches that determines how great you are and how much money you make.

And it’s never more apparent than at Ryder Cup time. Current standings suggest a fair few rookies in both teams. That is what is so fascinating: all the talk and focus this year will be about Tiger and Rory but ten of the last 12 Majors have had first-time winners, so the width of talent is enormous, the quality exceptionally high.

Roger Alton is an executive editor on the Times.

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