Has there ever been a more wondrous start to a tournament than the first weekend of this term’s Six Nations? In any sport for that matter. England playing like the All Blacks, with Owen Farrell in stupendous form and Billy Twelvetrees, the face of a choirboy and the frame of Hercules, blasting all before him; a reborn Ireland on the way to crushing Wales in Cardiff before beating off a thrilling fightback; and then the best of all, on a sunny afternoon in front of a roaring Roman crowd.
When you saw Italy’s warrior prop, Leicester’s Martin Castrogiovanni, hirsute and terrifying, belting out the last words of his country’s anthem — ‘Italy has called us,’ if you’re interested — with a ferocity that could have blasted the cameraman over the walls of the Olympic Stadium and into the Tiber, you knew that Les Bleus would not have it all their own way. And by golly they didn’t. A thrilling match, possibly the best of the weekend, seemed to signal a shifting of a few plates in northern hemisphere rugby. Italy have been making great progress, despite a weaker domestic infrastructure than their more eminent rivals, and they ran Australia close in Florence in November. But they have never really had a fly half, either as a place kicker or a playmaker since Diego Dominguez a decade back.
But here they had Luciano Orquera, rightly man of the match for his display at No. 10. But was there a better player anywhere over the weekend than Italy’s massive, brilliant No. 8 and captain Sergio Parisse? Arise Sir Sergio, I say. He’s played most of his international rugby with players of more average ability but he has never failed to deliver. There are other compensations — his wife is a former Miss France. But how good it was to see that the stars of the new Roman empire were those old warhorses Parisse and Castrogiovanni. Almost 100 caps each and they would still get into most people’s world XV.
Another banker for the world XV would be Ireland’s evergreen Brian O’Driscoll. He’s 34 and first played for his country in the last century. Written off after a barrage of injuries, dropped as captain, and admitting that this could be his last Six Nations, the old boy had one of the best games of his life. He created Simon Zebo’s try with superb vision and a pass behind Alex Cuthbert’s back that showed he still had the old magic. Later, he came in to play scrum half when Ireland were a man down, before burrowing over for a try himself from a close-range ruck, the sort of thing you expect from a prop, when most normal centres would have been back waiting for the passing move. He was just everywhere.
The performance should get him a Lions place (and possibly captaincy) that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago. He’s got the motivation: revenge for the last time he was Lions captain, in New Zealand, and spear-tackled out of it after 34 seconds in the job.
Of everyone in Ireland’s ‘golden generation’ which won the 2009 Grand Slam, and, between Munster and Leinster, took five of the past seven Heineken Cups, O’Driscoll is the most sparkling. He has reasonable speed, but it is his knack of spotting a gap or a mismatch (a roaming opposition prop, for example) that has led to so many tries for him and created many more for others. BO’D is currently on 47 for his country, and level with Bryan Habana in seventh place in the all-time roll call. He is a fine tackler who doesn’t mind getting stuck in and doing the dirty work at the breakdown. While some backs come off the field looking fairly pristine, the abiding image of BO’D is with his socks round his ankles and mud up to his elbows. In BO’D we should trust. Now Sunday’s appointment with England in Dublin is unmissable.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.