Times Column 5/02/05
In South Africa, prop forward is the position to play. The prop is ox-strong and stubborn. He represents qualities that South Africans traditionally value, and when the Springboks have a charismatic front-row they invariably prosper. More than that: in the unforgiving arena of Test rugby, an archetypal Bok prop like Os Du Randt can make a virtue out of traditional perceptions of national character.
In the days when props were fat and wingers were thin, it was easier to imagine that each position attracted a different type of personality. The Welsh treasured their nimble and visionary fly-halves, implacable Merlins in the best traditions of mystic Welsh folklore. The Scots prized their ferocious mongrel breakaways, one among many traits they exported to New Zealand. The All Blacks have perked up no end behind the roaming and destructive Richie McCaw, and the Scots cherish the same refusal to accept any cause as lost.
For England, the key player is the lock-forward, the team’s immovable heart of oak, evident in a distinguished line of strong-armed stoics from Johnson through Dooley and Beaumont back to Wavell Wakefield. The solid second-row is where England will always turn when things start to go wrong.
These faintly spurious assumptions about national character used to provide much of the spice to the 6 Nations. The French, for example, have always understood that the flair part of French flair is born in the centre.
In a recently-published book on the Boniface brothers, who made up a sparkling French midfield partnership in the 1960’s, Denis Lalanne assumes that God is a centre three-quarter. The devil, on the other hand, is half Rugby League and half Australian. Lalanne thanks God for the space-making genius of the Boniface boys (in over 300 pages), and all other French centres made in His image. Evidence of divinity translates into an immoderate taste for attack, and an instinctive knowledge of what to tell the forwards: ‘Push! We’ll do the rest.’
This year, France can play New Zealander Tony Marsh and South African bruiser Brian Liebenburg in the midfield. Though both fine players, neither is the kind of Gallic craftsman of an opening craved by the French rugby soul. For some, it’s only a number on the back of a jersey, but true believers know better. I shall therefore predict the outcome of the 6 Nations by the current plight of each talismanic jersey.
The French are doomed. The good news for Wales, however, is Stephen Jones at number 10. If not quite a Merlin, he’s close enough that Wales may even win some matches. The Scottish had high hopes for the emergence of an old-fashioned open-side terrier in Donnie MacFayden. Now that MacFayden is out injured, the Scots look as unlikely candidates for glory as at any time since they last had a genuine home-grown breakaway. Far too long ago. England have quality locks in abundance, some of whom can’t even make the bench – it might turn out to be a better few weeks than anyone dares expect.
The Italians, with a shorter history in the tournament, are yet to establish which position best matches the unique spirit of their game, and so feeds the national morale. This may explain why they sometimes lose focus on the pitch. Strangely enough, Irish rugby too is missing its own emblematic position. Instead of focussing on one area, the Irish expression of national character has traditionally been to spread the red mist equally in all areas.
As it happens, this year the Irish have superior players in all the positions coveted by others. They have formidable English-style locks and inventive French centres, a pair of Number 10’s as wily as any Welshman, and in Johnny O’Connor and Denis Leamy two young breakaways stolen-at-birth from across the Irish Sea.
If the Irish can overcome a slightly different rugby tradition, of slipping up when all seems won, then they won’t need a particular jersey with a distinct emotional and historic significance. That honour will be given to the whole team, all 22 of them, to be treasured collectively for ever.