TOUGH TO REMEMBER A GAME OF RUGBY THAT WAS QUITE AS BONKERS AS FRANCE/WALES IN PARIS LAST SATURDAY OR INDEED A MATCH THAT SO BLATENTLY LAID BARE THE STEAMING HYPOCRISIES OF THE SPORT.
Rugby union fell headlong down the rabbit hole on Saturday afternoon in Paris; scrums, more scrums, skullduggery, sin bins, sledging, sulks, screaming injustices; the last twenty minutes of the France/Wales game had everything bar sandwiches and a Mad Hatter’s tea-party. Not since the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie when Jean van der Velde stood on the seventy-second tee with (a) a three shot lead (b) his driver and (c) a misplaced but grim Gallic determination to seal his first Major Championship ‘in style’ has the conclusion of an otherwise totally forgettable occasion become quite so memorable. ‘How long is forever?’ said Alice. ‘Sometimes, just one second,’ said the White Rabbit. ‘Time is a relative concept, especially in Wonderland.’ Or, indeed, in Paris.
So, just in case you missed it – and I sincerely hope you didn’t – here’s a summary of the greatest denouement in the history of rugby union. We are seventy-nine minutes in, Wales are leading 13-18 but they’re ‘au-dessous du pump’ on their own line. Indeed they’ve just given away a penalty and France – to the astonishment of absolutely no one – have called for a scrum.
79:23 Damian Chouly and Yoann Maestri are chewing Uini Atonio’s ear. My French lip-reading isn’t great but they seem to be urging their replacement tight-head to tighten his girdle and give it ‘tout’ in what looks set to be the decisive scrum of the day. Atonio is saying nothing either because he’s a man of few words – not unusual for a prop – or because he’s breathing through his backside. It could, of course, be a bit of both.
(Indeed spool back through the previous five minutes and you’ll find Uini leaning into a couple of scrums, inspecting a couple of rucks and ‘picking and going’ for roughly twenty-five centimetres. You’ll also find the French TV director – obligingly as it turns out – giving us a shot of the blue bench where Rabah Slimani, the corkscrew tight-head whom Atonio replaced twenty-five minutes previously, is wearing his tracksuit top. Truly, Watson, the little things are infinitely the most important.)
79:24 SCRUM ONE The packs square up. In the BBC commentary box, Brian Moore – don’t you just love hindsight – portentously tells us that ‘this is the very last play of the game’. Just how wrong can a man be?
79:28 Referee Wayne Barnes gets no further than ‘Bind’ when the Welsh eight nudge too far forward and are ‘free kicked’ for what WB says is ‘too much weight’. Yoann Maestri – not a man famous for his languages or his long fuse but in Guirado’s absence, the French captain – already has a frown four miles wide. He calls for another scrum.
79:40 SCRUM TWO We reset and the front rows pancake on both sides.
79:47 A man dressed in a yellow bib with a large ‘D’ on it appears from absolutely nowhere. (Lewis Carroll, eat out your heart.) Either he’s the village idiot or the French team doctor. He speaks briefly to Atonio, Atonio says something dismissive and the quack waddles off. The conversation lasts no more than two seconds.
79:48 SCRUM THREE We re-gather for the reset scrum but Wayne Barnes’s antennae are twitching. Who was that funny bloke in the bib and what was his problem? He blows his whistle, stops the clock and dutifully approaches Atonio. ‘Are you injured?’ he asks; in fact he asks this question three times. Atonio is puzzled. First the doctor turns up from nowhere and wants to know how he is, now the referee’s in his face asking the same question. What the bloody hell’s going on here? He finally mumbles something about a sore back. Rob Evans, the Welsh loose-head, snorts loudly. ‘Okay, let’s go, he’s not injured,’ says Wayne Barnes. The TV Director cuts back to the French bench and a tight close up of Slimani who’s now swigging water but – do you see, Watson, do you see? – no longer wearing his tracksuit.
79:51 SCRUM FOUR Pancakes again. Rob Evans complains to the touch judge that Atonio is twisting in.
80:03 ‘Le Docteur’ returns – again, seemingly from nowhere – and starts talking to Wayne Barnes and pointing to his head. Irritatingly, we can’t hear what they’re saying because the commentators are talking all over them but Barnes eventually manages to get a word in edgeways between Eddie Butler and Brian Moore. ‘You as a doctor are saying you want to take him off for a head assessment,’ he says. ‘Do you think he needs a head assessment?’ The doctor says yes, although in a manner and with an expression that’s less than convincing. Put it this way, if I was in this guy’s surgery and he told me I had six months to live, I’d be looking for a second opinion.
80:03 Time is now standing still. Slimani – who has muscles in places where I don’t even have places – is already on and Atonio is walking away grimacing slightly and – bizarrely – holding his stomach. He disappears down the tunnel alone and unaided with no medic anywhere to be seen. Perhaps the French encourage their players to do their own HIAs. Brian Moore is now in his absolute element given his three favourite rants are being served to him on a silver salver; namely, the arcane complexities of scrummaging, naked cynicism and the French. The packs reassemble and it’s Eddie Butler’s turn to describe this as ‘the final play of the game.’
80:11 SCRUM FIVE The forwards lock horns, the French exert some pressure, Camille Chat pops out but finally we’re playing.
81:25 France huff this way and puff that way and finally Wales kill the ball on their own line. Wayne Barnes – decisively, correctly – gives a blue penalty and bins Samson Lee, who slopes off offering neither argument nor mitigation.
81:53 Barnes’ concern now – sharp boy that he is – is that if France opt for a scrum – highly likely – Wales will need to bring back Thomas Francis, whom Lee replaced, unless of course Francis went off injured. This is of some importance since, understandably, Maestri’s not going to call for a scrum if Francis can’t come back and we’re in the realm of the uncontested lean-to. So the referee needs to know whether Francis is fit for active service but despite asking his officials the question, no one’s offering him the answer.
82.47 Barnes comes down to the touchline to talk to his fourth official. ‘Was Francis injured or was he a replacement?’ he says. It’s about as simple a question as he could’ve asked given the bloke has all the paperwork on his clipboard but, for some reason, the official looks puzzled. Barnes asks him again in English and again in French. In the BBC commentary box, Butler and Moore, mischievously but wonderfully, suggest that – in the spirit of the occasion – the Welsh might want to consider nobbling Francis themselves to force uncontested scrums. ‘Quickly, someone, whack him’, says Brian Moore. ’Shaun Edwards is down there; he’ll do that.’
83:42 Wayne Barnes – patience personified – finally manages to establish that Francis was a tactical substitution and can therefore return if required. Back on the pitch, Maestri – surprise, surprise – opts for the scrum and Francis locks horns with Scott Baldwin in an impromptu pitch-side ‘rut’ to warm up his antlers.
84:36 Francis is now on and we’re ready for Scrum Six except that Wales still have fifteen players on the field. Wayne Barnes is – again – left with a nettle he’d normally expect his fourth official to be grasping. ‘Who’s leaving?’ he asks. He’s told it’s 18 but it isn’t. Up in commentary, Brian Moore’s now riding the wave. ‘If this goes on much longer,’ he mutters, ‘we’ll get the yellow card back on.’
85:05 Wayne Barnes is still getting no answers. ‘I need the player number coming off,’ he says, and for the first time he sounds a touch tetchy. The French TV Director – unhelpfully – shows a shot of a bloodied Scott Baldwin. Initially I assume this is the result of his ‘rut’ with Francis, until I remember that the poor bloke’s been bleeding profusely for the past fifteen minutes.
85:35 Wales finally decide that Leigh Halfpenny’s coming off and while he trots to the touchline neatly folding his scrum-cap, we get a shot of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who – understandably – seem somewhat perplexed. Indeed William looks like he’s ordered the Sole Meuniere and been given the Pot-au-Feu while Kate’s – clearly – wondering how much the babysitter’s now going to cost. She’s probably not alone.
86:11 SCRUM SIX The packs re-engage. Again, we don’t even get as far as ‘Bind’ because Wales – again – have ‘too much weight’: penalty to the Nation of Philosophers who – again – opt for the scrum. What is the French for deja-vu?
86:50 SCRUM SEVEN This one goes down on the far side and is reset. ‘Who wouldn’t pay £84 to watch this?’ asks Brian Moore. Sitting on the edge of my beanbag in Darkest Gloucestershire, I’m genuinely not sure whether he’s being serious or sarcastic.
87:35 SCRUM EIGHT Goes much the same way as Scrum Seven. Wayne Barnes’ smile is more a grimace than a grin. Rob Howley’s now on the touchline too. He looks stonier than a stone.
88:19 SCRUM NINE This one – take a wild guess – goes down like a dropped pie but it’s a penalty to France. Louis Picamoles taps and goes and Wayne Barnes signals a penalty advantage to Les Bleus for Wales not being ten. France shovel it wide, fumble it and we come back. Maestri asks Barnes whether the last scrum should’ve perhaps been a penalty try. ‘No, because the scrum wasn’t moving,’ says Barnes, correctly. Maestri nods and opts for yet another heave-ho. He doesn’t look happy but then he’s a grumpy second row. He never looks happy. If he married Halle Berry, he’d expect her to cook.
90:03 SCRUM TEN We’re now ten minutes into the red zone and I’m checking my diary to see which of Monday morning’s commitments I might be able to shift to Tuesday. The two front rows are now getting twitchy and we don’t even get as far as ‘Crouch’. Thomas Francis points at Camille Chat’s feet. Perhaps he’s just admiring his boots.
90:30 SCRUM ELEVEN We go again and both front rows jack-knife out of the scrum. But we’re playing on and France take it left where Rhys Webb is deemed to be holding on in the tackle and France get another penalty advantage.
91:31 France are now on phase five and get held up. We go back for the penalty and Wayne Barnes calls over Sam Warburton to issue a collective bollocking. It seems the naughty step is now beckoning for those who aren’t behaving.
91:49 George North suddenly arrives holding out his right arm and pointing to a mark on his inner bicep. Distracted, Barnes doesn’t see him so North – oddly – shows it to Maestri who – let’s be polite – appears to offer very little in the way of sympathy and instead turns to Barnes to ask – for the sixth time – for a scrum. Sam Warburton has huddled up his team to pass on the bollocking so George North heads over there and – again – holds out his arm.
92:28 Lee and Halfpenny trot back out. Unbelievably Samson Lee – binned a minute and a half into stoppage time – has returned to the game with room to spare. Rhys Webb approaches Barnes to say North’s been ‘bitten’. Warburton and North elaborate while Rob Evans – smart boy – takes a moment to lie down and have a leg rub.
93:02 Wayne Barnes – who by this stage must be screaming for a cup of tea and a buttered slice of malt loaf – now explains to Maestri that North’s alleging he’s been bitten. ‘We have to look at that and if he’s done it himself, we’ll deal with it,’ he says. The idea of George North nibbling himself is so preposterous that I can only assume this is Wayne being sardonic but I could be wrong. We are, after all, down the rabbit-hole here.
93:30 Barnes explains to the TMO, Peter Fitzgibbon, what’s been alleged and what needs to be checked. Ken Owens takes out his gum-shield and hangs it on his right ear, which – frankly – is as neat a move as we’ve seen from anyone all afternoon.
93:52 Peter Fitzgibbon assures Wayne Barnes that ‘we’re going to look at the footage’ although the French TV Director – who’s not exactly playing a blinder here – offers the viewing public no replays whatsoever. Instead we get a sixty-second shot of Wayne Barnes who – I must say – is looking considerably cooler than I’d be looking in this situation.
94:52 WB – who, for a solid minute, has seen nothing on the screen but his good self – finally, but very politely, runs out of patience. ‘Fitzy, how’re you getting on?’ he asks. ‘Still checking, Wayne,’ says ‘Fitzy’.
95:06 ‘Fitzy’ finally comes through with a verdict. ‘Wayne, no conclusive footage, play on,’ at which point French TV suddenly decides to share the inconclusive footage with its audience. Bizarrely, given the seriousness of the allegation, the footage consists of just one angle and – yep – it’s inconclusive.
95:35 It’s now been fully five minutes since we’ve had any rugby. Barnes explains to the captains that the footage shows the square root of bugger all and we re-gather for a scrum, which, if I remember rightly, is where we were fifteen minutes ago. We appear to have entered some kind of time warp.
95:59 SCRUM TWELVE France get a clear nudge on but Chat – encore une fois – pops up and Wales – sort of – hold fast. Barnes though gives France their eighth penalty whereupon Fickou arrives to offer his opinion and is brusquely hoiked out by the scruff of his neck by Maestri who, clearly, is beginning to unravel. He asks the referee for a yellow card but all he gets is the penalty whereupon he opts for the kick at goal and the three points. Hey, we jest.
96:42 Wales send on Nicky Smith to replace Rob Evans on the loose-head; Evans – clearly – is a work-shy slacker who’s propped up a wonky scrum in Paris for a mere hour and a half and then copped off for an early bath. The man’s a lightweight.
96:57 SCRUM THIRTEEN We’re about to set ourselves again when Wayne Barnes blows his whistle. Eddie Butler tells us there’s ‘a problem with the fourth official’ but he doesn’t say what the problem is, presumably because he doesn’t know. Nor does Wayne Barnes, who, and I’ve no idea how, is somehow holding onto his temper. Twice he asks whether there’s an issue with the fourth official. Either there isn’t or if there is, it’s been mysteriously resolved. We head back for the scrum.
97:43 SCRUM FOURTEEN France – yet again – have a nudge, Chat – yet again – pops out and Barnes – yet again – penalises Wales. Maestri, presumably, isn’t a student of Einstein; specifically Albert’s line about madness being defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result which is why, game boy that he is, he – yet again – opts for a scrum. Wayne summons ‘Warby’ and tells him the next Welsh miscreant goes to the bin of sin.
98:48 SCRUM FIFTEEN Unbelievably the scrum goes down but we play on with a penalty advantage to France for Nicky Smith dropping his bind. France run three headless phases and Dan Biggar kicks the ball out of a ruck. The penalty advantage now moves to Biggar who, Barnes says, will go to the bin at the end of this play.
99:55 France camp out again on Wales’ doorstep and Chouly batters through the front door and over the line. Wayne Barnes takes a lengthy look and awards the try. Had he offered France another scrum, I suspect a – by now – almost deranged Yoann Maestri would have strangled him with his bare hands.
The scores are now tied and the clock has stopped, presumably because the batteries have run out. No matter, we’re well into the 101st minute when Cammy Lopez rifles the winning conversion between the sticks and drops to his knees. I too have dropped to my knees, not in any sense of Gallic joy but so I can crawl to the toilet for the pee I was bursting for thirty minutes ago. The game without end has finally drawn to a close.
Back in the BBC studio, Thomas Castaignede wastes absolutely no time piling into the referee whose decisions, he says, were ‘very, very, very strange.’ Martyn Williams too takes an instant bite out of Barnes’ backside saying he’d ‘lost control in the last fifteen minutes … it was farcical’ although he doesn’t specify exactly how or where Barnes had ‘lost his grip’ on the game. To be honest, both comments are poor to middling but consistent with a tournament where, historically, the easy out has always been to kick the nearest Englishman.
To summarise, France have switched their props in highly dubious circumstances, Wales have wantonly given away nine penalties in the last twenty minutes to try to burgle the game and the first man to cop it is the referee? I wouldn’t for a moment suggest Wayne Barnes had the finest whistle of his life but in those last twenty minutes under the most intense pressure with neither side doing him any favours and flash-fires breaking out left, right and centre, he did a remarkable job of keeping calm and trying to apply the rules fairly and squarely. Could there have been another Welsh yellow card? Yes, possibly, indeed one was imminent right at the death. Should he have given France a penalty try? Debatable. But did he blatently get any calls wrong? No, he didn’t.
This, though is one of the steaming hypocrisies of an elite sport in which both sides – frequently – do all they can to con the referee and then moan afterwards that he’s a sucker. And why does rugby union always react like a startled virgin when the ‘c’ word gets mentioned? Pitch-side for the BBC, the straight-talking Sonja MacLaughlan cut to the chase with Alun Wyn Jones. ‘Did France cheat?’ she asked. ‘I wouldn’t use that word,’ said the lawyerly Jones, ‘but someone will have to take a look at it.’ Rob Howley, too, stopped short of an accusation of naked skullduggery instead suggesting – through lips so tight you could barely hear him – that ‘the integrity of the game has been brought into disrepute.’
I’m sorry but I’ve never got this. What is the problem with calling a cheat a cheat? Is it etiquette of some kind, a legal conundrum or just honour amongst thieves? To be honest, it looks like the last given so many teams are either coached to cheat or do it instinctively; scrums, rucks, line-outs, you name it. For heaven’s sake, the bloke who invented the sport was supposed to be playing football when he picked up the pill and ran with it. What’s the big deal?
So, to repeat Sonja’s perfectly pertinent question, did France cheat? The Six Nations are investigating but unless someone on the blue team coughs, you’re unlikely to be able to prove anything, despite the fact that the circumstantial evidence suggests France – in the words of Curtis and Elton – are as guilty as a puppy sitting next to a pile of pooh. Essentially, all this looks suspiciously like ‘Bloodgate’ without the comedy blood capsule, except that this time the ‘crooks’ got away with it.
France, for their part, have denied any wrong-doing; instead Head Coach Guy Noves slated George North for claiming he’d been bitten and Yoann Maestri – for whom a cold shower and half-an-hour to calm down clearly had no effect whatsoever – laid into Wayne Barnes and his reluctance to award France a penalty try. ‘He told us we weren’t dominant enough but the Welsh were rigging every scrum,’ he was reported to have said afterwards. ‘Anglo-Saxon referees always talk about fair play but the reality is that they think we’re cheats … there’s a complicity between Anglo Saxons and it is in these moments that you realise it. It’s unbelievable.’
Credit to Yoann for offering us his unvarnished opinion – at least someone was prepared to say what he really thought – but hopefully he’ll bring his chequebook to his disciplinary hearing. You fancy he might be needing it.