Ewan MacKenna: Six Nations should be celebrated for what it is and no more
You've to be listening intently in a screaming crowd to catch the whisper at the back of the room. And, while not always what you want to hear in that moment, at times it's what you need to hear.
On Monday, Paul Goze, president of the LNR (the French national league), gave a radio interview and he was quick to cut to the chase. He noted how the Celtic countries had a clear advantage come the Six Nations, and pointed to how Ireland can manage their top players in a way that France and England cannot. The reflex can be to call it begrudgery or whining or whatever the latest cheap buzzword is to dismiss the valid opinions of others when you win, but his words had value.
Take last Saturday for the obvious and potentially troubling evidence around our central contracts.
While the best club players will almost always line-out in continental competition, it's domestically where you find the abyss. Across the starting XV put out by Eddie Jones at the weekend, they'd played a total of 9,875 Premiership minutes this season – that's nearly 165 hours, and works out at 658 minutes per man. As for Joe Schmidt's starters, they'd played just 5,087 Pro14 minutes – under 85 hours, and just 339 minutes per man. They'd started 126 games combined, we'd started just 64. Indeed if you put the 30 on a list, only two of the top 17 are Irish with Bundee Aki's 703 minutes for Connacht leaving him seventh and Jacob Stockdale's 550 minutes for Ulster placing him at 14th.
What it meant was a mismatch, brought about at least to a degree by structures and scheduling, and one that is more pronounced in an era where centres could pass for bygone second rows and wings for flankers of yesteryear. Compare positions. At full-back, Anthony Watson's 753 minutes against Rob Kearney's 347; at out-half, in a stat alluded to by Ian McGeechan, Owen Farrell's 643 minutes against Jonny Sexton's 280; in the front row Kyle Sinckler's 845 minutes against Cian Healy's 235; in fact at lock George Kruis' played more than five times as long as James Ryan at 814 minutes against 149. Ultimately it was fresh and well prepared against very much the opposite.
Don't underestimate what's huge.
As even Sexton alluded to, "When we finished the Lions tour we had roughly three weeks off, we had a six-week pre-season with a mini-break - three-week block, week off, three-week block - and then back into games. The English boys, I think, had three weeks holidays and were straight in playing pre-season games; not great physical preparation to turn around from a Lions tour."
There are those that'll say that's only part of the reason for the difference at Twickenham and they could be right. There are also those that will say tough, that structures are part of the game and they made their choice (in the Champions Cup those same structures are turned on our provinces and look at what they've done against such odds), and they are right. There's one problem though.
Context, not content, is king.
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We're all to blame.
Marketing that wants it's big piece, thus the Vodafone flags and hashtag gimmicks push hard to be associated with and tethered to only the very zenith at every turn, when this victory should be allowed to stand unaided and pure without being forced toward something it's not. Society that exists in a brutal bubble where what matters most is reaching higher for hyperbole and where everything must be bigger, better and louder to garner attention. Media that races ever further in their praise within a cult of excess, as if to stand out from other excesses, thus the irritating surge of "greats" and "greatness" in recent days.
Here's the thing though. If the movie was the best ever, if the steak was the best ever, if the wine was the best ever, if the sex was the best ever, then where do we go when that lot is topped? The reality is this Grand Slam was bloody good but let's hold fire on the ultimate for a little while yet.
Dublin aren't great when they get through the provincial championship for there's a lot more to do in the eyes of true legends; Real Madrid aren't great when they win La Liga for that's only a starting point at such a level; LeBron has never been great when he won an eastern conference for that was the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. And so it is with rugby in an even more extreme way as it is too small and incestuous to proclaim greatness at every turn.
When you've a maximum of nine teams playing at an elite level, regional victories come with an asterisk. That's not to demean the Six Nations or what has happened here, but to properly appreciate it by being truthful. Ireland may not win a World Cup but how far they go there should define them. As Tony Ward in celebration correctly penned in these pages, that's the "true global barometer of world rugby". So how about marketing and media and society stall the digger a while? Only they haven't for the most part, such is the impatience and modern need for instant gratification.
The most frustrating part is that we've made this mistake before, and not so long ago that we can be forgiven for forgetting. The last golden generation achieved their own Grand Slam in 2009 and two years on at the World Cup, Brian O'Driscoll bounced down the Eden Park tunnel and announced they'd needed to deliver and had done exactly that. He was soon joined by Ronan O'Gara who was reduced to tears by a group victory over Australia as he described the team as "great".
How did that end up?
Coming into World Cup 2015, there may not have been a Grand Slam but there were back-to-back championships for only the fourth time in our history and, then, upon full-time in the Millennium Stadium, Ian Madigan stood centre-field crying joy after a pool-topping victory over France.
How did that end up?
Neither of those teams should be considered great despite premature proclamations. And while Jeremy Guscott caused controversy and was wrong in his assertion this week that we'd no great players right now, many here are just as mistaken and deluded in thinking we are a great team right now. For starters, that needs time. And then much more. Remember that greatness is earned, not awarded, and that tag can't have been earned yet, for this Ireland haven't been on a stage where it can be.
We are producing a caliber of player that ought to be above hysteria. Do you think England would have reacted this way? If we are to celebrate this group as being in the big pond, a place their considerable talent puts them, then let's treat them that way. To do anything else with the proven ability of Sexton and Kearney and Furlong and possibility of Ringrose and Stockdale and Carberry is to do them a disservice. It's exciting now but potential lies between what is and what could be.
What's seldom is wonderful and this may only have been a third ever Grand Slam, but our poor history in the sport shouldn't be and isn't this team's history. They need to be allowed make their own. That made Stockdale's words so refreshing when he saw this as part of the journey, not the destination, adding: "We've won a Grand Slam, and that's the first stepping stone to being a dominant team in world rugby. We're sitting number two in the world, and we're excited to have a crack at New Zealand. We're in a really good place right now but there's still a lot to work on." He is rightly aiming for the actual top and we should rightly judge him on how that goes.
The negative person will say that France was a miraculous escape and Italy a slog and Scotland gifted us 21 points and Wales required a late turnover. The positive person won't see any of that. But the realist knows the truth lies in the middle and they also know the World Cup matters most. So let's return to those crucial playing minutes as come Japan next year we won't have advantages around central contracts and structures; there, club commitments and domestic game time can't give the illusion of greatness nor the delusion of grandeur; in late 2019, on a level playing field, then we can properly judge this group and their place in the pantheon.
Thus, this Six Nations should be celebrated for what it is and no more. And these players should be celebrated for what they did and no more. Otherwise, if you add to the truth, you subtract from it.