There was a time, when Super Rugby began to assault all the givens about protection of possession, when the Six Nations looked a bit like the game's spluttering colonel, unyielding in his old beliefs and not very quick on his feet. And yet, here we are, with two full rounds and today's rearranged France-Ireland tie to go, and the old boy is looking good, marching on with quite a swagger.
No sooner had the International Rugby Board (IRB) presented their remarkably unsurprising findings on the efficacy of size in a game of physical contact and Scotland had responded by selecting the Cairngorms as a back division against France, than Stuart Hogg, anything but a towering specimen at full-back, was lighting up Murrayfield. High tempo is still as potent as high kilos.
Of course, Scotland lost. Round three was not their turning point after all. But France ended up trying to work Lionel Beauxis into position for a drop at goal, a sure sign that this had been a lot more difficult than it might have been. And that is exactly how it should be, tight games between more or less equals, decided by the better performance on the day.
France stopped Scotland recycling ball quickly, a tribute to the remarkable Thierry Dusautoir, a specialist at work in the Scottish lowlands, from the hem of the kilt to ground level. His power in the tackle allowed France to put a minimum number of forwards into the rucks and determined that Scotland were always running at a replenished defensive line.
Scotland, too, had their ways of stopping France, and Ross Rennie again proved what an expert he has become at ripping the ball clear -- stripping -- from the arms of even the biggest ball-carriers. Scott Williams in the defining moment of the England-Wales game was the most celebrated example (on one side of the border) of how a centre can redden the face of a giant like Courtney Lawes, but Rennie has been executing the action of grab-and-tear all year.
Ireland are equally proficient at the choke-and-hold tackle. They are the clampers of the game, utterly infuriating to people on the move. They seize and Paul O'Connell shouts "Maul, maul" at the referee, who responds by giving them the put-in at the scrum.
Stripping and clamping have become specialist techniques in the Six Nations, not entirely new, but honed to perfection, practised zealously until they become a new threat.
It is a shame that nobody has found an old skill and buffed it up in a thoroughly modern way to sort out the ills of the scrum. France also slammed Scotland here, with Nicolas Mas putting in a performance that puts him up there with Wales's Adam Jones as their countries' most valuable players. The tighthead prop was proof of the enduring power of the first among rugby's set-pieces, but all the resets and slewing and lectures and collapsing made for uneasy viewing and listening. Protecting the players at a low level is making a mess of the game at the top. Up here, props could be allowed to blast away with an abandon that would include dishing out their own internal justice.
Referees, ever ignorant of what truly goes on in the front row, could turn a blind eye. The outside, visible game would flow more smoothly. Promoting vigilantism is not really going to get many votes in the chamber of the IRB and it seems we are stuck with what we have, a time-wasting shambles, extended periods of rest between resets, at the very time when everything else in the game is geared towards improving the ball-in-play figures.
I suppose the hope is that as the breakdown grows as the true point of contest for possession, the scrum will cease to be relevant.
If self-policing by summary clouting is a no-no, then we may not be too far from a free-kick for knock-ons and forward passes. At least it would speed things up. How strange it would be if teams were awarded a relieving free-kick and chose to scrummage, for old times' sake or, more likely, to have a breather. Meanwhile, we must suffer.
Today is bonus day, the reset meeting of France and Ireland. It was born in controversial, frost-bound chaos, typical of the ancient ways of the spluttering colonel. But it is a welcome addition to his schedule: the clampers against the minimalist ruckers. How thoroughly modern. Observer
Sunday Indo Sport