Spectator sport

Breathtaking and brilliant

18 February 2017

9:00 AM

18 February 2017

9:00 AM

Perfection in sport: unattainable, but sometimes you can come close. Moments, people, actions you never tire of watching: Roger Federer’s backhand; Virat Kohli’s cover drive; Mo Farah’s acceleration off the final bend or little Lionel Messi dribbling through a crowded penalty area as if his opponents were shadows; Fred Couples’s sensuous golf swing.

Last weekend another moment: the long pass from England’s Owen Farrell to Elliot Daly for that decisive try in the final minutes at the Principality Stadium. This 25ft rocket, superbly timed and delayed long enough for Farrell to be in touching distance of the defensive battery, was so quick and flat it left the defence flummoxed. It was perfectly placed for Daly to gather at speed, accelerate and leave Alex Cuthbert for dead. A masterpiece.

Earlier, Farrell had been whacked so hard, and late, by the inexhaustible Welsh No. 8, Ross Moriarty (later bafflingly withdrawn) that the ground seemed to shake. A few years ago Farrell would have sought quick and summary revenge. This time he got up, dry-retched and later laughed: ‘Yes he got me there.’ A cool dude, and a future England captain if ever I saw one.

That winning try came from an error by Jonathan Davies, whose clearing kick skewed infield into the arms of George Ford. As Davies’s kick left his boot, you could hear an audible groan from his commentating namesake. In the press box, Welsh reporters put their heads in their hands: they knew what might happen. But it still needed lightning speed of thought, immense athleticism and courage from Ford, Farrell and Daly to execute. It was a stunning end to a breathtaking, brilliant match; how good to see a golden generation flourishing. England have acquired the ability under Eddie Jones of never quite believing they are going to be beaten. Wales don’t quite look like a side who believe they can win.

The Six Nations used to be just an agreeable way of seeing winter into spring. Now it is the most consistently exciting sport on the planet, with the best supporters anywhere; better than the NFL, Premier League, even La Liga. It is producing games of matchless excitement that have totally eclipsed international football (England vs Lithuania, anyone? You must be joking.)

How has this gear-change come about? Partly it is southern hemisphere coaches, especially Jones. Partly it is bonus points that commit teams to attack. Partly it is excellent refereeing: Moriarty could arguably have been sin-binned for that late smash, but instead the game flowed thrillingly. New tackling rules helped, too — there’s a greater chance for an attacking player to make an offload.

The only problem now is how rotten Italy are. Time to build two divisions of northern hemisphere rugby, with promotion and relegation. Italy deserve to have something more to think about than finishing last.

You may have missed India’s Ravi Ashwin this week becoming the fastest bowler to reach 250 Test wickets, achieving the feat in his 45th Test, three fewer than Dennis Lillee. Ashwin has a strong claim to be the most effective off-break bowler in cricket history. His now-notorious dismissal of Jonny Bairstow, says my friend Amol Rajan, author of the excellent Twirlymen, has a good claim — nearly 25 years on from Shane Warne’s magic against Mike Gatting at Old Trafford — to be the ball of this century, and therefore the millennium.

So Joe Root it is: no big surprise. By my reckoning he is the first Yorkshire-born Test captain since ‘Sir’ Geoffrey Boycott 40 years ago (Michael Vaughan was born in Eccles). How will the boyish-looking but teak-tough new captain shape up? All of God’s own county will be watching.


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