‘It’s never easy going to Rome,’ observed Anthony Watson after the traditional mauling of a hard-working but outgunned Italian side at the weekend. Eh? Well Watson is a brilliant winger (two tries in ten minutes no less) and a thoughtful and well-spoken credit to English rugby. But a difficult trip, Anthony? Sure the A23 to Gatwick can be pretty hellish, valet parking is a tad pricey, and security a nightmare. And don’t get me started on Fiumicino Airport. But all that said, Anthony, I don’t think it’s never easy going to Rome. And in the unlikely event you were referring to the rugby: come off it. England never fail to beat poor Italy.
Which is a great pity: at last, Italy are going in the right direction under Conor O’Shea. I would love to see them beat a top team in a game that matters: it’s a great shirt, a great anthem and a fabulous country. It has been the home of great individuals — champion skiers like Alberto Tomba and MotoGP winners like Valentino Rossi. Italians doing well at sport has a touch of magic that isn’t there when an Anglo-Saxon does it. But for Italian rugby, just being a ‘potential banana skin’ isn’t much of a role to play for 20 years. Italy failed to qualify for the Fifa World Cup, Serie A isn’t that great, and there are no Italian drivers in Formula One.
Having modestly invested in France for the Six Nations, Johnny Sexton’s intergalactic dropped goal deep into added time came as something of a knife to my heart. As the ball went over, Sexton found himself at the bottom of a football-style pile-on as every Irish player jumped on top of him. Whatever happened to the traditional rugby way of celebrating a score: a gentle jog back to the halfway line with a modest smile at your team-mates and a diffident thumbs up?
Ireland weren’t as good as some people thought: tough and businesslike, certainly, but they should have lost. Wales, on the other hand, were miles better than expected: very dynamic and exciting half-backs, and a new back row. With Leigh Halfpenny at the top of his game, the whole team looked revitalised against a Scottish team that had been tipped to make the Welsh struggle. This Six Nations could be anybody’s, and I am looking forward to a couple of brilliant games. Maybe this weekend at Twickenham, where England face the Welsh. It couldn’t be more exciting.
This is an extract from Roger Alton’s Spectator Sport column, which appears in this week’s magazine