Being a standby reserve for the England team is great; you get a shirt and everything. You get to sit in the best seats in the best stadiums in the world and watch some huge matches at close range. So to be asked to accompany the national team to Paris last weekend – just in case – was pure pleasure.
OK, so not all of that is true. If you know the kit man well (a vital relationship to develop) you do get a shirt. The Stade de France is a spectacular place to watch sport and, for lots of different reasons, this became the fixture of the Six Nations. But in truth it was one of the most frustrating evenings of my life. This is a good thing because it means I want to play, but it still made me want to beat myself around the head. Either that or put on my boots and hijack proceedings, hoping nobody would notice. I look just like Jonny, right?
What made it worse was that this was a much-hyped scrummaging battle, and I like those. Nicolas Mas, France's tighthead and eventual man of the match, is a well-renowned exponent of his trade and would make a worthy opponent for any prop in the world. These are the best guys to play against because you cannot lose; everybody expects him to dominate so all the pressure lies on his admittedly broad shoulders. What makes it even more difficult, though, is if he is allowed to cheat. Now please do not misinterpret this as an excuse from a poor loser. Remember, I was not playing!
Dan Cole was the man fingered as the weak link in England's scrum, and I am here to tell you he was nothing of the sort. He was, at one point, penalised for collapsing when his opposite number, the troll-like Thomas Domingo, was caught completely on his heels by the fast-engaging England front-row. What Domingo did was pull his head back between his legs in order to remove himself from the line of fire. Not silly; he was awarded the decision because he was the man still on his feet. A simple picture for the referee to decipher, but the wrong decision entirely.
On another occasion, the final picture presented to the referee was of Mas lying right on top of Cole, face to face. It was almost a beautiful moment, but not quite. Now think of the physics in this scenario; Mas is a tighthead, as is Cole. This means that they lined up on opposite sides of the scrum and ought never to have come into contact with one another. A prop's job is, supposedly, to push straight with his back parallel to the touchlines. Imagine the angle Mas must have adopted to end up in his eventual position. He sheered straight across Tim Payne, through the naturally smaller (this being a rule for all hookers, not just Dylan Hartley) and unsuspecting Hartley from the side and into Cole, who simply could not push straight as all the weight was coming into his left flank. This technique is hugely destructive and completely illegal. Now, of course, any decent prop-forward operates on the edge of the law, but Mas must have thought it was Christmas to be getting away with that.
Of course, to lament what might have been is a waste of time, but people's reputations are on the line here and we must think before we berate. Yes, in the heat of the battle one often has to find a solution, but a more educated whistle would be handy. Mas played to the limits he was set and well done to him; that is the game we play. In that sense, we props are like children: give us an inch and we'll walk all over you. Next time I just pray I can be looking for answers on the field, not mumbling them to myself (nobody else was interested, amazingly). Don't get me wrong, the shirt I got is lovely; I just want the next one to get a bit dirty.