It would be unfortunate if my recent critique of Martin Johnson’s England – full of dispiriting observations as it was – drew attention away from the gathering triumph of the Welsh. Because Gatland/Howley and their fiery English right-hand man have led their team to the brink of something remarkable. They are now favourites to beat France next weekend and go on to face Australia or hosts New Zealand in the World Cup Final. Let me repeat that; Wales… in the World Cup Final… unarguably on merit. (Okay, okay – they’re not there yet, but please…)
What is special, particularly against the backdrop of England’s humiliating exit, is the manner of Welsh progress through the tournament. They began, way back when, with one of those poisonously rosy Almost
Days when they nearly-deservedly beat the South Africans. At the time I may have danced rather close to a kind of bitterness in my description of what felt pretty close to a Welsh Choke. Suffice to say that it was a game they should have won; again.
Many teams may have been demoralised by such a massively expensive, failed effort. Wales, no doubt led by their management posse, have responded with perverse magnificence, by visibly cranking up belief in their singularly positive vision. They have re-launched with a fierce and often brilliant combination of brave defence and shimmering attack; playing a brand of rugby that antidotes and puts into perspective the dull cynicism of Johnson era England. Surely the world has been smiling as Roberts, Phillips and North have burst through the allegedly inviolable defensive walls of the modern game? After all this talk of flair and expansiveness and pace on the ball, to actually see it so thrillingly and winningly enacted has been the highlight of the World Cup.
I would go further even than this. Whatever happens from here forward – and please god let us have a Wales / New Zealand Final* – I am clear that the abiding memory of the tournament will be that Wales showed us again that success can come from a liberal dollop of faith in talent. Fearless confidence facilitates brilliance – it may even be a pre-requisite for it. So yes, prepare your team in terms of tactical awareness, attack and defence; but mostly inspire them, unleash them, invite them to stretch not merely appear. My personal view is that the two most complete performances of the World Cup have both come from Wales – against Fiji (66- 0) and now against Ireland over the weekend. However disproportionate or naive this may sound, that feels like a triumph for joy over pragmatism.
So much for the general waffle. In the matrix of faithful and often heroic team effort, individual performances call out for further celebration. This is something I wish to address, after an admittedly tortuous diversion.
I am one who has long felt that James Hook has been unfortunate to say the least to remain on the fringe. It seems odd, frankly and contradictory, that Wales’ most obvious talent at fly-half has not, it seems, been encouraged or supported enough to make the Magic Man berth his own. (I am reminded of what has I’m sure in the past been called Glenn Hoddle syndrome). And 18 months ago Lee Byrne was close to being the best number 15 in the world. Neither Hook nor Byrne started; instead Half-Penny, more generally used on the wing was piloted in to full back. He proceeded to give an almost faultless display of courage and focus and relentless busy-ness, pausing only to slot a kick from halfway. It compels those of us who aim to describe these matters to wheel out phrases like “in a masterstroke from the coach”…
Warburton has been rightly lauded and applauded for his energetic contribution as skipper and breakdown maestro. He was outstanding again against a strong Irish back row. Priestland – though possessing substantially fewer of the lustrous gifts genetically programmed into the average Welsh 10 than Hook – gave another remarkably mature performance. But as a soppily passionate supporter of The Lions, I confess to being most substantially hoiked towards the edge of my seat by the sight of Jamie Roberts back to his barnstorming best. Perhaps only occasionally, but that surely is merely the nature of the game, which will always put some frustrating limit on a centre’s influence.
When he got it, however, Roberts had that look of old about him. Unstoppable; unplayable; at the limit of control; blowing holes selflessly; still holding the dynamite. His spirit – so perfectly expressed in the tight kaleidoscope of Lions Tests and now coupled to that of an effervescent backline – is rising. It is a spirit which denies the practice of the ordinary and the over-rehearsed. It is a particularly traditional craft of the inspired Welsh and it reminds us and them I think, of a kind of freedom. So come next weekend, with this righteous notion flaring in all of our nostrils, could it be, is it too much to hope that sport – beautiful and ludicrous as it is – might coincide with justice?
*Actually, and for the record, both my hunch and my preference is for Wales / Australia.