David Lacey once wrote brilliantly of the journo’s need, on occasion, to invent a spectacular new breed of cliché with which to describe sporting drama. Following the er… apocalyptically wonderful contest between Ireland and Wales yesterday, I am shamelessly either jumping on or over the moon that is Mr Lacey’s bandwagon; I think. Because words provide suddenly insufficient ammunition to fight the necessary war with the need to reasonably but excitedly represent the alleged actuality of this extraordinary fixture; (Brian.) The truths of this particular occasion being heightened almost beyond belief.
Coming into this their first 2012 Six Nations fixture, the Welsh squad were entitled to feel somewhat buffeted by worries aired (by commentators like me) regarding perceived weaknesses in their group. In particular, injuries to players as diverse but central as Roberts, Priestland, Jenkins, Wynne-Jones, Rees – whether they be niggles or more long-term knocks – threatened, some of us imagined, to seriously undermine the Welsh challenge. Certainly it may have appeared that Wales pool of brilliance was in some danger of dilution; this, the argument went, would be a great shame for the tournament, as Gatland’s crew have already done enough to suggest themselves as the purist’s and neutral’s favourites.
The size of the strapping on Priestland’s thigh as he jogged rather carefully out did little to assuage the concerns of those doubters and worriers. However, the day after an encounter with Ireland that if anything confirmed Welsh Power not frailty, all of us need to shake away some of our cynicism and enjoy ; this Wales appearing now more deeply brilliant as well as more resilient than feared.
In the first twenty minutes in particular, the combination (again) of all-court skills executed with utter confidence even under conditions of pretty extreme physical stress (step forward Messrs O’Connell/O’Callaghan/Heaslip et al) and passionate bias from a characteristically boisterous Dublin crowd were mightily impressive. All things considered – or perhaps all superfluous things forgotten – the Brotherhood of Redness continued in emphatically the same style as at the recent World Cup, to the extent that in the opening quarter they threatened to simply bewilder the home side through what I am tempted to call – during a period of proportion amnesty – an understated tour de force of dynamic movement and expansive glee.
One of the toughest things in sport is to maintain elevated standards contingent upon real ambition; that is, in this case, on the belief that generosity, pace and control works. Wales executed this fabulous/ludicrous plan with a now customary flourish, bursting through phases and fearlessly throwing the ball about with irresistible energy. It was simply pretty close to magnificent as an alround team performance and I make no apology for labouring this point about how important the Welsh positive worldview is; fans know what good and exciting looks like and for the dragons to be modelling a winning (in every sense of the word) version of the game is especially heartwarming. If it seems either glib or pompous to talk of a wonderful example being set, then blame Lacey for licensing such sloppy talk.
I suspect the Irish fans may not entirely see it that way, the greens themselves making a wholehearted if slightly more prosaic contribution to the game that nearly bundled them through. With O’Connell and O’Callaghan disrupting the line-out to good effect – in O’Callaghan’s case by waiving and bawling at Huw Bennett to pressurise the throw – this was on the face of it always a contest rather than a procession. Amongst the vaunted beasts of the Irish back-row Heaslip grew into the game and mid-match and beyond things felt poised. And yet, somewhere mysteriously beneath, until the binning for the errant Bradley Davies, quiet supremacy in favour of the Welsh existed.
To be more specific, throughout this outstanding game of rugby, Wales characteristically put pace and width on the ball, meaning that the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North in particular rampaged widely and to great effect because they were trusted to do exactly that.
With a leanish, meanish and engaged Mike Phillips pulling the strings in the manner of old, that (sorry, here come those clichés) mercurial Welsh Whirligig-thing was fully operational. Despite the fact that a) Warburton did not emerge for the second half and b) Priestland’s goal-kicking was poor, Ireland – indeed all of us – were periodically breathlessly overwhelmed. Almost.
In point of fact the greens were still in it, then ahead, then pegged, then the full technicolour tensionfest kicked in as the game seesawed to that gut-churning climax. Ireland may have been robbed by two controversial decisions – Davies surely should have gone/Ferris (less surely) innocent when pinged as guilty – but
few neutrals would have argued which was the classier, more ‘deserving’ side. It was Wales, who were both inventive and focused.
For any side to construct phases in the last moments of a game, away from home, against a seriously committed opponent, in the knowledge that any error would be terminal
is impressive. For those phases to lead seamlessly from within a dozen metres of your own goal-line to a central position within kicking range is a statement, I would argue of class. And the manner in which this fraught enterprise was achieved spoke of a maturity that the likes of the aforementioned North and Davies have no right yet to own. The crucial penalty awarded, it seemed entirely appropriate that the generally excellent Halfpenny should smash it emphatically between the uprights.
Ultimately, when Mr Barnes of Somewhere Now in Hiding, England finally tooted that final toot, the elation and relief on the faces of this new breed of Welsh Hero was there for all to see and surely enjoy. Again The Story centred upon their liberation of oft-shackled ideals; for it bears repeating that winning is nearly everything but winning like this… is winning.