I may junk this first sentence because you may not get how treble-edgedly smart it is – how both insinuatingly and philosopho-buntingly alive it is – despite appearances. Let’s try…
It’s a big week for England.
So big it needs exposure; like some craggy castle or monkish retreat now unveiled as home to bulging but youthful talents previously hushed by authoritarian loonies. Like Capello; or Johnson; or Margaret Thatcher – Boadicea! So big because two magisterial rivals come to call, bringing again their frankly superior entourage of exotic skills. Wales and Holland; the passionate and the cool. Welsh brio again soon to be anthemically lit by amply-lunged, prop-proportioned women in red; Dutch ease fanned by a sea of orange madmen in Wember-ley.
A zenith of sports-cultural counter-activity approacheth, or so it feels, as “Gwlad” rehearses itself in the dingle-dell that is the red soul of Wales and the misleadingly understated Nederlandpeeps fold their tangoesque flags. Buildup of a particularly rich, vocal and simmeringly intense quality is building up. In Wales a low appreciative hum has begun to throb as news of the return of Warburton and Wynne-Jones and Lydiate has slid ominously around. You don’t need to know the Welsh for “kop that bach” to sense the tectonically impressive confidence around the confrontation with Lancaster’s undemonstrative charges. No arrogance yet, but a belief amongst the star-hung valleys that Wales rugby – with the stamp of world-wide approval – has a real current supremacy throughout these allegedly United Kingdoms.
And Holland, who despite their comparatively low ebb, are expected to carouse serenely around the very emblem of ‘our patch’ like the special edition Martin Dobsons or Alan Hudsons we know them to be. Sometimes almost cruelly or arrogantly brilliant, Dutch sides have a habit of quietly handing out a lesson or twelve in the art of composure and ball retention. Admittedly this does not always end in victory but typically it does end in the revelation of inadequacy amongst their English oppo’s. Such is the potential for embarrassment against this particularly Dutch capacity to bypass traditional (anglo-saxon?) confrontation (er… by passing) that I am clear Stu Pearce’s selection of tumbling youth is made in full consciousness of the likely outcome of a ‘full-strength side’ competing. They’d get quietly outplayed, probably, as usual.
Cynical? Perhaps. But the selection of a slack handful of worthy young’uns removes fears of more than one variety. In truth I expect the starting line-up for England to look… how can I put it…? Unreckless. In a squad looking frankly short of top talent – remember the Terrys’, the Ferdinands, the Lampards, for all their diverse frailties did have international quality – a 4-4-1-1 of Hart/Richards,Jones,Smalling, Cole/Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Young/Rooney/Sturridge or pretty similar might be our strongest available. Expect run-outs or more from Cleverley and Wellbeck as additional elements of youff-encouragement. The chronic shortage of goal-keeping back-up remains an issue, as do the centre-half slots and arguably the striker(s). Can we swap a right back with somebody, I wonder?
But let’s not kid ourselves. The rugby is infinitely more tantalising a prospect. Stuart (Clive Woodward School of Smart Blandness?) Lancaster has done a decent-plus job of bringing England round from their World Cup hangover. He sits somewhere between articulate Yorkie schoolteacher and Rugby Bore in a way that worries me slightly; like Woodward he might seem inadequate and slightly out of time if England lose anywhere badly. Currently – as they have managed to win bravely but fairly badly in Italy and in Scotland – he remains untested in that respect. (A diversionary footnote here; did anyone else who saw Woodward’s ‘mare of a performance on Hardtalk the other night – dull/reeking of fusty anoraks – question how much of All That Stuff He Achieved was actually down to him, I wonder?)
New model Stuart L’s England have played like a side run along well-propounded dictums; solidly and with conservative purpose rather than inspiration. Hodgson’s absence for this weekend has – in the great tradition of Best Teams Selected By Injury – realigned an especially well balanced English back line; one that may yet prove to be exceptional. Half-backs Dickson and Farrell; centres Barritt and Tuilagi; wings Strettle and Ashton; Foden at full back. This is a good lineup. It has composure in defence and power and the possibility for electrification going forward. What it lacks, relatively, is of course experience (and tries?) placing a huge burden upon young Farrell at pivot.
But Farrell seems very much the unflappable type – possibly even culturally so, given his lineage. Whether a close-quarters encounter with Sam Warburton’s ludicrously enhanced biceps might change this impression is hard to predict… but Owen does seem unflappable. He gathers, he kicks. He plays within himself and almost certainly within the (arguably fairly limited?) game plan. Given that England are not likely to stray too ambitiously from a containing/territorial game against the gifted Welsh the likelihood may be that a tightish affair ensures; unless somewhere a dam breaks.
On the colourifically-aspirational side for the whites, the selection of Tuilagi amplifies hopes for some liberation from repeatedly prompt felling of English attackers at the gainline. This boy can run. And the way he runs suggests a love of that simple pleasure – cradling the ball whilst sinuously, boy-in-the-parkfully rampaging up the pitch. Indeed the battle of the centres in this match (both Roberts and the now fully-emerged Davies surely Lions-in-waiting in every sense?) could be either (oh go on, take those liberties!) swervaciously or, more prosaically crunchingly magnificent. It really could be wonderful – would that England come out and play!
They probably won’t. Certainly not early on. Surely? Even if the quadruple-bluff of an immediate Barbarian-style English onslaught has fabulous appeal, surely they won’t. Coaching thoroughbred that he is, Lancaster will have them ear-twitchingly prepared; nose-bagged up; with a freshly-pressed but learned-by-rote game plan. The skipper will lead his men nobly. Morgan and Dickson will be ready. Foden will have the occasional foray. But the occasion will demand foremost that the dam not be breached. And anything further… becomes a bonus, an opportunity, as Lancaster might say, upon which we must capitalise.
Blandishments aboundeth? I’m personally fed up with the word ‘mentality’ tripping so pretentiously/unpretentiously from the rehearsed mouthings of the England camp. So much that I’m going to use it and leg it past, sharpish – treat it like the stink-bomb it is. The quality of this match will depend far too much I’m afraid on the mentality of the men in white. They have it in their hands to deliver us something sensational but the reality is likely to be ordinary.
Previously I have waxed – and then some – on the profound successes of the Welsh. If they do, as I think they may, go to Twickenham and again demonstrate the kind of fearless yet focused rugby fizzing with the simple joys then they will march on with the support of the morally-enhanced majority. A classic ding-dong confrontation, in which a rejuvenated England play a full part until Welsh brilliance finally denies them, is surely the ideal scenario – even England fans might appreciate that? Eventually.