Great but not that good.

Fascinating start. Fascinating but not carry-me-high triumphantly- not even for the French, I suspect. Fascinating with some real drama (Italian tries/Parisian palpitations) but I wonder if the Irish may be most encouraged by events in the opening two games of #6nations 2014. Because Wales were in a game, a match, rather than in processing to victory mode and because the other fancied side, England, were utterly mixed.

So a flurry of emotions as Wales threaten, then are held in check by a surprisingly durable Italian effort and England stretch from the shocking to the fluent.  A beginning loaded heavy with that full spectrum of error and mischance and with as many flukes as joys –  which may be standard, on reflection.

Perhaps this ‘great stuff’ works in terms of the best-value build towards maximum, arse-quaking tension. It certainly helps out re the option for recourse to @WelshDaliLama’s now annual bingerama – relief being offered via our enlightened friend in the form of… well, alcohol.

Wales got their win and Gatland will be okay, you suspect, with the fact that Italy come out of the opening game with most credit. He might believe, with some justification, that the visitors were always likely to expend a disproportionately huge amount of their budget of #6Nations energy on this fixture. They probably did but this should not in any way deflect from another step up from the Azurri. They brought their usual passion but have built something more concrete now – a game that has a certain purpose and shape to it all round the pitch. Sure they still lack both the consistent killer instinct and the all-round kicking game of a top level side but let’s hope their achievements include more regular wins against those sides currently nearest to them – Scotland and.. whoever. Good for the tournament, methinks if the Italian effort can be sustained?

Positives for Wales included signs that Jamie Roberts may be influential again, following a longish period where injury plainly undermined him. He made a simple try for his centre partner through composed, direct running and was persistently, reliably available, engineering or maybe bulldozing into space in the manner of old. However despite the various weapons available to Priestland, there was never the sense that a rout was likely to be orchestrated by him or anyone else. The Wales pivot again neither emphatically confirmed himself nor gifted the job to Biggar. Perhaps this was why the Welsh performance proved acceptable rather than exceptional.

But look, pundits having gone over the Gatland-as-one-trick-pony thing endlessly, let me offer a view on this. It strikes me that Wales have such broad skills as individuals, such quality when at full strength, that this notion that they are essentially bish-bosh is a tad cheap. Yes you might argue that (for example) Halfpenny rarely comes into the line (and that smacks of caution) but hang on there. With two genuinely deadly wingers combining power, pace and dodge-ability, plus Roberts and ideally a certain J Davies at centre, it’s surely ludicrous to consider Wales one-dimensional. It might be true that the former tri-nations outfits may smother – may have smothered – Welsh aspirations in recent years but their pattern of play tends to be more of a springboard than a straight-jacket. It’s simply harder to get things to work against the very best.

Gatland has more guile and wit than many give him credit for. And Wales deserve to be favourites in this tournament despite the uniqueness of the burden – or hat-trick challenge – ahead of them.

But back to the booze. Stuart Lancaster and his extensive backroom staff may have needed a tipple after their cruel defeat. Midway through the second half, with the opposition looking both jaded and a tad downhearted, a ten point plus win seemed likely for England. France had the better of the first half, without ever seeming fully joined up, but around 50 minutes it appeared the relentless work of Lawes and Launchbury in particular had sucked the life of the home side.

I don’t often write that England were cruising with some style but that was almost where we were at. Again this was predicated on top-drawer stuff from the forwards – more in the loose than at the set-piece, arguably – as Vunipola B roared around the park and Robshaw C got quietly on with his usual, intelligent patrolling, covering, presenting. The machine was purring with only the occasional turnover to disturb the serenity of its progress.

It didn’t matter. Or rather at least it was unsuccessful. Or at least – they lost. Meaning that however you dress it up, England’s purplish patch was (yes) encouraging but insufficiently decisive; they (in their own terminology) failed to execute… enough.

Why was that?

Throughout the game, France lived off scraps. Even in a first 40 that they conspired to dominate, Les Bleus still had the look of a side thrown together – again. The halfbacks continued in the historic, less than convincing vein, their interventions neither demonstrably positive nor particularly polished. In midfield, the match was a mess, for both sides. Only at the breakdown, where Nyanga scrambled ravenously, or through English error, did the game come back to France. In other words, this game was so-o there for the taking. At half-time, despite a small deficit, Lancaster would have been rightly optimistic that the precious away win to start was entirely achievable and this likelihood turned to a racing certainty as England utterly outplayed France for much of the second period.

It may be churlish to mention that the cataclysmically inept opening thirty seconds were in fact critical but inevitably they impacted – on the board and in the mind. A bog-standard claim was so misjudged by a quaking coterie of Englishmen that a French try resulted only a handful of seconds later. Do the math. Five points were conceded and more. Nowell – Lancaster’s most significant gamble, perhaps? – was, unfortunately right in the midst of this horror show and despite frankly bewildering figures later issued by England Rugby suggesting the young winger carried well, he went on to have the marest of all mares, poor love. Caught in possession, at fault for or culpable for more than one try… my god it was painful to watch. He might have been removed, with a carefully issued consoling word, at the half.

So England were nearly good but sometimes dreadfully error-prone. And Wales were… okay. Short of an incredible injection of wit, discipline and consistency, Lancaster’s aspirations for World Cup Leading Contendership seem a long, long way off to me. Despite that famous England win over the All Blacks and their own alleged obviousness, Wales remain closest to the main men.  In this World Cup of the North, only the Irishmen can get to them.

 

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