Wow. Just look at the adverts. The magisterial but beery brilliance of Dylan Thomas and that hobbit bloke; Eddie Butler amidst plumes of language and of smoke. The whiff of proper grandness.
England Wales is always major but this one is already feeling all-consuming. Despite the pre-eminence of the Irish – their lead and stonking advantage on points scored, their crushing win against Wales and cruel, narrow defeat at Twickenham, their winnable remaining match – it’s England Wales that dominates.
This is partly (of course) due to the pervasive London-centric view of the universe. But the vitriol and the heat around this fixture, predicated around abstracted Welsh furies and alleged English pomp, is special. The man-cub Healey has noted the ‘hatred’ from the Province, possibly without pausing to reflect on how much he himself epitomises much of that which is hated. The press in Wales has been loaded with cheap shots at some caricature of The English. In short, much about the ‘rivalry’ may in truth reflect badly on both parties but to hell with all that, there’s a game to be played, a game that could be a monster… in a good way.
Both teams are announced, both predictable and strong. Then a late change as Ball comes in for Wales, for whom the return of one of the classiest players in world rugby (Jonathan Davies) is a boon only slightly undermined by the customary frisson around any return from serious injury. Can it really be that a muscle near-ripped from its former home could be entirely re-bedded? Is the lad really okay? And Burrell-proof? God knows if he is, he simply must play – bring that instinct, that something extra to the Welsh back-line. As a sucker for the mercurial, the gifted, I am happy to confess something of an infatuation with Davies, believing him to be a rare and generous talent.
For England the former Welshman Ben Morgan comes in for Billy Vunipola. Given the latter’s gallivanting form this might in other circumstances be a concern for Lancaster’s posse but Morgan is also a man made for a break and a gallop as well as for the more structured stuff. Plus the politenesses exchanged across the scrum and line-out may well motivate the England no. 8. I see no weakness there.
I’m reasonably optimistic that the bitterness which does exist will dribble away like spilled beer come the match itself. In the moment of release comes liberation from all that prejudicial nonsense and I have some faith the game will release us. England – to their immense credit – seem to be closer to finding a spirited, open, dynamic game than they have been for aeons. Remarkably, they feature individuals (and I do mean that) patently intent on legging it joyfully every which way. May (the player) now brings to mind May the month, gambolling as he does like a lamb in discover-the-options-around-this-field mode. Brown from full-back oozes calm, class and line-breaking intent; Nowell too, looks un-Englishly game.
So can New England’s new expansiveness succeed? It feels as though Lancaster has gone too far and spoken too volubly on the subject of higher goals to retreat into a conservative, ‘territorial’ approach. Will he, when the time comes, press green for go on the attack button?
Hmm. I’m less inclined than he might be to answer that one in the bullish affirmative. The Measured One knows the dangers as well as the benefits or responsibilities to play heads up, open, intuitive rugby. He will want it, he will encourage it but there will be caveats. Don’t get nailed and isolated; run at that hairy bloke rather than Warburton or Tipuric; or yaknow, any of the backs. Execute with confidence but with awareness is what he’ll say – something like that. He knows supporters cry out for that. He knows, over and above any local historical disputation, this is a game England must win and that the onus is on the whites.
Those wearing the red rose should have beaten a poor French side but they didn’t. Not that they wilted… they simply made costly errors. Meaning the table puts them hypothetically in touch but 60 points down on the Irish, who have the French to come. Scope you might think, for O’Driscoll and co. to pull away and clear.
This is crunch time for the tournament alright and crunch time for Lancaster’s Master Plan. World Cup hosts and holders is the seductive target for next year. He seems to have wedded the notion of success to the notion of dynamism, epitomised by so long by the All Black Machine – in truth an alarmingly responsive if not organic contraption. England are currently simply not that good but, for now, the big question is do they stay true, really, in the moment of epic exposure and conflict and challenge, to this belief… in belief itself?
Gatland I suspect is altogether thicker-skinned than his English counterpart. He speaks of culture and nature less freely. Some might say this is because he has only the one view of how to play – Warrenball. Others might say he is shrewd and tough and clearer on what he wants.
In the last day or two he has quietly reminded the watching world of the powerful level of experience his side will bring to Twickenham. The suggestion being that Nowell, for example, might feel the weight of things descending upon him – psychologically and otherwise. He is right to infer that his lot are pound for pound more likely than England to be comfortable and thereby to inject pressure into the home side’s willingness (or conviction) to run. Wales can and likely will square up and be patient and hold.
Despite a shocking start to this tournament the red dragons (a fascinatingly aspirational emblem yes? – cue the anthropolical dissertation) look a strong side at close to full strength. They were okay rather than inspired against France but will feel justifiably that their own machine – that rumble, that smash in midfield – is with them again. The role of Priestland may be key and in this situation, where limited gains and patient probing suit his side, the Scarlets man may steer the thing… unremarkably. (I say this as a recent and regular critic of Priestland’s lack of zest. I also fully accept that in a game that relies unusually heavily on the quality and indeed authority of the home attack, Priestland’s role may actually be relatively insignificant.)
There are potentially fabulous contests all over this fixture – not all of them on the pitch. Apart from the nourishing psycho-cobblers going on in the hours before the game, the coaches clearly have a role in preparing minds and bodies. Gatland, I fancy, has the edge there. Twickenham itself could have a huge part to play – hence the encouragement from Lancaster to re-find some energising national pride on both sides of the lime-wash. He knows how big a convincing win against Wales right now could be in terms of delivering the momentum he dreams of – that would be twitter made real.
For Sunday I make no predictions; this one’s un-callable. However I do consider Wales well-equipped to contain, unless the likes of May, Brown or possibly Burrell break out with such devastating brilliance that new English freedoms ascend to undeniable heights.
In the packs, the Launchbury/Lawes combo is a fearsome combination but Ball proved last time out that he is no mug and AWJ… well, he is so iconically, gwladishly Welsh that you imagine the dam will not burst at lock. The front row will be tasty – think Hibbard and Hartley in particular – but a kindof feverish parity seems likely to prevail. Then there are some very good footballers in opposition at 6, 7and 8. Frankly it’s hard to separate them. You would guess the Welsh back-line to be more durable than the home side’s but yeh – un-callable.
Broadly, this one is about coping with massive, massive pressures. Not about who dares but who does. In these lurid, lacerating, transcending moments, who can actually do it? Oh the ironies if Wales, suddenly, are both thought of as more predictable than dour ole Ingerland and the hosts execute with glorious abandon. I hope it’s that kind of game. I hope there are tries. I hope rugby – not cheap hostility – breaks out.