Eng v Cameroon. Women’s World Cup.

Saying something about this game *without prejudice* is a challenge. When everything to rouse or confirm most every prejudice is in there: sex; race; notions of competency; deep frustration and moralistic anger.

Describing the action – ‘sticking to that’ – might help, you would think. But when the game is so lost in the bawl-fest and drift of the VAR, not necessarily. All of us, if we’re honest, stopped caring about the football, somewhere around the hour mark.

That was when England’s most frazzled player on a variously frenetic and rather feeble night, found herself on auto-pilot (this time in a good way) in the opposition box, scoring first-time from Duggan’s corner. Greenwood. Ridiculous. Three nil.

THREE NIL and then some. Some fallout, some previous, some pettiness and worse – something gone.

Hard to put your finger on the exact what or when or who of this, because the event was so littered with utterly deflating incidents, but no disputing that the game was actually done, come that 60 minute mark – arguably before. We were past sport and into travesty, more in the sense of betrayal-of-the-game (any game) than any clear injustice against team A or B.

I hardly dare go back – and when I do it won’t be to relate much of the detail of the endless horror-show that was the ‘drama’. The series of VAR interventions, interminable delays and, frankly, abdications from the referee, plus the ensuing near-mutinies by the aggrieved Cameroonians were an embarrassment to football.

Sounding high-handed? Possibly. But hard to avoid some level of fervour, here. Cameroon were angry – we get why they were angry – but they were out of order.

(It may be noted at this point that England’s signal achievement on the evening was to retain their own discipline: the more I reflect on this the more credit accrues, in fact. There was barely a spiteful challenge from Neville’s team. Just as pleasing, arguably, was the almost complete absence of kidology, or ‘drawing’ of fouls, pens, cards, from his players, who must have known pre-match that their opposition would be prone to what might be called The Agricultural).

Anyone who actually watched Cameroon’s previous matches will have expected issues to arise against an England who have manifestly better, more professional players.

We have to take care with our language – fair enough. Cameroon have shown spirit, have shown running power but have been (in the tournament, overall) on the ordinary side of naïve, with a modus operandi including athletic clumsiness alongside more malign intentions. They lack resources, they lack quality: some of this is neither the players nor the coaching staff’s fault. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Cameroon have looked a poor side, and (actually) a rather dishonest one – dishonest mainly in terms of being prone to (in the further euphemism?) “losing their discipline”.

Whilst I found the England Manager’s post-match interview a tad one-eyed and self-righteous on this, clearly Neville had a point when he said Cameroon, like anyone else facing disappointment or controversy, had to “deal with it”. This is part of sport. Instead they nearly had the game abandoned, such was the level of mutiny and dissent.

The ref and the VAR were certainly complicit in the ruination of the match but the Indomitable Lionesses were equally distinctly unimpressive: in fact even allowing for the emotion of the moment and the cultural-historical baggage they will have felt they were battling against, Cameroon were awful – they lost it. Let’s talk about the football.

England won 3-0 and yet they were disappointing. Kirby and Scott were available but strangely, consistently cross-wired – Kirby to the extent that consideration will be given to her playmaking position. (She made little of England’s comparatively little play).

Parris was again below par; Neville has work to do to gather some confidence around her. Greenwood might have been brought off at the half, such was her discomfort. The possession-based game that England are striving for wasn’t there: instead, they fluffed too many easy passes, made too many poor decisions to find any real flow. Bronze – a tremendous player – is maybe doing that thing where you play so far within yourself that you fail to impact on the game in the way you can, or should: so both mature… and mildly frustrating.

Come the end of this profoundly unsatisfactory match, the gaffer might well have been proud of his side’s discipline – I get that. But he will be concerned that some of his best players are finding it so tough to bear the weight of that England jersey in tournament football. (Sound familiar?) Eyes seem a tad glazed over, out on that park.

Neville appears (again broadly, from a distance) to be doing an outstanding job with his squad: they are, however, entering the phase where exposure is more acute and margins get finer. Norway are much better than Cameroon: they have more skilled, controlled football at their disposal.

Could be, naturally, that the shift into a higher level of match suits these England players – gets that adrenalin, that sharpness going. The Cameroon Game was so-o shapelessly wretched that perhaps England were denied their right to play: maybe this explains, in some part, another unconvincing performance?

Let the authorities look at the implications around VAR, around the officials and at repercussions or warnings to the Indomitable ones. Meanwhile, despite their comfortable win last night, these England Lionesses do need a shot of something.

Advertisements

The Champions League Final (Which Was Crap).

So it was plainly sapping. The game was treacly and dysfunctional – almost shockingly so, certainly disappointingly so. And yet Liverpool, this Liverpool and this Tottingham, come to that, we know to be better than this.

Was it just me, or were Liverpool pret-ty close to outstanding away at Barcelona, recently? (Know they got beat 3-0 but stay with me). Didn’t that game signal a kind of triumphal comfort, for the most part, with the very highest echelon of the world game? Because Liverpool spent a good chunk of that game fearlessly passing around Barca, thumb-nosingly fluently. And doesn’t that mean that they’d – in their racy, exhilarating brilliance – gone past nerves?

Apparently not.

The Champions League Final was crap. They often are, of course but this was somehow different. It wasn’t due to cynicism or negativity from either party: it seemed more about a lack of ability to play (on the day) rather than some miserablist intention.

Klopp spoke immediately afterwards of his players ability to come through, when exhausted. His pride was more about that sense of something overwhelming having been ‘survived’ – something extra to the *actual footie*. He noted conditions and the long, cruel treading of water between the end of the domestic season and this most climactic of events. The challenges, in short, were not about football.

Nerves and what we might call loss-of-form in the moment strike brutally and often. Nearly every major sports event can be Exhibit A in this regard. Oftentimes, we can actually predict who might ‘disappear’ or ‘have a bit of a mare’ when the spotlight really glares. It’s part of the fun, for us breezy scribes and cod-psychologists – and for Yer Average Fan, too, surely?

In Madrid, it felt that there was a general washing away of the individual power to excel, rather than the utter exposure of Player A or B. Sure Kane was woefully uninvolved, and Alli again, after an encouraging start, seemed disturbingly unconcerned to actively intervene. And the erstwhile or early-season All-Court Genius that is Firmino again put the mute into muted, but the issue seemed like a broad, mid-range affliction rather than a personal, individualised trauma. Nearly everyone was a tad off.

You will find exceptions, perhaps. Perhaps Alisson, who was good. Perhaps Matip and Danny Rose. But most underachieved.

The penalty was maybe a factor – have heard this argument.

‘Liverpool didn’t need to blahdiblah cos of the early advantage. They know they’re the best defence in the league’.

But na. The pen was a) odd and b) always going to be given (in the Champions League this year) and c) inevitably some sort of factor but it actually precipitated a spell of countering from Tottenham which was medium-positive, as opposed to reckless or deathwishtastic. The temper of the game was never high enough for anything to be decisive.

So what was it, then? Occasion-related clamminess? Broiling Nerves Syndrome? Symptoms may include; eyes glazed over; dread-fulness.

Whatever, Some Inevitable Depressive Force was acting, here. Something which sapped 28 to 53% of the life and the talent from some brilliant footballers – some of whom you would say are outstanding, upstanding characters. Most of them could not pass and move and pass to save their lives, last night. Amazing; okay we know Liverpool play a pacy game but they can retain the ball; not last night.

Two further things: firstly I wish to out myself as someone who whilst absolutely rating Pochettino, finds the Poch love-in a little wearing. Excellent manager but look closely at last night’s unfolding (or lack of it) and maybe the first half, home to Ajax and then reflect.  Questionable approach, outcomes delivered more by The Fates than by The Poch, for me.

Secondly, it all feels okaaaay, because Liverpool have made such a powerful contribution to both Premier League and European Football this year that not many would argue against the notion that they deserve something. Cos high-level sport is all about merit, eh?

The Final was extraordinary, was it not? Only not in a good way, really. Ask your Scouse mates if that matters.

City Watford.

I suppose this was historic – let the stattos go on about that. I suppose we need to talk about how this happened – meaning how City engineered this (excuse the pun) gulf. And perhaps too, we will need to recalibrate the meaning of this massacre after the financial inquiries are complete. But whilst we are of course entitled to question both the status of City as a club and the legitimacy and honesty of their processes, it feels churlish to mither away at anything happening on the pitch.

Some are saying there is a blandness about City: maybe the Overwhelming Foreign Wedge implies that? As does the sometime listlessness around their home fixtures? Maybe the Catalonian sub-state that is the Management Team will always feel adrift from the original, the real City of the Moss-side alleyways? That might figure.

But Guardiola – from an admittedly high base – has built a wonderful and generally wonderfully fluent football team. A team waaaay too good for all but one other side in this allegedly abundant, allegedly competitive Premier League. Crucially, for me, a team that has had the poet and craftsman David Silva at its beating heart: a team for the skilled and the bright and the creative. A team – with all due respect – at an utterly different level to their opponents yesterday.

In short I’m with Guardiola in the sense that I can separate the ‘issues’ away. He is special. He is a great coach despite those embarrassing riches. His team is magnificent and his legacy in terms of how the game is played is a rich, progressive and beautifully true one. Financial cheating will of course compromise that appreciation – but not deny it.

Here’s how the game was, live…

 

“Abide With Me”. And Tony Book. Sentimental, both, for me but the one kindof glossed-up and the other even more silver-topped than myself, now. Because times do change.

Wemberley has changed, too, of course, since my old man wrote to Tony Book (by then City’s manager) a lifetime ago. The Old Lady of Norf Landun got glossed-up too – and by the sound of things, got fitted up with oversize speakers, to accommodate the ludicrously deafening ‘Announcements’.

But enough of the humbuggery. In sunshine, as so often, this All-New-Again FA Cup Final offers much – or we begin (again) with that feeling around: hope.

City though, are a force that may smash that weirdly-engineered optimism: they are patently in a different league from the waspish underdogs and maybe the butterflies I’m feeling are more to do with that?

First five minutes and Watford *actually do have* the ball. They are somewhere between medium-wasteful and okay with it however – which is good enough, in terms of maintaining the contest.

Ten minutes and rather fascinatingly, nobody on either side has done enough to suggest they’ve settled. Interestingly too, and probably worryingly, the blokes in yellow are setting out two Deep Blocks and challenging their illustrious opponents to thread something through them.

But hold on, in the eleventh minute, with City’s central defence alarmingly absent, Watford should score. Zinchenko is careless, Pereyra is IN… but fails to convert. City respond time and again, through Mahrez. He looks ready… until he passes lamely into touch.

Mercifully, it’s not one-way traffic and we do have a game.

Guardiola will not be satisfied with City’s opening; possession, yes but little in the way of fluency or sustained retention. More than that, Watford have looked as threatening as the typically irresistible sky-blues.

Again Watford threaten. They are maybe unfortunate not to get a pen as the ball strikes Kompany’s arm. But the City skipper is doing pretty much everything to keep offending limbs out of the way – so I’m with the ref. And, rightly, Kevin Friend books Doucoure for an appallingly passionate appeal.

Then City score. It’s a Sunday Leaguer – almost entirely out of character. The perennially gorgeous David Silva scuff-driving in a shot after some crappy head-tennis and the odd air-shot. They don’t deserve it; they don’t have anywhere near their usual level of control… and they don’t care. 1-0.

Wide left is looking like it might be City’s ace – or wide right! But whilst we know Mahrez will beat people and therefore always remain a ‘factor’, Zinchenko is still offering strangely mixed contributions, surging then underachieving.

It may not matter. The domination that all neutrals and all Hornets feared is settling over the game. And it’s 2-0. Bernado curls a beauty round and through and Jesus studs it in… via Sterling’s triumphant hoof. (One for the dispassionate – i.e. in the videozone – to decide upon, that).

In truth the keeper, Gomes, may have done better but the pass was a one of a limited number of clear signals, early doors, that the Champions of Everything might outclass Watford here. Not sure Watford *generally* major in Classy Footie (without being critical) but they have to make something happen now – anyhow, anyway. Deulofeu has shown well enough, but Deeney and Pereyra have lacked presence and maybe the confidence to take responsibility, should it arise.

As half-time approaches, it seems more likely that the gathering Gundogan\Silva/Bernado axis will unpick Watford centrally and possibly embarrass the challengers in the way they’ve embarrassed most, this year. As the whistle breaks, a very big team-talk for Javi Garcia begins. This may be done already.

Lively start for the second period. Deulofeu might score, Jesus might score/does score (disallowed) and the energy in the occasion is lifted. Strangely, Mahrez is withdrawn for de Bruyne. Has he said something to displease the gaffer? Is this just a result of Guardiola’s dissatisfaction with what feels like a seven-out-of-ten performance? (Mahrez has been good-ish).

On the hour de Bruyne is in… and exorcises his customary, obscenely-worldie levels of composure, ten yards out, where most capitulate to hurrying, scurrying and sheer nose-bleeding panic, before finding the corner. Eek. This could be humiliating.

Watford needed a hero – or 12. Whilst nobody seems to be utterly frozen, or utterly lost in Maresville, they can’t find what they need.

Jesus can. He makes it four, in the 67th. A truly great side, without yet playing to their max, are now running away with it. De Bruyne should curl another one in with his left foot in the 69th. Somewhere, Elton John is distractedly tinkling out another melancholy riff.

That the introduction (with all due respect) of Cleverley for Hughes – and Sane for Gundogan – comprises the 70-minute changing-of-the-guard, says most of what needs to be said. Different strata.

No disgrace here, for Watford – though they have been a clear disappointment – but note they have not faced Aguero and actually Sterling has barely had a kick (until he gets that weekly far-post tap-in; 5-0) … and so they cannot realistically compete… and they don’t. 80-odd minutes and I’m still not sure this is much more than a 7/10 performance from City; they’re that good.

From nowhere an arguably ungenerous observation. At the semi-final stage, I really wanted Wolves to come through, in part because I was sure they would test City more than Watford would, or could. We’ll never know but my hunch is that they have more quality and more tactical nous than their mid-table compadres.

I may be indulging here because there really is now a void where the contest should be. Sterling has grabbed a sixth. Yes. It’s 6-0. Guardiola looks mildly embarrassed. Or somehow melancholy. Or awed, perhaps?

Stones – yes, Stones! – should score from yet another break instigated by de Bruyne, who has changed the game, despite looking less than fully mobile, I would say. But you see, de Bruyne is that good.

Manchester City 6 Watford 0.

Going in…

Going in, who are/were favourites? Surely England, after a staggering-in-a-good-way performance against Ireland and an efficient one against France. (Wales have been okaaay, yes?)

But don’t we all love how history churns up the facts and the feelings about This One in Particular? How the stats befuddle, contradict, re-inforce, tease or spear-tackle what actually happened or will happen?

I just read something about England’s strong record in Cardiff. Then waded through my twitter feeds – apparently sponsored by Scott Gibbs Multinational. Then heard the following through some dreamily duplicitous channel or other; ‘it’s 14 degrees and no wind; the roof will be open; Barry John’s a late change, for Wales – Brian Moore, for England’. What, my friends, to believe in? It’s joyously-slanted carnage, before we start.

Carnage but fab-yoo-lussly so. Opinion, wise and otherwise, flooding the senses (and nonsenses?) like marauding hordes lusting for glory or a pint.

My hunch is England have found an extra, critical gear that may prove too much. But Wales have their strongest squad for years – a squad that has manifestly underachieved, performance-wise, so far, in the tournament – and it would therefore be plain daft not to accept that at home, vee Ingerland, they might *find something*. Wonderful questions remain.

The roles of Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies have received particular attention: the former because of both his electrifyingly brave attacking game and the recent English penchant for probing kicks ‘in behind’. Williams has been somehow less dynamic, for Wales, of late but clearly might win them the match, either in attack or defence. He is Proper Welsh in the fearless, lungbursting, ball-carrying tradition. My other Hunch of the Day is that he may find something bloody irresistible at some stage, this afternoon.

Davies is a player. If he had not suffered significant injury, he may already be being described as one if the game’s greatest ever centres. He has that silky-mercurial thing, the capacity to see things invisible to the mere mortals around him, plus a solid and sometimes inspired kicking game. Add in the elite-level non-negotiables (engine, courage, goodish pace, consistency) and you have a serial Lion. My Hope of the Day is that ‘Foxy’ relentlessly oozes class… then scores.

England have been so good, alround, that singling out either their stars or weaknesses feels weirdly inapplicable. Jonny May’s rightly been grabbing those headlines but it’s surely been the powerful performance-levels from 1-15 that have told.  Ireland were smashed and ransacked – Ireland! – France were largely dismissed. The despised Red Rose has to be respected, in rugby terms at least, for epitomising something so impregnably, communally awesome.

This latter phenomenon of course will merely serve to heighten desire amongst the Welsh. The arrival on their patch of a brilliant, ‘all-powerful’ England is tailor-made for the next instalment of this most tribal of fables. Going in…

Poor decision from the ref offers first chance to England. A kick from 40-odd metres. Suits left-footer more than right (despite being within Farrell’s range) but Daley pushes it slightly nervously wide.

Wales have good field position but their lineout again proves vulnerable – to a fine leap from Kruis. Noisy, frenetic, as expected, early-doors. Quite a number of England fans in the stadium: “Swing Low” gets whistled down.

Kick tennis. England in the Wales 22. Important defensive lineout for Wales. Again England make trouble – winning a free-kick. Wasted, by Farrell, with an obvious forward pass. “Ferocious start”, says Jiffy on the telly. He’s right. No score after 15.

Finally some points. Penalty almost in front of the posts – contentiously given, usual issue, scrum failure – Farrell accepts the gift. 0-3.

Couple of flashes, from Liam Williams but no significant line-breaks from either side. Wales penalty; again kickable but Anscombe aims for the corner. Wales secure the lineout then gain a penalty; should be a formality – is. Anscombe from 18 metres. 3-3.

From nowhere – well, almost – Curry runs through unopposed from ten yards out. All of us thinking “how the hell?” Farrell converts, to make it 3-10.

Immediately afterwards, Curry robs possession again, as England gather control. Wales must raise it – the crowd sense that and try to lift them. It is Wales who are under more pressure.

Finally, Wales find touch deep in the England half. But…

Lineout is clean but knocked forward from the tip-down. Frustrating for the home side – and crowd.

Feels like a big moment as May breaks out, chasing his own kick, deep. Parkes gathers but May, visibly pumped, hoiks him easily, bodily into touch, before bawling into the crowd. Wales hold out – just – and the half finishes with the visitors deservingly ahead. 3-10.

Consensus among pro pundits is that Wales must be more expansive – but clearly there are dangers around this. Slade, May and co can be pret-ty tasty in an open game.

Second half. Pacy, lively start. Eng, to their credit, look at least as likely as Wales to throw it wide. Nowell and Slade both prominent. They force another Wales lineout inside the 22.

England look to have pinched it again but they’re penalised for using the arm. So Wales escape but England better – dominating. *Bit of feeling* between the players, now.

Messy period follows; happily for Wales this results in May being penalised for holding on, after gathering just outside his 22. Anscombe nails the penalty.

It felt vital that  Wales troubled the scoreboard next: England seem simply a tad better, thus far and therefore unlikely to concede many points. Now the deficit for Wales is back to 4 points, at 6-10. Can the crowd change the mood? They’re certainly trying, now.

England may be a tad rattled. A high tackle by Sinckler (whom Gatland had baited, remember?) offers Anscombe another straightforward pen: accepted. 9-10 and game on. Wales have barely threatened but they are absolutely in this.

England, through Tuilagi and Vinipola, respond. Biggar enters, to a roar. Who has the nerve for this, now?

Earlyish Man-of-the-Match contender Curry strips Parkes again, to offer Farrell a 35 metre kick, in front. Slotted. 9-13.

Possibly the first sustained onslaught from Wales. Through at least one penalty advantage, via seemingly endless crash-bangs from the forwards, they finally score, through Hill! Predictably, Biggar succeeds with a truly testing conversion. The crowd is now a real factor. Wales lead 16-13.

72 minutes. England must produce… but suddenly Wales are bossing it, with Biggar already influential. Williams follows the stand-off with an inspirational kick-and-chase. Both players catching balls they had little right to claim. The crowd love it: the players are visibly lifted. Fabulous turnaround – England look done, Wales irresistible.

Hymns and arias.

The Finale. Biggar, with a ‘free play’, hoists one laser-like crossfield. Again, the Welsh player is second-favourite. Again – this time through Adams – it’s the Welsh that come out on top. Adams scores in the corner!

Huge, huge win. Wales were second best, by a distance for 50 minutes. They turned it round. At the end, they were undeniable – wonderfully so. They ran all over Jones’s men, who looked shell-shocked and muddled when they had to be focused, ambitious and bold.

The England camp will be furious and distraught. If it was The Plan to stay with a kick-based game and out-biff Wales, that plan was deservedly (and some would say righteously) exposed. Gatland’s lot were too tough, too organised and ultimately too hearty to capitulate to that. Wales endured… and then they roared.

*Mild cough*. Man of the Match? Liam Williams.

 

Wise Children.

Let’s gush, for a moment. For this really could be the best night I ever had at the theatre. The most enjoyable, the most delightful. ‘Wise Children’ at the Bristol Old Vic. Let’s rush backwards before we really go in.

My Angela Carter phase began about thirty-odd years ago. Meaning that the fuss around ‘Company of Wolves’ (I think) precipitated a period of reading and as it were, familiarisation. I’ve been on Team Carter ever since, howling along with that extravagant wolfiness, dancing with the seductive, luxuriant-but-plain otherwordliness – the prismatic fable.

She speaks for all of us who won’t behave, or take a reasonable look at things, or deny the imagination. And I love that. All her values are charged.

Carter knows that, sees that everything is a dance, a ‘story’, a place to soak up or unpick life’s sexiness. She has dumb blokes like me both skewered by her electrifying awareness, the force of her sexual politics… and yet even I feel somehow liberated, too. She became one of my goddesses – the boss, in fact, the matriarch, the guru or Senior Lecturer to them all.

I arrive in Bristol, however, strangely unburdened by anticipation. Neither foaming nor twitchy, just tired-ish and *swallows heavily* actually unaware that the family mission (booked as so often by my brilliant wife) was to see a Carter extravaganza. Yup, because if I ‘did hear anything’ I had completely forgotten that ‘Wise Children’ was Angela’s baybee!! DOH!

(In my defence, I often go to events deliberately underinformed; can be a great way of stimulating good, engaged and unencumbered watching and listening. I think probably I had, in this case, chosen to swerve any conversational build-up with this Healthy Neutrality in mind: arse that I am).

The Bristol Old Vic is a striking venue. The redeveloped gathering-hall and bars feel all of grand and intimate, cool and wonder-ful. The auditorium remains gorgeously old-school. But the play, the play…

In her programme notes, the Artistic Director speaks eloquently of Carter’s ‘wonder tales’ – of her ‘mythical truths’. In a couple of words, Emma Rice – for it is she – delivers, triumphantly on both wonder and story fronts.

The production is deliciously ablaze and dancing and singing and charming and blisteringly poignant. It’s musical in every movement, every moment. Though ostensibly we should note, a story of Common People, it positively soars and swoops and sinks and seethes (and I do mean positively) with transcending love, with issues, with comedy. This is channeling Catherine Tate as well as the redemptive power of sisterhood.

Performances are great; feels ridiculous, superfluous or  just downright wrong to single anyone out in the mercurial melody and flow. ‘Wise Children’ is built around Nora and Dora’s invincible closeness but the wonder may be springing more from the overall vision.

The word ensemble feels a tad pretentious here; this lot make a fabulous group. The playing and moving together is the making of this: chapeau, then, to both the Director (Rice) and to Etta Murfitt (Choreography) and Ian Ross (Band). Acting contributions – for example Gareth Snook’s magbloodynificent Dora – are utterly matched, supported, made possible by the whorl of song or arc of a move.

It’s enormously human: there is tremendous fun, melancholy and there is sexual abuse. There is music hall and there is hilarious shagging. There is betrayal. There is the flawed love of a ‘family’ and the cruel arrogance of a jumped-up thesp. There are ‘men’. Winged, we flit through the generations – sometimes gleefully, sometimes we find them loaded with more or less repressed trauma.

Dora: We in Brighton already?

Perhaps above all, there is a generous intelligibility to all this. It’s so beautifully entertaining without ‘going over our heads’. Wise Children is, in the finest sense, an achievement through community, through simplicity: you don’t have to be a Proper Theatre-goer to receive this. Just let the magic do its work.

Flick through the programme and it figures. The company oozes talent (I know, they all do but bear with, bear with): this posse is bursting with musicians and dancers. It’s not incidental that Patrycja Kujawska studied violin or that Mirabelle Grimaud can ‘move a bit’, as well as sing so movingly. Or that the credits include so much in the way of circus, dance, fairytale.

I’m guessing that Rice found a refuge as well as an inspiration in the ‘simple joys’ of the fable (and its ‘high priestess’, Carter) after a challenging period in her career. Thank god she did. Thank god she renewed and rebooted and gathered in again. This production really is as wonderful as anything I’ve seen. So yes…

What a joy it is to dance and sing!

Wise Children is now a cause as well as a glorious production. (7% attend Private Schools, 42% of Bafta Winners in 2016 went to… you guessed it).

Rice and her team are doing their bit to a) tell stories/tell women’s stories b) oppose sexism and oppression c) demystify the arts, whilst enchanting us d) get Or’nary Kids into theatre and theatre roles.

They are training us. To experience. To be travelling players. Wow.

 

Marker.

Wow. A wonderful and possibly intimidating few anthem minutes, as the mythic ‘whole of Ireland’ stands tall, is followed promptly by a remarkably assured and attacking two minutes from the visitors. Farrell fires one riskily wide but flat; a further sharp exchange and May is in. The skipper caps off a stunning start with a crisp conversion. 7-0.

The try scorer then hurries a clearance kick to enter touch on the full: the subsequent phases end with mark being called by the same player, under some pressure. Play goes back, though, for a penalty and Sexton pots an easy one. Game on, inital nerves shed.

Playing conditions are significantly better than in Paris but it’s already clear that Proper International Rugby has broken out, here. The only notable error in the first 13 minutes is from the England flanker Curry, who misjudges a hit on Earls and is binned. Marginal but nonetheless infuriating for Eddie Jones, after an impressively solid start from his side. Ten demanding minutes to come.

They survive it, manfully throwing a blanket across the park – even breaking out, at times. It’s tense but the players look watchful and engaged.

Ironically, 45 seconds after Curry’s return, Ireland batter a way over in the corner. The combination of forward power and relentless baying from an impassioned crowd enough to make that score inevitable. Sexton drills a beauty through for the extra points. 10-7 after 26.

England respond. Farrell and Daley dink a couple of probing kicks to test out the new fullback’s mettle. Henshaw is quality, for me but the second of these does create some angst – to the point that Daley drops onto the resulting spillage, in Stockdale and Ireland’s ‘Huget moment’. Farrell dismisses the conversion through the sticks, magnificently. 10-14 now, to England.

It may not be exhilirating but this is engrossing – raw competitive in the extreme but disciplined, largely and fluent enough. England look close to their powerful, all-court best, as the half approaches. Best throws a skewed one, close to his own line and England have the scrum five yards out.

The melée delivers nothing conclusive. Neither does the review; Vunipola is denied, reaching and diving for the score. Penalty given, mind, and again Farrell smashes it through nervelessly. 10-17 does not flatter England as the ref blows.

Cat and mouse for ten minutes. Then England surge through the phases, left and right. They seem destined to grab more, possibly decisive points. They don’t.

Instead their attack breaks down and Ireland hoof ahead. Again the ball on the ground proves murderous. From nowhere, Ireland have pressure: ultimately that counts. Sexton penalty, 13-17.

As expected, defence from both teams is both organised and brutal. Everybody appears to be tackling like Tuilagi. England lose Itoge, injured and the changes start. Almost shockingly, the flawless Farrell misses a presentable penalty and the tension ratchetts up yet further, despite the measure of control exercised by the men in white.

Joy for Slade as he combines with May before winning the foot-race to the line. It’s reviewed (for possible offside) but the try counts. In the 67th minute the visitors’ lead has stretched to nine points and their combination of composure and guts looks like it will tell.

When Farrell makes a huge penalty – right at his limit – the lead is 12 points. Given that Ireland have very rarely threatened, this is now a relative cruise. Slade – looking strong and gifted on this most demanding of occasions – somehow intercepts, juggles and scores. Farrell converts.

13-32. Bonus point. We’re looking at an awesome win, a special marker, now.

Fair play, Ireland respond. An opportunistic try, with Sexton drop-kicking the conversion as we enter stoppage time. It ends 20-32.

If Wales’s win yesterday was extraordinary for its deliriously scruffy drama, this was different level. Ireland are a fine side: today they were well, well beaten. Of course it’s merely the start but this was such a complete performance that England will justifiably be favourites for this tournament… and seriously competitive *beyond*.

 

 

 

Great win but move on sharpish.

Six Nations, or Division 12 West? An extraordinary bar-of-soap fest in Paris somehow fell, exhausted and drunk, through icy showers, into the arms of the grateful Welsh.

They had been willing but mostly awful but the locals had been mercifully, embarrassingly über-French.

The inglorious hat-trick of amateur passes that gifted George North the game served yet again as a reminder that Les Bleus have been merely shifting their degree of residence within la Mode Shambolique for a decade; that this laughable refrain about ‘not knowing which France will turn up’ is the very hollowest of clichés. We know, alright.

But in the first half, as the rain lashed and the were kicks missed and the passes were dropped, the home side accumulated.

Picamoles was ushered towards the line by defenders either distracted by conditions or the man’s physical bulk. Either way it felt a tad feeble. Parra set the tone for some similarly forgettable kicking, by missing the conversion.

The home pivot was very much joined in this by Anscombe, who may only retain his place because it’s Italy next, for Wales, and his skills in open play may bloom in that context. Last night he was profoundly ordinary with boot and in terms of his dictation, or otherwise, of proceedings. I repeat the mitigation that conditions were tough but this offers less of an excuse to those charged with executing the kicking game(s), eh?

Likewise re- defending. North can’t blame conditions for the clanger that let in Huget out wide of him. Predictably (but mistakenly, surely?) North’s two tries marked him out as Man of the Match but in truth he seemed somewhat marooned again, between Child-Monster Prodigy and Growed-up International Star. Yes, he won the bloody game but does he look, consistently like a talent, a threat, an influencer? Weirdly, no.

Liam Williams had either been unlucky or greedy when breaching the line, mid-half but the referee, who spent much of the evening asking politely for calm – ‘lentement, lentement’ – got this one right promptly enough.

(Not sure if the drama or dynamism of the second period was particlarly enhanced by Mr Barnes’s steadying hand: in fact once more there was the sense that he may have luxuriating quietly in the knowledge that the cameras were upon him. However overall, he took us through competently enough).

A penalty then a satisfying drop, late on, from Lopez sent Wales in 16 points down but it had been a mess: you wouldn’t rule-out anything here, including an error-strewn or error-prompted comeback. It’s kindof what we got.

Josh Adams, in a rare moment of slinkiness, eased into space and put scrum-half Williams in. Anscombe converted. Then Parkes hoofed hopelessly forward, only for Huget to spill catastrophically at the line. North accepted.

Moriarty was rightly denied a try, following a block by AWJ. France got some possession but this remained – despite the spirited fightback – a non-classic muddle. Moriarty and Tipuric were good but you’d be hard-pressed to locate anyone else into the 7/10 zone. Except Davidi, maybe – increasingly, as the game went on. The introduction of Biggar was inevitable, in the name of structure.

70-odd minutes and Wales are down again, after a scrum penalty and a straightforward nudge over from Lopez. 19-17. Lashing rain. Cold. Then France – the real France? – really do throw it all away. North anticipates the most telegraphed pass in Six Nations history (almost) and gallops clear.

For Wales, the kind of win that might spark something. Certainly some challenging verbals, I would think, from Gatland and co. They were poor and yet magnificent… and that happened. What an opportunity, now, given their fixtures!

The consensus is that Wales have grown and deepened as a squad, in recent times. Impossible to tell, from this. Next up, some quality, please: then, who knows?