Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.
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Rugby World Cup: Japan v Scotland.

I needed a walk. You? After a wonderfully sapping game, watched from the safe distance of a zillion miles – safe cos storm, safe cos presumably yet more exhausting in Yokohama – a blissful but blustery gathering yomp. Time to think a bit.

I think, on reflection, it was remarkable both for being unimaginably, laudably entertaining and for being everything we imagined, in the laudable-entertainment department. Crazily predictable; wildly, culturally generous and simultaneously massively competitive.

Let’s go into a brief credit-frenzy; to players and coaches from both sides; to the officials (actually) who we barely noticed, right(?)… and to Japan. This was a game that might be a symbol, a touchstone, a model for how we might want elite international sport to be.

The home nation’s coach – inevitably not a native – has continued and now surpassed the work of his predecessors (and maybe we should be offering some appreciation here, to the erm, generally-much-loved Eddie Jones), through producing a team that play fabulous rugby. Sure they are ridiculous athletes but it’s the culture of endlessly bold, swift re-cycling and re-darting that the world is coming to love.

Mr Joseph and his colleagues are doing an extraordinary job, in circumstances of relative under-resource, to sustain expansive sport to such a peak. Four wins in the tournament, with South Africa to come.

Can they go further? As I say below, this may depend on the medium-joyless stuff: robustness, physicality, discipline under pressure from genuinely elite-level competition.

The sharpest amongst you may have noted a derogatory implication in the last sentence – towards Scotland. Bit cruel, after that? Yes.

However, despite a magnificent contribution to a sumptuous contest, Townsend’s side remain, in the main, a notch down on their comrades in Tier One. No disgrace; issues of resource are key here, too. *And yet*, as the Japanese example may be showing, brilliant, streetwise, hard-nosed coaching might be the thing that resolves this.

An abstract and possibly insulting thought but would a Gatland (or similar) at the helm have left any Scotland side of the past several years more durable? And if so – or even if not – why has the perennial lack of durability not been attended to? (Of course in saying this I appreciate that the initial difficulty is in attracting a Gatland to Scotland). 

Japan have an extraordinary flow about them. But they are also finding once, twice, against Tier One opposition, the resilience to come through. I for one hope they find it again in the quarter-finals.

Here’s my live report:

 

Rarely have the natural world and the explosively dramatic world of elite sport been in such sympathy. Am I the only one thinking this can’t be a coincidence?

Skies having gone from steamy-blue to steely-angry. Seas having turned tempestuous as the moment of *ultimate drama* approached. It’s proof, surely, that there is a god – and that she’s as foamtastically mad about rugby as the rest of us.

O-kaaaay, it may be unwise to jest when lives have been lost and property devastated: no argument. But has there not been something wondrous (as well as terrifying and humbling and god-awful) about the barrelling-in to the moment, here? That moment being Japan, the entertaining and engaging hosts, versus Scotland.

Hitchcockian. Busby-Berkleyian. Spielbergian. The awesome, extravagant, cinematic, inevitable whirlwind-to-stilled-pondness of it all could barely be imagined or surpassed. Japan v Scotland, with everything upon it; with hugely adored hosts needing only to maintain their inspiration. (Only). With the visiting, sometime-faltering Tier Oners surely ripe for exposure.

The general excellence – contingency plans notwithstanding – of this Rugby World Cup, in terms of hosting, support and that crucial, generous buying-in from the locals, has rather cruelly left an often warmly-regarded Scotland isolated. The brutal truth may be evidenced in their miraculously-contrasting efforts against a very robust Ireland side.

Scotland, on that occasion, were on the feeble side of crap; Japan were exhilaratingly fearless, imaginative and, critically, found a way to sustain a level that the watching universe could barely believe. It was a remarkable event.

Importantly, this has drawn that aforementioned universe to the side of the home nation. Neutrals everywhere, the sort of folks who might often find themselves bellowing encouragement telly-wards for a Stuart Hogg gambol, will be fixated on Tupou and Lafaele and co.

Broadly, this is surely wonderful? Magnificently testing for the Scots –  who may yet relish that – but with the drama spiralling to a peak (any minute!) it’s hard to recall a fixture more loaded with romance. The players are walking out…

“This feels very, very special”. So goes the commentary. A breathless start – what else? Innovation from Japan, from the kick-off but then Scotland get that shot-in-arm, the turnover. Phases, early, from the hosts.

A counter. Russell cross-kicks and maybe the wing should score… but no. Japan turn that over before losing possession. Suddenly things open up for Russell and (rather easily) he’s in. A seven pointer, slightly against the early grain but welcome, indeed, for Scotland and maybe perfect, for the setting up of the game.

There follows a period of predictably high-intensity ebb and flow before the home side gain a penalty some 40 metres out but straightish. Eventually, Tamura pushes it slightly – or rather fails to draw it back sufficiently.

It matters little. A racing, tumbling offload after some more bustling hands puts the rapid Matsushima in, almost under the posts. Tamura converts and we are level at 7-7, after 20 minutes. Great start, alround.

A delay as Koo is withdrawn, with rib damage, pre an important scrum 25 metres from the Japanese line. The poor lad (Koo) looks in tears. He may be emotionally restored somewhat, by the award of a penalty, to his comrades: looked a lottery, that one.

Twenty-five minutes in and again, the irresistible energy and sheer fizz of the home side pays. Outstanding period of possession-at-pace, again with fearless, athletic and sometimes almost balletic off-loading… and they score. Deserved, for all that enterprise and all that raw courage. 14-7, Inagaki having gone under those sticks.

Long look at a tackle from Gray, with the current context possibly conspiring against him and towards a yellow. Viewed as innocent; rightly, I reckon (at first look), because of the pace around the incident and lack of malice. We go on, exhaustingly.

Haven’t seen possession stats. On 33 minutes you’d have the hosts ahead on merit but hard to judge things with equanimity when the over-riding sense is of a whole-nation cauldron seething. Parity at the scrums, relatively but few of them.

Then two penalties conceded by Dell, for creeping. The Scotland prop looks mystified; he is a tad fortunate that the penalty is missed. However, again the home side brush the disappointment away. Lafaele links through skilfully and Fukuoka electrifyingly gathers before racing through. Fever pitch, welcome.

With the conversion completed, Japan have surged ahead, both in the game and in those calculations around it. Three tries, already. 21-7. Bonus point beckoning, worryingly early from the Scots’ point of view. Perhaps more significantly, the nature of the Brave Blossom’s performance is going to be seriously challenging Townsend’s pep-talk right now.

Japan are playing with imagination and relentless pace. They recycle and off-load with no fear of an error or interception. Absolutely central to their effort is the belief that this ambition will pay. And it looks like it will. And it deserves to. This is great coaching, great ‘culture’ and it’s why most of the world is smiling alongside them. Fantastic stuff..

The flip side is that Scotland – for all their open, attacking rugby over recent years – may again get ‘found out’, here. Yes there are questions about (their own) limited resources but they are rushing headlong into a further enquiry into the legitimacy of their Tier One status. Or they may be. In short, Japan are outplaying them, largely: *just in* possession stats. 78% for the home side, first half!

WOW. Fukuoka is in, after yet more rampaging defence, in midfield. The winger is suddenly bursting into space… and it’s another seven-pointer. The game may be gone one minute into the second period, as the hosts already have a bonus point for that fourth try. Sensational barely covers this, now.

With the crowd utterly ecstatic, and that emotion plainly reciprocated on the pitch, we’re into something extraordinary again. The commentary on ITV understandably relating this to Barbarian-style rugby. If this continues folks will be wondering if Japan can win the bloody tournament!

*Takes deep breath*. It’s true that when they’re going like this, Japan have something of the All Blacks about them. But if the real world still exists, I think it may remind us, in time, that the likes of the All Blacks (and possibly Wales, South Africa and England) *may* prove durable to a higher level. Perhaps.

Scotland respond. Nel rumbles and reaches to get in, in front. Laidlaw can’t miss and doesn’t. We have a period where the visitors get a real run. Russell and Hogg flicker.

The game is wild. Cummings roars forward, Gray rolls to off-load and Fagerson, astonishingly, is also in! The game – which seemed destined for glory a week or more out – is all of that. 28-21, after 55 minutes. Incredible that suddenly Japan need some possession.

Scotland have to chase and open up and of course this has risks. They ring the changes from the bench and resist a flurry of attacks. (It’s a horrid cliche but) it does seem that the next try is critical as we approach the hour.

Play is in midfield – a rarity. Japan maintain the high-octane approach but Scotland turn over before attacking from their own 22: no option. There is a sniff but the ball bounces unkindly. The pace of the game is staggering: those of us watching almost need a scrum or two, to gather in – unbeleeeeevably selfish of the players to deny us that.

The first sign of animosity. Harris has battered into two defenders, legitimately, but in the ensuing ruck, the Japanese have drawn a penalty. Verbals exchanged after the tectonic physical contacts: Richie has a word with Tamura. We go on.

The fly-half kicks, ‘within himself’ for touch, safely: a rare moment of un-ambition. Scotland re-gain possession but then are almost intercepted when again launching from deep.

We hit 70 minutes, with Scotland needing to win this *and deny Japan that second bonus point*. I think. But maybe don’t trust either me or anyone else, until this storm is over…

I’m not going to be the fella who uses the word b*a*e to describe Scotland. Is courageous better? They have certainly been that, in this second half – both adventurous and powerfully resolute. They win a pen but must kick for the line-out, ten metres out. No joy but then pressure creates a near-fumble and a Scotland scrum five out.

They recycle and challenge and burst but the hosts can resist again. We go right across the park before Japan turn over. The roar builds.

Death rites, for Scotland as the finals plays are executed – exhaustedly but with just enough control. We’re into the reddest, noisiest, most spent post-eighty minutes that you could conjure up. A magical day is over as the ball is hoofed into touch. 28-21. Heroically entertaining sport. Japan through.

 

‘On Bear Ridge’: Sherman Theatre. A view.

Did that thing again where you try not to learn or know anything about the event, beforehand; with some success. Wanting to look – really look – and listen without too much intelligence or baggage, or prejudice.

Wasn’t sure, for example if the ‘Bear Ridge’ of the title was in Wyoming or the Black Mountains or Beacons of Wales. Wasn’t sure  if this might be a one-man jobber, in fact, having just heard, yaknow,  ‘Rhys Ifans’.

Have been absent from the Sherman for too long, so interested in the vibe, the thrum around the foyer and the feel of the place. In truth both the foyer/bar/lounge-upon-laptop space and the auditorium are pret-ty ordinary, eh? (No offence). They function, rather than lift the soul. But hey – deep breath, glass of water, focus… and in.

Into an atmospheric world. Snowy, non-specific somehow, despite the occasional name and the constant flow of memory. Bleak uplands; rocks that shadow and maybe fore-shadow; a homestead almost abandoned.

Ifans is lying in the snow, stirring then into something stirring. Words. Sure there is some drama here and a brooding, evocative set but this (we soon learn) is utterly about words performed.

John Daniels and his wife Non and their home, farm, shop: their source. Rich with their own history but poverty-stricken, isolated or struck down by unspecified change. A murderous, bi-polar world, with wintry-but-noble John and Non beset by a creeping, catastrophic now.

We hear planes, we hear tell of the City by the Sea. We learn that old ways and the Old Language are being throttled by something new and hostile.

Indeed there ‘really is’ a war going on: witness the arrival of a Captain, complete with great-coat and gun and his own, enervating torment. A Captain who nearly wastes the Slaughterman, emerging from the cellar.

All sounding bit ‘stagey’, bit ‘symbolic?’ Fear not. The cast of four are strong – Ifans and Rakie Ayola particularly so – and the lyricism and wit and and angularity of the piece places it substantially beyond the ordinary, the predictably-familiar. This is absolutely about the spirit of something but Ed Thomas conjures plenty of real life: convincingly so via his *Kollwitzian (and therefore universal?) couple.

John Daniels is that daft Welsh butcher from up on the hill, with the lived-in beard and shoulders bearing against tragedy and loss – of son, of memory, of tongue. He is that… but he is more. Nonnie, his steadfast wife is with him, always (and therefore always against the grain of the times); stoic on the one-hand, strong-willed and hearty on the other.

In truth I found the Captain a tad less convincing: not sure if this was through less crystalline writing or by dint of the performance on the night. (Something about the mix of threat, near-affability, body-language, direction, maybe, that didn’t ring entirely true? Maybe I need to see again.)

Ironically but hardly accidentally, the apprentice/slaughterman (listening to “White Riot, if I am not mistaken, when emerging from the butcher’s cellar?) was a full participant in the weaving of stories rather than the cleaving of meat or ‘action’. He pours tea and/but he too, has poetry. Local, individual-but-communal richnesses are suggested: the central ‘act’ (the brutal overwhelming of Twm) is described.

‘On Bear Ridge’ felt like a significant piece of theatre – some stood to applaud.

It is poignant love song and it is protest song. The piece bears witness to the betrayals, insidious and unseen and to the malevolent ‘othering’ all around us. These humble, magnificent characters are invested in The Biggest of Things – seeking out poetry and meaning both in their language and in material life. Tragically, change, history, progress and/or cruel inertia is burying them.

Thomas’s first play for fifteen years reiterates his conviction that a) our words must be sung, from the ridge-top to the City by the Sea and b) that traditional theatre – that is theatre predicated on words not tricks, pyrotechnics or that which would be original – defies and endures.

(I say this having been conflicted about whether drama this word-centric conciliates too much, is too dry, too easy, too necrophiliac, even?)

But no – and this may be another of the play’s triumphs – Ifans and Ayola make dynamic once more the notion that in live performance phrases carved with care, well-acted, can transport, can question, can impact upon us. The writer’s contribution is made.

 

 

*As in Käthe Kollwitz, the great socialist artist. (Do not John and Non have something of the Beautiful Beleaguered Peasant about them? In a wonderful way?!?

#Brexit – an exorcism.

Ok. So it’s unwise to go there but it feels the best way. The best way to exorcise something – maybe everything. Don’t go looking for either a work of art or anything too comprehensive, here; too angry, too bitterly clear, too close to giving up.

Think I’ll bullet-point this, partly because many of you ferkers simply don’t deserve Fully Laid-out Arguments… and partly because I dread loading up more time into this sinkhole. Plus, to be honest, I don’t know the answers; the intricacies around Trading Agreements and Common Market doo-dahs being pret-ty far out of my sphere of knowledge and interest.

This is of course the chief reason Us Plebs should never in a million years been asked to vote on EU membership – the whole sorry business being a sop to the morons on the right of Cameron’s party. We have little specific knowledge but lorryloads of juicy prejudice relating to ‘Europe’. Johnson, Farage and their crypto-fascist colleagues have simply stoked all that unbecoming ‘othering’.

So we should never have been here. But we are. And amateurs like me – knowing little of the minutiae, churning with the whole cowabunga – are battling our best to make what feel like possibly moral and certainly philosophical calls, as we try to STAY TRUE to our UNDERSTANDINGS.

(So why? Because we still believe there is decency and brotherhood).

This, then, is where I’m driven to.

    • Can’t believe ANYONE could vote for or support the embarrassing clown that is Johnson, or his arse-wipe of a sidekick, Rees-Mogg.
    • How is it possible to support men who reek so utterly of privilege, arrogance, indulgence? How is it possible to avoid seeing their palpable, greedy ‘superiority?’ How could your flesh not creep when BOTH, recently, signalled ver-ry loudly that BEING RACIST IS ACTUALLY OKAY?
    • I get that most who support them do that out of like-minded xenophobia or outright racism… so I suppose that’s it.
    • Either that or you too actually believe in the Etonian Right to Rule; that there’s nothing unduly concerning about ONE SCHOOL providing the four countries in the union with god-knows-how-many Prime Ministers.
    • Here’s the nub. If you are a tory and in the Brexit Camp then the overwhelming odds are that you are either an outright racist, or what we might call a casual-cultural xenophobe.
    • (I salute those of you who are finally realising just how poisonous 2019 Conservatism has become and now scamper away in disgust, or better still whilst puffing out your chests and calling out the utter nastiness of it. Scary fact: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is presiding over something sinister and repugnant).
    • Percentage-wise, of those who voted for Brexit and now support Boris, I reckon *60% are outright racist and about 30-odd % xenophobes. The latter maybe have six more brain-cells than the former, per head, enabling them to actually avoid saying in public the stuff their dumb hearts are screaming inside.
    • I leave about *10% as folks who could make an intelligent argument for Brexit, devoid of any bigotry. (Okay. Re-thinking that I may revise that figure in the population upwards somewhat, to include those on the Left who can make a genuine, intellectual case for Brexit: despite the fact that we haven’t heard it, I do accept that this can be made. The EU is essentially imperialist and as witnessed in Greece, for example, arguably brutally so: I recognise that as a legitimate argument. The right has an almost total absence of legitimate arguments).
    • So we are divided and there may be no way back from that. Brexit is absolutely a function of bigotry. People on my side know what people on the other side are generally like. People on the other side hate us, for our snowflake-ism and our superiority – for surely if you are bigoted and we are not, then we are superior in that respect?
    • I can live with people hating my inability to discriminate – or discriminate waaaaay less crassly than they do. (All of us carry baggage and therefore all fall from the path of righteousness at some point, eh?) But all this is clear: the Brexit Project was and is founded on racism.
    • So it is RIGHT, for me that Parliament, is fighting against no deal. It is RIGHT that 20-plus tories have opposed that rush to the ‘cliff-edge’. And, importantly, it is implicit, in their revulsion towards Johnson and his cronies and his fawning admirers, that the moral component in this – however exposed it may leave us snowflakes – is a part of the argument.
    • Is there hope – you do wonder if we deserve any?
    • There is no hope for reconciliation, or virtually none. You Daily Mailers and me are probably not gonna be pals. I’ll talk to you and be civil enough when necessary but…
    • Fortunately, I do know some tories I genuinely like. I apologise to them for this contribution to our divisions and hope they respect my right to An Opinion. (Just need to get this out there and done. We will again take beers together).
    • There will be an election. I just don’t know how that will go, because The Clowns of the Right may club together; Farage may march his seedy mob right into centre-stage.
    • I respect Corbyn’s radicalism-against-the-odds but recognise that the cruel demonisation of the man (and his vacuum of leadership through the Brexit trauma) means he may not steer us through this. Specifically, he is unlikely to win out in a General Election.
    • Does this leave us with a new figurehead, a tactical voting imperative, or a possible Progressive Alliance, or similar? (Clearly talks have been taking place on this theme). As I said; I’m not sure we deserve any hope.

*My numbers don’t matter – and yes I know they’re inflammatory. But I’m leaving them in as food for thought. I really think that racism is that central.

Nice.

A nice bright start in a nice, bright Nice. A high camera-angle may be exacerbating the weight of the shadows and the zing-factor of Sweden’s yellow and the white of Ingerland: it’s clearly baking there but maaan, I’m close to reaching for my shades, here, too.

Could be the same for Steph Houghton, who pops a pain-killer early on, following a blow to the head.

There’s some decent but unthreatening bluster-at-pace from both sides, then Sweden score. Greenwood, fortunate to be restored ahead of Stokes in my view, fails to clear an innocuous cross and Asllani accepts the gift.

Barely a minute later, Greenwood is again exposed by a simple lob forward and Jakobsson very nearly beats Telford at her near post. The keeper almost comically shins the ball back into her own net, following the rebound off the woodwork. Could be that England’s left flank is being targeted.

In fact, everywhere is being targeted. Sweden are all over the Lionesses. To the extent that a second goal – beautifully curled in by Jakobsson – is appropriate reward for their first quarter dominance. In truth, the defending was again hesitant and the tall, fleet-footed striker was allowed significantly too much time and space to engineer the arc for the far post.

In the 27th minute, England fashion a sweet move but there is again a sense of passing responsibility as the killer moment approaches: Kirby is off-side whilst attempting her tap-in.

Kirby’s next contribution is a kind of perfect opposite. The moment she receives the ball, wide right, is the moment the instinctive rush for goal begins – solo. Jinking in, she shapes for a left-footed curler and executes perfectly: class goal.

Before the Swedes can settle, Ellen White has an ‘equaliser’. Only she doesn’t. She may be unlucky to be adjudged to have handled a ball that runs up her body whilst she’s under challenge.

The England centre-forward had seemed to have rolled the defender legitimately – and there was no appeal from Sweden – but the ball may have contacted White’s arm (as well as, quite possibly, the defender’s). An unlucky turn of events and another example of VAR getting something right… that may not have needed referring.

It’s surprisingly physical: Sweden doing their fair share of old-school clattering, as if to emphasise the competitive nature of a fixture that we all regard (if we’re honest) as relatively meaningless. The TV reminds us that England have won only three of the last 20-something fixtures between these two and Blackstenius, Jakobsson and those behind seem pret-ty intent on preserving that intimidating record.

Last kick of the half and White, for once, shoots feebly when in at the angle. Half-chance only but going in level after a period in which they were largely either swamped or hurried could have been huge, for England.

Bronze has barely featured but for a single, characteristic drive, Parris has been absent and the midfield has been principally in retreat. Defensively there have been errors both on the flanks and between the central defenders, whose relationship seems less certain, understandably, than the first-choice pairing of Houghton and Bright.

Telford – asked to pass, pass and pass, rather than hoof – has it seems never really settled. A re-cap at the break: whilst the performance did improve, that lack of calm, of fluency is perhaps the standout feature and concern.

Better start to the second half, from England. Mead is soon withdrawn for Taylor, who may add more of a threat, centrally. But can the increase in energy, positivity and level of possession transfer into real control?

It appears so. As Bronze forces a corner on the hour, England are on top and finding a little sustained flow. Kirby shimmies again and puts Taylor through… but she’s plainly off. The midfielder has played at a level, finally, that she will consider acceptable.

The much-vaunted Bronze-Parris combo, however, has been ineffectual. The full-back is looking to burst forward, possibly in frustration at the lack of dynamism in front of her. In the 65th minute, this nearly costs England, as Bronze over-runs, is dispossessed and Sweden are in on that left flank. No damage.

Enter Carney, inevitably, on the 73 minute mark. The retiring maestro is there for sentimental reasons but she is also a real candidate for Person to Make a Difference By Threading a Brilliant Pass. (Which is what England need – someone to find that moment of quality – of clarity).

As the game stretches Jakobsson smashes in a worldie of a cross, which is just about cleared: England have to gamble and they are.

We’re seeing flashes of the possession-based game Neville wants to play, in this second half – there were none in the first – but I am struggling to remember a meaningful contribution from Lindahl, the Swedish ‘keeper. There really has been very little carved out.

Scott, Carney, Kirby are busy centrally but still not able to get White or Taylor clear. I wonder, now that Mead and Parris are both departed, if their best chance is a sharp one-two or a lung-bursting run from deep, such is the stoutness of the Swedish defence.

Bronze’s frustration continues; she gives away two unnecessary free-kicks but still finds herself unmarked with the ball falling to her twelve yards out. She volleys well enough but the ball zeroes in on Fischer’s forehead – cleared.

Zigiotti could finish it but hits Telford’s legs. Moore is rightly booked for checking her gallivanting opponent. The ref blows. A moral victory for the Lionesses, who win the half on points – but they lose the game and the medal.

Carney notably retains her calm after the whistle; she looks more angry and disappointed than sad. The Swedes, meanwhile, are emotional. Good luck to them. They deserved this. England’s tournament? Hmmm, let’s think.

Neville has done well. After the scepticism and outrage regarding his appointment, I think he’s answered most critics. He is clearly heavily invested in this: he gets it and his manner as well as his manners have been close to impeccable.

His view of a united squad, all contributing has been largely successful. His view of how this England should play is fine enough too – just maybe compromised (as so often in sport) by individual frailty or inability to rise. 

His bankers – Houghton, Scott, Bronze, possibly Bright – have been committed and strongish but not world-beating. (The fourth-place finish is bang on, wouldn’t you say, for these players, in this tournament?)

Disappointments and frustrations include the VAR stuff, Bronze’s seven-out-of-ten (for a nine-out-of-ten player), Kirby and Duggan and Parris. Successes would include White, not just for her goals but for her intelligent centre-forward play and, more broadly, that sense that there is a pattern there to aspire to – one which is beyond most of the teams in this World Cup. There are still places to go.

Finally, both these teams have made a contribution, here, to the Big Picture Stuff. Women’s football – women’s sport – is surging. The development, the profiles, the quality, the entertainment is now more visible day-by-day. If there is any disappointment for England maybe that will pass, as players realise and appreciate that they are making this game, their game, authentic and real and compelling.

Women’s World Cup: Nederlands v Italia – & everything.

Live-blog; being updated and ideally improved as the afternoon/evening proceeds. Might mean it’s worth reading twice, six hours apart… or might mean nothing. 👊🏻

Blazing sunshine apparently, in London and visibly in France but not here. Actually quite a relief to sink back into the settee and squint into that dazzling screen, for Italia versus Nederlands, on an immaculately striped pitch looking strangely lush, given reported temperatures.

We’re off. Several minutes of rushes and errors; familiar banks of orange; Miedema still walking about the place; and did I mention (perhaps not, it might be foolish) how gratifying it feels to see a black woman (Gama) skippering the Italians?

After 17 minutes Bergamaschi rather hurries, rather fluffs the first significant chance, merely gently hoisting a knock-on that she might have waited on, then smashed home. Despite the heat, there’s not much measurement of things, so far.

Not long after, the same striker cuts in from the right, creates space for a left-foot screamer but executes an ego-shrinking scuff. But Italy have gone ahead on points, in an admittedly rather mediocre bout, thus far.

Last night, in contrast, we were treated to a fabulous, deliciously-heightened occasion, with the home nation beaten in the end by a U.S. team that surely reaffirmed its status as the most powerful side in the world. Rapinoe, that symbol both of sparky liberal activism (off the pitch) and sparky-but-powerfully-efficient authority (on the pitch) scored twice as the Americans snuffed out the French Dream.

Diani kindof epitomised the cultural difference. The French forward was swift but infuriatingly imprecise – raw in a way that Morgan or Rapinoe or anybody in white just wasn’t going to be – USA doing streetwise and competent or better, much more than they were ever going to do ‘frenetic’. (This doesn’t mean the visitors weren’t ruffled; having established a 2-0 lead they were challenged, brilliantly at times, by a French comeback prompted by the consistently excellent Henry).

Bottom line, the stronger team came through, in my view with reputation and expectation enhanced. Their organisation and athleticism seems a notch higher even than that of an encouragingly developing England, to the extent that the main hope for Neville’s side really might be that the Yanks have been drained from the standout occasion of the event so far, sapping as it was – Le Grand Match, as it was widely described.

But back from that truly exhilarating and hopefully inspirational action to Holland-Italy: 0-0 at the half, with a four-out-of-ten performance from the first named. Both disappointing and a little surprising, as the women in orange have more quality and greater depth of quality than their opposition this afternoon.

Perhaps the extreme conditions suited the Dutch less well? Might figure. Whatever, the six-out-of-ten Italians would be sucking more contentedly on their ice-lollies (that’s what we do in a heatwave, right?) during the break.

Second half and Holland are better by a percentage. Not entirely a surge but a quiet reversal. From a corner, Van de Donk finds Martens, who has acres just outside the box. She shapes to curl… but finds the top of the bar. A goal, however, *may be coming*.

Wow. Spitse drills a boomer of a free-kick from best part of thirty yards, striking the outside of Giuliani’s right-hand post – reminding me (I think) of Arie Haan or somebody clouting it from four miles distant in the Mexico(?) World Cup. Holland increasingly dominant.

On the negative side… well, let’s start with a positive. Refereeing standards at this event are up on previous tournaments. However, the officials are (amongst other things) spending waay too much time in protracted, sometimes overly animated ‘discussion’ with players. They need to be saying less and enacting the laws more promptly. Onwards.

Miedema scores. Miedema who has yet again mooched about moodily and barely broken the proverbial, despite egg-frying heat, has nodded… and notched. You don’t know whether to hate her or love her. She is a lazy, flukey, pesky-in-an-irritatingly-non-irritating way kindofa something. She does nothing but score. She’s a bloody genius!

In the 79th, van de Gragt nods a second. Thirty seconds later, Miedema could drive a third but no. But now it is feeling ver-ry different. Like the game is up.

Italy respond with some urgency but little belief (and because, frankly, of that lack of quality) fitfully. They can’t sustain the effort, the possession: they are generally two-nil worse than Holland. Often that means nothing; today – the day that Miedema once more scoffed in the face of meritocracy – today it felt just enough.

 

Germany Sweden. Expecting a German win, because you do. They start though they expect exactly that. Sweden should be pret-ty durable but they may not be able to resist the predicted wave of attacks. Maybe.

Magull half-hits a free-kick which Lindahl takes comfortably. Then some reaction.

Sweden rush forward repeatedly, with some commitment and not a little ingenuity. It’s an important sign that this won’t be what we used to call ‘Backs and Forwards’ in the good old days. Germany are going to be tested, defensively, rather than merely resisted. Good.

Ah. Then Dabritz drives, centrally and flips a delicious pass into the box. It’s bouncing but Magull adjusts and shifts beautifully before crashing home. Great goal, for Germany.

Great stuff (though). On 22 minutes, Sweden equalise. They have been playing with intent – like their opposition – in a game that’s sharp, open and promising. Both defences look porous, both sides are pleasingly proactive – ‘attacking’.

Second half. What we need is a Swedish goal to really stir it up. The wonderfully-named Stina Blackstenius obliges, profiting from a palmed half-save following a cross from the right. Now we have the model scenario – Germany, a hungry, determined, energetic Germany, chasing the game.

It’s becoming too bitty, though, to be a classic. On the plus side, both teams have heads up and are looking forward – are trying to play Bright Football. On the other, it’s not quite happening. Popp and Dabritz we know can be lethal… but the links are missing somehow.

Blackstenius nearly punishes a German error. In masses of space, attacking the centre from the left flank, she has only to skirt Hegering and she’s in. The centre-back times her tackle.

As we wait during a further drinks break, the sense that Germany need to raise this is growing. Despite a certain level of good possession they aren’t hurting Sweden. Indeed they no longer look the more threatening – just the more comfortable on the ball.

On 80 minutes this is urgent; still Germany pass and manoeuvre. Oof; a big moment as Popp is clattered by the keeper’s arm in an aerial challenge. Lindhal is lucky – she was clumsy and she cannot have known that Popp was marginally offside. VAR gets this right and we move on.

The goalkeeper makes a further error, failing to clear another right-wing cross but Oberdorf’s header is cushioned agonisingly wide. Germany are going for broke now – at the risk of conceding.

Dabritz has a half-chance but her left-foot shot across Lindhal is easily gathered. Six minutes of added time.

Hegering, thrown forward, can’t get over another inviting chip to the far post and nods over. Jakobbson, released, heads for the flag. The lines-person makes a hash of a corner/throw thing. Time ticks out.

A final threat peters out (should that be pieters out?) and Sweden are through. Seemed unlikely but this has been no fluke: hard-won, marginal, but no fluke. They beat a better team by being determined, well-organised and hugely committed. They will play the Netherlands in the ‘other semi’, believing that they are close to something remarkable.

The bulk of the universe has been focused heavily on the England/USA/France side of the draw and naturally now that England USA match-up will again draw most of the watching world’s attention. Whoever wins it will be favourites to win the tournament.

Because of their athleticism, experience and mental toughness, I imagine this will be Rapinoe & co. However, because of Houghton and Scott and White and Bronze, I do not rule England out. Further, because of Miedema, Blackstenius and the capacity, in sport, for belligerent, beautiful, baffling, magical lunacy, I’m *just not sure about this*.

Bronze makes it hers.

So a great win then. White again looking a complete, all-round centre-forward, Bronze finally absolutely grabbing the game, England generally looking a better-drilled, more luxuriantly-equipped side.

Norway a tad disappointing, if we’re honest. The energy of Engen was again noteworthy, just more in the defensive gathers than any attacking forays. Graham Hansen, possibly the greatest talent in the tournament (and in that sense something of a loss as we reach the endgames) significantly underachieved, looked pained and rather petulant, at times.

Jill Scott won’t care. The Lionesses’ heart yet again beat out the rhythm of the performance, being irrepressibly ever-present once more but again without quite reaching her max in terms of accuracy. Look out France/U.S./Whoever, if Scott *really does* find her radar; her rather heeled-in goal last night was just reward for another nonstop effort.

Neville and his staff got most things right again: Greenwood had to be dropped, Parris and Kirby had to shake off their lethargy or nerves and make more telling, more impactful contributions.

The flying winger was instrumental in much of England’s goal threat but still flashed and flickered rather. (She also missed a second pen of the tournament – one which given her in-&-out performance, she might never have taken). Word is Parris a bit of a card, a bit of a ‘character’: my guess is that there’s a whole load of front there but some real insecurity beneath – hence the recurring mixture of brilliance and frailty. More arms-round from Neville may still bring out more of her best, more often.

Kirby likewise improved, whilst still seeming occasionally wasteful or simply unaware. However, she starts from such a high base that even a 78% performance was always going to embarrass Norway on the night.

Because Norway were exposed, rather than England, to greater effect, repeatedly.

Jonathon Pearce, in commentary got things about right when he suggested a 5-2 scoreline might have been fair – whatever that means. The team in red were pretty much swept away *but*… how they failed to register will remain a mystery.

Houghton is close to the best centre-half in the world: for most of the game she looked it and the central-defensive partnership with Bright was looking more imperious than not. Then came some moments.

Bright appeared to take some hallucinogenic drugs through the second half and her skipper may have dabbled. They were weirdly off it, for a while, in a way which inevitably drew comments of the “can’t do that against such and such” sort. True enough. On balance though, England coped, being better organised, more strategic everywhere, and they defended well enough.

Stokes at left back, in for the frazzled Greenwood, started well and without being flawless, looked strong and quick throughout. Indeed in the first period, defensive concerns for England came almost exclusively – but okaaay, still rarely – from the other flank. Parris repeatedly drifted from her defensive duties, allowing space towards that right corner flag. Norway might have profited.

After Scott’s early pass into the net, Parris put White in for a volley smashed against the far upright and also engineered the tap in for the ‘Lionesses’ Harry Kane’ – a name I’ve heard but wish I could erase from the memory. Could well be that Ellen White may finish up top scorer in this Women’s World Cup whilst actually playing well – something her male counterpart has thus far failed to do. 😉

If the general story is about England marching more convincingly on, the the headlines will and should be about Bronze. Famously, Neville has challenged her publicly to show that she may be the Best Player in the World. Privately, after another decent but relatively restrained showing against Cameroon, he must surely have reiterated or re-worded that challenge.

Maybe he said…

“Bronzey, how about bursting out a bit more? Can see you doing the mature, composed international thing and love that. But how about showing these fuckers that they’re not fit to be on the same pitch as you – that you’re playing a different game. Go grab that game – go make it yours. All of us in the camp know that you can do that. You know that you can do that. Get out there and make this World Cup yours!”

She has – or has started to. The surge in the third minute, to make Scott’s opening goal. The heightened, more positive display. The goal, a thing of real beauty and power, a cheeky, ill-read double-bluffing re-run of stuff Norway should have noticed earlier – a triumph both personal and collective, having been plainly rehearsed prior to and during the match.

Norway should have been ready but Bronze blasted their belated rush into oblivion. What a strike!

So 3 – 0 again. And a part-brilliant performance. Who next?

England really will fear no-one; the quality they have is beginning to shine through the team, as opposed to just via individual contributions in the moment. Only Duggan seems to remain palpably below her par. Such is that development, it could now be that remaining sides would choose to avoid meeting Neville’s Posse ‘til the final, if that were possible? Because they really are a threat.

But next up, Bronze goes home – to Lyons. Might that be a further spur towards something special? But who against, who might be least accommodating to those English Dreams? France, or the U.S?

If I were choosing, I’d play France, anyday. Even with the possibility that they might ride the crest, they are less controlling, less controlled, less consistent. Great potential but so far a lot of waste, too, from the hosts. Let them have a night to remember and a staggering, exhausting extra-time win tonight… and let Lucy Bronze dispatch the French later.