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.

 

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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*.

 

 

 

Icons as themselves.

The names are icons in themselves. Carter, Nonu, McCaw; plus that icon-let (iconlite?) Beauden Barrett. Try keeping them out of any report or reflection on this superb final.

One name that’s odds-on to be missing though, is that of Matt Giteau, the Australian centre-playmaker, who was cruelly and arguably significantly lost to this showpiece twenty-odd minutes in.

Early doors at a roused but curiously multi-national Twickers belonged to Nonu – Giteau’s opposite number – the specimen centre yet again epitomizing the ideal of a space-seeking, rhythmic, intelligent force of nature as he tore forward into the Wallabies 22. Then, as McCaw led his magnificent monsters to scary levels of dominance, Carter sat back and prompted.

In fact he did more than that. Dan Carter orchestrated; he *intervened*; he wound the entire game round his finger and played yoyo with it – and I don’t mean like you and me would. He pyoinged and pyoinged so beautifully and successfully that it was absurd.

Absurd in particular that he could caress the ball so freely and immaculately and sweetly from the tee, in the World Cup Final, with a universe of expectation allegedly bearing down. Ludicrous.

Ludicrous that he could channel Liam Brady circa the maestro-Italiano Years whilst smoothing the ball through the posts, unfailingly. Every blog or column will be full of clunky linkages to Carter’s collection of superhero costumes; I will stop just short… but still observe that his performance was something pret-ty damn close to a marvel.

He struck the ball from the tee with the kind of grace that made Jonny Wilkinson’s punchier, thuddier, stunnier style seem kinda coarse. Either that or he so seduced me that I am unable to uncouple the peerless All Black from some erm… superhero of my own imagining. In short Carter (whilst all the time playing within himself, playing controlling rather than mesmeric rugby) gave one of the great championship-winning performances. Then he clattered into onrushing Aussie forwards, heaving them back’ards notably on more than one occasion,

Beauden Barrett makes the first paragraph here chiefly on account of his decisive, breakaway try, scored late on. He sniffed out an opening as the desperate Wallabies pressed, played a decent bitta footie and collected a doll of a bounce before diving over.

In a sense that could have been anybody wearing black, such is the breadth of their dynamism. True Mealamu is less likely to sprint clear but the relentless, all-court threat that is the All Black fifteen tends to make these things happen; as a team, they capitalize.

Australia, having manfully stormed back towards parity in the match, were simply punished when they themselves were on the offensive. As so often, the game’s opening out led to a ruthless counter from New Zealand.

I’m guessing these fine and hugely watchable Wallabies, as silver-medalists, will not be comforted by the fact of their emphatically positive showing in this tournament.

Only in their annihilation of France (and arguably their brutally composed victory over the Boks) did the All Blacks suggest they might find a decisively higher level than their tremendous rivals from the southern oceans but ‘getting close’ ain’t gonna be enough for Cheika or his players.

Fardy, Pocock and Hooper have deservedly been right up there as the darlings or running dogs of the competition. Today they had their moments but were ineffectual compared to previous outings. The AB’s simply kept the ball alive so often and shifted the focus of attack so constantly that to some extent the breakdown was less present as a feature (or potential source of issue) in the contest.

When Pocock looked to be threatening ball mid-way into the first half, New Zealand engaged carousel mode and the ball was everywhere but on the deck with a Wallaby back-row all over it. Australia were consequently simply outplayed.

Wonderful miscalculation of family taxi-duties meant that after screeching to an inspired halt, I watched the impressive and (certainly early-on) wholesale subjugation of the Wallabies principal weapon in my favourite hostelry in West Wales. Here things were even-handed, even to the extent that our National Treasure (the ref) was mildly scalded for alleged transgressions against fair-play and rectitude – a forward pass here, a missed pen there.

You may have to take my word for it that I was amongst folks who get rugby; in a deepish, visceral and somehow hearty way as well as being able to decipher its codes. However, as the AB’s streaked clear, points-wise, that ole chestnut Underdog Syndrome seeped into the boozer’s consciousness.

The game ‘definitely need’ an Aus try. Carter had ‘been the difference’ but ‘something needed to turn’. It did with a second or two’s indiscipline…and a yellow for AB’s full-back Smith..

After (no doubt) a few galvanizing words from their profoundly influential coach, Australia had set about recovering the frankly unpromising 16-3 deficit after half-time. The bald truth may be that their recovery was more about the AB’s reduction in staff for ten minutes than their own resurgence – although plainly one was predicated on t’other – but something stronger than mere sympathy invites respect for the Wallaby comeback.

Pocock and Kuridrani’s tries around the hour were maybe moments for sure – they hiked the twitchy fibres of all of us, bringing the scores back to 21-17 – but ultimately and rightly they were a challenge to which Carter and then Barrett responded.

The All Black kingpin/pivot/superhero drove over a longish range drop-goal – beautifully, yet again – to do the appropriate statement-making thing. Then as we entered Absolutely Shit-or-Bustville, Barrett robbed his try. And the headlines went Back To Black.

The pub applauded. A single Kiwi stood up and we unanimously wished him well(cryptically, by jeering ‘good-naturedly’) and turned back to our pints and our analysis. Who knows how much of the following we actually said but it feels like we came out with stuff like this…

You might fear or think or figure that an event as prolonged as a World Cup, with its inevitable and essentially regulated slabbettes of drama might stall at some period, or might fail to build.

A Group Stage then a knockout that simply has to be spread to allow bruises to heal, lungs to recover. People – nations! – leaving, extinguished. A week, between the semi and the final. More shuffling home; home to Buenos Aires or Jo’burg or Matlock. Cruel, debilitating, necessary non-activity. Surely this is going to mean some sense of pause or gather, or that loss of momentum which often undermines the Grand Event will intervene, like some superfluous usherette?

Nope; not here. Or okay hardly – hardly here.

This #RWC2015 has fair bundled along; seamless and typically smiley; pleasingly controversy-lite. Populated by powerful wedges of expressive, engaging sport. Simply a bloody pleasure from first to last, despite the loss of hosts England and later demi-hosts Wales. Despite that possibility for epic-scale (Northern?) stomping off in a huff.

The sport’s been too good for Brian from Barnsley or Geoff from Gloucester to skidaddle. Most of us in the ranks of The Defeated got immediately sucked back into it by the brilliance of some foreign geezer – some bloke from Japan or Argentina, quite possibly. (Incidentally, Cindy, how fabulous is it that plenty of Brits, pre and post the elimination of ‘our teams’, have been cheering on the Pumas in this? Sport transcending? Yes indeedie!)

So without actually being in one of the Fan Zones we’ve still been doing congas or necking cocktails (metaphorically speaking) with folks from all over. Captured. We really should all be thankful for all that; thankful to the players, coaches, organizers, stewards and everybody else who’s yaknow, ever met them.

I’m not thinking it’s dumb patriotism that drives me to say that I think the UK – with the obvious caveats re the rip-off hoteliers etc – has done a top job hosting this pardee – as it did with the 2012 Olympics. It’s entirely ENTIRELY fitting, therefore, that a truly great Rugby World Cup was collected by Mr McCaw… and lifted aloft by Messrs Nonu/Mealamu/Smith etc , etc, etc.

So hey thank you, fellas. Thank you, truly, for showing us how it’s done.

#RugbyWorldCup2015; questions arising.

There are loads of positive things to be said about the Rugby World Cup; so I’m gonna say some of them.

It’s now clear that the two best teams in the tournament will contest the final – and this is good. The All Blacks, without engaging that simultaneously immovable and extra-dimensional (All Black) winning gear until really needing to (against the Boks), have brought the fella Carter to his first World Cup Final. (Absurd but true.) The Aussies meanwhile have slung the ball round the park plus been ferociously competitive – not just at the breakdown but in the scrum and line-out – and deservedly have a tilt at a third title.

Compadres from The South (the Argentinians and the Boks) have both contributed heavily to the drama and entertainment of this hugely successful tournament but the first of these were seen off by a combination of Pocock’s rapacious work at the breakdown and through their own repeated spilling of opportunities. The Pumas have rightly been neutral’s favourites for their gorgeously developing expansiveness and infectious energy, but a cold hard review of their semi-final defeat will savage their levels of execution: they threatened and they built but then they fluffed things, time and again. We might credit the Aussie defence with some of this ‘non-execution’ but the Puma’s coaching staff should not and will not.

Signal moments in t’other semi included Nonu’s 874th surge leading to Beauden Barrett’s critical try and one particular tackle/turn from McCaw that effected a turnover around the hour mark. Both spoke of something near godlike about the AB’s; their capacity to cut through, to re-stamp the AB symbols (principally, to press that We Are Invincible button) in this case amid belting rain, extreme physical confrontation and, theoretically, the most acute pressure. New Zealand denied all that contextual cobblers, without aiming or needing to be the dashing monstermen who annihilated France. They simply brought out the mainly metaphorical hand-off, for twenty minutes, in a World Cup semi, against The Boks.

Other highlights on anybody’s reel of memories would surely include gloriously free-spirited Japanese offloading of our preconceptions about a) Japan b) relatively normal-sized blokes c) What’s Possible. And unreal defending from the instinctively attacking Aussies against the lion-hearted Welsh. Plus the many uplifting bursts of proper international rugby dished up by Namibia/Georgia/Uruguay and other Second or Lower Tier nations. Plus notably storming and re-validating contributions from Scotland, who may now for the first time for aeons be expecting to compete, kosher-style, in the 6 Nations.

The night the Cherry ’n Whites bewildered the Boks in Gloucester may really never be forgotten. If, in reverting to sepia-tinted appreciation of that night – which was thrilling, dashing, utterly wonderful – I fall into political incorrectness or mere sentiment well what the hell? It was the most perfect and invigorating example of an occasion where the underdog joyously raced… and barked… and wagged its tail in ecstasy. It was unbelievable and yet the websites say Japan 34 South Africa 32. It was a proper, gobsmacking sporting triumph and though time and Laidlaw caught up with them too soon after, we might note perhaps that Japan also beat Samoa 25-6 and made history in their glorious, three-win exit.

The blitzing of Roberts and Cuthbert and co by a catastrophically undermanned Wallabies posse was also so remarkable we may yet look back on it as a defining moment for the tournament – particularly if Australia win the thing. Wales, crocked so heavily that ultimately even the English had a certain sympathy for them, may or may not have lost their opportunity to hoist their defiance into the latter stages by failing to prise open a 13-man Wallabies team but the deep, dramatic heat they provided in this game (and through their widely-admired and supported defeat of the hosts) further ennobled Wales as a force in world rugby.

One of the more fascinating conundrums (because it surely echoes far beyond the Welsh scenario?) remains this question of whether a dancier, fleeter-of-foot, (dare-I-say-it?) Roberts-less, (or less Roberts-centric?) approach from a fit Wales squad might have been a deadlier combination.

Gatland’s cruelly depleted side clearly had spirit, spadefuls of courage and a back row to die for. If it is widely accepted that the great (Southern) sides have also wit and subtlety – or what has simply been referred to as ‘skills’ – could a darting Rhys Webb, fit Liam Williams and a wily Jonathan Davies have sharpened the arguably monolithic approach cartoonised as Gatlandball? And does it not seem that this option towards skills – in the game, not just in Wales – is not only necessary to compete with New Zealand but kinda spiritually good for international rugby? England remember, are viewed as a failure because they seem dully outdated in this regard.

Given that Lesson One as received by most pundits and coaches and fans around the world does seem to be around upskilling/heads-up rugby/expressing awareness as opposed to the allegedly predictable contact/crunch/recycle style of England, France, Wales, whoever, it will be fascinating and indeed enlightening to see the level of commitment from nations in The North towards the kind of transformation made so obviously by The Pumas. Dare they/we actually get backs to seek space as often as contact? Might they even ‘step’ – as the more than slightly magnificent Gerald Davies has suggested? Will it be expected that even here in the heathen North the Great Big Lumps have great, soft, intelligent hands?

Who knows? But these are questions arising, are they not?

We re-gather now and look forward to the final. After a minor scare it seems that the non-cited McCaw and the hugely deserving Carter will grace the event. But will they simply whip out the cloak of invincibility all over again and ‘ease’ to victory in that slightly suffocatingly brilliant mode, or will the Aussies force more out of their stonily humongous rivals? Could we see (some of) the All Blacks who massacred the French, please?

If Cheika once more insists his side play without fear then we may hope for a spectacle as well as a contest. Pocock, Hooper, Genia and co seem to understand the game as a gambol as well as a trial of strengths – indeed this is their lesson to us. Will that be the message booming out as the coach psyches them up in the hour before kick-off? What will be offered, then?

I’ll share a tinnie with the bloke who says

‘Fellas, it’s a dash; a test of your ambition; how much do you wanna believe in yourselves? Go show us – go on.’

That’s so-o welsh, that is!

  • After today’s ‘sport’ I could do one of many things, including;
    • buy a pint for Pete from Merthyr, who had that nervy but jovial but mainly Welsh thing going on, live on Radio Wales’s (footie) post-match phone-in. Garrulous and neck-deep in val-leees singsongaciousness, Pete started by saying
    I’m on top a the moon boys! – clars-sic, mun, surely? – before reeling off more homespun but genuinely heart-warming clichés than your favourite uncle. (Actually, I think Pete is my favourite uncle.)
    • or… I could buy a few tinnies for the Aussie rugby boys, who out-Walesed Wales, by turning adversity – two men down – into some bloody, black-eyed, backs-to-the-wall Alamo/exemplar.
    • or go off on one about how even though I’m as fed up as you lot with hearing the word ‘execution’, Wales surely really did need to execute one of the forty-three chances to get points on the board whilst Genia and some other bloke were unemployed for ten minutes each. Because that would have been the difference and mostly there had been no difference in the levels at which the two sides were playing – unusually, for a contest between northern and southern hemispheres.

I may do all three – or I would like to. Or one of many other things which reek of or speak of the cultish-crazy, leeky, drunken, stolid, donkey-derby wonderwallness of the day.

Wonderwall because hope is somehow scorching dizzily through. Rightly and deservedly if not entirely predictably for Biggar and Roberts and Davies; amaaaazingly and deservedly for Ramsey and Hennessey and Bale.

But donkey derby? Dare I be ‘avvin’ a pop at the lack of quality somewhere here? In (let’s say) that team of Coleman’s? How could I? Why would I? ‘Fraid I must. Though I’m the daydreamiest of believers in hwyl and teaminess, I do have guilty concerns about Wales’ football achievements; or rather about what happens next.

On the one hand it’s clearly and unarguably marvellous that a side with only three international players – Ramsey/Bale/Williams – has shown such a durable mixture of organisation, work-rate and (crucially) togetherness that they’ve fair scooted through the qualification process. That Coleman fella – who many of us were labelling simply out of his depth in elite level togger – has engineered an inviolably significant and maybe particularly personal achievement here. But the thing is that despite remaining unbeaten against Belgium and that stand-out 3-0 away win in Israel, Wales have shown little quality other than those qualities that have seen them through. They’re gonna need more.

Many hackles will rise at this point and I understand why, when – DOH! OBVIOUSLY – those qualities are all part of the spirited package that is sport. I get that. In fact I spend much of my working life and most of my scribbling time BIGGING UP the notion that soulbrother or sisterhood is both an essential and a hugely rewarding facet of these daft games of ours. And yet.

And yet there must be skill; we should aspire to the beautiful and the profoundly pleasing as well as to brothers-in-arms resolution, a) because it’s philosophically right and b) because that’s how the success builds. So though I absolutely applaud what is an undoubted success for Coleman’s crew, I exercise my right as a fan to want more/advise for more. Please.

For much of today’s game Bosnia struck me as a team playing close to the lowest acceptable standards for international football. Consequently, early in the second half, without ever looking fluent or (actually) entertaining, Wales were coasting. But they lacked the quality to pick off their poor opponents.

Even with Bale on the park, Wales lacked a real threat, a focus, as they fluffed the opportunity to dismiss the Bosnians. (Incidentally, despite his goal-scoring record, I think Bale has been decidedly average, or certainly disappointingly inconsistent, too often in this campaign. Am I alone in that?) Robson-Kanu meanwhile, epitomises the Willing But Limited category that the bulk of the side (regrettably) fall into.

Some of this sounds spiteful and/or simply illogical. Let me swiftly express again my suspiciously amorphous disquiet at the relative absence of refined talent in the group… and then we’ll move on. What I suspect we can all share and enjoy is the delicious Welshness of the moment of qualification; via a crap result against a crap side. And that not mattering.

Plugged in as usual to the twittersphere, I loved that so much of the day’s #bantz seemed to belong to The Principality – and no, don’t be daft, I don’t mean the mob who’ve just bought the rights to the Millenium – I mean Wales. Before dropping back into events at Twickers, mind, we should really be noting the further hike in #RWC2015’s dander during and following the boshtastic Scotland Samoa game.

The evident passion, commitment and commitment to drama in this encounter re-lit the tournament for the umpteenth time and was again a proper fillip for rugby globally. This was a match where onslaught followed onslaught and the world again shared Samoan grief as though it was our own. The pride and the bonkers levels of what we may have to call bonding or devotion were sensational… and the boy Laidlaw dun well again.

But on The International Day… for Welshnesses we need to conclude with a flash through other worthy daiversions. I’ll remember
• timelines full of jokes about how appropriately (i.e. welshly) Gatland’s and Coleman’s teams achieved their notable successes; firstly by both getting roundly defeated and secondly by acquiescing in the universal conspiracy to give them what they deserved, anyway.
• And I note the kind of start – in fact the kind of first half from Wales rugby – that said something rather profound about being comfortable in the challenge. Perhaps this then was the Welsh Haka? An expression of confidence… and a welcoming for the trial? It did feel like a validation – like Wales were being clear that they knew they were worthy – and ready. And that may yet project forward (who knows?) to powerful advantage.

However, turns out Wales rugby too wasn’t quite skilled enough to execute/penetrate/skewer the enemy. When those endless yellow moments came the Roberts-centricity of the Gatland era was maybe exposed? Phase after phase was rebuffed by the inspired bison in gold ‘n green. Whether this was an opportunity criminally and terminally missed (I suspect it was), or whether this Hen wlad will resurrect yet again in all its perversely gog or cardi or starless and bibleblack glory, who can tell? But in defeat, in squeaky-arsed glory, the day belonged to Wales.

It couldn’t just be sport.

If I started this with ‘Some say… that this was just a game of rugby’ then I’d sound like Jeremy Clarkson… and this would not be good. 78% of female readers would exit more sharply than a reasonably-priced car ever could, shivering with sisterly repulsion. 88% of Welsh, male readers would do likewise, engaging the default mode for aversion to pompous English Middle Class gits in the process. Meaning there is an English Dimension here – possibly even more than there is an England-Wales dimension. (Tonight I may argue this was important.)

As the whistle blew ‘for no side’ one nation – Warburton’s, Biggar’s – stood baying at the beeyoootiful moon. The air was heavy as meaning (meaning!) went on a suburban rampage in Richmond and in Rhyl.

I’m simply unable to de-symbolise any of this, despite the apparent reality of 40-odd blokes haring round a pitch in a violent but unfeasibly honourable homo-erotic bagatelle. This ‘game’ is/was a theatre for unreliable symbols – symbols as elusive as Barry John – and Wales, the Wales where I live, breathe, stew and grow, rises to this stuff; it may even exist for it. England, in the World Cup. The primest of prime opportunities to stick one on Clarkson, or Cameron, or Thatcher, or Will Carling or unnamed and quite possibly unheard BBC Journalists from 1930’s radio, agents of Home Counties supremacy and imperial pig-dom. Like the public school lads in white – just perhaps?

There is an argument that Wales won an exhausting contest because their number ten hoofed the ball between the sticks with the proverbial unerring accuracy all night; there may even be some truth in that – Biggar having notched seven penalties.  But the activity in (for example) my front room (where allegedly grown adults were performing some kind of noisily angular tribal-ecstasy) suggests that what happened in Twickenham was merely a part of something radically more humongous.

Distil it and maybe this is how it is; The English are the opposite of what the Welsh want to be. Where the English had Edward Heath, Wales had Nye Bevan. Where the English had Larkin, Wales had Dylan Thomas. Where the English had Seb Coe, Wales had Iwan Thomas. Where the English had David Beckham, Wales had Mickey Thomas. To all fair-minded people this must mean The Welsh are demonstrably more human humans.

Could it be then, that May’s admirable try and Farrell’s drop goal and five penalties were simply out-biffed by an undeniable outbreak of irresistible humanity?  Or did it just feel like that… in Wales?

Could it be that a now cruelly depleted Wales may lose to Aus and struggle against Fiji… and therefore be lost to the competition… and that this – this Twickenham – might still be enough, for the Welsh?  Meanwhile vanquished England (with their bonus points) shuffle through?

The thing may move further yet into fable and redemption – or re-birth – for the whites.

How Lancaster needs that! Though his crunch calls seemed an irrelevance come the hour (Farrell was outstanding, Burgess strong) the England gaffer is weirdly and may yet be fatally subsumed by the whole cosmic cowabunga. His lot got beat in a manner that points to spookily gargantuan forces no mere ‘coach’ could be expected to counter – hence the ludicrous speculation in these paragraphs.

Even those in Wales who have never read Dylan Thomas feel the power, the redeeming, daft-glorious brilliance of the notion of ‘Wales-in-my-arms’. And I do mean feel. Whether by poisonous osmosis of modern political truths or some mysterious saturation in the deeply Celtic, The Welsh have an essence to aspire to, to live up to, and this essence has become inseparable from the need to oppose. They oppose the English, in particular, because they know them to be superior and somehow ungenerous when they themselves are hearty and defiant and inviolably ‘good.’ In no sense is Jeremy Clarkson good.

But Mike Brown – despite being a hated arse in Barry – is good. And so is Farrell, it turns out. But now we’re talking rugby when (try as it might) this ‘match’ could not – could not! – escape the clasp or pull of history or fate or mania or whatever it is or was or will be that drives Alun Wynn Jones. And Dan Biggar. And the four players from Haverfordwest Under 12’s who came on when half the Welsh were slain on the battlefield; I mean injured. Don’t tell me that a story this big, a turnaround of this magnitude could be merely, merely sport. It just couldn’t. Could it?

Wales won at Twickenham in the most stirring and cauldron-defying manner imaginable. In an absorbing but rarely beautiful game, Dan Biggar stamped his authority on an occasion that his opposite number – the immaculate Farrell – coasted through almost equally as nervelessly. Indeed it was the extraordinary contest between these two that provided the bulk of the drama and the quality throughout the match, as ball-striking of a supremely high order broke out.

Ultimately, with A N Other and his wheezing pals flung onto the park to make up the numbers for Wales, they found something. After a first half where England showed the more ambition, Wales gathered by deed and (noticeably) by word from their relentlessly grooved out-half. Biggar willed them to a victory that will quite possibly never be forgotten – by either set of players or supporters.

In the days of limited attention span we tend to look for five things that mattered. Here are mine.
• The spot-kicking of both number tens – which was remarkable.
• The recovery of the Welsh forwards – having been quasi-mullered in the first period.
• The pep-talk Biggar gave to half his team during one of the eight zillion stoppages for injury.
• The early removal of Ben Youngs.
• That left-footed dink infield from Lloyd Williams.

Let’s swiftly reiterate that the kicking from Biggar and Farrell, in a game of this magnitude, was fantastic. Perhaps particularly from the England fella, massively exposed as he was by Lancaster’s switch-to-end-all-switches. To strike so purely and confidently with 80,000 people on your back and a trillion watching elsewhere was truly outstanding.

(By the way, on the Big Call issue I was immediately clear that Lancaster’s reversion to a kind of circling of the wagons policy – ‘we’ll be ready for ‘em’ stylee – was always going to unnecessarily stoke the defiance of the Welsh. Gatland would surely have punched the air on seeing that conservative, stiff upper lily-liver thing confirmed? For Farrell to come through all that nonsense and go play rugby of this calibre was hugely to his credit.)

The recovery of the Welsh forwards may have been as much about a falling off in flow and intensity from England in the second half as improvements from the Welsh. Substitutions and injuries unhinged or undermined events. The mighty Alun Wynn looked a tad mightier and Warburton/Faletau began to influence but between about 40 and 60 minutes the game lost its shape, allowing Wales to creep back in there.

The job of the number ten has changed. Nowadays – regrettably, perhaps – even in Wales they no longer look to the fly-half for magic of the hip-swerving kind. Instead it’s about ‘game-management.’ This means expressing the tactical plan for the team; finding territory; choosing the moment to use width or thrust directly, seeking to suck opponents into energy-sapping contact, before darting wide again. Biggar’s management today was outstanding – as was his courage and his leadership.

Who knows what was said during that pep-talk but it was clear that he was sure of the mission… and sure that he was leading it.

At the moment of writing I confess I am unclear if the substitution of Ben Youngs was ‘tactical’ or for injury. If the former then the defeat may be laid at Lancaster’s door. Youngs is an in-out player and I thought him poor against Fiji. Tonight he was largely in… and on it. If it was pre-planned to ‘freshen things up’ by introducing Wrigglesworth early then I scoff at the overcoaching psycho-bollocks implied by that. Youngs was jinking and linking and England looked good for much of the first 40 minutes; then they stopped playing. If possible, he had to stay on.

A Wales win was undeniably made possible by *moments like* the deft nurdle inland from Williams, enabling Gareth Davies to dive under the posts. Post-match, exhausted and enriched, we know that the fella (in this moment) dived right past rugby.

Killjoy.

The World Cup opener was difficult to enjoy. Disappointing on many levels, from the dreadful slowness of the TMO to the dreadful inability of the England side to protect their ball in contact.

After a genuinely uplifting opening ceremony which audibly thrilled a supremely expectant and supportive crowd, it was difficult to imagine England playing without inspiration – without verve, even. They managed that with something to spare, resorting to (alleged) type in that they were unattractively un-free – not in an entirely Martin Johnson era kindofaway but in a fashion that makes their bottle ultimately… suspect. Play like this against the AB’s, Springboks or Australia and the North-South divide will be swiftly and emphatically re-stated.

Come the final whistle most of the watching world could be forgiven for not giving a toss about the allegedly critical bonus point issue. The quality of things had been so (ahem) ‘mixed’ that only Mike Brown resembled a top international close to his optimum. England – as hosts, favourites on the night and with magnificent positive energy driving them on – should have shown us all something different; something better. They were simply not comfortable enough in the moment to get things done.

Which of course begs the question ‘why?’

Why did the occasionally outstandingly perceptive and always articulate Jonny W – inevitably but rightly gathered in by the ITV RWC2015 machine – observe after halfway that the game plans for both sides were pretty much unobservable? Because they were. Fiji we forgive for their big-hearted amateurishness – England no. We’ll have fun debating whether the essence of this lack was about inadequate strategy or execution or if it was more about dearth of personality on the park. I slightly favour the latter.

The red scrum was unsteady and both Youngs and Ford at halfback floated things rather than zapped them. May and Watson (possibly through no fault of their own) were absent. The skipper only began to make inroads or show that noble bearing of his late, late on. Prior to this Fiji disrupted everything with embarrassing ease and provided the marquee moment of the game when their scrum half engaged warp-factor eighty from the halfway line but spilled the ball during touchdown. (It may prove in fact that the marquee moment followed, as the TMO/ref combo contrived to re-invent the wheel – or rather the rules – in correctly un-awarding an awarded try; in doing so providing the rugby universe with a cosmically fundamental challenge to the refereeing process.)

But back to the game, which bundled towards PR Disasterdom given the painful volume of interruptions and the frankly poor fare on the pitch.

England got a lead and therefore the cushion they needed but smothered themselves with confusion when not being knocked back by determined Islanders. There was little in the way of Bobby Moor(e)-ish calm from the men in the ‘66 shirts. On 70 minutes Lancaster, who doesn’t appear to have a raging gear, must have been outsourcing the necessary expletives to Farrell senior and Rowntree. On 80, he might be forgiven for heaving a huge sigh of relief before assaulting the nearest bottle of something punishingly alcohol-rich.

Like Keegan K, after a memorably dismal Show Pony of-a performance, the England Egg-chaser’s Gaffer may not have wanted to see his charges ‘til the next century’; somebody, surely, however needed to fume with a degree of violence towards the players post-game, despite the ‘achievement’ of a bonus-point win.

Was it really as bad as all that? Nearly. There was a momentary surge of the irresistible as forwards then forward-back Barritt rampaged a driving maul to the line (and a penalty try.) There was Brown. There was, in truth almost nothing else. Somewhere, I felt a Gatland bristle… and smile.