Going in…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymns and arias.

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

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

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

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

 

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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*.

 

 

 

Great win but move on sharpish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Twickenham.

Wales is foaming. The seas are stormy and the pubs, too. Faces are redder.

There’s expectation – because. There’s most of the Scarlets. There’s a dangerous surge.

I can tell you almost nobody in Wales has done that thing where you set aside the fervour of the moment and calmly assess where you’re at. The relative brilliance of last week’s canter past the woeful Scots has barely been picked over – or at least the perspective view has remained obscured, in the excitement.

Instead, there’s that red, misty, arms-wide-open longing. Because it’s Twickenham.

Wales apparently believes – again. Based around a new, Scarlets-inspired attacking game (plus Gatland’s rather more grounded philosophical buttressing), the historically oppressed are roaring. The ether here is flooded with that extraordinary mixture of faith, hope and bitterness that accompanies The England Game… and no other. Kindof hilariously and kindof rightly, given the surreally weighty meanings around the fixture, Wales believes a validatory win is within their grasp.

After the Scotland game, guess what? I didn’t. I admired a fine performance, in a rather second tier contest. It felt like about the eighth best team in the world playing – and comprehensively beating – the twelfth: or something. (I know this is innaccurate but that’s how it felt).

Coming into today, I expect a stronger England team – a team legitimately in the top 2 or 3 in the world – to beat a relatively unproven Welsh side. Quite likely, to beat them with something to spare.

Let’s see.

England score, early, following a superb but rather simple counter via the boot of Farrell. Then Launchbury, after a barrage from England’s Beefy Boys, finds a magnificent, soft offload to put May in again. After 20, England are 12-0 up.

Before the sense takes hold that this may be drifting early towards a disappointingly routine home win, Wales strike back.

They are denied a try – somewhat contentiously – as bodies dive in, hands stretching for the ball. Minutes later, Patchell strokes over a pen to get Wales on the board. Importantly now, the game *as it were*, is plainly, visibly a contest.

In difficult conditions – because coldish, because saturated – England have pressed the Limited Game Plan button. They know they are more physical; they expect to prevail in an arm-wrestle. But as the half draws to a close (and tempers fray, a little) Wales are looking like a Gatland team of old: in a word, durable. Davies is content to kick into row Z to finish the half, rather than probe (or risk) again. 12-3.

During the half-time analysis, the try-that-never-was doesn’t so much feature, as begin the swell to mythic dimensions. Laws have been changed, we’re told. Not much consolation for the many who will see Anscombe’s hand on that ball before Joseph’s every night for the next thirty, forty, fifty years. In short, in Cardiff, that’s given.

England start the second half with a prolonged encampment around forty yards from the Wales line – which suits them nicely enough. But it’s a frankly dullish match, now.

Shingler – a tremendous alround athlete – wakes the game up with an outrageous charge into space. Sadly, he can’t find a pass when Farrell comes in to smother, fancying instead a rather ambitious spot of footie. It doesn’t work but it’s a rare moment of free-running enterprise.

The weather is playing a part, as is the occasion, but there is no sense that a Mighty England is being brought down to the level of the Plucky Outsiders. Twickenham is quiet because this is a poor spectacle, an even game, yes, between two unremarkable teams in unhelpful weather.

England only rarely recycle with any pace or intent. Care – and he is not alone in this – shovels passes or floats short ones rather than gets things fizzing. It’s too safe.

If anything Wales do look freer. Without, understandably, finding full-on Scarlets mode, they find a little flow. Sure, they have to chase the game but all credit to them. Both sides have periods of possession but line-breaks are few. Anscombe, replacing Patchell at pivot, lifts the level of dynamism and the level of threat. Marginally.

It may be significant that the play of the day was Underhill’s stunning tackle on Williams as the Wales centre slid for the line. Extraordinary that after a lung-bursting sprint back to cover, Underhill conjures a movement that turns the man over to prevent placement of the ball.

As the second period plays out, England do make the obligatory changes, feeling for rather than chasing opportunities. Wigglesworth initially looks to have a brief to sharpen things up, but bodies seek contact rather than look for width.

We can’t know if Eddie Jones counselled aggressively for conservatism… but it looked that way. Denying Wales opportunities, in the wind and rain, was less risky than expansive rugby, so that’s the way it went.

Last fifteen and Wales seem impressively unintimidated by the onus to attack: why would they be, in this new era? However, because England remain watchful and doughty and organised, points are hard to come by. Anscombe slots a penalty in the 76th, after an encouraging attack and you can feel the red sleeves being rolled up around Wales but Gatland’s men cannot add to this total. It finishes 12-6.

A win that England will settle for. Devoid of style points – for which the Welsh will of course curse them – but continuing their march to European dominance. Uncle Eddie’s Boys were merely workmanlike – and he will know that. They did not, as I had expected, look more powerful or more accomplished than the opposition.

Meanwhile in Wales, the sense of a universal conspiracy gathers again. Sleep well, TMO.