#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.’

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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.

Shed and watershed.

From bowlingatvincent.com, April 2015. So a taster. But a relevant one, yes?

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

Staggering.

Impressions. Of a gallivanting, glorious final day, sweeping away fears of a ‘ludicrous advantage for England’, or a ‘recipe for corruption’. Staggered kick-offs and staggering entertainment. Wave upon wave of wondrous, anarchic sport – emphatically combative but almost perfectly fair in both complexion and in spirit. Liberated and liberating in a toss-your-hair-from-the-sports-car-of-your-dreams kindofaway.

Six Nations Rugby is entitled to feel a wee bit smug; maaan, has it delivered. Under the raging bull-charge and the murderous tick tock of receding or encroaching targets, the players showed remarkable – and surely marketable? – and generously honest endeavour. So generous that a) the games were ecstatically expressive of that kind of running rugby we feared we may have lost b) gert big holes were left around the park for the opposition to gleefully run into. C) We never knew what the hell or who the hell might win the thing.

First Wales had to do it all, then Ireland then England. And make no mistake, on a day when 221 points were scored in the three matches, they all did it all. It was magnificently slapstick – only real – with nails bitten and nerves frayed and hearts broken and mended and palpitating and soaring and WAAOORRRRRA. It was too much christmas puddin’ wi’ that brandy butter, it was.

To even start to record the detail …we all may need a sit down and a drink. As we do so, let’s consider this; that given the import of the games and the utterly bone-crunching level of collisions, maybe we really should pause to appreciate the quality of labour undertaken. By the players. For there to be almost no cynicism or cheating or abuse of officials in these precious hours was remarkable. (I recall a sly trip from Haskell and a contentious launch from Lawes leading to proverbial handbags. Tellingly, when Haskell was rightly yellowed he jogged obediently off without a word. Other than that – nothing. Nothing other than sportsmanship during extreme combat of an impeccable standing. Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger – were you watching?)

Italy-Wales started it. By going from superbly competitive (yes, honest!) to absurdly but surely exhilaratingly one-sided within twenty minutes either side of the half. George North went from Disappointment Revisited to Giant Sex-bomb. Biggar and Webb went from Championship winning half-backs (with ten minutes to go) to peeking through their fingers from the bench as things just dipped away.

Why Gatland and co gave them the hoik when they had (over time) so brilliantly dismantled the opposition may be debated in the proverbial Valleys for generations to come. (It struck me as one of the finer examples of ‘overthinking’ from a management mob in recent memory. Given how fluent and commanding they were – and considering there was no requirement to save them for subsequent challenges – why not let them see it out and rack up the inevitable 70 points?) Instead, changes are made, Davies drops a pass when clear, and they concede a try.

Yes I know the maths may not point to a Wales championship win anyway… but the sums may have been significantly different should the Welsh A-team half-backs have remained. That Gatland is vindicated may seem unarguable; however I do at least point out that Wales were better and more successful here with two Williams’s on the field and an instinct for free-form rugby unleashed. Gatlandball – specifically the Roberts and up-the-jumper caricature – will not be enough for the later stages of the Rugby World Cup. Wales may be back (again) but there must be more again.

Italy are meanwhile marooned; or treading water unconvincingly. Their disappearance from this contest was maybe the most predictable thing to happen all day.

Apart from the Irish win in Edinburgh. What’s to say there, except that Scotland need a slap? They were simply dismissed… too comfortably. Even accepting their poor all-round level, this felt close to unacceptable and must have hurt their backroom staff and their long-suffering fans. At home, having shown some attacking form – or threatened to – they simply should have done more.

I had Ireland down as comfortable winners – meaning 12 -15 points – but as a neutral who really rates them and genuinely enjoyed O’Connell’s deserved triumphant moment early on, I felt the drama overall had been served inadequately via the Scots capitulation. 30 points is too much. I accept that the void where a competitive player pool might be is unanswerably relevant here but hoped for more – more dog – from those assembled under the thistle.

The Irish have been great, mind. They have the best coach and they are, for me, in every way marginally ahead of the English and the Welsh. More fiery and consistent than England, more deadly and angular and pacier, actually, than Wales. They throw a mighty green blanket across the park in defence and kick-chase relentlessly. And on that Sexton-centricity I wrote about previously I concede that the fear or the ‘fact’ that Sexton may be irreplaceable to them could have been said of almost any side in history with a stand-out stand-off. (Think England/Wilkinson, perhaps?) You can’t clone the feller, so crack on! If he’s out then look to Bowe and Henshaw and Kearney on the charge, after somebody else’s Garry Owen. The pattern is there. The players are there.

In fact there’s much more to Ireland than that roaring up the pitch and leaping to catch. They have a real efficiency and experience. They will keep the ball for an age and wear you down. They will stand toe-to-toe or they will scorch round your flanks. Or break you down just where you think you’re inviolable. The world knows about O’Brien and Heaslip and O’Connell and now O’Mahony but do they know about Henshaw and Payne? This a strong, well-rounded unit and one that really may challenge for the yet more substantive trophy later in the year.

England were weirdly patchy. They were almost embarrassingly porous – conceding five tries(!) – but also devastatingly ambitious. It was, as so many have noted, like sevens. Ben Youngs was an utter menace throughout and Joseph and Nowell enjoyed a rare opportunity to go wild in the jungle (absolutely free-style.) Twickers sounded like it knew something extraordinary was happening. There were so many simultaneous heady possibilities that it was unclear whether Eddie Butler, Brian Moore and Sonia Wotsit were actually playing. Certainly I think Sexton and O’Connell and Bowe still were. And North and Halfpenny and Barry John and Slattery and Walter Spanghero.

After all the psychotic flux of it, the rampage and the flood of emotion, the fact is Ireland rightly won this tournament, closely followed by England, then by Wales. The table, remarkably makes absolute sense, despite the marvellous nonsense in Rome, at Murrayfield, at Twickers. The table says there wasn’t much in it but man oh man, there was.
Foolishly, at the end, I congratulated EVERYONE on twitter – because it felt like we’d all won – or they all had. It was magic… and it was rugby… and something was shared.

Shed and watershed.

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)