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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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.

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.

More than this.

Maybe it’s only through the rear-view window that the fascinations of this third Six Nations weekend reveal themselves. Having driven on, I can see that what last time out felt like the death of Gatlandball may be the start of something yet. Suddenly strange to think of an uninspiring but robustly competent Welsh performance in France as in any way pivotal but Ireland’s rumbustious, Sexton-centric win over England had the feel of pressures – maybe edges? – closing in around it. As we all chug along together towards the Rugby World Cup it’s not just us passengers who are shuffling for that energising ride… those mythical box seats.

Broadly, with Ireland playing for forty-something minutes and losing their mighty fulcrum to injury, there may be an argument that Europe’s finest either are or will simply be no match for New Zealand and South Africa when this admittedly significant preamble is over. Meaning the gulf persists. Meaning the ordinariness of the fayre on Sun afternoon (second half, certainly) points to another domestic scuffle played out beneath, behind the level of the elite. This then to be confirmed, cruelly rubber-stamped by events later in the year.

Negative? Okay. But England were so abject at kicking and catching they lost the right to be considered contenders (unless something pretty remarkable happens). Ireland, whilst having the best team pattern (courtesy the best coach) and that tremendous gnarly will, remain a threat but must pray to gods contemporary and celtic that their number ten stays healthy. Wales emerge again into this because their limitations – Gatlandball itself – simply suit group-stage tournament play. Thus the pack(s) ha-ha, are a-shufflin’.

Saturday had its moments – ‘course it did. But the game at the Stade was relatively ordinary and Scotland bombed disastrously back into that third division; it was – despite the possibility that Wales may yet win this thing – a prelude. Sunday in Ireland was the one; that was what we thought. A win for Gatland against the most extraordinarily and perennially badly organised and under-motivated French was no big deal; France are almost hopeless; Wales are solid and powerful and they have Halfpenny. So what?

Well whilst there remains the possibility that Ireland may find another level and go on to boss this championship (and therefore grasp that momentum we all more-or-less recognise) that feels less likely, does it not, than previously? With Wales if not on the march then certainly re-stating something relatively profound, the drift to dominance of the Irish and arguably the English is stalled. Because Wales really might do Ireland at home… and because England once more marked out the distance yet to travel with a shabby performance in Dublin.

I have to emphasise here, as a critic of the Gatland ethos, that Wales’ one-dimensionality will be obstructive, ultimately, in terms of the World Cup. However as we re-calibrate our appreciation for England downwards, the odds on Wales coming through their mutual ‘group of death’ have risen. Because a spunky and solid Brotherhood of Reds really might do England, or at least the seemingly lost England that lacked discipline, nerve and tactical nous yesterday.

At the Stade de France the natives surely could barely believe that Les Bleus could be so Pollockesque. In their flecked swoops and swooshes they lacked again the majestic prescience – or even science – of the great expressionist. They doodled occasionally and never joined the thing up. Again. It was another trauma, a can-can on marbles for the locals.

As this capacity for Frenchness, for swashbuckling misunderstanding, for the art of duffness, soars yet further into parody so inevitably the Wales win is devalued a notch. Gatland, Howley, McBryde and co may beg to differ. They’ll be quietly congratulating themselves on the long, wise game they’ve been playing. The one that gets them to a World Cup quarter-final – and bollocks to their critics.

The game itself was rarely entertaining. Roberts made a point or two, Halfpenny was metronomic and there may have been just the hint of Davies finding his game. Williams had little opportunity, in truth, but his bow-legged scampering seems to add to the whole. North remains the Giant Who Sleeps – or who is concussed, perhaps, by the system? The try fashioned by Webb and Lydiate and finished by Biggar was the stand-out moment. Searing support runs and a mercurial offload from the back-row man. A killer move that deserved to separate these sides.

Ireland started gloriously against the English, the difference in quality between the respective teams kicking and catching being evident almost from the whistle. Sexton and Murray hoisted well and often, with Bowe and Henshaw racing in to threaten and compete. Ford played well enough, but England’s kicking and kick-chase – or lack of it – were shambolic. It may be that they had made the tactical decision not to compete for their own bombs but this of course meant that the Irish backline could gather unopposed, gain confidence and legspeed and energise the hoolie blowing down the pitch. Everything from England was hoisted ten yards too far.

If this was simply poor execution of a relatively basic skill then 9, 10 and 15 have some serious work to do. If as I suspect Lancaster believed his lads would be big enough, tough and well organised enough to play a containing game and look to break out with devastating effect then the suspicion arises that too much coaching has been going on. All games at all levels are simple. Possession and confidence are key.

Ireland could have been out of sight at half-time. Sexton was dominating the whole pitch, being as powerfully present in the hand-to-hand as he was with that boot. Henshaw and Bowe looked a threat and what the Welsh call the hwyl was visibly up – again, partly because England delivered so much possession into Irish paws. At the break an emphatic win for Schmidt seemed overwhelmingly likely. But things did change.

After about 50 minutes, England stirred and Ireland were finally retreating. (It may not have been a coincidence that around this time Sexton walked gingerly from the park reaching for his hamstring). Weirdly, England’s kicking and catching continued to be disastrous but with Easter and maybe Wrigglesworth, things lifted. The backs freed their legs once or twice. Astonishingly for me, the mundane Twelvetrees came on when the deficit at this point cried out for Ford at 10 and Cipriani at 12.

Predictably, England’s bench made a difference but Lancaster’s use of it was as poor as his side’s execution throughout. There was a fleeting sense of a gallant come-back… but then no. The Irish deservedly held out. In the win, however, there were concerns; that reliance on Sexton being foremost. Here’s hoping that the brilliant Schmidt will not be too satisfied with what he saw. Us Europeans will need more than this, come September.

Delivery.

Friday nights at the Millenium. Ethically dodgy – what with all that post-match faffing for the fans – but kinda glitzy and undeniably charged with extra, anticipatory energy. Once folks are in there they forget the duff train services issue, that general low-burning contempt for the fans thing and even (maybe) the suspicion that Cardiff Chamber of Trade have conspired with somebody hefty on the rugby side to bundle thousands of visitors into a wallet-sapping overnighter. ‘ Midst these very 2014 challenges only a proper occasion can see us through. The quality of the ether and then the game – the night – has to be good.

Cardiff delivers again, on this. A packed house (72,000) gathering late under a closed roof, followed by an emphatic home win. Plus the ungraspable stuff – the bonhomie, the boozy camaraderie, the gentility even between fans – charming and occasionally cockle-warmingly fabulous. (At the end of this one, we walked out into the cool dank of that riverside terrace past a single Frenchman nodding genially and with what seemed affectionate rather than affected grace whilst applauding the Welsh fans out. Ca c’est vraiment formidable, n’est-ce pas?)

If there is such a thing as an ambience matrix it was sweetened early in the game – which helps. France gifted a slack handful of points to Halfpenny and North in a fashion that felt faintly under-earned. The big wing/centre arguably pressured the error leading to his try but it was still an error; Halfpenny (mostly) capitalised on offers arising from ill-discipline, nerves or bad luck on the French side. Suddenly, Wales were flying – and yet not quite.

In truth there was real spirit but mixed execution from both sides first half… and in fact, throughout. De bonnes heures there was that familiar exchange of penalties and of midfield moves – most more lateral than penetrative – and therefore competently smothered. It was less ding-dong than kicktennis/squish/wallop/clunk as errors intervened. Broadly, as imagined, Halfpenny’s superior kicking game told.

On times that much-vaunted clash of beefy but more-or-less spring-heeled line-breakers – the centres North/Roberts Bastareud/Fofana – threatened to entrall us but much ended in minor disappointment. Full-on Gatland-Plus Wales rugby threatened to break out but (was it just me, and/or was this Priestland, particularly?) passes were floated too often when crispness or elite sleight-of-hand was required. In fact France were denied a try when the Wales pivot was nearly exposed mid-pass. In row 14, we tutted almost as much as we shouted.

So an improvement yes but Wales were flawed, even when in control of the scoreboard and naturally some of this underachievement was traceable to Priestland. Given that the game was presented to him early, he fell a tad short again on the commanding/inspiring front. I say this in the knowledge that he is very much in the modern mould of undemonstrative Game Managers rather than some idealised wizard and that these guys tend to play within themselves and expend all available energies on focus, not heart-stopping glory.

Fair enough. I appreciate that stuff but in my judgement Priestland has to manage things really well to justify his place. And I’m not sure he did… and I’m not sure he instills confidence in those around him.

If angst then turned to excitement early amongst the home support, this proved something of a deception. True that before any real pattern had emerged, Les Bleus were up against it. Webb had started brightly and with palpably greater fizz than that pre-loved and perhaps more predictable warrior Phillips; faux or fancy-dressed leeks amongst the crowd shuffled or at least arced expectantly forward in the breeze of expectation. Early points, high hopes for Wales. I swear folks were wondering if Gorgeous George, high himself on adrenaline and undreamt of quantities of ball, might carve out a rout? That seemed possible ten minutes in.

How mightily might the natural order be reaffirmed? If Wales went joyfully berserk, how might the French respond?

Answer – they did okay. In the sense that for me, the final score flattered Wales – France having competed but failed to prevent Warburton’s blaze and Halfpenny’s punitive hoofing. At no stage did the home side reach or sustain that feverish pitch of brilliance longed for by the crowd and the French were beaten not annihilated. Les Bleus had passages of play but still a) only fitfully resembled a working unit and b) missed crucial and relatively simple kicks.

At the half I thought France were only a tad worse than a decent Wales but later continual dissent and disbelief over refereeing decisions undermined both their performance and the level of sympathy any neutrals may have felt. They disintegrated into some ignominy, with Picamoles sarcastically applauding Allain Rolland, and a cluster of Bleus bawling at nearly every call the man made late in the game. It was unseemly – no matter what provoked it – and it wasn’t rugby.

I’m guessing many of us came into this one relatively sure that Gatland would have significantly stirred, if not wound up, his men, and that there would be a response. Ireland was for Wales, a shocker. The forwards were battered extraordinarily, via mauls that rolled embarrassingly on and by those rips and gathers by O’Mahony in particular. The pack of Friday night – featuring a late change of Ball for the unavailable AWJ – needed to turn up, front up and palpably restore some pride.

Job done on that; Gethin Jenkins, loved by most of Wales for his redoubtable core, his was singled out as man of the match. Warburton similarly gave notice that he was back and not to be underestimated. His extraordinary dominance in the line-out was one of the most striking features of the contest. How much of this was tactical tweaking from Gatland and how much a response to the late change at lock, who knows? In the set-piece, predictably, the one blight was the age lost in re-setting scrums; Rolland appeared to have little grip on this and his dismissal of the two props in the second half may have either been dead right and a significant step forward … or total guesswork.

Pre-match I had indulged the unwise thought that France- this France – ain’t up to much. Yes Nyanga and Fofana are always likely to be rather tasty and rather spookily elusive respectably, but otherwise… not special. So Wales – a bottoms slightly smarting Wales – would put 20 points on them. (Witnesses are available – the wife, anyway.) The fact that Les Rouges, whose squad strength looked markedly down again in the absence of just one or two major players, did win by that margin can be moulded around a range of arguments for and against an encouraging rebound into form. My feeling on that? Don’t read too much into this one performance – or more accurately, this one result. Wales are strongish but confidence may not be inviolable.

Reflecting now on some hours with The Millennium rammed and colourful to the point of cartoonish and an occasion genuinely enriched by the presence of our friends – yes! our friends! – from Lille or La Rochelle, I am (as they say) conflicted. The spirit is hugely restored in terms of the feel of an international. I am not so pleased to be judgemental of the French either as a side or on their discipline. And the balance of the result felt wrong. France were mixed, Wales a bit better. The scoreboard and maybe, arguably, the ref(?) conspired to be inhospitable to the visitors. But the night, the night was great.