Who does?

Wow. Just look at the adverts. The magisterial but beery brilliance of Dylan Thomas and that hobbit bloke; Eddie Butler amidst plumes of language and of smoke. The whiff of proper grandness.

England Wales is always major but this one is already feeling all-consuming. Despite the pre-eminence of the Irish – their lead and stonking advantage on points scored, their crushing win against Wales and cruel, narrow defeat at Twickenham, their winnable remaining match – it’s England Wales that dominates.

This is partly (of course) due to the pervasive London-centric view of the universe. But the vitriol and the heat around this fixture, predicated around abstracted Welsh furies and alleged English pomp, is special. The man-cub Healey has noted the ‘hatred’ from the Province, possibly without pausing to reflect on how much he himself epitomises much of that which is hated. The press in Wales has been loaded with cheap shots at some caricature of The English. In short, much about the ‘rivalry’ may in truth reflect badly on both parties but to hell with all that, there’s a game to be played, a game that could be a monster… in a good way.

Both teams are announced, both predictable and strong. Then a late change as Ball comes in for Wales, for whom the return of one of the classiest players in world rugby (Jonathan Davies) is a boon only slightly undermined by the customary frisson around any return from serious injury. Can it really be that a muscle near-ripped from its former home could be entirely re-bedded? Is the lad really okay? And Burrell-proof? God knows if he is, he simply must play – bring that instinct, that something extra to the Welsh back-line. As a sucker for the mercurial, the gifted, I am happy to confess something of an infatuation with Davies, believing him to be a rare and generous talent.

For England the former Welshman Ben Morgan comes in for Billy Vunipola. Given the latter’s gallivanting form this might in other circumstances be a concern for Lancaster’s posse but Morgan is also a man made for a break and a gallop as well as for the more structured stuff. Plus the politenesses exchanged across the scrum and line-out may well motivate the England no. 8. I see no weakness there.

I’m reasonably optimistic that the bitterness which does exist will dribble away like spilled beer come the match itself. In the moment of release comes liberation from all that prejudicial nonsense and I have some faith the game will release us. England – to their immense credit – seem to be closer to finding a spirited, open, dynamic game than they have been for aeons. Remarkably, they feature individuals (and I do mean that) patently intent on legging it joyfully every which way. May (the player) now brings to mind May the month, gambolling as he does like a lamb in discover-the-options-around-this-field mode. Brown from full-back oozes calm, class and line-breaking intent; Nowell too, looks un-Englishly game.

So can New England’s new expansiveness succeed? It feels as though Lancaster has gone too far and spoken too volubly on the subject of higher goals to retreat into a conservative, ‘territorial’ approach. Will he, when the time comes, press green for go on the attack button?

Hmm. I’m less inclined than he might be to answer that one in the bullish affirmative. The Measured One knows the dangers as well as the benefits or responsibilities to play heads up, open, intuitive rugby. He will want it, he will encourage it but there will be caveats. Don’t get nailed and isolated; run at that hairy bloke rather than Warburton or Tipuric; or yaknow, any of the backs. Execute with confidence but with awareness is what he’ll say – something like that. He knows supporters cry out for that. He knows, over and above any local historical disputation, this is a game England must win and that the onus is on the whites.

Those wearing the red rose should have beaten a poor French side but they didn’t. Not that they wilted… they simply made costly errors. Meaning the table puts them hypothetically in touch but 60 points down on the Irish, who have the French to come. Scope you might think, for O’Driscoll and co. to pull away and clear.

This is crunch time for the tournament alright and crunch time for Lancaster’s Master Plan. World Cup hosts and holders is the seductive target for next year. He seems to have wedded the notion of success to the notion of dynamism, epitomised by so long by the All Black Machine – in truth an alarmingly responsive if not organic contraption. England are currently simply not that good but, for now, the big question is do they stay true, really, in the moment of epic exposure and conflict and challenge, to this belief… in belief itself?

Gatland I suspect is altogether thicker-skinned than his English counterpart. He speaks of culture and nature less freely. Some might say this is because he has only the one view of how to play – Warrenball. Others might say he is shrewd and tough and clearer on what he wants.

In the last day or two he has quietly reminded the watching world of the powerful level of experience his side will bring to Twickenham. The suggestion being that Nowell, for example, might feel the weight of things descending upon him – psychologically and otherwise. He is right to infer that his lot are pound for pound more likely than England to be comfortable and thereby to inject pressure into the home side’s willingness (or conviction) to run. Wales can and likely will square up and be patient and hold.

Despite a shocking start to this tournament the red dragons (a fascinatingly aspirational emblem yes? – cue the anthropolical dissertation) look a strong side at close to full strength. They were okay rather than inspired against France but will feel justifiably that their own machine – that rumble, that smash in midfield – is with them again. The role of Priestland may be key and in this situation, where limited gains and patient probing suit his side, the Scarlets man may steer the thing… unremarkably. (I say this as a recent and regular critic of Priestland’s lack of zest. I also fully accept that in a game that relies unusually heavily on the quality and indeed authority of the home attack, Priestland’s role may actually be relatively insignificant.)

There are potentially fabulous contests all over this fixture – not all of them on the pitch. Apart from the nourishing psycho-cobblers going on in the hours before the game, the coaches clearly have a role in preparing minds and bodies. Gatland, I fancy, has the edge there. Twickenham itself could have a huge part to play – hence the encouragement from Lancaster to re-find some energising national pride on both sides of the lime-wash. He knows how big a convincing win against Wales right now could be in terms of delivering the momentum he dreams of – that would be twitter made real.

For Sunday I make no predictions; this one’s un-callable. However I do consider Wales well-equipped to contain, unless the likes of May, Brown or possibly Burrell break out with such devastating brilliance that new English freedoms ascend to undeniable heights.

In the packs, the Launchbury/Lawes combo is a fearsome combination but Ball proved last time out that he is no mug and AWJ… well, he is so iconically, gwladishly Welsh that you imagine the dam will not burst at lock. The front row will be tasty – think Hibbard and Hartley in particular – but a kindof feverish parity seems likely to prevail. Then there are some very good footballers in opposition at 6, 7and 8. Frankly it’s hard to separate them. You would guess the Welsh back-line to be more durable than the home side’s but yeh – un-callable.

Broadly, this one is about coping with massive, massive pressures. Not about who dares but who does. In these lurid, lacerating, transcending moments, who can actually do it? Oh the ironies if Wales, suddenly, are both thought of as more predictable than dour ole Ingerland and the hosts execute with glorious abandon. I hope it’s that kind of game. I hope there are tries. I hope rugby – not cheap hostility – breaks out.

Triumph by degree.

Triumph. Glory. Worryingly loaded terms, both, as though there’s no escaping the association with imperial excess or sultry machismo – both of which I oppose with every laddish ounce. ‘Tis a challenge, this all-consuming contemporary imperative towards proportion – one I typically moon at, as you know. Is there really no way to write innocently in the post post-modern age? Shame, eh? If it’s too rash to affix words like them there onto mere sport, even on the understanding – you do understand, right? – that nothing’s rilly that serious and… my eyes they are a twinkling. The cunning plan then will revert to a crypto-psychological airing of notions around degrees of triumph. In sport, this weekend; rugby football in fact.

(You know) I love the talk around this stuff. The banter, sure, but maybe more so that slightly higher grade proffering of views about the shape of sides, the intent, the possibilities. An example? The leaking out from this cloud of (often though not always) nationalistic passiogubbins of the contention that the Scottish back three may be the best in the 6nations. This is not an assertion that could have been made with any degree of seriousness in donkeys years. Hold with that thought then combine with the impressive and surely contagious positivism practically washing out of Scott Johnson and key elements seemed in place ahead of the Italy game for either a triumphant expression of 15-man rugby or …yet another Murrayfield trauma. It was pretty much the former, something approaching a try-fest and a crucial breaking out from those dispiriting Scottish failures. A triumph of the Thank Christ For That variety as well as a champers-popping treat.

Caveats will need to be included re the relative weakness of their opponents. Italy, whilst playing again with occasional verve were suicidally open at times but Scotland the nation has every right to bristle and glow over the arrival of a competitive-plus back divison. Despite being clad in a kit they apparently modelled on motorway signage, the home side hustled with an altogether more convincing energy than for some appreciable time. They flipped and flashed in and out of the overtaking lane; not uncontrollably or recklessly but with the clear purpose of getting someplace quickly. The threat was there – a real threat, you felt – as opposed to the bound-to-end-in-fumbling-failure version that had become the depressing norm.

In a compelling and genuinely exciting game freed up rather than stifled by expectation, tries surely loomed. Sure enough Vister darted and stepped (far too easily in fact) off his wing to score. Then in one of those moments when action and symbol clang together, Matt Scott juggled one off his chest before bursting free. (Insert that particular instant into almost any midfield scenario for Scotland over the last five years and surely the chance would have gone to ground; this time the centre scurried clear to score unopposed.) Even Sean Lamont – who had scored but a single try in 42 matches – found himself likewise in freedom’s honeyed pastures as he gathered up from the deck and bolted… with surely some quiet ecstasy?

The electrifying interception by the fullback Hogg that caterpaulted him almost the full length of the pitch was the game’s stand-out moment. As exhaustion closed in around his utter joy he drifted somewhat from the posts but this naivety was not chief amongst the concerns of the baying crowd, who expunged a decade’s frustration at butchered opportunities with a tremendous hollering. Would that a certain Bill McClaren had been there to describe the moment. Hogg, certainly, is a Lions contender – though quite possibly behind both Wales’s Halfpenny and Ireland’s Kearney. And maybe England’s Goode!

It’s true then, Scotland can attack, can even cross the whitewash; how fabulous. This ritual unshackling – so sweet, so thrilling in its nature – we can justifiably, with an affirmative slug of fine malt, file under the ‘t’ word. For the Italians, destined to make incremental progress contradicted by days such as these, it must have hurt. Going to Murrayfield believing they were in the best shape for aeons, having duffed up the French? Facing the side most obviously and most frequently vying with them for that wooden spoon? And getting mullered? They will need to gather yet more steel into the matrix of what they are building and go, again, in search of that second win in the 2013 tournament.

In Paris, Wales beat France in the first duff game of the 6nations. Or so the general perception will go. Led by Ryan Jones, they dug out a win whilst the French crowd broiled. The game was clunky, with few passages of quality handling. Halfpenny got man-of-the-match but it could easily have gone to his skipper, the eloquent Jones, who is one of those blokes you really want to do well for his utter but intelligent commitment. In the context of where the two sides are at – in the 6nations, in terms of their ahem development – there was a quasi-spiritual aspect to the game, with the French flailing about for something to believe in (a way of playing?) and the Welsh needing ideally to reassert their own pattern but more prosaically, to win. In reality, this was not the rugby of or for the gods.

The French were almost unbelievably poor; shambolically led from half-back, almost comically unimaginative with ball in hand. Apart from the occasional mega-hit from Bastereaud, they seemed either dilatory or glazed-eyed, unable to see or burst through the slough of nerves. Michalak was not the only one to play what felt like a career-ending role in the game.

Wales must of course take real credit for much of the host’s embarrassment. In team meetings they will surely have spoken about denying the French rather than levering the game open. But it wasn’t pretty – in particular that first half, where Phillips was again in contained and containing mode. Slowly going through phases until an error inevitably came; monitoring rather than playing. Fortunately for Wales, the longer the game went on the worse the hosts seemed to get; it hardly mattered that the Welsh back line seemed pedestrian by their standards and that the word ‘urgency’ appeared to have disappeared from the Franco-Welsh lexicon. Wales, solidly marshalled by Biggar, abided. And yet…

Sure, us Welsh-sympathetic types naturally hoped for a searing run from Davies or Cuthbert but the reality shelved most of that indulgence in exchange for the blanket thrown over the pitch. Bravely and with great discipline the forwards smothered and the backs kept the seal intact. There seemed not the remotest possibility that the French would score but in the absence of guarantees, things remain tense, yes? Even from the depths of their paucity some blur of French brilliance might spark? Pas de chance, as it ‘appens. They were – unpredictably – relentlessly, predictably crap.

As the thing rumbled in almost classically turgid style towards deserved victory for Wales, so the restlessness in the crowd grew. With every concession of possession by Les Bleus a chorus of the gallic equivalent of harrumphing gathered. The Welsh were ahead, without a meaningful cushion in terms of points but ahead. Following George North’s powerful burst for the line humiliating whistles and prolonged booing broke out around the stadium. Music to Welsh ears. French supporters left – disgracefully, in my view – in disgust. This was the kind of low-diff, plough through-the-sodden-meadow victory that practically erects a conveyor belt of foaming pints of beer on the players bar. Exhausting but rich in terms of its bond. There was at least a whiff of the Brotherhood of Redness about it; the redeeming, the reclamation of something, through powerful, powerful unified work. I would have let Ryan lead his men in a pint or two last night. A triumphant one.

Finally came England. With a win we’d be calling truly impressive if the game hadn’t been so decimated and reduced by conditions. My guess is England would have despatched Ireland with something to spare had the ball been less appallingly soapy. As it was, even the initially imperious Farrell was largely flummoxed by the pitiless rain.

England started superbly, with that kind of away team composure coaches dream about. Even early on there was no real width but Farrell prompted then penalised the Irish for any transgression. When the homesters awoke it was with that intemperate flame that might either overwhelm or threaten self-immolation; they were fierce but unfocussed. Sexton was ordinary – then hurt – and the Irish fumbled. The intensity was right off the scale but ambitions were promptly scaled right back as allegedly straightforward catches were dropped and the ball was lost in contact. The mid-section of the match was relatively poor, with periods when Irish forward dominance seemed likely to be critical cancelled out by further error. England were always more efficient but the midfield never had, nor were ever likely to have quick ball or space to create. The English back line was admirably watchful and assured in defence whilst being anonymous going forwards.

Tuilagi, having come on early in the second period had the two sole try-scoring opportunities of the game but in each case his spatial awareness and footballing skills let him down. Was I the only one waiting for him to get a run at O’Gara? That run never came. England eased to victory, to a strangulating, appreciative-slap-on-the-back-engendering win rather than anything too… too triumphant. Lancaster will live with that. And – cue the unwisely charged denouement – England march on.


Wanna check out my triumphant ebook? Out now on Amazon – amzn.to/SSc9To. Recommended by Brain Moore/Paul Hayward/Kate Webb. Intro by Paul Mason.