There must be dash.

Let’s get the confessions over with. I thought a 12-point win was more likely than not, for Wales. I doubted that England would find either the inviolable fight or the flow to counter Wales’s customary booming and pillaging. I thought the multitude of changes would count against the away team and that the alleged shift towards ambition and ball-in-hand creativity would fail, again, to materialise. Despite the accidental discovery of a spookily exciting centre-pairing, (I thought) England would retreat into the safety of their shells… and be duly steamrollered by Roberts and North.

I was wrong. England not only deservedly won, but their confidence, movement and athleticism – even when 10 points down – made Wales look pedestrian; one-dimensional; lost.

In mitigation I swear I was aware of this possibility – that one mildly revelatory day pretty soon Wales would get found out – I just didn’t think Friday, with home advantage and cruel injury conspiring in the reds favour, would be that moment. It was, and this means Gatland has problems.

It’s a while, in truth, since he was broadly loved and the resurgence of any warmth towards the abrasively dour Pack Leader now seems deeply unlikely. Post the event in Wales the phones and columns and consoling bar-fronts remain a-buzz with stinging rebukes. The sense is that Wales have gone cosy in a bad way; dumb and intransigent rather than brotherly and fiery; sleepy, almost and dull in every meaning of the word. (Please note; the Welsh equate ‘dull’ with stupid.) The finger points very much at the coach.

Folks – well, cognoscenti – from Mold to Machynlleth have jabbed accusatively for years. ‘Gatland only knows one way!’ ‘S a team full of bison, mun!’ ‘How can he not pick Williams (L)?!?’

The counter-argument to the Kiwi’s approach may ironically be more old-school than his own. It’s predicated on that innately Welsh view of the game as a marvel, a flicker, a scramble. A field for feints and dummies and yes – intuitions. Even in the days of wall-to-wall giants (the theory goes) there must be dash; there must be timing. How else can the hwyl be expressed?
Great hands and dancing feet are likewise enmeshed into this ideal. They legitimise it.

If this implies some spurious/generous hierarchy then fine. The aspiration is for finer sport, for success through skilled excellence – through versatility, comfort with the ball, awareness. Welsh rugby fans identify with this and believe it works.

In this context, Gatland Time feels gone, or superceded. At fifty minutes, when everything cried out for some uncorking of the spirit and Liam Williams remained surplus… we knew it was gone. Thirty minutes previously, when despite being ten points down England found a gearing beyond Wales’s scope, and the Welsh support began already to drift, an understanding emerged. The cauldron ran out of fire. And it was England fans who roared.

As the game rushed away from Wales, Haskell stumbled or was thrown seemingly blindfold against an upright and Attwood was denied by a contentious intervention from the TMO. (I reckon seven out of ten officials would have judged the crossing/blocking of the Welsh defender to be insufficiently relevant to the score to have wiped it out.) Meaning England might well have scored a further fourteen points. Joseph and Watson did cross – the centre corkscrewing through three defenders and the wing profiting from a deft nudge through from Brown. Lancaster’s ‘B Team’ were not just storming to an emphatic win, they were (shock, horror, probe) doing it in style.

Gatland countered at the end by blaming ‘individual errors’, citing a Rhys Webb kick as key. That felt unnecessary – some would say cheap. Sure mistakes are always important but the systemic differences were plain to see. England, without Launchbury, Lawes, etc etc, re-invented themselves as entertainers and Men Of Action – this time for real. The battalions gathered under the heading of England Coaching Staff, after much pontification on the subjects of culture and ‘execution’, seemed vindicated.

As immaculately conceived theory became practice, young Ford seemed to have donned some protective cloak; without being flawless he was supremely immune to the occasion. Backs play broke out. Brown again located classy and alarmingly confident mode. Joseph and Burrell both stepped and hit; Robshaw owned the place. Whilst not entirely in sustained rampage mode, England had an authentic, collectively charged energy about them, such that the second half became a mild under-achievement at a thirteen nil massacre. It was the kind of victory that really can mark out something new; a landmark or ‘stepping stone’ as Lancaster likes to say, along a more significant journey.

The positives for England are of course negatives for Gatland and for some of his players. Given the comparative shallowness of his squad there may be few opportunities for energising swerves in selection. Cuthbert, Davies and possibly North and Roberts may, however, feel vulnerable. It’s the gaffer, though, for me, who is most exposed.

There’s an important postscript to all this – bigger than this one apparently defining encounter.

My timeline on twitter (@bowlingatvinny) has been broiling with rage and indignation around the hi-jacking of ‘these events’. The Friday Night scheduling, the pre-game, super-bowlesque in-your-faceness, the pricing and the essential often grotesque booziness of the affair is clearly offending a great many genuine fans. They think much of this is anti-rugby – or at least irrelevant to or subversive of the real rugby experience. And they aren’t all miserable sixty-year-olds. Most love and understand the game and get no obvious pleasure from having a moan. They’re protective people. They object, indeed they are hurt by the combination of high ticket prices and faux-carnival ambience, responsible, in their view, for the shrillness, fickleness and increasing presence of the Millenium (or Twickers) dilletantes. There may always be snobbery around such things but there seems no doubt that a percentage of contemporary punters get international tickets without (actually) getting the game.

How fine it would be to somehow sort all that. But the crass crashes and bangs and wallops are surely here to stay? (God forbid they can only get crashier and bangier). They’re locked into or wrapped up in the ‘whole corporate or consumer experience’.

Research, I imagine, has pointed to us punters needing or expecting or remaining unfulfilled when shorn of flame-thrown excitement. We cannot conceive of mystery and magic without dry ice so they give us… dry ice.

How sad, how cynical to be pedaling this joyless garbage. I mean… did these people never catch a ball and run?

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Great but not that good.

Fascinating start. Fascinating but not carry-me-high triumphantly- not even for the French, I suspect. Fascinating with some real drama (Italian tries/Parisian palpitations) but I wonder if the Irish may be most encouraged by events in the opening two games of #6nations 2014. Because Wales were in a game, a match, rather than in processing to victory mode and because the other fancied side, England, were utterly mixed.

So a flurry of emotions as Wales threaten, then are held in check by a surprisingly durable Italian effort and England stretch from the shocking to the fluent.  A beginning loaded heavy with that full spectrum of error and mischance and with as many flukes as joys –  which may be standard, on reflection.

Perhaps this ‘great stuff’ works in terms of the best-value build towards maximum, arse-quaking tension. It certainly helps out re the option for recourse to @WelshDaliLama’s now annual bingerama – relief being offered via our enlightened friend in the form of… well, alcohol.

Wales got their win and Gatland will be okay, you suspect, with the fact that Italy come out of the opening game with most credit. He might believe, with some justification, that the visitors were always likely to expend a disproportionately huge amount of their budget of #6Nations energy on this fixture. They probably did but this should not in any way deflect from another step up from the Azurri. They brought their usual passion but have built something more concrete now – a game that has a certain purpose and shape to it all round the pitch. Sure they still lack both the consistent killer instinct and the all-round kicking game of a top level side but let’s hope their achievements include more regular wins against those sides currently nearest to them – Scotland and.. whoever. Good for the tournament, methinks if the Italian effort can be sustained?

Positives for Wales included signs that Jamie Roberts may be influential again, following a longish period where injury plainly undermined him. He made a simple try for his centre partner through composed, direct running and was persistently, reliably available, engineering or maybe bulldozing into space in the manner of old. However despite the various weapons available to Priestland, there was never the sense that a rout was likely to be orchestrated by him or anyone else. The Wales pivot again neither emphatically confirmed himself nor gifted the job to Biggar. Perhaps this was why the Welsh performance proved acceptable rather than exceptional.

But look, pundits having gone over the Gatland-as-one-trick-pony thing endlessly, let me offer a view on this. It strikes me that Wales have such broad skills as individuals, such quality when at full strength, that this notion that they are essentially bish-bosh is a tad cheap. Yes you might argue that (for example) Halfpenny rarely comes into the line (and that smacks of caution) but hang on there. With two genuinely deadly wingers combining power, pace and dodge-ability, plus Roberts and ideally a certain J Davies at centre, it’s surely ludicrous to consider Wales one-dimensional. It might be true that the former tri-nations outfits may smother – may have smothered – Welsh aspirations in recent years but their pattern of play tends to be more of a springboard than a straight-jacket. It’s simply harder to get things to work against the very best.

Gatland has more guile and wit than many give him credit for. And Wales deserve to be favourites in this tournament despite the uniqueness of the burden – or hat-trick challenge – ahead of them.

But back to the booze. Stuart Lancaster and his extensive backroom staff may have needed a tipple after their cruel defeat. Midway through the second half, with the opposition looking both jaded and a tad downhearted, a ten point plus win seemed likely for England. France had the better of the first half, without ever seeming fully joined up, but around 50 minutes it appeared the relentless work of Lawes and Launchbury in particular had sucked the life of the home side.

I don’t often write that England were cruising with some style but that was almost where we were at. Again this was predicated on top-drawer stuff from the forwards – more in the loose than at the set-piece, arguably – as Vunipola B roared around the park and Robshaw C got quietly on with his usual, intelligent patrolling, covering, presenting. The machine was purring with only the occasional turnover to disturb the serenity of its progress.

It didn’t matter. Or rather at least it was unsuccessful. Or at least – they lost. Meaning that however you dress it up, England’s purplish patch was (yes) encouraging but insufficiently decisive; they (in their own terminology) failed to execute… enough.

Why was that?

Throughout the game, France lived off scraps. Even in a first 40 that they conspired to dominate, Les Bleus still had the look of a side thrown together – again. The halfbacks continued in the historic, less than convincing vein, their interventions neither demonstrably positive nor particularly polished. In midfield, the match was a mess, for both sides. Only at the breakdown, where Nyanga scrambled ravenously, or through English error, did the game come back to France. In other words, this game was so-o there for the taking. At half-time, despite a small deficit, Lancaster would have been rightly optimistic that the precious away win to start was entirely achievable and this likelihood turned to a racing certainty as England utterly outplayed France for much of the second period.

It may be churlish to mention that the cataclysmically inept opening thirty seconds were in fact critical but inevitably they impacted – on the board and in the mind. A bog-standard claim was so misjudged by a quaking coterie of Englishmen that a French try resulted only a handful of seconds later. Do the math. Five points were conceded and more. Nowell – Lancaster’s most significant gamble, perhaps? – was, unfortunately right in the midst of this horror show and despite frankly bewildering figures later issued by England Rugby suggesting the young winger carried well, he went on to have the marest of all mares, poor love. Caught in possession, at fault for or culpable for more than one try… my god it was painful to watch. He might have been removed, with a carefully issued consoling word, at the half.

So England were nearly good but sometimes dreadfully error-prone. And Wales were… okay. Short of an incredible injection of wit, discipline and consistency, Lancaster’s aspirations for World Cup Leading Contendership seem a long, long way off to me. Despite that famous England win over the All Blacks and their own alleged obviousness, Wales remain closest to the main men.  In this World Cup of the North, only the Irishmen can get to them.

 

A parliament of hunches.

Have no idea what the collective for suppositions is but will hoof it swiftly past that anyways. On my way to a scurrilous series of toe-singers. (That’s sin-jers, not Shirley Bassey’s, by the way. Toes dipped in hot… oh please yerselves!!)

Sometimes we need to free ourselves up, ‘allow’ ourselves to push/shove/eat the envelope and now feels like such a time. On the eve (dingding!) of round 3 of the #6nations, after that deliciously distracting interval, I’m so-o ready to loosen up the collar – or maybe turn it up, Cantona-like – affect some languid and yet authoritatively blokey pose and spray loose parler around the place, laced or made piquant with that hint of you know… omelette-sur-visage. Potentially.

Because France have no chance. Everything points to them getting solidly beat by a better, better prepared, more competent, more confident England side.

There we have it. That deadly/perfectly reasonably constructed argument/opinion thing. Opined with shameless confidence – the pre-cursor, as we know to disaster. But what can a fellah do when the instinct coalesces so convincingly with the box-ticking review of the evidence? England are good/France have been bad; England have order and faith/France, apparently, do not. No matter that the French line-up is transformed into something looking like a proper international side – with particular quality in the back row and in midfield, methinks – the overwhelming likelihood is that England are too good and too on it to succumb. That’s the essence of this bébé, surely?

Everyone can score a breakaway try, mind. Farrell could throw a loose one and Fofana intercept. England’s immaculately shorn ice-man could get momentarily flustered under a charge from Dusatoir or Basteraud (who wouldn’t?); a charge down and suddenly England are under the cosh. All this could happen. But what is more likely is a measured territorial game from Les Blancs leading to more expansive phases as the try-line beckons. And then French indiscretions… which are punished by young Owen. Or, more excitingly, the likes of Goode or Ashton burst from deep and the French defence – which I expect to be brave but not flawless – is breached. England will not need too much encouragement to make a right mess of a disorganised away side in constant fire-fighting mode. This is my hunch centrale.

Yes of course Les Bleus have big brave men who will stun any rampaging Ros Bifs; I wonder though, if they will do it consistently, inviolably, across the back line(?) Tuilagi and Ashton and Lawes in particular will surely be primed to race or blast away and if the whites do maintain the composure that seems currently their chief asset, Dusatoir and Basteraud can’t be everywhere. I expect therefore, England to score.

The likelihood is that a substantially changed France (even whilst being a substantially improved France) will get found out. Because on the one hand England are a more multi-dimensional side than for many years – witness the availability and the presence and the intelligence of Robshaw and the full-on rangy athleticism of Lawes – and on the other France appear rudderless and (actually) soulless. The restoration of the underwhelming but steadyish Trinh-Duc and the generally excellent Parra admittedly nudges the match closer to a broadly competitive fixture but this collection of good French players has most often played (let’s be honest?) embarrassingly poorly over the last two years. And yes, I do include in that their weirdly inept adventure to the most recent World Cup Final.

Freakishness or yellow cards stand out as the main hope for Les Bleus; a rush of blood from Lawes, a midfield calamity for Goode or Farrell. Otherwise, they get comprehensively whacked.

The real game is likely to be happening at Murrayfield, where Scotland take on Ireland. This is dangerous territory for any of us sifting for a winner. So much so that all I am falling back upon is that ole feeling that the Irish are stronger all around… and that this will somehow see them through. I would feel a tad more confident about this if Bowe and Sexton were lining up, for sure, but again my hunch is that the ferocity and keenness of the Irish back row may tell here. That and something I can only identify as the greater energy of the green group – or maybe a higher threat level within that energy(?) Most unscientific, I know but I am happy enough to sniff out the visceral here rather than break out some teat pipette.

Crass but probably true, Ireland will be spitting blood over their relative no-show against England and the poor displays by certain generally key individuals in that game. They will be more fired up than a very fired up thing. The clearing out around rucks will be wince-inducing, I suspect. The round-the-corner charges will be of the hallucinating wildebeest variety. So if Ireland manage to dominate or even share possession and territory… I fancy them. If not – and this may be the aesthetically more pleasing option – if Scotland have and spread the ball convincingly and do manage to break that gain-line… look out. An all-new and more fully competitive member of the 6 nations brotherhood might emerge.

Scotland knows and feels that again they are on the brink of something; they have BACKS, for godsakes! Is this side – motivated by the recently installed bent cop/bad cop combo, remember? – really about to square up and legitimately compete, though? Without getting contemptuously swatted aside? Or will it flirt and dart and disappoint? Let’s hope, for the good of this tournament, that Murrayfield really roars.

Italy have lost their lynchpin, their idol, their skipper, their sole world-class player. So they must surely lose at home to Wales. Parisse has been chopped for chopsing and though ’tis a grievous loss, ’tis prob’ly for the best. (I have seen no evidence of what was actually said but suspect he overstepped an important mark. Rugby cannot go the way of football in terms of abuse of the ref.) Sadly, this may be instrumental in the Italians falling back, significantly, towards their previously relatively undignified scramble for an occasional home win. Shame.

Wales meanwhile have the opportunity to lay down a marker for the perennial monster mash-up against England. If they can expand upon that mighty but mighty ugly win against the hapless French, Ryan Jones’s gathering operation may further hike expectations as well as tensions for the Millenium clash. Making Wales-England a game with a proper championship feel to it; I guess? In Rome, Wales should win and win with a clutch of tries.

My ebook, by the way, is here – amzn.to/SSc9To –

selected and exclusive posts, with an intro from Paul Mason and compliments from Brian Moore and Paul Hayward, amongst others.

Rugby, mainly.

Following a weekend where the relentlessly uplifting drama of the 6 Nations (rugby) yet again provided a wonderful if boomtastic example of the value and maybe the purpose of sport, I am entitled, I think, to go off on one. As you may know, this a mode I favour – hollering wildly, excitedly but hopefully not entirely unsoundly about the daft-punk glories of chasing balls around in some childlike, pore-cleansing flush.

This time I’m surely entitled; my Waltonian disproportion being compleatly proportionate to the primeval stirring (for example) when Ireland exploded over Saturday lunch. When England, finally, after best part of twenty years in a stultifying, fearful or cynical brace, broke out emphatically into some refreshingly fizzing new era, featuring a notably more Go Full Pelt and subsequently (gor blimey) successful instinct. When Italy, through a combination of mature, legitimising tactical weave and sheer and selfless fronting-up, put one over on the French.  When rugby, god bless its ample ass, showed the way. Join me then, in a post-euphoric smiling-jog warm-down (if this is possible?) through those games.

Wales were first up. Here, following a series of bruise-black blows to the dingle-dongle soul of the cherub-child’s pre-Christmas ritual – that would be the Autumn Series, then – the annual provincial rugby-lust yardstick was laced with concern. About Zebo, for one. And about the possibility that Declan Kidney (hitherto a most conservative choirmaster to the baying Irish) might come over all musically fruity and dashing and fearless – which, it soon transpired, he had. Or so it seemed when his charges unleashed an unimaginably dynamic 15 man Blackbush-anschluss/chorus upon the home side, leaving them quite quite bollocksed, before the first 40 was out. Only the irresistible quality of that surreally pogoistic Irish dance deflected that feeling of utter humiliation for Warburton’s distraught posse; when the score ticked to 20 odd points for the visitors and none for the reds.

The second, irrelevant period came over all wonderfully Welsh. Firstly – and you did feel rather typically – because Wales instead of reducing the ludicrous deficit allowed a further Irish score… but then… then something stirred. In a blur of Duw Duw aavitmun counters and scampers and painfully pointless but point-scoring ripostes, Howley’s men finally stood and fought, heroically.

Heroically because they were done, from the outset; because the late drama never had a cat in hell’s of actually making a difference; not, at least to the result.

Ireland deservedly won. The match was though, for the neutral, spectacular and for the Irish around 50% dreamlike in a very very good way indeed. Wales mind you, find themselves in maybe the most painful kind of crisis – on merit. More broadly and touchy-feely-smilingly, the lesson in life here was very much to do with how electrifying and rewarding the whole-hearted rage can be; Ireland’s early energy and commitment and unity being a thing of some beauty as well as unanswerable power.

The Calcutta Cup game between England and Scotland was the 43rd watershed moment on the bounce for England, who have been either threatening or promising to join the Actually We Really Do Believe in Expansiveness Pardee since Richard III parked up in Leicester wearing his Tiger’s scarf. Scotland meanwhile turned up with an appropriately Wallace-like leadership; the duo of Craig Johnston and Dean Ryan being preternaturally worrying and convincing in the role of arse-flashing, violence-hinting subverters of all things cosy. (Like maybe… England?)  The previous incumbent, incidentally – Andy Robinson – had possessed many of the defiant qualities necessary to commit to that particularly Scotch effort but despite manifest improvements his side basically still mostly got beat. There is a sense that under Johnston and his English enforcer that may change.

At Twickers, however, despite a brilliant start, Scotland were beaten in some style by a now properly resurgent England. In another fabulous game of rugby, in which the Farrell the Younger operated in exhibition mode almost throughout, such was his general excellence, the story was all about fulfilment (by the whites) of those oft-aired aspirations towards ‘really playing’. Again forgive the dodgy extrapolation towards quasi-cultural concept; but how else are we to describe the shift from veteran and weirdly lily-livered bore(s) to young-buck dynamos. England have crossed now – have executed – the transition into something exbloodyciting; something real and open and filled with generous possibility rather than dullness. After all the right noises, they are finding the right game; which is rugby, in fact.

On Sunday, the onus was on the Italians to further hitch up the quality of our glee by blasting further through the barriers of reasonable expectation. Sure they had beaten the French before but the Azurri had not, as yet, evidenced their assembly of Proper International Rugby Players in sufficient volume to be fully 6nation worthy. Or so the subtext continued to read. They were, in fact – even when making outstanding progress year on year – frustratingly short of the mark. Sunday, this changed.

Italy played better and they won. Their success rarely seemed in any doubt. What may be most encouraging for the Italians is the fact that this victory was not entirely built upon their small quota of hyper-talent – Parisse, certainly, Castrogiovanni, arguably – but through a revelatory level of general competence and comfort at the playing of bona fide international rugby. They kicked and passed and tackled throughout – and throughout the team – to an all-new and belief-hoiking height; somewhere right up there – somewhere legitimate. Neutrals like me celebrated with extravagant Mediterranean gestures (well, we pumped our fist and took a deep slug of some Chianti-substitute) because this was feeling like a further rich episode in some tectonic shifting; towards hearty goodness and brotherhood and – who knows? – Europe-wide meritocracy.

Okay. I may be over-egging the pasta here. There may, in ‘reality’ be no link between great sport and things round and about getting better. And therefore I may again be indulging. I remain, however relatively unapologetic at expressing these myopic or delusional pleasures. Feelings may indeed be total cobblers. But there was a great dollop of joy around this rugbystuff this weekend; there was magnificent excitement and achievement and yes, a kind of sacrifice in that sheer, exhilarating teaminess. Overall and unquestionably, the Generous View of Things trumped the ordinary or the constricting. And – let’s keep this simple? – that’s surely good.

The political angle that I should be keeping out of all of this stuff is, of course, a function of zillions of things that collectively make up our individual standpoint. Mine, after this weekend, is more than ever fired up by sport; coloured with the inspiration and the instinct and the poetry that fuels or arises from knockabouts like these. To me it figures absolutely that (to pull a not insignificant name out of the political matrix) Michael Gove doesn’t get this sport thing, poor sod. Not only was he no sportsman – not that this matters, necessarily – he is unreceptive to the essentials of team games; essentials that include deep comradeship, courageous generosity, the capacity to work like hell in order to give. Really… that’s such a shame.

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