Why so cruel for Foxy, eh?

Let’s start with the obvious. Whether we attribute it to epic ‘modern’ levels of attrition, bursts of off-the-scale intensity, act of god or a poor surface simply may not matter. The fact is many supporters – not just those wiping away a tear post ‘Wlad’ – felt the premature exit from the fray of Williams, Davies and Adam Jones was both pivotal… and a crying shame. The fact that Jonathan Davies will now apparently miss the entire Autumn Series is so bleakly dispiriting I myself may need to either go into hibernation or drink myself into a November stupor. (Or a four- monther if prospects for the Six Nations are no better for the lad. Too cruel! Just too cruel!!) In short, rightly or wrongly, there was a sense that we were all denied a contest of equals.

‘Foxy’ – very much This Year’s Model for the rugby cognoscenti, following some sublime work for club, country and The Lions – departed on 13 minutes, after Williams. If something in my own heart felt that with his departure went Wales’s principal hopes those were words best not spoken – not then – in that crowded bar, full of red-scarfed womenfolk and red-faced husbands. Come the slow march of Adam Jones, however, seditious grumblings, counter to the general pre-match upfullness, openly spread. Before thirty minutes were up the flying wing, the pretty close to incomparable centre and the much-loved and respected prop had all departed with their various pains. Davies, for one, reflecting the cruel enormity of that period, welling up as he left the pitch. What could the nation do but stoically drink?

That the Williams/Davies trauma came immediately after a Springbok try is of course noteworthy – as is the slightly reckless nature of William’s attempted tackle – but Davies had already shown something of the quality which may yet have unpicked the massive and massively indomitable Springbok rearguard. The Scarlets man is surely now into the world-class category and I for one was looking forward to a fabulous midfield contest including Whitland’s finest and the fella De Villiers – a man with similar gifts and an even finer pedigree. Sadly, ’twas not to be.

The re-shuffle for the Welsh backline was particularly significant in that the best full-back in the world (discuss, with reference to Dagg and Folau?) was shifted out to the wing and the gifted but possibly not so aerially well-equipped Hook slotted in behind, with Beck coming into centre. (So three changes rather than the strictly necessary two.) Now Jimmy bach is a fine player still, one arguably better-suited to the 10-berth than the one-dimensional Priestland but alarm bells rang when he and Faletau made a nervy, communication-deficient balls-up of a fairly straightforward catch. Whilst Hook was by no means to prove a weak link, the ‘boks certainly profited by hoisting high and often into the heart of the home defence – a point Gatland returned to in his post-match reactions. No surprise that the South Africans were awesomely physical but mildly shocking for the Kiwi coach to see his home side exposed as mediocre under or indeed hoisting the high ball.

The first half, however, despite the stoppages and enforced changes, was nearly a classic; a typically wonderful pre-match atmosphere – hwyl set to its sanguine maximum – insinuating its way into the fibre of the game. Hibbard was at full throttle, visibly feeding off the energy in the ether… but he was matched rather magnificently by the beefsteak in green. The focus and level of ferocity amongst the visitors was every bit as impressive as expected but this should not deflect us from offering credit to a South African unit showing barely a glimmer of either physical or psychological frailty in the Taff-side cauldron.

Before the break the Springboks both danced towards the line – a try then, for De Villiers – and they smashed a way in for Du Plessis. Meaning they brought their A Game alright – their powerful, all-court, relentless Bigness and Strongness and Run Like Bloody Rhinos-ness. Wales responded with spirit; fire, even at times, notably from Phillips, who trod that familiar line between rage and control to good effect – especially in that testing period when Welsh bodies were being winched from the pitch. In such a batterfest, discipline would clearly be key.

Through the match there were few significant lapses… but plenty of penalties. Rolland contrived to be centre of attention by binning two props for persistent failure of the scrum, though the suspicion lurked that he had no idea which of the props (if either) was actually responsible for the difficulty. To great cheers a certain giant ‘bok flanker was dispatched for ten for swinging too Luow over Hibbard (oops – sor-ree!) but given the elite levels of violence involved the game was contested in remarkably good order. Set-pieces offered neither side a huge or decisive advantage; tackling was brutal as was ‘clearing out’ around the rucks but a sort of parity of legitimate rampage existed – again to the credit of all concerned. Gatland may have been right when he said the kicking game was most influential and this may imply some criticism of Priestland – whom many in the province think fortunate to occupy pivot.

The most delicious moment of irresistibly flowing rugby came via a kick-chase from the Springboks, extending the visitors lead to 22-15 (at that point.) Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie contrived a stunning try featuring a superb and mildly outrageous flip inside from the centre. Du Preez merely had to be there then leg it – but he was there, having sprinted fifty metres. The conversion was a gimme, and no further points were gained by either side ’til Rolland’s terminal toot some thirteen minutes later. Watching ‘live’ it was not immediately clear that Fourie had been clearly offside when the ball was first hoofed into the danger zone – and thus the try should never have stood. In ‘moral’ terms though, the score was about right.

A depleted Wales then, got beat. If that has a familiar ring – and I fear it does – this might undermine any defiant talk of a meaningful Welsh threat at World Cup 2015. Comparisons or extrapolations around relative consequences from the loss of allegedly key individuals are so spurious you’d think I just wouldn’t go there. But imagine we’re all in the pub, post-match – let’s deal in those hunches, eh?

For me Davies is a beautiful (now brawny) wunderkind-of-a-player. One who had (even by the thirteenth minute) shown he was already on it, bigtime. One who through his fabulous mixture of running and composure and deftness might be expected to make some real impact. Why? Because he’s done all that, on a stage of similar if not greater stature – the Lions tour – when the Aussies could barely live with him. So Foxy would have won the game for Wales.

Jones is an altogether different kind of icon; a man who manages to be somehow quietly, implacably, almost invisibly gargantuan and carry off a worryingly retro barnet. Feeling reassuringly like one of us – a monosyllabic but good-natured plumber, perhaps? – he is simply adored for his unchangingly sacrificial shoulder-work. Despite the absurd continental bulk that is the Springbok front row, Jones would have won the game for Wales.

I kindof jest. Perhaps wiser and fairer to say that if there are indeed, equivalents to these two in England, France, Ireland – are there, I wonder? – they too might well be thought of as irreplaceable on the big occasions, even allowing for righteous talk of the squad being everything. Hence any speculation re the summiting of that Southern Hemisphere mountain Wales keep neglecting to climb will come back to minutes 13 and 30-odd of that first half.

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Something exquisite in the execution.

Be honest, you’ve forgotten about #BOD. Or most of you have, or at least forgiven Gatland, bless’im. No Alternative (as I’m sure some vitriolic nutter might have said) following the emphatic victory by his overpoweringly big-hearted posse and given the obvious, visible, communal(?) pride and unity that made that possible. Even Keith Wood, who spoke so eloquently against his fellow member of the Hooker’s Union decision to turn away from the ‘clarion call’, must surely have recognised that within the essence of the Gatland Lions was indeed a recognition of that soul-brotherly specialness he thought had gone walkabout. Ultimately, the series victory genuinely felt like both a fabulous result and a vindication of the Lions Project; consequently Gatland emerges with enormous credit. On reflection it may have been okay to criticise his selection but not his integrity or understanding of what this marvellous touring phenomenon is all about. So Keith was probably wrong.

Probably with buts. Certainly he was right to defend – from an informed perspective – this Lions Brotherhood thing, the handshakes across the border being at the philosophical core of what makes these four year solidarity-binges remarkable. But some of us never doubted Gatland’s commitment to those finer points of Lionhood. We rated the Kiwi at the helm somewhat higher than that. We thought the de-selection of a relatively colourless (but magnificent) Irishman made absolute sense both in terms of the accommodation of the exquisite hands of Davies and of the Doctor of Wallop – Roberts. There would be no tawdry or terminal devaluing of the Lions associated with this; BOD – simply – had looked relatively ineffectual and though Davies had also been peripheral in the previous test he has looked pretty damn delicious often enough on this tour.

These decisions are even now, in the age of warm-up coaches for the warm-up coaches, built on a right dodgy cocktail of imprecise and maybe slightly more precise science. Stats and hunches. It would have been fascinating to hear what was said at the final selection meeting – not just on the BOD call but maybe particularly on the back row unit issue. Facile to immediately plump for the ‘Twas all right ‘cos it worked‘ view of this after the event, even though plainly there was a general gelling of previously disparate herculean effort(s) which meant the Lions simply would not lose. And perhaps one of the great joys of this and indeed many other sporting triumphs is that midst the passion and the punditry and the all-consuming hooha we simply cannot measure the degree to which the contest was decided by will alone. We can, however, recognise and maybe identify with something in that undeniability our lot brought to the arena. Whatever – returning to Davies-BOD – that ‘crunch call’ cannot possibly be called out as a clanger; not now.

And so to the match, in which the Lions did produce something close to a complete performance; not flawless, of course, but thrillingly, heart-liftingly complete. Adam Jones shunted himself ever closer to the top of the Knighthood shortlist, while Corbisiero thundered and generally stole the limelight. Crucially, Sexton flowered in the moment – contradicting my own most personal fear – and Halfpenny hoofed the alleged existence of pressure itself into Row 26, whilst cruising at a level of sturdy brilliance that somehow both underpinned and did that icing thing simultaneously over the entire, historically-significant cake. But what felt most remarkable was the full-court bigness and fullness of the Lions effort – something that simply could not have been expressed without a belief, a togetherness driven by the coaching staff.

A coach is in dreamland if everybody turns up and really plays. Though the match – particularly either side of the half – shifted and shimmied in terms of ascendancy, the nub of it was simply that Team Lions really worked. All of it.

From the outset there was forward domination of a sort that had (I can tell you) full-bellied fifty year-old men of a squat, squarish dimension roaring their approval. Rarely has my (cricket) club been filled with so many blokes conversant with the leeches-for-lugs branch of sports medicine. Scrums broiled, breakdowns biffed and hoiked and everywhere there was a Lion rising to the challenge. O’Brien, predictably, was troubling both the Blanketoverthepitch and the Manpossesed-ometers. Faletau rumbled and cut in his own, marginally less abrasive way… and then The Girls… The Girls cut loose, finally, emphatically. Looking back on it now, the running away with it thing towards the end was surely the inevitable result of every manjack pouring themselves so completely into the game earlier. And why did they do this? Because they knew (and Gatland, their leader and chief source of inspiration knew) what it means to be a Lion. That much was clear – and that alone is an effective validation of what Gatland did.

I have favourite moments; Davies drawing and passing with such composure and timing to release the outside backs; oozing, just ooooozzing class. Halfpenny breaking… and covering… and being everywhere and being, beyond question a somehow Roman Soldier-like Man of the Series. (Quietly proud and unflinching and oh yeah – that helmet maybe?) Corbisiero roaring – that word again! – having rolled and plonked that pill down in the first fookin’ minute, whilst we swore passionately, almost violently tribally-ecstatically at the telly. Adam Jones beasting most of Australia.

Perhaps most wonderful sight was the sharing and the celebration – all that hugging and slapping – that began so ludicrously early, like almost TEN MINUTES before the end of the game! The Series Decider might really have wafted into anti-climax had the Lions not gone into auto-execute on the Go Wide, Get Happy and Generally Blossom front. Tiredness admittedly by now offered some space and this combined with that precious flush of confidence meant tries came. Murray enjoyed his cameo, Sexton and Roberts cashed in. And The Lions, The Lions really did win.

A final thought; they won without Warburton and without O’Connell.