Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.
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Icons as themselves.

The names are icons in themselves. Carter, Nonu, McCaw; plus that icon-let (iconlite?) Beauden Barrett. Try keeping them out of any report or reflection on this superb final.

One name that’s odds-on to be missing though, is that of Matt Giteau, the Australian centre-playmaker, who was cruelly and arguably significantly lost to this showpiece twenty-odd minutes in.

Early doors at a roused but curiously multi-national Twickers belonged to Nonu – Giteau’s opposite number – the specimen centre yet again epitomizing the ideal of a space-seeking, rhythmic, intelligent force of nature as he tore forward into the Wallabies 22. Then, as McCaw led his magnificent monsters to scary levels of dominance, Carter sat back and prompted.

In fact he did more than that. Dan Carter orchestrated; he *intervened*; he wound the entire game round his finger and played yoyo with it – and I don’t mean like you and me would. He pyoinged and pyoinged so beautifully and successfully that it was absurd.

Absurd in particular that he could caress the ball so freely and immaculately and sweetly from the tee, in the World Cup Final, with a universe of expectation allegedly bearing down. Ludicrous.

Ludicrous that he could channel Liam Brady circa the maestro-Italiano Years whilst smoothing the ball through the posts, unfailingly. Every blog or column will be full of clunky linkages to Carter’s collection of superhero costumes; I will stop just short… but still observe that his performance was something pret-ty damn close to a marvel.

He struck the ball from the tee with the kind of grace that made Jonny Wilkinson’s punchier, thuddier, stunnier style seem kinda coarse. Either that or he so seduced me that I am unable to uncouple the peerless All Black from some erm… superhero of my own imagining. In short Carter (whilst all the time playing within himself, playing controlling rather than mesmeric rugby) gave one of the great championship-winning performances. Then he clattered into onrushing Aussie forwards, heaving them back’ards notably on more than one occasion,

Beauden Barrett makes the first paragraph here chiefly on account of his decisive, breakaway try, scored late on. He sniffed out an opening as the desperate Wallabies pressed, played a decent bitta footie and collected a doll of a bounce before diving over.

In a sense that could have been anybody wearing black, such is the breadth of their dynamism. True Mealamu is less likely to sprint clear but the relentless, all-court threat that is the All Black fifteen tends to make these things happen; as a team, they capitalize.

Australia, having manfully stormed back towards parity in the match, were simply punished when they themselves were on the offensive. As so often, the game’s opening out led to a ruthless counter from New Zealand.

I’m guessing these fine and hugely watchable Wallabies, as silver-medalists, will not be comforted by the fact of their emphatically positive showing in this tournament.

Only in their annihilation of France (and arguably their brutally composed victory over the Boks) did the All Blacks suggest they might find a decisively higher level than their tremendous rivals from the southern oceans but ‘getting close’ ain’t gonna be enough for Cheika or his players.

Fardy, Pocock and Hooper have deservedly been right up there as the darlings or running dogs of the competition. Today they had their moments but were ineffectual compared to previous outings. The AB’s simply kept the ball alive so often and shifted the focus of attack so constantly that to some extent the breakdown was less present as a feature (or potential source of issue) in the contest.

When Pocock looked to be threatening ball mid-way into the first half, New Zealand engaged carousel mode and the ball was everywhere but on the deck with a Wallaby back-row all over it. Australia were consequently simply outplayed.

Wonderful miscalculation of family taxi-duties meant that after screeching to an inspired halt, I watched the impressive and (certainly early-on) wholesale subjugation of the Wallabies principal weapon in my favourite hostelry in West Wales. Here things were even-handed, even to the extent that our National Treasure (the ref) was mildly scalded for alleged transgressions against fair-play and rectitude – a forward pass here, a missed pen there.

You may have to take my word for it that I was amongst folks who get rugby; in a deepish, visceral and somehow hearty way as well as being able to decipher its codes. However, as the AB’s streaked clear, points-wise, that ole chestnut Underdog Syndrome seeped into the boozer’s consciousness.

The game ‘definitely need’ an Aus try. Carter had ‘been the difference’ but ‘something needed to turn’. It did with a second or two’s indiscipline…and a yellow for AB’s full-back Smith..

After (no doubt) a few galvanizing words from their profoundly influential coach, Australia had set about recovering the frankly unpromising 16-3 deficit after half-time. The bald truth may be that their recovery was more about the AB’s reduction in staff for ten minutes than their own resurgence – although plainly one was predicated on t’other – but something stronger than mere sympathy invites respect for the Wallaby comeback.

Pocock and Kuridrani’s tries around the hour were maybe moments for sure – they hiked the twitchy fibres of all of us, bringing the scores back to 21-17 – but ultimately and rightly they were a challenge to which Carter and then Barrett responded.

The All Black kingpin/pivot/superhero drove over a longish range drop-goal – beautifully, yet again – to do the appropriate statement-making thing. Then as we entered Absolutely Shit-or-Bustville, Barrett robbed his try. And the headlines went Back To Black.

The pub applauded. A single Kiwi stood up and we unanimously wished him well(cryptically, by jeering ‘good-naturedly’) and turned back to our pints and our analysis. Who knows how much of the following we actually said but it feels like we came out with stuff like this…

You might fear or think or figure that an event as prolonged as a World Cup, with its inevitable and essentially regulated slabbettes of drama might stall at some period, or might fail to build.

A Group Stage then a knockout that simply has to be spread to allow bruises to heal, lungs to recover. People – nations! – leaving, extinguished. A week, between the semi and the final. More shuffling home; home to Buenos Aires or Jo’burg or Matlock. Cruel, debilitating, necessary non-activity. Surely this is going to mean some sense of pause or gather, or that loss of momentum which often undermines the Grand Event will intervene, like some superfluous usherette?

Nope; not here. Or okay hardly – hardly here.

This #RWC2015 has fair bundled along; seamless and typically smiley; pleasingly controversy-lite. Populated by powerful wedges of expressive, engaging sport. Simply a bloody pleasure from first to last, despite the loss of hosts England and later demi-hosts Wales. Despite that possibility for epic-scale (Northern?) stomping off in a huff.

The sport’s been too good for Brian from Barnsley or Geoff from Gloucester to skidaddle. Most of us in the ranks of The Defeated got immediately sucked back into it by the brilliance of some foreign geezer – some bloke from Japan or Argentina, quite possibly. (Incidentally, Cindy, how fabulous is it that plenty of Brits, pre and post the elimination of ‘our teams’, have been cheering on the Pumas in this? Sport transcending? Yes indeedie!)

So without actually being in one of the Fan Zones we’ve still been doing congas or necking cocktails (metaphorically speaking) with folks from all over. Captured. We really should all be thankful for all that; thankful to the players, coaches, organizers, stewards and everybody else who’s yaknow, ever met them.

I’m not thinking it’s dumb patriotism that drives me to say that I think the UK – with the obvious caveats re the rip-off hoteliers etc – has done a top job hosting this pardee – as it did with the 2012 Olympics. It’s entirely ENTIRELY fitting, therefore, that a truly great Rugby World Cup was collected by Mr McCaw… and lifted aloft by Messrs Nonu/Mealamu/Smith etc , etc, etc.

So hey thank you, fellas. Thank you, truly, for showing us how it’s done.

#RugbyWorldCup2015; questions arising.

There are loads of positive things to be said about the Rugby World Cup; so I’m gonna say some of them.

It’s now clear that the two best teams in the tournament will contest the final – and this is good. The All Blacks, without engaging that simultaneously immovable and extra-dimensional (All Black) winning gear until really needing to (against the Boks), have brought the fella Carter to his first World Cup Final. (Absurd but true.) The Aussies meanwhile have slung the ball round the park plus been ferociously competitive – not just at the breakdown but in the scrum and line-out – and deservedly have a tilt at a third title.

Compadres from The South (the Argentinians and the Boks) have both contributed heavily to the drama and entertainment of this hugely successful tournament but the first of these were seen off by a combination of Pocock’s rapacious work at the breakdown and through their own repeated spilling of opportunities. The Pumas have rightly been neutral’s favourites for their gorgeously developing expansiveness and infectious energy, but a cold hard review of their semi-final defeat will savage their levels of execution: they threatened and they built but then they fluffed things, time and again. We might credit the Aussie defence with some of this ‘non-execution’ but the Puma’s coaching staff should not and will not.

Signal moments in t’other semi included Nonu’s 874th surge leading to Beauden Barrett’s critical try and one particular tackle/turn from McCaw that effected a turnover around the hour mark. Both spoke of something near godlike about the AB’s; their capacity to cut through, to re-stamp the AB symbols (principally, to press that We Are Invincible button) in this case amid belting rain, extreme physical confrontation and, theoretically, the most acute pressure. New Zealand denied all that contextual cobblers, without aiming or needing to be the dashing monstermen who annihilated France. They simply brought out the mainly metaphorical hand-off, for twenty minutes, in a World Cup semi, against The Boks.

Other highlights on anybody’s reel of memories would surely include gloriously free-spirited Japanese offloading of our preconceptions about a) Japan b) relatively normal-sized blokes c) What’s Possible. And unreal defending from the instinctively attacking Aussies against the lion-hearted Welsh. Plus the many uplifting bursts of proper international rugby dished up by Namibia/Georgia/Uruguay and other Second or Lower Tier nations. Plus notably storming and re-validating contributions from Scotland, who may now for the first time for aeons be expecting to compete, kosher-style, in the 6 Nations.

The night the Cherry ’n Whites bewildered the Boks in Gloucester may really never be forgotten. If, in reverting to sepia-tinted appreciation of that night – which was thrilling, dashing, utterly wonderful – I fall into political incorrectness or mere sentiment well what the hell? It was the most perfect and invigorating example of an occasion where the underdog joyously raced… and barked… and wagged its tail in ecstasy. It was unbelievable and yet the websites say Japan 34 South Africa 32. It was a proper, gobsmacking sporting triumph and though time and Laidlaw caught up with them too soon after, we might note perhaps that Japan also beat Samoa 25-6 and made history in their glorious, three-win exit.

The blitzing of Roberts and Cuthbert and co by a catastrophically undermanned Wallabies posse was also so remarkable we may yet look back on it as a defining moment for the tournament – particularly if Australia win the thing. Wales, crocked so heavily that ultimately even the English had a certain sympathy for them, may or may not have lost their opportunity to hoist their defiance into the latter stages by failing to prise open a 13-man Wallabies team but the deep, dramatic heat they provided in this game (and through their widely-admired and supported defeat of the hosts) further ennobled Wales as a force in world rugby.

One of the more fascinating conundrums (because it surely echoes far beyond the Welsh scenario?) remains this question of whether a dancier, fleeter-of-foot, (dare-I-say-it?) Roberts-less, (or less Roberts-centric?) approach from a fit Wales squad might have been a deadlier combination.

Gatland’s cruelly depleted side clearly had spirit, spadefuls of courage and a back row to die for. If it is widely accepted that the great (Southern) sides have also wit and subtlety – or what has simply been referred to as ‘skills’ – could a darting Rhys Webb, fit Liam Williams and a wily Jonathan Davies have sharpened the arguably monolithic approach cartoonised as Gatlandball? And does it not seem that this option towards skills – in the game, not just in Wales – is not only necessary to compete with New Zealand but kinda spiritually good for international rugby? England remember, are viewed as a failure because they seem dully outdated in this regard.

Given that Lesson One as received by most pundits and coaches and fans around the world does seem to be around upskilling/heads-up rugby/expressing awareness as opposed to the allegedly predictable contact/crunch/recycle style of England, France, Wales, whoever, it will be fascinating and indeed enlightening to see the level of commitment from nations in The North towards the kind of transformation made so obviously by The Pumas. Dare they/we actually get backs to seek space as often as contact? Might they even ‘step’ – as the more than slightly magnificent Gerald Davies has suggested? Will it be expected that even here in the heathen North the Great Big Lumps have great, soft, intelligent hands?

Who knows? But these are questions arising, are they not?

We re-gather now and look forward to the final. After a minor scare it seems that the non-cited McCaw and the hugely deserving Carter will grace the event. But will they simply whip out the cloak of invincibility all over again and ‘ease’ to victory in that slightly suffocatingly brilliant mode, or will the Aussies force more out of their stonily humongous rivals? Could we see (some of) the All Blacks who massacred the French, please?

If Cheika once more insists his side play without fear then we may hope for a spectacle as well as a contest. Pocock, Hooper, Genia and co seem to understand the game as a gambol as well as a trial of strengths – indeed this is their lesson to us. Will that be the message booming out as the coach psyches them up in the hour before kick-off? What will be offered, then?

I’ll share a tinnie with the bloke who says

‘Fellas, it’s a dash; a test of your ambition; how much do you wanna believe in yourselves? Go show us – go on.’

Negative Momentum?

Today may offer very different challenges but for Wales and England there is a common dread of real, terminal slippage, of that irreversible lurch against them. Consequently, despite the laughably thin logic of coming over all too prematurely determinist pre- the 6 Nations, never mind the gert big event beyond, the psychological becomes, well… key.

But am I the only one fearing that deep down in a hushed, flip-chart-hung room, some immaculate but track-suited member of that omnipresent crew The Backroom Staff will be hovering over the spelling of the phrase ‘negative momentum?’ Me, I can picture that at both Twickers and the Millenium: both camps are clawing back against the invisible – fascinatingly.

Wales have look drained of both fire and inspiration for best part of two years; England less so but for a side with recently genuine hopes of a meaningful World Cup challenge they are looking muddled. The Autumn Internationals have become a scramble to escape with dignity – never mind hope – intact. For both home nations this means at least one win against a former Tri-nations giant and/or an invincibly fizzing display against game islanders. Gone already is the dream of making a powerful statement.

England were so soundly dismissed by both the Springboks and the AB’s that any talk of injuries affecting their preparation seemed as unconvincing as the performances themselves. (And yet they were and are disproportionately affected.) Wales fluffed their own opening lines when disappointing so acutely against the South’s most beatable monsters – the Wallabies – and the further compounding of red misery a week later was closer to inevitable than predictable after a game where the visitors were, despite the closeness of the score, patently simply playing at a higher level.

If we commit (for now) the cardinal sin of ignoring Irish gambols and Scots gameness, it seemed from the outset that this Autumn International Series was no different to the others, in that The Gap ‘tween North and South persists, flourishes even; depressingly.
This all runs counter to theories about small margins so (in quiet desperation?) let’s indulge in some of that speculative/restorative stuff that yaknow, makes our sporting world go round… and entertains us.

There is a degree of unanimity over Lancaster’s on-field problems. Lack of creativity; poor instincts or hesitation in the backs. Whilst accepting all that I proffer a further, admittedly worryingly tangential theory that a more broadly full-strength England pack might have gone past the relative parity with the AB’s and Springboks into a position of strength, from which The Girls might have found some time and space to express… thereby making even the choice of individuals selected in the backs less critical. (Stay with me for one minute.)

So sure, highlight the lack of fluency at halfback and centre but it may be that (for example) a Launchbury-less England was inevitably diminished because that young man has felt central to the exercise of control.

Control implies confidence as well as enabling measured periods of possession – phases – where ideas are played out. So often these ideas – these possibilities – are butchered through haste or nerves or through lack of belief… which again depends on that platform. What you seek as a coach is that the exercise of control frees up – truly frees up! – the individual player to play instinctively and beyond the ordinary. Blokes like Launchbury – playing with composure, with intelligence, in the heat of the smashathon – enable this wonderful transition by spreading their beautiful contagion around the park, around the team.

Pity then that the crunchingly abrasive nature of the modern game seems to deny the possibility for a prolonged partnership at lock or anywhere else. I am unable to point to a sustained period where Launchbury has been a fixture in some well-oiled machine and maybe this undermines me. Maybe this is just another hunch but I like the fellah’s quiet – quiet but telling – influence.

So my Bloke Wot England Missed is Launchbury. Despite accepting both that picking Farrell was a classic mistake – Lancaster preferring the durable to the dancier – and that the centre-pairings have, predictably failed to gel.

(The fabulous irony here may be that great teams win almost irrespective of individual selection(s) because their control and their confidence. Lancaster understands this, aspires to it and thinks of it as ‘culture.’ However in the absence of some admittedly outstanding players, he has not personally or otherwise found the means to raise his side towards this pinnacle. Both New Zealand and South Africa remain above. And currently, England look to be sliding.)

Wales are different. The ether itself is different here, the people’s link to the national side is more umbilical than casual – as in England. There’s something profound and delicious and invigorating about the importance of rugby to the people – as there is in New Zealand. It may be superfluous to reiterate that both nations identify themselves through the sport; that something in its rawness and valour and crazy honourability validates both. I go there (again) because it feels relevant; rugby really is ‘everything’.

Things differ though; in Wales there is no deep pool of talent, meaning yet again they must look to find or draw on something special to defeat the All Blacks. For that unlikely scenario to unfold, surely the Millennium crowd has to be lifted somewhere joyfully stratospheric. Though the nation will arrive suitably primed and ready to respond – firstly through a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Gwlad’ in response to the haka, later through genuinely wonderfully hearty informal anthems – George North or Jonathan Davies may have to set the place alight.

Man for man the All Blacks are better; nobody doubts it. They are arguably the finest team in world sport. Their skipper is simply remarkable, having hauled himself through 99 tests so far as captain – this in a side where competition for places is extraordinary. McCaw will lead his men with icy brilliance, being as effective without the ball as with it – no-one in rugby has understood or enacted work around the breakdown more successfully than he. He is that rarest of things the magnificent thief. The All Black back row unit have, year after year, unpicked then dismembered their opposite numbers to the extent that they epitomise the AB spirit. They will not be beaten.

So what can Gatland do? He will no doubt be counselling for focus; ‘do your jobs’. He will talk an expansive game in front of the press but surely look to offer nothing for nothing to these illustrious opponents. Somehow – somehow! – he must inspire some real belief in his men that they can not only create openings (and tries) but then remain constant against The Machiniest of Machines. He will have worked heavily, of course, on plays that might lever open the AB defence but he will know that their resilience is second to none. He will have concluded that this is a real test.

Wales will be hoping and dreaming that Davies – whom I fear for in terms of his fitness but rate highly – may find some magic. He is one of relatively few conjurors for Wales. Others, like Roberts and North may burst rather than bewilder. I note in passing that Liam Williams is worthy hugely unfortunate to be on the bench; his guts as well as his agility mark him out as a proper Welsh back and a man worthy of occasions such as these.

Sadly, I cannot see a Wales win. To re-discover that peak 6 Nations form and fire seems too unlikely and too big an ask against the world’s best. But what I love about today is that for all the preparation and the awareness of responsibilities/line-speed/discipline, Wales’ greatest hope may really be… in the crowd, in their belief, in their Welshness.

Postscript.

In brief England were strangely non-lethal once more and Wales were in the game for best part of seventy minutes before an unusually fallible New Zealand cuffed them away, late on.  Robshaw tackled and led outstandingly well, without managing to look like a truly outstanding player and Mike Phillips proved unable to fill Rhys Webb’s relatively diminutive boots.  George North had a mare.

Samoa were never going to provide top top opposition but they were expected to bruise English pride and English bodies.  This they managed without ever losing their shape or discipline in the way of old.  Sure they conceded a yellow for a lateish highish hit but this was arguably harsh.  In an underwhelming but safe victory Ford did well, overall and Mike Brown showed more signs of a return to international form.  Lancaster however will have learned very little from a fixture that was neither light relief nor ultimately competitive; there was no sense of anyone grabbing the opportunity or the game by the proverbial scruff.

At The Millenium the crowd did ‘do their bit’ following Webb’s stirring of the cauldron but the AB’s  rose characteristically supremely to usurp any crescendo, finishing the match in that familiar cruise-crush-control mode.  They had been reined back towards the ordinary for much of the encounter by generally superb line-speed and commitment from the Welsh and by a notably brave and level-headed Biggar.

Roberts and Davies did ask questions but line-outs malfunctioned and scrums were mixed.  In essence, despite the AB’s appearing mortal for the first hour, Wales could not quite find the moment to transcend.  They were goodish and they were in it but they never quite punctured the ordinary: players and crowd remained defiantly hopeful without breaking through into full-on, AB-competitive ecstasy.  McCaw and co contained the thing and then found again that relentless intensity that is their own.

The excellent Webb’s retirement to the bench proved pivotal when his replacement Mike Phillips – dropped for lack of dynamism – telegraphed a box-kick and was nailed.   Brave, brave Wales were then dispatched, like all the rest.

What this means , in terms of the World Cup?  Possibly nothing – the 6 Nations lies between, remember.  But both England and Wales have to find their X-factor before they can expect to challenge… each other in that group. They seem unlikely, right now, to be challenging for the trophy.

The distance yet to travel…

I’m not sure yet whether I’m fascinated or merely cynical about the upbeat responses from the England and Wales camps following today’s fairly routine snuffing out of their previously foamy optimism. Wales I thought were palpably (but okaaay marginally) second best to an Australian side whose backs transferred their theoretical superiority into fact and England – allegedly building, allegedly threatening – were dismissed by the All Blacks machine.

Warburton, pitchside post the game, found himself somewhere between outright apology and defiance

we work our absolute nuts off… it’s getting so very close

but something in his manner was necessarily capitulating to that unhelpful series of facts – of defeats – against the Wallabies, who remain, as he well knows, the most beatable of the Southern Giants. Sam is a classy player and a classy bloke; half of Wales though, is wondering if his niceness is part of the problem.

Stuart Lancaster was likewise politely un-bullish. He spoke well as always and for the most part desisted from the path which surely must have tempted – the list of unfortunate absences. That Courtenay Lawes joined this list fairly early might have further supported any mithering about fate being either cruel, or a cruel Kiwi. Afterwards, the erudite Yorkshireman spoke of his

confidence in the direction we are moving in

but he will surely be a tad disappointed in the event of a further stutter when he had hoped, a month or two back, for an energising charge.

For fear I wander alarmingly close to my specialist subject – psycho-cobblers – let me add that Steve Hansen, when asked if the win for his All Blacks might represent an important ‘psychological advantage’ going into next year’s Rugby World Cup, spat out the following

…(it’s a) load of baloney.

He’s right, (probably) but to castrate the occasion of all of its ‘significance’ is simply to spoil the fun, right? So onward.

From the hearth of the pub for the Millenium game, I first and foremost enjoyed that uniquely welsh baloney-fest, especially during a first half that conga-ed passed us like some junior festival on Dolly Mixtures. (Yes. Those kinds of Dolly Mixtures). After a flurry of ‘great tries’ or ‘appalling bloody great gaps, mun!’ a whole lot of genial banter plus some outstanding and informed appreciation pinged round the room, washed down with early bevvies and some elite-level abuse for the referee. If Wales were ‘too slow’, ‘too unimaginative’ and ‘lacked passion’, Craig Joubert – the Man Who Will be Central – was described erm, more colourfully. It was good sport.

If you don’t happen to have access to either a pub or (ideally) Wales then let me tell you really do learn stuff from all this yaknow – researching. It became immediately clear from within the hostelry’s Brotherhood of Redness – all ages and genders, with most kitted out with either a Wales jersey or a face the colour of a Wales jersey – that the relative quiet of the actual stadium (15,000 seats unsold?) was significant. It reflects the broad understanding in Wales that the national side are a step behind, currently, as well as being a simple marker of the cruel nature of the price of a ticket.

Wales knows where Wales RFC stand; the difficulty and arguably the irony is that the country (or rather the rugby team of the country) might surely stand prouder and taller and higher in those informal rankings should a full-on maximum houseful turn up in Cardiff.

Much is written about the Millenium Stadium, most of it complimentary to the point of delirious. It’s good, no question but only special when switched to Dragon’s Cauldron mode, when bursting with fans and with song. It may be unscientific but it strikes me that a performance from Wales is particularly responsive to, or reliant upon the quality of the crowd. This may be to do with the genuinely central role rugby plays here.

But the baloneymeter just twitched, violently. Cuthbert dropped a simple catch in the first seconds/Wales were beaten by a better team/Australia toss it around tidy, like/Wales were 100% on their own line-out. These are some of the ‘facts’. Did they help? Anyone?

England came into this series after a genuine period of gathering. By that I mean they really are getting closer to the former Tri-Nations masters-of-the-universe. The man Lancaster has established that essential or ball-breakingly dull phenomena a ‘culture’. There is a shared purpose, there is focus and there is talent at his disposal. The potential is there for England to challenge – everybody.

Prior to kick-off I defy anyone to convincingly carry the general truths of the last ten years (that New Zealand would be simply be far too good to get beat) into today; the difference between is now minimal. This is Lancaster’s triumph – not that he would be triumphal about it – because even momentum is baloney when compared to silverware (next year). Just tough then, that England were secretly hurting over the loss of Launchbury, Tuilagi etc etc and that they cursed and grieved the denuding of their strength in depth. No matter now that well, soonish their bench may be fleshed out more powerfully than the AB’S. Today that prospect means nothing.

Why? Because the All Blacks won. Despite England getting ahead; despite a try for a flashing England winger in the first few minutes; despite a semi-drowned out haka. England looked competitive, truly, for what? Forty minutes? Then the men from the south cranked up and on and past. Again.

It’s the job of Lancaster, Farrell, Gatland and Howley to make sense of this stuff. They do know where they stand and the distance yet to be travelled. They have to make choices and pray folks stay fit: it ain’t easy.

One micro-e.g. After today’s confrontations Gatland has to find a pivot from a pool of two. Hook he doesn’t fancy and Priestland the nation at large doesn’t fancy. This is not only a dilemma in the practical sense but it palpitates with meaning in the land of the fly-half factory. Expect some particularly impassioned debate around that baby – some daft bugger might use the world ‘soul’.
Wonder what our mate Mr Hansen would make of all that?

France can’t win because…

It’s the finalist of all finals, the most singularly lopsided. The homesters versus the recently unloved; the latter, (the French) having excelled themselves at the fine art of pretending to be England, minus the booze, the women (probably) and the ferries. Is there even a sort of Daily Mailized Forces of Order and Good v Dale Farm Junkies and Dishonourable Reprobates about it too, I wonder? The fearsomely beautiful and no doubt milky-lamb-cuddling ‘Blacks v the foie gras munching bootboys with no respect. With press this bad, surely even the French don’t want France to win? But could they?

The answer is a relatively confident No. And given that time is now short and that once more it feels appropriate to spill the guts of an argument rather than tease it out surgeon-like, here are a few reasons to be fearful for the French.

  • They’re outgunned in every department, pretty much, lacking the blistering intensity levels the All Blacks have copyrighted as their own since… since Agincourt. (Where’s the French Nonu or McCaw or Dagg? Etc.)
  • The All Blacks, in case it’s slipped you’re notice, are at home, with the heat of a nation – a truly great rugby nation – scorching at their backs.
  • Though we might expect a few nervous moments, a chronic and infectious bout of under-achievement should not blight the All Blacks, or enough of the All Blacks for long enough, to give the French a look-in.
  • If on the contrary the AB’s start as they did against Australia, the French capacity to sulk and even disappear may be invoked by about the 15th minute; because the cause may already be lost.
  • Whilst the French pack may be reasonably competitive in the scrum (maybe) they will surely not live with the AB’s at the line-out/breakdown/generally marauding round the park?
  • Perhaps Harinordoquy and Dusautoir aside, the French lack the crucial combination of real class and spirit. And they are relatively faceless behind the scrum.
  • Israel Dagg, I fancy, may have a field day whilst opposite number Medard is likely to wilt.
  • Whilst 9 and 10 are not special for the AB’s, they are functioning and brilliantly supported by the midfield and by loose forwards. Yashvilli and Parra have had nothing around them except chaos.
  • Most obviously perhaps the difference in belief and unity should tell; the Blacks are mighty and together and they know it; the French are cock-fighting or backing different snails.
  • Lievremont is enigmatically unloved; Henry is the Headteacher worth listening to.

Most important of all, dear reader, we the World Community of Rugby Lovers simply won’t allow it (a French win, I mean).

  • Because without any doubt the All Blacks – the New Zealanders – are fine and even magnificent exponents of and believers in rugby as an electrifying, honourable pursuit.
  • Because they will give EVERYTHING and truly, sadly, the French have given virtually nothing (and arguably therefore, have no right to represent the North. That honour should surely have ideally fallen to the Brotherhood of Redness – see 57 previous blogs).
  • Because, in other words, put crudely but honestly, the All Blacks deserve it. And we will congratulate them.

A Brotherhood of Reds?

In my radico-sentimental revolutionary thingy, which commences immediately the stands have all been cleared of flags, corpses and Monster Energy cans (yeh, right!), Manu Tuilagi will either be Minister for Transport or Court Jester. But the significant posts in government – such as it is – will be held by Welshmen. Like Gatland, Edwards and Howley. For quite simply they have earned it, having shown leadership, guts and a flair for the inspiring word that nobody in the world (I mean this tournament) could match. They have, to paraphrase the great Confucian scholar bowlingatvinny, utterly and invincibly demonstrated how true encouragement of the truly gifted is both the essential function and the highest aspiration of coaching. That this infers an exchange of an essential trust is (only) a reflection of the need for generous hearts in the pursuit of achievement. So much of life, it seems, is about opening up.

My surreal meritocracy – administrated with libertarian aplomb from Machynlleth and let’s say… Grimsby – would certainly feature billboard poster-size recognition for a whole list of flag-bearers for natural expression through sport. Tuilagi’s easy but devastating bursts might have him on the metaphorical bench – in the same way that after this morning’s semi Barnes and O’Connor from the Australian backs warrant squad places – but the bloc itself is surely justifiably red; as in dragons; as in blood; as in heart. This is my elegy to all that redstuff flooding often majestically this last month across the consciousness of the Nations – not Six, not Tri, but many, many nations.

The Rugby World Cup is drawing to a close, an appropriately worldly close, in the sense that the ferocious and surely unbeatable South (NZ) play the strangely unloved North (France) this weekend. Circumstances have to some extent conspired for the French – a hugely contentious decision effectively gifting them their semi-final against the adored Welsh – but they have both comically and cynically fallen on their own onions too, to befuddle or bore a way through. It’s a final with only one winner and a fall guy already being slated in confident anticipation of a hopelessly inept appearance.  Ali versus Bugner, perhaps?

In fact to slalom at least a tad nearer to the point, it’s a tournament already over; the main stuff already learned; the inevitable slight anti-climax of the third place play-off played out. Whilst we now hope for a stunningly climactic exhibition of 15-man rugby from the mighty All Blacks we are not so naive as to expect it. No, we expect a relatively nervy, relatively tight final, in which further proof lumbers out of the ability of ballistically charged ‘modern’ defence to deny attacking patterns (and, incidentally, the crowd) the oxygen of excitement. France will hold out for long periods and maybe even break out. In their exasperation the AB’s will knock-on passes previously clasped whilst juggling four other passes, whilst asleep. The crowd will get restless until the dam finally bursts, in about the third minute. (If only). It could be either a close(ish) non-event or the most one-sided sporting event since Davide and Goliath. Please god deny Davide his sling.

The rugby world – the political world, the realworld! – wanted a Wales New Zealand final. As soon as the Welsh began to rise (which may have been pretty early in the South Africa game) the thing perked up. In contrast to the dour and disgraced English and the shambolic and disloyal French, Warburton’s posse planted a flag of brilliance and heart. Their spirit and their youth drove them irresistibly past a resurgent Ireland to their fateful date with the moment most of us will remember most keenly from this event; that tackle. A million words have been spent on the subject so I will find three more only; it felt wrong.

On his punishing warm-down jog (three times round the southern hemi) to the SOUNDBITE training ground, Sam Warburton will have no doubt have seen posters from the old regime saying “Warburton – the new McCaw”. In truth, the Wales skipper is such an outstanding athlete that McCaw may yet look one-dimensional in comparison. Over the natural span of a match, he is so often the difference at key phases – whether offloading, at the shoulder, or in the bone-crunching meat and drink of the breakdown – that many of us feel he would have not merely thrown a blanket over any (presumably accidental) French attacking notions, but quite feasibly effected the critical break himself. When they lost him at the 17 minute mark Wales were closer to being down to 13 than 14 and despite the gladiatorial brilliance of Phillips and Roberts amongst others, the reds were trussed up by the Lilliputian French.

But the tournament had already been graced by stellar performances from Halfpenny, North, Faletau. The world applauded as the current for allegedly “winning rugby” was stemmed, turned and embarrassed by (let’s hear it, let’s applaud it!) Welsh belief in skill over stats. Sure Gatland, Murphy, Howley did the preparation – better than everyone – but then, critically, their liberated posse played better than everyone. Until that moment. That ideal final may have served only to undermine the quality of ecstasy served up by Phillips and co. but hands up those who would’ve bellowed their support for a Welsh final opportunity. Certainly there is a consensus that a Brotherhood of Redness might have at least offered a real challenge to the wonderful and mighty bastards in the black. (No offence – imperfect gag).

Instead the hamstrung realist – poor sod – is left with the relative disappointments of a comfortable Australian win, in a bronze-rated, atmospherically flattish game which finished with a brilliantly irrelevant try for My Little But Magnificent Pony. Maybe that’s a disservice to the excellence of Barnes and O’Connor in particular, who may consider themselves honorary Lions in the new Red Occupation. Stonking tackling was not, in truth, the only thing these game Aussies brought to the party. But let’s be clear; it was a match that didn’t matter that much in a tournament illuminated by the positivity and generosity of the Welsh.