#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.’

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… But don’t call this a steppingstone…

After all the talk of key steps towards (you know) 2015 or psychological plusses or markers, England get their win. And Geech puts on record the blandly positivist view – that Lancaster should and would be pleased with how they came through. Fair enough. Except that other than the admittedly reasonably significant fact of the scoreline, very little suggested a further gearing up towards any realistic or legitimate challenge for the World Cup on home soil. In fact much of it felt like a reverse. England were ordinary; disjointed, lacking in dynamism and organisation, unimaginative.

In a relatively poor game in which the opposition’s finest asset – Genia – was barely visible, Australia were still able to coast for the first hour. Only in the final period did England in any sense test the Wallabies defence through fleetness of foot, phases, angles or width. Even then it was hardly fluent and only via a couple of contentious decisions did the critical points come. The whites were lucky and no more than about three of them could feel satisfied with their own contribution. Lancaster would surely be more concerned than pleased.

If that’s a downer then I feel it too. I anticipated the occasion – the series! – in my usual juvenile froth, with the vinnytwinkle on fast-fibre alert. I was, believe me, more than ready to leap off me barstool. I’ve binned most of that in favour of a column on… Match One.

England then – wisely in my view – booked a slot against Australia first up. Certainly it made sense to schedule in at least one All Black warm-up game – and yes, I know that may offend… but surely there is some truth in that wicked suggestion? – Oz being pretty fine but a whole lot more beatable than the AB’S.

Pre-match I expressed concerns about the balance of the pack and the load on youngish/newish partnerships at halfback and centre particularly. I waffled on about Dickson’s lack of presence and that hunch I had that the forwards simply might not achieve – did not feel like a unit. (True I did also admit to worries about Vunipola at eight but he proved a real success – if a semi-detached one.) Some of this I had right.

Dickson was picked a) on form b) to get the ball out and about sharpish. He did that okay but between him and the oddly out of sorts Farrell there was little or no genuine urgency; passes manifestly did not fizz; breaks were rarely engineered, much less inspired. They were ordinary; even Farrell’s goal-kicking was a let-down, as he found a groove three feet west of the posts. To his credit, the stand-off stood and fought his way to more meaningful contributions late in the game – long after he might reasonably have been withdrawn, in fact. Dickson, as previously for England, failed to make a persuasive argument for his retention but he is likely to get a further opportunity, I suspect. Too many changes and all that. The question remains; he can play but can he fire things up at international level?

At centre Tomkins announced himself with a technically ragged but telling early tackle on Folau, before slightly disappearing into the muddle of midfield. Within this zone of disquieting under-achievement we might I imagine still find a forlornly felled Twelvetrees – was it simply nerves? – sucking his thumb beneath a security blanket name of er… Blankey. If both the half-backs and centres are kindof out of sorts, it simply ain’t possible to play, right?

Rarely have I seen so many plop-passes or flop-passes or stationary receivers – all signs that people don’t feel comfortable, don’t want the responsibility of leading or making something happen themselves. Having hoped for some flair and some brightness from form players, we got mainly a bit of A Flap. Meaning that in a game that England won and which Australians will say they stole, few in white lived up to their billing.

Mike Brown was the notable exception. He was almost faultless, projecting forth beyond that typical coolness into an elsewhere rarely-troubled land of creativity, via leggy but balanced surges into space. Only he and possibly Vunipola B looked remotely like disturbing the Wallabies’ calm. Australia may bawl at him all it wants but the full-back can hardly be blamed for his skipper’s dodgy try – scored painfully soon after Brown stood clearly in touch whilst gathering a punt deep in his own territory. And overall, following superb presence and quality under the high ball from the kick-off, England’s guardian was a shoe-in for the home side’s Man of The Match, whilst further cementing his place in the side. That he will justifiably keep the gifted and arguably more elusive Foden out speaks volumes for the incumbent and releases (or confines?) a proper talent to the bench.

A word on the captain. Robshaw apparently has his critics; but once again in a match where his side were underperforming around him, he led. This is not to say he was as outstanding as he often has been… but he was present and he played with intelligence and commitment. I rate him for his consistency and his knack for an important intervention – like that snaffled try, or, more often, the key bridging or protection of the ball come the ruck. Often when something good gets done by an England forward, it’s by him.

Lawes I wonder about. Clearly a tremendous athlete and a force of nature at times, I simply don’t see it happening for England. More a hunch than an observation perhaps but he seems to me too hot/too cold. In this encounter he took about an hour to get going and I sense this may be because he daren’t free himself up for fear of infringement. His natural mode would appear to be rampage rather than cruise control; I may be wrong but this suggests to me that he has both some significant maturing to do to (for example) play a central role in line-out calls and that edginess is essential to his game. Reined in, he loses a lump of his value. (Line-outs, by the way were a shambles.) Courtenay could be a world-beater but can he stay in the team while we wait?

I’ve said the Aussies had every right to be aggrieved at the Brown/Robshaw ‘incident’. Less clear perhaps was the other major beef – Hartley’s blocking of their defender as Farrell darted in to score. Certainly the Saints hooker denied passage to the tackler but some have said he would never have gathered in the England 10 and that therefore it was fairly judged. Personally, in the moment, it seemed a home decision – one swayed by a Twickenham crowd eventually finding some hope out there in the action – but one that will add further to the list of historic grievances between these deliciously, sometimes brutally keen rivals. Oh… and it decided the match.

In short, can I please be both underwhelmed (by England) and remain jig-ready, then? With multifarious and multicoloured flyers and dancers yet to engage, the juices will be flowing yet.

Breakdown.

In a lookawaynow kind of fashion, the first Test between the Shackle-dragging Crimino-brotherhood and The Lions crashed, swung its irons, walloped and all-round prime-timed our dislocated, mid-morning senses. Principally, Blokes were magnificently knocked out every few minutes – characteristically… Australians! Transformer-like Other Blokes sprinted and jinked gargantuan jinks (as opposed to JJWilliams jinks) from one state to the next before palming the ball down triumphantly. It was mega; it was neanderthal and modern and glossy and balletic in a free-form staccato-eruptive flood. And The Lions won; 21-23.

Maybe that’s all you need to know. Maybe – as, let’s be honest, I may well be preaching to the converted here – you knew all that. Allow me then to throw in some free and colo(u)rific insight, some twinklacious observo-punts re the signage as well as the ‘actual events’. Or you could piss off back to the telly.

The  pre-match tension, from the scene of my watchingment, appeared to fix upon whether or not to slurp a beer or several during the game – most of us gathered being more or less committed to playing cricket (sub-the-judice of the effing weather) immediately post the ludicrous mid-morn kick-off. (CUM ON, PEOPLE! Like how’s a man supposed to watch a Test AND slurp beer at 11 am. With a cricket match after? OK. I know. We generally do that cum Lions-time.) So there was that inane banter thing going on around Jamie Roberts and stuff whilst we exorcised the ghostly whiff of hops or worse – the need to slurp. Then boot, hussarr… it started. And so did the drinking, actually.

Within a few minutes the sustaining hunch that Sexton would do okay if he didn’t have to kick pressure kicks and that our lot would actually be more together than their lot of outofpositionflungtogetheradmittedlyflair-enabled southerners seemed a stable concept, amid the inevitable hurly. This is not to say that the homesters looked nervously dysfunctional but more that The Lions, equipped more than adequately in the Experienced and Proper Lion stakes (BOD, POC, AWJ, you cuddle up to your own, bullocking ledge) seemed pidgeon-chestedly at home in this environment. Youngs did the Youngs things, POC the POC, etc. The lads – our stupendously leonine (if birdlike) and capable and whole-hearted red-shirted heroes – did their thing with enough assurance to convince all of us and the watching world that Lions can (oof)… and will… (yowch!) lay it down… (hoiyahh!) in committed style… (aaaah) for The Lions.

Slightly more specifically, Jonathon Davies absolutely laid out Lealiifano, without resorting to malice, in 50 seconds. To his credit, the Welshman – who gave surely one of the great non-Test performances in Lions history in the game against Waratahs last week (yup, I really think it was that good) – immediately called for aid to his stricken opponent, knowing he was haway with the (presumably Aboriginal) faeries. This was merely the warm-up gig in the stretcher-fest that was to wheel its Pete Townsendesque way through the game. Kerrang!! Lealiifano. Kerrang!! Barnes. ‘Allo San Fransisco! McCabe. Power-chord after migraine-inducing power-chord, the physical intensity of the thing was taking its toll; on the Australians.  We drank to that, funnily enough.

There was much to admire and enjoy in the first period. Two tries by the Australian George North – bloke called Folau, who apparently picked up a rugby ball for the first time last week – plus a similarly dashing-bison moment from Gorgeous George himself.

Personally I was convinced the first Folau try followed a scandalously obvious in-at-the-side intervention from an Aussie prop but this was not the only moment of controversy around the breakdown. The man O’Driscoll, whom followers of the game may have heard of, quite plainly decided he needed to absent himself from these challenges following two bewildering pings; this will be a matter for ahem… discussion between Mr Gatland and the authorities, I feel, before the Second Test. In all seriousness, the ‘interpretation’ of rulings on what is permissible – or how bodyweight is judged to be perched – as players try to gather in legitimately contestable ball should not be excluding great and honourable and experienced professionals from plying their trade entirely. BOD could subsequently make only intermittent contributions for his side, something of a travesty for the contest, IMO. This issue will remain central to the series no doubt but if the other, healthier, more roaaarringly uplifting facet of the game – namely the propensity for giant blokes to leg-it like fuck through pathetically flailing defenders – persists, then clearly we are in for some wonderful entertainment.

Folau and Cuthbert and North delivered something special which drew crucially upon the moment… and that was fabulously proper sport. Tries of course can win matches but if the hapless hoofers from the SD colony had even remotely approached Halfpennyesque levels of proficiency with the boot then The Lions would have got beat. As it was, Leigh was again close to exemplary in virtually everything he did, whilst a series of probably under-prepared and possibly unwilling Aussie novices blinked up at the posts before hoiking right, left, or cruelly fell on their understandably quivering ample arse. Beale – the one with alcohol issues – cruelly exposed, kicked drunkenly wide or short or both, when the moment OF WINNING THE FIRST TEST beckoned. My Magnificent Little Pony (Halfpenny – earlier), did not.

In a finale that was supremely tense rather than classic, failures of composure and technique told – failures we might link to selection issues, for Australia really had gambled more than their gallantly stolid opponents. The Wallabies had the Wrong Bloke doing really important stuff too often. So they lost.

However, they did have the finest player on the park by some distance – Genia, who played as though pressure does not and never did exist – but even his brilliance fell short. When the shackles were flung off rather than dragged, the Aussie back line did look a threat, even in midfield, in a way that BOD and Davies rarely did. Much of this was to do with Genia’s comfort and expressivity. Phillips by contrast looked upright and sometimes laboured; his place now more closely under threat from t’other Youngs, perhaps? The Lions came through thanks to bursts of invincible running amid general good (but conservative) stewardship of the line-out and acceptably tidy work from Sexton. They will want more and they may need it.

With the result undecided ’til virtually the last kick and the intensity relentlessly freakish, this First One was damn competitive. Hence, I suppose the attrition on Australians. (Did I mention that?) The Lions are strong but not decisively so – not yet. Two tries conceded. If the Wallabies can truly and effectively re-group they have already shown that they have real firepower – likely the equal of the boy North, even. What we need as lovers of the game is both for the big guns to be unleashed and for the less spectacular contests to be fully played out rather than watch players tiptoe around the referee’s interpretation of the rules. Players/viewers don’t want to obsess about the flippin’ breakdown; they/we want to see it happen – Warburton or BOD v their lot, in action!

It’s simply not possible to play through the breakdown when your movements, your instincts are compromised by those fears. BOD’s withdrawal from this key part of the game was maybe, on reflection, notable as opposed to central to the result – fortunately. But when things get tight… phew, you wanna grab that ball, right? And that might cost. In the fury and the shades-of-grey it became heart-stoppingly close. But as O’Driscoll said after – we’ll take an ugly win. Cheers.

Lions get real.

There is much talk about the limited value of Lions warm-up games. Mullerings of diverse quality have been minutely dissected or blathered about. This is not only fine, it is the essential accompaniment to the rumble and sometimes tumble of a real, engaging sporting tour. And the Lions adventure is certainly that, enmeshed or driven as it is by the gathering, glorious-daft Sea-of-Redness now showing at a screen near you… and more importantly, in a stadium light years away. Many of us – including, of course, womenfolk with a fondness for oval balls – are hooked, drawn in to the tide of intoxo-enthusiasm, the incrementally searing lust-funk of it all. Swaying or a-swingin’, staggering dad-dancingly but carrying that ball to the gain-line, or into contact or –YESSS – to the TRY-LINE. Being it, being involved because we’re excited and we care and it’s now so real.

Sure there is hype and there are the accoutrements, the merchandise, the £55 shirts, the beery badges of honour. Those of us unable to travel may have indulged in these minor falls from puritanically poi-fect Cliff Morgan-era zeal. Even that’s okay. Because it is feeling real, this huddle of celto-limey brilliance; this us-as-lion. We are gathering, drawn both the lure of a spectacle and surely by some druidic impulse to the standing stones that are the posts – our posts – which we will defend, defiantly together. Against them. Us and Griff and Nana and Reg and Rory and Whitey and Will. Quite possibly lubricated, quite possibly inspired; because this bigness, this generosity is real.

Folks understand. And there’s something of the Baabaa’s about the Lions – there has to be. Beyond the mere assemblage of ‘units’, beyond the gelling of limbs and the reading of calls. The timbre of the thing is different to ordinary international rugby. There’s an onus on those representing to really play. That’s a function of history but one spiced up with a kind of openness (and we hope ambition) to something alarmingly close to poetry and yes – brotherhood. Players are not being glib when they talk about the privilege of the shirt. They are moved as well as motivated by the support – both in the stands and in the blur of distant pubs and clubs and homes. They do know. They are in the moment, even now an attractively underprepared moment, conducive to the sparking up of genius, of glory. It’s special; there is a special joy awaiting as well as a responsibility to be grasped. Lionhood.

So games have been played and cud has been chewed. Chiefly around the diabolical liberties taken by (grrrr!) shackle-dragging selectors of (some say) insultingly under-strength teams. Teasing or taking the piss? Depends on (y)our level of national prejudice, I guess. But I say fear not. Gatland knew what was coming, pretty much. Why else would he have Hogg as a third fly-half? Because he knew a) he would be plenty good enough (for that particular game) b) because the coach can now flirt with option 58b – the possibility that the dashing Scot might come back to haunt or disassemble a retreating Aussie rabble should the Lions either be 2 Tests up or in need of a late burst from an unfeasibly sprightly 10. Thus the coaches too bob and weave, feint and shimmy.

We all know the arguments for ‘meaningful opposition’ but more intense matches may have come at a higher price in terms of injury – to either player or squad confidence. As it happens the Lions must be feeling close to invincible, with backs in particular hungry for another run-in to the line. What players want is the ball in their hands and points on the board. The coaching staff know enough about them as individuals, as players, to be able to select on the basis of skill and character and temperament. It’s in the nature of modern tours that a barrage of more or less distracting psycho-flares be fired up against you; I have every confidence that the Lions as a group have the spine and the spittle to waft this lame but pyrotechnic Aussie nonsense aside.

Much of the fascination at this stage of what I am tempted to call development surrounds Test places – naturally. Plenty of hot air around who deserves this or that as well as laughably heartfelt debate upon who will be actually be in Gatland’s fifteen. Fun to be had in deciphering the clues, following the declaration of the side for Saturday’s game against the Waratahs. Given the approach of the 1st Test, we might expect to see some of the famed ‘necessary units’ to be in place; Phillips/Sexton at half-back? A whiff of authentic grunthood in the front row and a possible lock combo in Alun Wynne-Jones and POC. Inconclusive? May be. Gatland is coming over all wily as well as worldly.

The bankers for a place appear to be Halfpenny, North, O’Driscoll and who? Hogg on t’other flank? With Roberts or Tuilagi at 12? I have always rated Davies at centre for his dynamism and perhaps particularly his opportunism but he seems unlikely now to get a sniff. Phillips and Sexton meanwhile seem sure to start, with Youngs an energetic 60 minute sub. For me both Phillips and Roberts may be a tad fortunate to coast in without showing much of the fire and inspiration of a year or three ago. Such that a Roberts-BOD combo will smack slightly disappointingly of – if not conservatism – an admittedly robust holding operation for the first Test.

The pack against Waratahs – see the team-sheet beneath – is worthy of a Test but delicious or raw spooky possibilities hang. Two weeks ago I thought Hibbard had swashed and buckled his way to a Test start. Now both the mess around line-outs and general questions over the efficiency of Lions set-pieces look to have thrown that one open. Youngs – who plays on Saturday -is a good mix of spirited and focussed. Props-wise Vunipola ticks lots of boxes and Adam Jones ticks all of them – the hairy one will certainly play, the rawer England prop is likely. The locks unit is classy, experienced, courageous, well-balanced but maybe one-paced; meaning I cannot honestly call whether that’s a superior dummy from Gatland or a full-on rehearsal. Richie Gray and Geoff Parling seem almost equally as accomplished and as likely. The back-row looks magnificent, with Croft the supreme athlete and inventor of open space, Warburton hopefully a Captain Marvel in the making and Heaslip a youngish buck with a point to prove. But whether more than one of them will start against the Aussies is another matter.

The back-row thing has got that frisson us fans love going on. Surely Warburton – despite outstanding challenges from within the squad and Gatland’s close appreciation of the Lydiates/Tipurics/Faletaus of this world – will lead, barring injury. O’Brien would bring some Celtic fire and blimey… where does that leave us? With an embarrassment of riches. None of us in our excitement should under-estimate the hike in BIGNESS and EVERYTHING that awaits in the first, crunching Test. Indeed we should relish that prospect – as should the players. Because this is the Lions; we share in it. It remains and indeed thrives ‘midst the hyperbole and the hype. It’s the Lions. Uniquely. And we love it.

Lions v Waratahs.

Backs; Halfpenny, Maitland, Davies, Roberts, Zebo, Sexton, Phillips.

Forwards; Vunipola, T Youngs, A Jones, AW Jones, O’Connell, Croft, (c) Warburton, Heaslip.

Replacements; Hibbard, Corbisiero, Cole, Parling, Lydiate, B Youngs, Farrell, Kearney.