A confessional from a professional?

High up there in the pantheon of sporting clichés there sits at least one about hookers. Somewhere behind the 47 crap jokes casually linking this most trusting of er… positions with flighty women and gaslit alleys. Somewhere on that flipchart of inclusive or exclusive banter between “Ya’ve got to be mad to be a ‘goalie”/ “Who ett all the pies ?” and “Gavin Henson is a Homosexual!” people say – even non-hookers say – they’re a special breed.

They are too. Anyone who is prepared to dangle off of the shoulders of colleagues in this most exposed of manners – with both arms effectively relieved of their ability to mitigate against serious injury – gets a pint of after shave from me. There must be surely a link between the morphology of their imperfectly expressed cruciform in the scrum, the necessary courage shown by hookers at all levels of their trade and the apparently described pathology of the breed? Which seems to involve on the one hand wholeheartedness and on the other a generally undemonstrative fearless mania.

And why wouldn’t it? Rarely in life is the head and neck so literally on the block; it’s as if your two mates either side (the loosehead and tighthead props) have your very being – or the physical safety of it – in their custody. This is no Guardian-readers-on-confidence-building workshop exercise, this is offering yourself up at the moment of the infamous ‘Hit’, when two packs of opposing forwards clang together in an expression of calculated violence designed to find you out should any weakness reveal itself. You will not, therefore, be weak.

The Front Row Union then may only allow the brave and the faithful entry to their bloodsweatandtears-stained ante-rooms. This does not, however, debar from entry the bright or the evil; and it did not debar Brian Moore. In fact the two were surely made for each other.

Brian Moore. Of England – sixty odd times. Adopted. Abused. Self-confessed Tolkien nerd and qualified Nail Painter. (That would be as in fingernails, during a stint as proprietor and technician(?) at a Soho emporium run with a former wife. 1 of 3.) Moore the proud and probably slightly perverse bearer of the various bête noire-equivalents knocking around Six Nations rugby (though it was Five when he played.) Delighted to be so hated by the Welsh and the Scots and the French and well… everybody. Inspired even by that knowledge, almost satisfied by it – especially the realisation that if he were, for example Scottish and otherwise unchanged, the Scots would love him for his fiercely committed spirit.

And yet the key thing revealed by the man himself during his predictably jarringly honest visit to Nurse Kirsty’s knee for Desert Island Discs was this ‘almost’.

In an extraordinary but typically articulate self-skewering Moore constantly alluded to his inability to recognise, to be at peace with his achievements. Utterly without resort to idle pleasantries – how, we imagine, he must hate them! – the former England number 2 rumbled like some worryingly law-conversant boar through the excited parabola that is his personal history. Adoption into churchgoing family/abuse from within churchgoing milieu/sporting and academic success/then oodles of hard-won glory at an international level for England RUFC. Success he still finds hard to own.

Fascinatingly(?) Brian Moore refused to emerge from the dressing room to participate in celebrations and photocalls following England’s 1991 Grand Slam victory. He simply wouldn’t do it. Issues of self-worth were so darkly present that Moore failed to shift from his bench… because he didn’t feel he deserved that victory. Psychologists – cod, like me, or otherwise – have your field day.

On the way to his metaphorical Desert Island, Brian Moore revealed pretty profound stuff like this every other sentence. Not out of arrogance you sensed – although there may be some self-obsession implied? – but because he gives a straight and generous answer to a genuine question. This is how he understands the world; there’s surely something to be said for that? He was alarmingly open about his everything; from his ‘Pitbull’ness to his other darknesses, his lost times under the influence of all manner of substances, following his release from the strictures of his athletic discipline. (Basically he went mental in his beloved Soho.)

Moore’s choice of music inevitably reflected his scope as a bright, bullish, sensitive bloke. It combines what some might consider appreciation of the finer things with punkishness. So from Mozart to Green Day. From Ian Dury to Pietro Mascagni. And one from the much-admired soulbrothers-in-peachy devilry, The Stranglers – an attractive, near melancholic, rather beautiful song called “Always the Sun”. (Listen to that …and it figures?)

But Moore would want to be judged on that which he committed to; formerly the rugby/now the journalism and commentary. He knows how much his confrontational personality, his facility to wind-up the world at large has discoloured how he is received. Despite this awareness of the extensively ventilated voodoo doll- version Moore out there in the public mind, I don’t hear him complaining, ever. Serious – often- and lugubrious as well as loquacious in his muffling, bell-chiming fog of sincerity; but too manly for self-pity or show. So judge him fairly, please.

Moore is a complex and yes a dark, difficult guy. A proper hooker – with that hunting dog relentlessness and low-burning fire. Beyond indomitable – more alive and more interesting, despite his saddening ‘baggage’. An essential part of a particularly English rugby team, a successful one, for several years; drawn absolutely to the thick of it. Now in triumphant opposition to the platitudes and the rehearsed banalities of much sports-speak, instinctively and with some style telling us how it really is.

He writes now acutely and often brilliantly for the Daily Telegraph. He commentates, often as foil to the more circumspect Mr Eddie Butler, with whom, surprisingly, he generally disagrees. In all of this there appears to me not an ounce of what my lot would call ‘side’ – meaning pretence or calculation or feyness or… dishonesty. He picks and goes without pausing to preen I think. And I wonder if he dare give himself some credit for that?

No surprises

Surely the money – the big money, the imaginary money, my money, actually – was on England Argentina being crunchy and one-dimensional rather than Michelin-starred fare. Stodgy, because England will surely have regarded this opening fixture as a serious threat to their tournament. Their victory therefore, in the narrowest sense answers everything. They won.

Martin Johnson would however, probably have delivered a prolonged bollocking to his embarrased players afterwards. Repeatedly giving away cheap early penalties was surely the first sign that English eyes were glazing over but Wilkinson’s poor kicking was perhaps the most striking reflection of the not quite all blacks limitations on the day. I personally expected them to revert to rather depressing Johnsonian type because this England team is both ordinary – but powerful – and manifestly not in the grip of inspired leadership, on or off the pitch. Still they did manage to significantly underperform, again, whilst beating a Pumas side that would have given any of the real contenders in this competition a major test first time out.

( A footnote; I have just this second witnessed the cruel defeat of Wales – again! – by the Springboks in a comparatively luminous match which nevertheless suggested that the Argentinians would, for example, have more than stretched the flawed World Champions and the Welsh).

The Pumas clearly stretched the English to the point where any sympathy amongst the unbiased rugby-watching world for Brian Moore’s compatriots petered out with each slow rotation of the narrow range of possibilities learned, we imagine, by rote by everyone from Armitage to Cole. For a few minutes England looked brutish and purposeful but later they were merely characteristically dour – the epitome of everything rugby purists (epitomised by the Welsh?) detest. Johnson will I think react with fury to the general lack of quality and to specific errors, as well as to failures to execute. Then he will mutter darkly that his undeserving side won… and Gatland’s occasionally inspired boyo’s got beat.

For that, disappointingly for the watching majority, was what happened despite a near-inspired twenty minute period of the second half when it seemed that tries were about to rain for the Welsh. South Africa were reeling; Roberts looked like the Lion of old and Warburton – who’s missed tackle was instrumental in the Springboks 3rd minute score – was becoming the force many are now predicting. It seemed unthinkable that Wales could fail to convert overwhelming possession and territory into a substantial lead. But then following another surge from the rampaging centre the ball was carelessly surrendered and late on Priestland, who had previously shown admirable calm and direction, inexplicably pulled an easy drop wide. Proof yet again that pressure and expectation and the moment separate the winners from the worthy.

Wales’ tournament may now be agonisingly ‘poised’ rather than having taken flight after a famous win. To deservedly beat the Springboks would have been a huge lift from which all-singing and dancing Welsh backs might have threatened even the few world powers of the game. Surely Gatland’s players knew this. Interesting perhaps that few have used the word ‘choke’ to describe Welsh inability to convert opportunity into win(s) – perhaps this is a legacy of the goodwill towards the nation that represents and supports the spirit of rugby playing better and more genuinely than almost any other. Those neutrals will be hoping for Hook and Williams S to respond with flair and imagination to what was undeniably a devastating defeat; whether this will carry them through against the bullocking Fijians and Samoans may be another matter. Some Welsh fans fear it may not.

So again we might feel we can bless the Welsh for their colour whilst condemning the grey English. But look at the scoreboard. Young’s moment of sharpness in a dull matrix of English meanness means almost everything.

A REAL MONSTER WORLD CUP !!

Let’s hope the coming Rugby World Cup doesn’t suffer the indignities and the general scorn deservedly poured upon Channel 4’s coverage of the World Athletics Championship. In trying to rescue the situation, that near-hunky young bloke in a lumberjack shirt, with worryingly good teeth, who looked like maybe he was just about to offer the nation DIY tips, convinced almost nobody, even with the fairly wonderful Michael Johnson supporting.  The commentating ranked about no. 142 in the world this year, and Iwan Thomas – whilst coming across as the kind of geezer you might want to jaunt down the wine bar with to swap news about bands coming to the Uni – performed substantially below his PB. Given the outstanding nature of some of the sport… t’was a shame.

And it’s only now that having looked at telly schedules, I begin to fear a repeat…

Steve Rider – too smooth and bland by half – whom you might imagine has no connection whatsoever with sport, never mind rugby, fronts ITV coverage, with ‘back-up’ from Craig Doyle. (ITV1 and 4 have it all. The Beeb lost the radio slots too, to Talksport). Personally, I won’t miss Guscott’s slightly porky platitudes but the Butler/Moore axis, even if watched from behind the settee during their Anglo-welsh spats, will be missed. Big Eddie – a cultured and generous sort – will be essential reading in The Guardian and Observer, whilst Moorie will apparently be contributing – sharply – on Talksport. In combination with David Campese, the gifted and lary Aussie winger, that could be worth a listen. But it’s the action that counts, right?

The All Blacks have to be favourites, despite recent defeats in the Tri-nations. The fabulous tension around their likely progress is all in the head; but the head of a nation, plus, in truth, a whole world of rugby-conversant bystanders, now familiar with and even excited by the notion that the Kiwis could choke. Again. The Blacks are an astonishingly engineered and prepared side, year after year turning in performances of a standard far beyond anything achieved by pretenders from the North. This year is no different. France and England might compete for parts of a game – usually not more than about half of it – and an inspired Wales side (who have been known to genuinely threaten them) may conceivably make a match of it… but I doubt it. The All Blacks are still – are always – in a different league in terms of their pace and handling at breakdowns; they are more ruthless – magnificently so – when opportunity twinkles; they seamlessly switch from planned moves to electric impro’. They still have McCaw and Carter and so much more besides.

Surely then, they have too much for any of our lot? England may benefit from the need to be massive/conservative in dodgy weather and tight games – though games tend, unsurprisingly, to be tight when teams daren’t play expansively. Which England turns up per game will either by a complete irrelevance or an important and developing theme in the tournament, depending on results during dodgy weather and tight games. Ireland are almost certain to be found out as a seriously declining force fairly rapidly. Scotland may compete with real honour in a group suggesting forward power will be key, but surely they could never get beyond a quarter final? Wales, as always have a real pool of talent, particularly in the backs, so that if something really goes for them – a special and uplifting moment or two from Hook or Williams, perhaps? – then their Lion-like colours may begin to chase. But surely not to the end?

The Aussies and the Springboks however, do pose a legitimate danger – as real as the sickening possibility for psycho-doom alluded to by so many already. It appears likely that the Aussie pack (or perhaps more accurately their front five), having been mangled by the Italians and the Irish in the group phase, may not carry them to ultimate victory, despite their recent Tri-nations success. Elsom and Pocock are odds-on to be influential or even outstanding, but for the Wallabies to win big their admittedly hirsute ‘girls’ – extraordinarily minus Giteau – may have to play out of their skins. Indeed, for anyone other than the homesters to win the tournament, it may necessitate a new breed of exhilarating brilliance to emerge; or might it just be moments?

Whether the South Africans, until a year or so ago arguably on a par with the Blacks, can produce enough… I wonder. They should bludgeon and/or dance their way through their group and if they emerge fired up and confident then maybe lookout. The ideal scenario for us who are either unbiased or who know in our hearts that our own are Mullered Men Walking might be all three of the Tri-nations giants shaking off the minor inconvenience of the group stage with a controlled heat idling. For then we might see that top level international rugby really can be as dangerously exciting as a forest fire.

So burn burn burn.