Letterkenny loveletter.

Reaction following an Ireland win is fascinatingly different to that which might have prevailed should England have secured this, or any other, #6nations, is it not? People all over the place seem pleased, for starters. I’m sensing a good-natured rolling up of sleeves or a philosophical ‘roly’ under the stars for most neutrals, as folks from Ballymena or Clonakilty march purposefully past into the pub. Most would recognise, however, the scope for either discord or hopefully debate around the concept ‘win’ when (as happened here) another protagonist has bitten at the arse of the victorious by er… beating them.

So did the best team land the trophy? Were champions Ireland sufficiently good at Twickenham to score a moral victory too? Is that the or any kindofa question? And does that question matter? I think it does: it is, after all, the stuff we’ll be talking about.

Half the fun of course is in the denial of (the undeniable truth of) that table, at the head of which now sits Joe Schmidt’s charges. And clearly allegation or conversational hare number one might be that because England beat them, Ireland are not the best team. Knowing we can’t measure any of this stuff I’d still like to do some sizing up; how ’bout you?

Look having no aspiration for journalism, I have neglected to check how often it is that the annual Northern rugby shindig is won by teams who got beat along the way and who are therefore susceptible to this judgement of wider values. Maybe that doesn’t matter either. The argument we are about to have is absolutely about the sweaty/swervacious/intuitive/finger-in-the-wind sense of it all – because that’s a) fun and b) human nature. So were Ireland or England better? And/or who deserved it more, this 2014 Six Nations Trophy?

As the road and the evening rises, I suspect my friends Danny, Sean and Brian in County Donegal, may, in the purity of their ecstasy, be breaking out treasured hooch of the Very Special Occasions Only variety, and I in no way want to subvert that glorious ritual. (Oh and by the way – no driving Brian!) However, they too will be distantly aware (probably) of issues of legitimacy/quality and kindof… honour. Because fans love to win with style, with class – yes and deservedly. Which legitimises my line of enquiry, I think; I’m in the metaphorical round and buying my share, I promise.

The coincidence of St Patrick’s weekend, O’Driscoll’s retirement and a #6nations trophy pretty much compels all of Ireland towards a big night out and I wish to god I was in Letterkenny to share in that. But instead I will ask of that European pool of generosity the following question… again. At Twickenham, was the confidence and control (even) that Ireland showed for periods of that match sufficiently impressive to cancel out the win (with home advantage) for Lancaster’s hugely improving side. Or does the view that England have blossomed to such an extent that even Welshmen might now confess to finding them good to watch hold sway on this?

Tough call. There were times in the England-Ireland fixture when I thought the Irish might cruise to a quietly magnificent away win. They recycled and blocked with such confidence that I was purring ’bout the brilliance of Schmidt – guesswork of a sort, inevitably – but I’m still happy enough to throw in the idea here that the Ireland gaffer may have been star of the tournament. Good sides – well coached sides, sides inspired by their coaches have purpose about what they do. And Ireland epitomised that, certainly for periods of the first half. But the fact is… then they lost.

There was something of that about Ireland again today, I thought. Once they got a hold of the ball, they went effortlessly through the phases and two tries came critically early; they looked like a team that believed. If Sexton had slotted two relatively simple kicks, they may have sustained a lead and utterly snuffed out any French response – after twenty-something minutes, that’s the way it looked.

France, perhaps inevitably, given the pasting they have taken from most of us, rose to their full height – or in Basteraud’s case bulk – and responded. The game became scrappy and tense rather than brilliant but this was more because the French aren’t good enough to do brilliant than anything else, I thought. Ireland struck again early in the second period and held on.

England smashed Italy with some style and this is the point. If you were an alien with some mysterious understanding of ball games but no pro-celtic baggage, you might be raising a green sucker or two in approval at the transformation of Lancaster’s mob from dour to something close to devastating. If nothing else that culture shift towards dynamic and open play deserves universal – or extra-terrestrial? – approval. In Brown and Farrell… and possibly Burrell and Launchbury and Lawes, they had players who might reasonably be nominated Player of the Tournament in some poll or other.

England were often good and sometimes alarmingly watchable, both against Italy and in the Six Nations generally. It may be that only the intensity of the ‘rivalry’ between the warring parties keeps Wales in with a shout against their World Cup 2015 opponents on current form, such is the great leap forward from Lancaster’s men. They surely ran the ball back more freely – more liberally even – than anyone else. The nature of their intent was sharply different to previous England sides, the coaching staff clearly now having committed to an all-court game demanding pace and invention as well as balls-out defending. Good on them for that; they are both right and righteous, methinks.

Whole lot of sentiment here, then. Weighing up in the abstract the feel of a title run-in. Doing that all over, I guess.

Ireland won though and their outside centre will understandably garner what I will foolishly call the Lions share of media coverage subsequent to that victory. O’Driscoll for me has had a flawed championships; he made errors against the French as well as the fairly occasional sharp intervention – chiefly that trademark low-slung burst and absurdly casual switch, eyes fixed everywhere but where the ball’s fizzing or popping. The man’s a genius alright, for his brutal combination of rapidity and control – and for his savvy. But his specialness is surely a cumulative phenomenon? Year after year of explosive burst and soft hands, violent challenge and then god-given, frame-freezing awareness. He, certainly, is a deserving champion.

@Jiffyrugby doesn’t get much wrong, yaknow. And he may have it about right when he says the definitive question of this tournament is the one England will surely be asking themselves – “How did we not win in France?” Well… they didn’t. And Ireland? Ireland did.

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Swing Higher?

Australia deservedly beat the Lions in the second test on Saturday, in another match shrill with nuclear-button-moment tension. In this case, mercifully, several things;

one – ’twas all centred round a mere but alarmingly late and decisive kicking event (again!) as opposed to something major going off in Korea/Iran/someplace else the Americans are pooping their panties about.

Two – this time it was us wot missed.

Three – the nuclear-freeness of said event did not significantly reduce the weight of angst where I was watching… and latterly enduring it.

Once more, remarkably, the overtime phases of the game offered nerve-shredding possibilities for all or nothing in terms of this series. For supporters of the reds, like me, ultimately, as I/we/they slunk away to bars and hotels or the small comfort of family life, it was the bitter hard stuff that lay in wait – not the smilier-fizzier accoutrements of quadrennial glory. The redoubtable Halfpenny – he of the doe-eyes calmly fixated – had failed to hoof open a new chapter in long-shotdom; the 50-odd metre penalty he struck falling some way short of the now untroubled crossbar. (Earlier a similar attempt had rebounded cruelly to a Wallaby hand.) It was another moment of drama in a now confirmed triptych – the contest going as a result to the final match in Sydney. And rightly so.

The build-up on and off the box had been full of the usual hum and hokum; banter, bullshit and – where I was – brilliant, informed debate. Much of it around the Vunipola Question. Or maybe the Back Row Question. Meaning that a fair number had bought in to the bulk of the changes – enforced or otherwise – Gatland had made. For example, despite the fact that Mike Phillips is a son of Banc-y-felin, a thirty mile meander from base camp (in Haverfordwest Cricket Club, if you must know) not too much earache on that. ‘Mike’s ‘been bit laboured, see? Godda get that ball OUT, mun!’ No; much more earnest discussion and yes, dissent, over the perceived vulnerability of the England prop. A straw poll would have put Grant in there for starters and allowed the younger fella to rumble round destructively once the game had opened out. Strength not at issue – just too much to expect him to show the maturity, discipline and composure to hold under targeted pressure. He couldn’t.

There were awful moments close to the 25 minute mark when, following general world-wide indictment (and more importantly, concession of penalties at the scrum) Vunipola seemed destined to be unceremoniously hoiked. Then he dropped a pass… and it became inevitable. The fact that he and the Lions scrum scrambled back towards an admittedly sketchy and frankly unattractive ‘parity’- and that in fact he was not removed early – reflects admirably on the England debutant. Words had indeed been said – shouted in fact, at the alleged Englishman but the Lions effort had not started so loaded down with disbelieving expletives.

It began with a storm, in fact, or a storming, the away side looking both impassioned and focused. We thrilled and yes, roared as things clicked encouragingly over from our lot piling into ’em in the time-honoured fashion to some adrenalin-fuelled but controlled rugby of a Wallaby-threatening order.  Sadly, this lasted for all of about eight minutes before… before the magnificent free-spirits up on the screen realised this was a Test Match… with a whole lot riding.

Then conservatism and error and often shapelessness broke out, in the game at large, in both camps. It was rare that either side went through more than a handful of phases before something was up – an infringement or an error, typically. The intensity made it feel like a spectacle but maybe take that series-decider thing out and… what? Scrappy and again frustratingly bound to interpretation of what went on in the scrum and – less obviously in this encounter – at the breakdown.

In the scrum it really may be that concepts are all we have; real, corporeal ascendancy being no longer a possibility, given the shambles around engagement and the put-in. Scrums are no longer contests because a) there is no hooking b) the objective seems to be the prompting of a ‘legitimate’ claim to a penalty following infringement from the other side. Meanwhile the historically essential delivery of the ball to the centre of the melee is apparently an irrelevance, as far as the officials are concerned. Scrums now are far too often an enraging travesty; one which will inevitably lead to some explosive reaction from one of the betrayed protagonists.

The early minutes suggested at least that policing of the breakdown might be less cruelly restrictive than the previous match. O’Driscoll sensed he may be in the game and Warburton most certainly was – if not pilfering outright then genuinely competing without fear. This augured well. In fact though, the inability of the Lions to build (and literally expand) upon a fabulous start by drawing and passing and recycling effectively – adding width following gains in yardage – meant there was no penetration. And they can’t blame the ref for too much of that.

Whether this is a cultural thing with Gatland is open to debate; some mutter darkly about a one-dimensionality in the Gatland Master Plan. As though it’s essence is relatively stoppable, if you learn to read it. It may not be the same thing but there was a sense here that either by instinct or design the Wallabies had options available, even in a crowded midfield, in a way that the Lions didn’t. Davies and O’Driscoll were nullified and North and Bowe almost absent. Beyond that perhaps – they rarely looked like creating. That could not be said of their opposite numbers.

Clearly the brilliance of Genia plays a part in this disparity. He seamlessly links, he moves the centre of threat, there is that unsettling but nonetheless purposeful flux about him. He’s bloody difficult to stop. Allow him a few phases and before you know it every manjack in the backline is feeling indefuckingstructible mate. If he had a real pivot outside him you worry that the Lions would suffer a pasting – but they didn’t. The Australians won, deservedly, because they were markedly more ambitious; they offloaded and brought runners into the game – particularly in the second half. There is an argument that they had no choice but I think that’s slightly cheap. The Wallabies really took the Lions on – courageously, defiantly – and they won.

For the Lions, changes will again be made; both necessary and tactical. The potential absence of Warburton and the loss of the totemic O’Connell may possibly be the end of it, who knows? Parling is a good man but not a legend. The inclusion of a fit Tuilagi, to the squad, if not the team, seems likely, with the Davies-BOD combination somewhere between pallid and competent so far. Nothing wrong with Bowe and North – they just need the pill to carry round a bit. There need be no culture-change in the front row, merely a reversion to an experienced, workmanlike posse including Grant(?) with limited objectives. Compete; behave; stop the other buggers. Selecting the back row is more critical, you feel.

There may be some in the Lions camp pressing for a blanket over things; a fire-response or even better a fire-prevention unit. Tough, reliable types – Lydiates. The argument maybe being that an opportunity will come anyway, for North or Bowe, or somebody and that therefore no need for a Croft or a Tuilagi to go gambolling too recklessly. Issues around fitness of individuals may of course steer this debate but clearly the make-up of the back row will to a large extent control the nature and the pace and the ambition – higher/lower? – of the game plan. Whether Warbs misses out or not, the case for Lydiate is strong. So how do we juggle Croft’s classy athleticism and Tipuric’s great form and O’Briens passion and… which way, what will characterise how we go? With Heaslip? Do we just give Heaslip a bollocking and demand some more or does the thing need a revolution? Perhaps not. But it does need a spark.

In our club the chorus of ‘Swing Low’ heard mid-match was not met with universal enthusiasm. To some these Lions felt disappointingly a bit trad English – meaning inexpressive – dull, frankly. Where were the players ‘seizing the moment’, playing ‘heads-up rugby?’ Well, they weren’t wearing red.

For Gatland there is some serious thinking to be done. I don’t see him as some conservative soul – he’s better than that. But he may feel that trouble lies ahead if his side fails again to release players into space and/or take the risks associated with width. Or he may not. He may I suppose conclude that a tight, forward-led approach is percentage-wise most viable, most advantageous. Many of us would counter that so far the Wallabies have dealt more than adequately with the Lions 1-8 but found 11 and 14 less easily contained. In other words Gorgeous George in particular is nigh on unfuckingstoppable (mate.) So let him have that ball.

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.

BOD or BOFG? Silly to compare!

There is something alarming about Paul O’Connell’s forearms; or at least I think there is.  I hope this has nothing whatsoever with prejudices I may have against Irishmen, Ginger Monsters or ham, but there is something in the club-like nature of that leading section of his limbs which has the worryingly hypnotic power normally associated with unhinged propellers.  Or – I suppose – mad, ginger-haired Irish hams.

Not that the recently reappointed skipper is himself either fully or sectionally unhinged – far from it.  In fact, on the contrary, there is something (else?) both powerful and controlling about the Second Row’s clasping gear.  It appears – it feels – as though he has uncommonly massive forearms; forearms with an extra dimension.   One where even extraordinary physicality is only part of the bundle.

This potential for extra-curricular stature is essential to O’Connell’s appeal.  As a captain – of both Lions and Ireland on occasion, remember – and as a standard-bearer leading the charge.  For a man who lacks pace, he picks and goes as effectively as any Front Fiver, having a weirdly unassuming relentlessness that smacks of indomitable courage rather than extroverted heart.  Again and again, O’Connell leads; again and again – whether in the lineout or into contact – he is present.  Such is the rather wonderful and possibly anti-heroic nature of his contribution.

Being myself mercifully six or seven inches shy of the typical Second Row’s elevation I can only speak from a respectful distance of the frequency and abrasiveness of the clashes of these titans.  O’Connell has had his share.  But what strikes me generally of the man – in particular the later vintage (Limerick)Munsterman – is the degree of control he retains whilst either being, or being in, a tide of hyper-conflict.   The temptation towards devilry when confronted by the likes of … name your most feared or revered international 4 or 5 (Botha?)… has been known to be challenging to the point of decisive – particularly in the modern era – where yellow cards for cynicism, slackness or raw violence do occur.

Paul O’Connell, though I suspect not remotely fazed by the thought of succeeding Brian O’Driscoll as captain of Ireland, is nevertheless succeeding a man who by common appreciation is one of the greats of the game.  O’Connell is not, he will know, quite in that highest echelon – though this is certainly partly a matter of differences in gearing.

O’Connell epitomizes that low-diff grungy but rangy Land Rover thing whereas BOD has the possibility for thrilling, fuel-injected glory.  The Lock, who I am tempted to burden with the BOFG moniker (Big Occasionally Friendly Giant) will never electrify us; 4 and 5 don’t do that stuff.   He will however make us roar, us Lions fans, with an imperious catch and subsequent drive, or a low-slung but vital scurry for yardage as a 10 waits dry-lipped for a drop attempt.

In addition, the aforementioned catch/drive/scurry is likely to be repeated with an efficiency destined surely to grind down or erode the confidence of the opposition.  Thus O’Connell executes.

O’Driscoll and O’Connell; two good Irishmen and true who unquestionably share a capacity to absorb or inflict pain for the cause.  As a result they’ve shared injuries and the breaks in continuity they bring.  But such is the influence both exert that they tend to feature pretty much immediately upon teamsheets at every level, right up to those conferring preciously regarded Lionhood.

As the one (BOD) steps away from some of these privileges, few would question that Paul O’Connell – magnificently armed specimen that he appears – is entirely equipped to be a worthy successor, captain or not.  And that brilliant, thunder-stealing but short-arsed centre cannot, in all likelihood rob him of one particular accolade – that of being the B.O.F.G.