It couldn’t just be sport.

If I started this with ‘Some say… that this was just a game of rugby’ then I’d sound like Jeremy Clarkson… and this would not be good. 78% of female readers would exit more sharply than a reasonably-priced car ever could, shivering with sisterly repulsion. 88% of Welsh, male readers would do likewise, engaging the default mode for aversion to pompous English Middle Class gits in the process. Meaning there is an English Dimension here – possibly even more than there is an England-Wales dimension. (Tonight I may argue this was important.)

As the whistle blew ‘for no side’ one nation – Warburton’s, Biggar’s – stood baying at the beeyoootiful moon. The air was heavy as meaning (meaning!) went on a suburban rampage in Richmond and in Rhyl.

I’m simply unable to de-symbolise any of this, despite the apparent reality of 40-odd blokes haring round a pitch in a violent but unfeasibly honourable homo-erotic bagatelle. This ‘game’ is/was a theatre for unreliable symbols – symbols as elusive as Barry John – and Wales, the Wales where I live, breathe, stew and grow, rises to this stuff; it may even exist for it. England, in the World Cup. The primest of prime opportunities to stick one on Clarkson, or Cameron, or Thatcher, or Will Carling or unnamed and quite possibly unheard BBC Journalists from 1930’s radio, agents of Home Counties supremacy and imperial pig-dom. Like the public school lads in white – just perhaps?

There is an argument that Wales won an exhausting contest because their number ten hoofed the ball between the sticks with the proverbial unerring accuracy all night; there may even be some truth in that – Biggar having notched seven penalties.  But the activity in (for example) my front room (where allegedly grown adults were performing some kind of noisily angular tribal-ecstasy) suggests that what happened in Twickenham was merely a part of something radically more humongous.

Distil it and maybe this is how it is; The English are the opposite of what the Welsh want to be. Where the English had Edward Heath, Wales had Nye Bevan. Where the English had Larkin, Wales had Dylan Thomas. Where the English had Seb Coe, Wales had Iwan Thomas. Where the English had David Beckham, Wales had Mickey Thomas. To all fair-minded people this must mean The Welsh are demonstrably more human humans.

Could it be then, that May’s admirable try and Farrell’s drop goal and five penalties were simply out-biffed by an undeniable outbreak of irresistible humanity?  Or did it just feel like that… in Wales?

Could it be that a now cruelly depleted Wales may lose to Aus and struggle against Fiji… and therefore be lost to the competition… and that this – this Twickenham – might still be enough, for the Welsh?  Meanwhile vanquished England (with their bonus points) shuffle through?

The thing may move further yet into fable and redemption – or re-birth – for the whites.

How Lancaster needs that! Though his crunch calls seemed an irrelevance come the hour (Farrell was outstanding, Burgess strong) the England gaffer is weirdly and may yet be fatally subsumed by the whole cosmic cowabunga. His lot got beat in a manner that points to spookily gargantuan forces no mere ‘coach’ could be expected to counter – hence the ludicrous speculation in these paragraphs.

Even those in Wales who have never read Dylan Thomas feel the power, the redeeming, daft-glorious brilliance of the notion of ‘Wales-in-my-arms’. And I do mean feel. Whether by poisonous osmosis of modern political truths or some mysterious saturation in the deeply Celtic, The Welsh have an essence to aspire to, to live up to, and this essence has become inseparable from the need to oppose. They oppose the English, in particular, because they know them to be superior and somehow ungenerous when they themselves are hearty and defiant and inviolably ‘good.’ In no sense is Jeremy Clarkson good.

But Mike Brown – despite being a hated arse in Barry – is good. And so is Farrell, it turns out. But now we’re talking rugby when (try as it might) this ‘match’ could not – could not! – escape the clasp or pull of history or fate or mania or whatever it is or was or will be that drives Alun Wynn Jones. And Dan Biggar. And the four players from Haverfordwest Under 12’s who came on when half the Welsh were slain on the battlefield; I mean injured. Don’t tell me that a story this big, a turnaround of this magnitude could be merely, merely sport. It just couldn’t. Could it?

Wales won at Twickenham in the most stirring and cauldron-defying manner imaginable. In an absorbing but rarely beautiful game, Dan Biggar stamped his authority on an occasion that his opposite number – the immaculate Farrell – coasted through almost equally as nervelessly. Indeed it was the extraordinary contest between these two that provided the bulk of the drama and the quality throughout the match, as ball-striking of a supremely high order broke out.

Ultimately, with A N Other and his wheezing pals flung onto the park to make up the numbers for Wales, they found something. After a first half where England showed the more ambition, Wales gathered by deed and (noticeably) by word from their relentlessly grooved out-half. Biggar willed them to a victory that will quite possibly never be forgotten – by either set of players or supporters.

In the days of limited attention span we tend to look for five things that mattered. Here are mine.
• The spot-kicking of both number tens – which was remarkable.
• The recovery of the Welsh forwards – having been quasi-mullered in the first period.
• The pep-talk Biggar gave to half his team during one of the eight zillion stoppages for injury.
• The early removal of Ben Youngs.
• That left-footed dink infield from Lloyd Williams.

Let’s swiftly reiterate that the kicking from Biggar and Farrell, in a game of this magnitude, was fantastic. Perhaps particularly from the England fella, massively exposed as he was by Lancaster’s switch-to-end-all-switches. To strike so purely and confidently with 80,000 people on your back and a trillion watching elsewhere was truly outstanding.

(By the way, on the Big Call issue I was immediately clear that Lancaster’s reversion to a kind of circling of the wagons policy – ‘we’ll be ready for ‘em’ stylee – was always going to unnecessarily stoke the defiance of the Welsh. Gatland would surely have punched the air on seeing that conservative, stiff upper lily-liver thing confirmed? For Farrell to come through all that nonsense and go play rugby of this calibre was hugely to his credit.)

The recovery of the Welsh forwards may have been as much about a falling off in flow and intensity from England in the second half as improvements from the Welsh. Substitutions and injuries unhinged or undermined events. The mighty Alun Wynn looked a tad mightier and Warburton/Faletau began to influence but between about 40 and 60 minutes the game lost its shape, allowing Wales to creep back in there.

The job of the number ten has changed. Nowadays – regrettably, perhaps – even in Wales they no longer look to the fly-half for magic of the hip-swerving kind. Instead it’s about ‘game-management.’ This means expressing the tactical plan for the team; finding territory; choosing the moment to use width or thrust directly, seeking to suck opponents into energy-sapping contact, before darting wide again. Biggar’s management today was outstanding – as was his courage and his leadership.

Who knows what was said during that pep-talk but it was clear that he was sure of the mission… and sure that he was leading it.

At the moment of writing I confess I am unclear if the substitution of Ben Youngs was ‘tactical’ or for injury. If the former then the defeat may be laid at Lancaster’s door. Youngs is an in-out player and I thought him poor against Fiji. Tonight he was largely in… and on it. If it was pre-planned to ‘freshen things up’ by introducing Wrigglesworth early then I scoff at the overcoaching psycho-bollocks implied by that. Youngs was jinking and linking and England looked good for much of the first 40 minutes; then they stopped playing. If possible, he had to stay on.

A Wales win was undeniably made possible by *moments like* the deft nurdle inland from Williams, enabling Gareth Davies to dive under the posts. Post-match, exhausted and enriched, we know that the fella (in this moment) dived right past rugby.

Advertisements

Ten

In Wales, people really do carry the notion of flyhalfism around with them. Women have it tucked in the crook of their armpit as they hightail it down to Morrisons, blokes tucked behind their left ear, like a casually stashed but much-anticipated ciggie. It’s all true yaknow – Welsh kids are born knowing who Phil Bennett was – many have been known to jink bewilderingly past the approaching midwife. It’s maybe not the same everywhere, but the Ten is important here.

Just a few minutes ago I read a report effectively linking a certain Jonny of the half-back persuasion to next year’s Lions Tour. Which focussed – well, everything’s relative – the loose pondering I’ve been engaged in for the last hour or two around that subject of flyhalfism, generally. Focussed it and broadened it out, in fact, because… because The Lions can do that, right? But back to Jonny, momentarily.

Until the wise and oft-crocked-but-indestructible one (now of France) intruded, I had been gainfully employed in ruminations of a hypothetical but distinctly Celtic nature. Like who will play Ten for Wales… and then whether Sexton might finish up as Lions playmaker. (Here, sloppily, I nearly wrote ‘god forbid’.) So hang on – let’s leave the (other) Jonny Factor out of this for now – and return to Wales-in-my-arms again.

Rhys Priestland – he of quite possibly relatively seriously damaged self-confidence and now genuinely compromised lower body-part – is out for months. Crocked. Leading to the likely inclusion of Osprey’s Dan Biggar in the Wales set-up for the Six Nations. Whilst Biggar is widely perceived (in Wales) to be currently best equipped to challenge James Hook for the national half-back role, he is unlikely to threaten the Lions squad. Nor is Rhys Patchell, the emerging Blues star, who may have real quality, but remains a non-starter at this level for his lack of years and experience.

Like Priestland, Biggar is capable; looking to direct with a quiet authority rather than too much explosive brilliance. For them both – and perhaps I do mean this as a slight criticism? – Game Management is all. They are not the Magic Men many would like. Hook, on the other hand, has been known to be.

Like Wilkinson, Hook now plies his trade in France. And the sense is that regular starts in the Ten slot for Perpignan are doing him a power of good – why wouldn’t they? Like many of The Gifted before or since, Hook may not always have made an inviolable case for his own inclusion. He’s thrown intercepts; he’s drifted in and out; we can use that word ‘languid’ against him; we’ve wondered often if he has enough of that controlling thing going on. But Hook has danced past folks… he has genuinely created, when before… there was nothing.

Young James could play the kind of off-the-cuff rugby that most international coaches now perennially enthuse about – and then seem to de-bar amongst their backline employees come match day. In few cases does it seem that the liberated approach survives the transition from interview room to pitch. Meaning even in an expansive-game-friendly Wales, Hook became droppable rather than essential.  Moreover he bulked up, he conformed, becoming more like everyone else and less mercurially James.

One view is that he just wasn’t sufficiently favoured or trusted, entirely, to orchestrate. Or that and the fact that he may simply be short of durability in defence, or for the longish haul of a Six Nations or World Cup campaign. Personally, I think the management of James Hook may be amongst the most serious errors committed by the Wales backroom staff over the last six-eight years. If he felt secure enough, wanted enough, I think Hook may have been the man. Now it feels as though he may not even inherit from the stricken Priestland. Gatland will take a close look at Patchell for Wales but Hook may remain in that destabilising limbo whilst Biggar steps in.

So a Wales Ten for the Lions seems unlikely. Over to Ireland.

In the last year Johnny Sexton has usurped the previously untouchable Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s leading fly-half. He has also been prominent in the three or four year storm that is Leinster Rugby, hoofing them capably towards a state of European dominance. This bone-crunching process has naturally boosted his profile – he seems a quietish sort? – whilst relentlessly exposing him (generally in a good way) to healthy, high-level competition. Thus a relatively slick and uncontested accession of the O’Gara berth in the national side has been achieved – plus an undeniably significant bucket-load of Big Match game-time. Sexton may have much of what Gatland is looking for, given the secure national role and this familiarity with hyper-intensity Heineken hoopla. However. I’m not convinced.

I had a great argument very recently with a passionate Irishman who (dammitt!) pretty much dismantled my objections to Johnny S. He was outraged, frankly, that I suggested the Leinster Ten as a possible liability if called upon for Lions action. When asked to describe exactly his alleged vulnerabilities compared to the other candidates, I could only offer the feeling that Sexton has the capacity to implode… or maybe his kicking does? Which then buggers up the rest. He hasn’t, for me, looked either supremely talented enough or doughty enough to lift either himself or a tight game, when the most searching issues arise. When the psychology of the thing (as well as the meat-and-drink physicality) begins to rumble and rail against his will, what might he manage then? Another hunch? Perhaps I am wrong to doubt him.

To Scotland. And away, swiftly, because they have no credible contender for the post in mind.

England I think have one – Farrell. The slightly more experienced but slightly less durable Flood is edged very narrowly out, I think. Farrell is cool, strong with a relatively mixed game. What he lacks is what Sexton, Priestland, Biggar and perhaps Flood too lack – real dash. Whether this rules him out or in remains to be seen. But he will fight… he has bottle… and a compelling will, I think. Farrell nips in ahead of Sexton for me.

What is maybe most striking in all this is the lack of an obvious candidate; maybe that’s actually a worry for us Lions fans? If all those named above apart from Hook are a shade one-dimensional, where might that leave our hopes in Oz? Head-thumpingly frustrated? When the one thing that the Australians seem to have consistently brought to the rugby party of late is invention in the backs, are we likely to get simply outscored? Will Howley really be able to generate a Wales early 2011-style Brotherhood of Liberation amongst the Lions backs? Or will a phone call go out – it couldn’t, could it – to that other Jonny? The English one.

I have just published an ebook of selected posts, plus substantial new material.  It features an introduction from Paul Mason and kind support from Brian Moore and Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph, amongst others. It’s really not bad – and it’s only £2.83!

You can find it on Amazon ebooks, under the title ‘Unweighted – the bowlingatvincent compendium’.  Check it out.