Triumph by degree.

Triumph. Glory. Worryingly loaded terms, both, as though there’s no escaping the association with imperial excess or sultry machismo – both of which I oppose with every laddish ounce. ‘Tis a challenge, this all-consuming contemporary imperative towards proportion – one I typically moon at, as you know. Is there really no way to write innocently in the post post-modern age? Shame, eh? If it’s too rash to affix words like them there onto mere sport, even on the understanding – you do understand, right? – that nothing’s rilly that serious and… my eyes they are a twinkling. The cunning plan then will revert to a crypto-psychological airing of notions around degrees of triumph. In sport, this weekend; rugby football in fact.

(You know) I love the talk around this stuff. The banter, sure, but maybe more so that slightly higher grade proffering of views about the shape of sides, the intent, the possibilities. An example? The leaking out from this cloud of (often though not always) nationalistic passiogubbins of the contention that the Scottish back three may be the best in the 6nations. This is not an assertion that could have been made with any degree of seriousness in donkeys years. Hold with that thought then combine with the impressive and surely contagious positivism practically washing out of Scott Johnson and key elements seemed in place ahead of the Italy game for either a triumphant expression of 15-man rugby or …yet another Murrayfield trauma. It was pretty much the former, something approaching a try-fest and a crucial breaking out from those dispiriting Scottish failures. A triumph of the Thank Christ For That variety as well as a champers-popping treat.

Caveats will need to be included re the relative weakness of their opponents. Italy, whilst playing again with occasional verve were suicidally open at times but Scotland the nation has every right to bristle and glow over the arrival of a competitive-plus back divison. Despite being clad in a kit they apparently modelled on motorway signage, the home side hustled with an altogether more convincing energy than for some appreciable time. They flipped and flashed in and out of the overtaking lane; not uncontrollably or recklessly but with the clear purpose of getting someplace quickly. The threat was there – a real threat, you felt – as opposed to the bound-to-end-in-fumbling-failure version that had become the depressing norm.

In a compelling and genuinely exciting game freed up rather than stifled by expectation, tries surely loomed. Sure enough Vister darted and stepped (far too easily in fact) off his wing to score. Then in one of those moments when action and symbol clang together, Matt Scott juggled one off his chest before bursting free. (Insert that particular instant into almost any midfield scenario for Scotland over the last five years and surely the chance would have gone to ground; this time the centre scurried clear to score unopposed.) Even Sean Lamont – who had scored but a single try in 42 matches – found himself likewise in freedom’s honeyed pastures as he gathered up from the deck and bolted… with surely some quiet ecstasy?

The electrifying interception by the fullback Hogg that caterpaulted him almost the full length of the pitch was the game’s stand-out moment. As exhaustion closed in around his utter joy he drifted somewhat from the posts but this naivety was not chief amongst the concerns of the baying crowd, who expunged a decade’s frustration at butchered opportunities with a tremendous hollering. Would that a certain Bill McClaren had been there to describe the moment. Hogg, certainly, is a Lions contender – though quite possibly behind both Wales’s Halfpenny and Ireland’s Kearney. And maybe England’s Goode!

It’s true then, Scotland can attack, can even cross the whitewash; how fabulous. This ritual unshackling – so sweet, so thrilling in its nature – we can justifiably, with an affirmative slug of fine malt, file under the ‘t’ word. For the Italians, destined to make incremental progress contradicted by days such as these, it must have hurt. Going to Murrayfield believing they were in the best shape for aeons, having duffed up the French? Facing the side most obviously and most frequently vying with them for that wooden spoon? And getting mullered? They will need to gather yet more steel into the matrix of what they are building and go, again, in search of that second win in the 2013 tournament.

In Paris, Wales beat France in the first duff game of the 6nations. Or so the general perception will go. Led by Ryan Jones, they dug out a win whilst the French crowd broiled. The game was clunky, with few passages of quality handling. Halfpenny got man-of-the-match but it could easily have gone to his skipper, the eloquent Jones, who is one of those blokes you really want to do well for his utter but intelligent commitment. In the context of where the two sides are at – in the 6nations, in terms of their ahem development – there was a quasi-spiritual aspect to the game, with the French flailing about for something to believe in (a way of playing?) and the Welsh needing ideally to reassert their own pattern but more prosaically, to win. In reality, this was not the rugby of or for the gods.

The French were almost unbelievably poor; shambolically led from half-back, almost comically unimaginative with ball in hand. Apart from the occasional mega-hit from Bastereaud, they seemed either dilatory or glazed-eyed, unable to see or burst through the slough of nerves. Michalak was not the only one to play what felt like a career-ending role in the game.

Wales must of course take real credit for much of the host’s embarrassment. In team meetings they will surely have spoken about denying the French rather than levering the game open. But it wasn’t pretty – in particular that first half, where Phillips was again in contained and containing mode. Slowly going through phases until an error inevitably came; monitoring rather than playing. Fortunately for Wales, the longer the game went on the worse the hosts seemed to get; it hardly mattered that the Welsh back line seemed pedestrian by their standards and that the word ‘urgency’ appeared to have disappeared from the Franco-Welsh lexicon. Wales, solidly marshalled by Biggar, abided. And yet…

Sure, us Welsh-sympathetic types naturally hoped for a searing run from Davies or Cuthbert but the reality shelved most of that indulgence in exchange for the blanket thrown over the pitch. Bravely and with great discipline the forwards smothered and the backs kept the seal intact. There seemed not the remotest possibility that the French would score but in the absence of guarantees, things remain tense, yes? Even from the depths of their paucity some blur of French brilliance might spark? Pas de chance, as it ‘appens. They were – unpredictably – relentlessly, predictably crap.

As the thing rumbled in almost classically turgid style towards deserved victory for Wales, so the restlessness in the crowd grew. With every concession of possession by Les Bleus a chorus of the gallic equivalent of harrumphing gathered. The Welsh were ahead, without a meaningful cushion in terms of points but ahead. Following George North’s powerful burst for the line humiliating whistles and prolonged booing broke out around the stadium. Music to Welsh ears. French supporters left – disgracefully, in my view – in disgust. This was the kind of low-diff, plough through-the-sodden-meadow victory that practically erects a conveyor belt of foaming pints of beer on the players bar. Exhausting but rich in terms of its bond. There was at least a whiff of the Brotherhood of Redness about it; the redeeming, the reclamation of something, through powerful, powerful unified work. I would have let Ryan lead his men in a pint or two last night. A triumphant one.

Finally came England. With a win we’d be calling truly impressive if the game hadn’t been so decimated and reduced by conditions. My guess is England would have despatched Ireland with something to spare had the ball been less appallingly soapy. As it was, even the initially imperious Farrell was largely flummoxed by the pitiless rain.

England started superbly, with that kind of away team composure coaches dream about. Even early on there was no real width but Farrell prompted then penalised the Irish for any transgression. When the homesters awoke it was with that intemperate flame that might either overwhelm or threaten self-immolation; they were fierce but unfocussed. Sexton was ordinary – then hurt – and the Irish fumbled. The intensity was right off the scale but ambitions were promptly scaled right back as allegedly straightforward catches were dropped and the ball was lost in contact. The mid-section of the match was relatively poor, with periods when Irish forward dominance seemed likely to be critical cancelled out by further error. England were always more efficient but the midfield never had, nor were ever likely to have quick ball or space to create. The English back line was admirably watchful and assured in defence whilst being anonymous going forwards.

Tuilagi, having come on early in the second period had the two sole try-scoring opportunities of the game but in each case his spatial awareness and footballing skills let him down. Was I the only one waiting for him to get a run at O’Gara? That run never came. England eased to victory, to a strangulating, appreciative-slap-on-the-back-engendering win rather than anything too… too triumphant. Lancaster will live with that. And – cue the unwisely charged denouement – England march on.


Wanna check out my triumphant ebook? Out now on Amazon – Recommended by Brain Moore/Paul Hayward/Kate Webb. Intro by Paul Mason.


Rugby, mainly.

Following a weekend where the relentlessly uplifting drama of the 6 Nations (rugby) yet again provided a wonderful if boomtastic example of the value and maybe the purpose of sport, I am entitled, I think, to go off on one. As you may know, this a mode I favour – hollering wildly, excitedly but hopefully not entirely unsoundly about the daft-punk glories of chasing balls around in some childlike, pore-cleansing flush.

This time I’m surely entitled; my Waltonian disproportion being compleatly proportionate to the primeval stirring (for example) when Ireland exploded over Saturday lunch. When England, finally, after best part of twenty years in a stultifying, fearful or cynical brace, broke out emphatically into some refreshingly fizzing new era, featuring a notably more Go Full Pelt and subsequently (gor blimey) successful instinct. When Italy, through a combination of mature, legitimising tactical weave and sheer and selfless fronting-up, put one over on the French.  When rugby, god bless its ample ass, showed the way. Join me then, in a post-euphoric smiling-jog warm-down (if this is possible?) through those games.

Wales were first up. Here, following a series of bruise-black blows to the dingle-dongle soul of the cherub-child’s pre-Christmas ritual – that would be the Autumn Series, then – the annual provincial rugby-lust yardstick was laced with concern. About Zebo, for one. And about the possibility that Declan Kidney (hitherto a most conservative choirmaster to the baying Irish) might come over all musically fruity and dashing and fearless – which, it soon transpired, he had. Or so it seemed when his charges unleashed an unimaginably dynamic 15 man Blackbush-anschluss/chorus upon the home side, leaving them quite quite bollocksed, before the first 40 was out. Only the irresistible quality of that surreally pogoistic Irish dance deflected that feeling of utter humiliation for Warburton’s distraught posse; when the score ticked to 20 odd points for the visitors and none for the reds.

The second, irrelevant period came over all wonderfully Welsh. Firstly – and you did feel rather typically – because Wales instead of reducing the ludicrous deficit allowed a further Irish score… but then… then something stirred. In a blur of Duw Duw aavitmun counters and scampers and painfully pointless but point-scoring ripostes, Howley’s men finally stood and fought, heroically.

Heroically because they were done, from the outset; because the late drama never had a cat in hell’s of actually making a difference; not, at least to the result.

Ireland deservedly won. The match was though, for the neutral, spectacular and for the Irish around 50% dreamlike in a very very good way indeed. Wales mind you, find themselves in maybe the most painful kind of crisis – on merit. More broadly and touchy-feely-smilingly, the lesson in life here was very much to do with how electrifying and rewarding the whole-hearted rage can be; Ireland’s early energy and commitment and unity being a thing of some beauty as well as unanswerable power.

The Calcutta Cup game between England and Scotland was the 43rd watershed moment on the bounce for England, who have been either threatening or promising to join the Actually We Really Do Believe in Expansiveness Pardee since Richard III parked up in Leicester wearing his Tiger’s scarf. Scotland meanwhile turned up with an appropriately Wallace-like leadership; the duo of Craig Johnston and Dean Ryan being preternaturally worrying and convincing in the role of arse-flashing, violence-hinting subverters of all things cosy. (Like maybe… England?)  The previous incumbent, incidentally – Andy Robinson – had possessed many of the defiant qualities necessary to commit to that particularly Scotch effort but despite manifest improvements his side basically still mostly got beat. There is a sense that under Johnston and his English enforcer that may change.

At Twickers, however, despite a brilliant start, Scotland were beaten in some style by a now properly resurgent England. In another fabulous game of rugby, in which the Farrell the Younger operated in exhibition mode almost throughout, such was his general excellence, the story was all about fulfilment (by the whites) of those oft-aired aspirations towards ‘really playing’. Again forgive the dodgy extrapolation towards quasi-cultural concept; but how else are we to describe the shift from veteran and weirdly lily-livered bore(s) to young-buck dynamos. England have crossed now – have executed – the transition into something exbloodyciting; something real and open and filled with generous possibility rather than dullness. After all the right noises, they are finding the right game; which is rugby, in fact.

On Sunday, the onus was on the Italians to further hitch up the quality of our glee by blasting further through the barriers of reasonable expectation. Sure they had beaten the French before but the Azurri had not, as yet, evidenced their assembly of Proper International Rugby Players in sufficient volume to be fully 6nation worthy. Or so the subtext continued to read. They were, in fact – even when making outstanding progress year on year – frustratingly short of the mark. Sunday, this changed.

Italy played better and they won. Their success rarely seemed in any doubt. What may be most encouraging for the Italians is the fact that this victory was not entirely built upon their small quota of hyper-talent – Parisse, certainly, Castrogiovanni, arguably – but through a revelatory level of general competence and comfort at the playing of bona fide international rugby. They kicked and passed and tackled throughout – and throughout the team – to an all-new and belief-hoiking height; somewhere right up there – somewhere legitimate. Neutrals like me celebrated with extravagant Mediterranean gestures (well, we pumped our fist and took a deep slug of some Chianti-substitute) because this was feeling like a further rich episode in some tectonic shifting; towards hearty goodness and brotherhood and – who knows? – Europe-wide meritocracy.

Okay. I may be over-egging the pasta here. There may, in ‘reality’ be no link between great sport and things round and about getting better. And therefore I may again be indulging. I remain, however relatively unapologetic at expressing these myopic or delusional pleasures. Feelings may indeed be total cobblers. But there was a great dollop of joy around this rugbystuff this weekend; there was magnificent excitement and achievement and yes, a kind of sacrifice in that sheer, exhilarating teaminess. Overall and unquestionably, the Generous View of Things trumped the ordinary or the constricting. And – let’s keep this simple? – that’s surely good.

The political angle that I should be keeping out of all of this stuff is, of course, a function of zillions of things that collectively make up our individual standpoint. Mine, after this weekend, is more than ever fired up by sport; coloured with the inspiration and the instinct and the poetry that fuels or arises from knockabouts like these. To me it figures absolutely that (to pull a not insignificant name out of the political matrix) Michael Gove doesn’t get this sport thing, poor sod. Not only was he no sportsman – not that this matters, necessarily – he is unreceptive to the essentials of team games; essentials that include deep comradeship, courageous generosity, the capacity to work like hell in order to give. Really… that’s such a shame.

I’ve written an ebook. Which I’d like you to see/buy. It’s here, it’s £2.83!!

No fat lady has sung; to my knowledge.

Read something really quite interesting the other day. On the subject of fickleness, I suppose, or at least regarding the alleged facts of fandom – whether or not this notion of the part-time or unreal fan is a fair kop. (That worth a ha ha?) Or whether it’s always been statistically the case that most fans either have more than one true love in their football ether, or actually go to watch more than one club; god forbid. Anthropologists studying that commonly identified sub-group The Bloke will be unsurprised I think that within this revealingly sharp and often vitriolic debate about Prawn Sarnie Munchers being Scum-a-the-earth or the Financial Lifeblood of the Premier League, there is a historical narrative for infidelity. Apparently, for yonks, it has been gently gently secretly the case that supporters have been de-tribalising themselves in order to watch better teams outside the immediate thrall of The Manor, or shouting Ev’ton one week and Liv’pool the next (for example.) Thereby dancing silently upon the grave of their own authenticity in the eyes of all right-minded people – like themselves.

God it’s a twisted world.

In life I make a point of a) being a huge optimist but b) never really believing anybodies facts and figures, so I won’t mention that the above research on home supporters is liberated from an article in Spiel magazine, lest you go accepting/reading it. Besides, I’m dealing in the woozily general again here, and do not intend (even) to write an article about football. I merely throw in this psycho-geographically resonating lifebuoy to provide comfort to those unable to persist with a post that turns out… against the early expectations… to be, in a roundabout way, about rugbystuff.

So what are we like, eh? One minute we’re crowing or guffawing at either George North or the Irish Pack; the next we’ve drifted. Back to the Real Sporting Giants – Drogba/Suarez/Torres and soon enough Rooney. As though they can or rightfully do satiate our needs both for sporting drama and mighty role-models. Providing us with everything a fan – fickle or sanctimoniously beyond those apparently spurious judgements – could ever ask for.

The Six Nations comes to an unseemly deadstop, like some campaign in the Daily Mail undermined because it suddenly seemed Leftie; quietly and terminally, mirroring something of the muffled bitterness articulated by those dubiously rugby-converted purple rinses with their suddenly cultivated obsession for Our Stuart Getting That England Job, ahead of that Mallett man, with his unsettlingly dark features. The natural order of things succeeding, in The Mail and the proper world; properly.

The sudden smotheration of not just The Six Nations but of the existence of rugby in the British(?) consciousness so soon after that final toot at Twickenham last weekend must surely be a metaphor for something. As well as being another one of those alleged facts. Perhaps it means that – shock horror probe – folks are not died-in-the-wool, touch-pause-engaged fans in the real head-to-the-left-now-hit-like-fuck sense. They – like most of the referees at international level – have no genuine feeling for, or understanding of the dark arts or finer points of frontrowdom. They admire something of that knightish physicality; wonder how that game can go on like that with that bloke reeling around under the trainer’s insensitive touch, four foot six away from the ongoing action. Why don’t they stop, like in proper games? And how does that counter-rucking thing work anyway? And how can that thing there be right, when thingumee just pawed oosit with his studs? Like that!?! Deliberately. What ARE the rules exactly, about that?

In Wales and quite possibly Ireland there is some general understanding. The Vinnygeez has waxed lyrical often enough about this. (In Wales) red cloudbursts of communal expression; joy through clumping; tries against the English as symbols of nothing more than reasons to exist as a nation. Proper engagement on a national, visceral and poetic level. Max Boyce as the Pope/Tom Jones as The Singing Pope – or something. Something like a very much friendlier triptych than might be produced (on a post Grand Slam bender?) by Francis Bacon, let’s say, who despite his fringe-celtic toff-centric out-there-ism I suspect didn’t know much about the game of rugby. Like many residents of Soho. Apart from Brian Moore. Who really does know plenty.

But I fear I digress. (Like for a living, almost.) The point I wish to make is that there is some sudden flopping off the continental shelf going on here, as the Fact Of Rugby slips like some unappreciated gloop into the all-consuming depths. And I am interested in the reasons for that. I have a hope that because the general level of sportsmanship, commitment, fitness and honourability amongst top rugby players is so absurdly high that therefore its profile and relevance and capacity to touch the hearts of (ideally) nine year-old boys and girls will deservedly soar. Leading to – amongst other things but as a suggested minimum – a manifest improvement in respect for the planet and all who inhabit it/the necessary election of a series of humanitarian socialist governments. Because rugby really is pretty wonderful, containing as it does a uniquely focused and encapsulated form of selflessness, teamwork and bravery that entitles it fully to snort derisively at (for example) Drogba’s ham-and-pineapple quattro-staggione-in-one-day blousy affectations. Rugby I know not being perfect but rarely being that embarrassing. But I fear I digress.

Look the rugby season for our friendly Six didn’t finish just because those games did. In fact right now the club season approaches its critical phase; Heineken Cup; Premiership Trophy; equivalents and more to the massively more exposed football carnivals. So let there be space for both in your own personal calendar.

And on the international scene this enthralling but actually parochial knockabout recently enjoyed may well feel disappointingly clubby compared to summer tours or autumn internationals against the acknowledged kingly beasts and champions of the game – the Tri-Nations posse. Either way, don’t look away so prematurely, so part-time-supportedly, so uninformedly now. Because quite frankly if you invest a touch more of your time into appreciating what these backs and forwards are up to, you may well find it’s shockingly expressive of the greater sporting instincts. Those that touch pause engage upon support; heart; camaraderie. Remember them?

Look away now… and over here!

Certain things remained unsaid. So here they are- well, some of them

  • France are ordinary. (Okay, I said that but it bears repeating.)
  • Sharples was unfortunate to be Yellowed and Yellows matter. He was also, I thought, guilty of either that Rabbit-in-headlights emotion or lack of focus at two or three moments. Couple of pretty embarrassing ‘tackles’ which will not be acceptable.
  • So Strettle will come immediately back in, if fit.
  • Is it just me or are people generally enjoying Ashton’s current malaise? Despite another relatively low-key performance he made a sensational midfield hit which led directly to Tuilagi’s outstanding try. He’s got something; if he gets his rugby-player-not-football-player head back on… look out. That’s if he’s not dropped for that penalty clanger. Mouth!
  • Morgan had at least two superb breaks, where he looked spookily fleet of foot for a big man… and then showed fabulous hands to offload cutely out the back door – on one occasion putting Foden directly in. A huge find for England.
  • It was commented upon by the indomitable Mr B Moore esq, but worth noting that brotherly backslapping from England backs to packmeisters after great work in the scrum. Almost as though they’re on the same side!! (Moore made a brilliantly astute comment about English moral victories in the scrum (in Paris) opening up a wound in the ‘French psyche’.)
  • Croft, as all have observed was massive; in Lineout and in the loose; everywhere. His pace and the nature of his movement around Rougerie for the try was class.
  • The removal of Beauxis when a drop was almost inevitably going to be key was surely mad. Trinh Duc has barely gotten on the pitch and he has that dumped on him? Nah.
  • Farrell was really very good again- but not perfect. Bad penno miss and mixed kicking from hand. But his tackling was often stunning. Quite possibly in pole position for Lions 10 berth, amazingly.
  • Lastly, England did really very well. Their united white wall for the last ten was impressive. France, however, looked like strangers.

Look away now.

Dowson family… look away now.

Not only is your magnificent specimen of a boy about to be laid very low by his own hugely brave but slightly bambi-esque attempt at last-ditch defending but he is about to get a face-full of studs from a no doubt grateful but in this moment elsewhere-fixated colleague. A bloke called Croft, who has earlier almost single-handedly doused French fires before accidentally and unfortunately crowning your son’s nozzer.

This can happen; to anyone. Anyone who is laying their body on the line – that particularly significant lime-washed line – in the dying moments of an Anglo-French rendez-vous characteristically loaded with thuddingly adversarial ros-bif. Also, in this climactic period, (some of) the family Farrell wince as the relatively diminutive Owen of their nobly tuned-in clan trammels up some oncoming euro-bison as he pounds into the 22. It’s a juddering impact shared by those in white – fist-clenchingly triumphant – and the bleu contingent, who might only acknowledge the English pivot’s ‘ballons’ in some cafe-bar, later, with a now depressingly articulated gallic shrug.

Emotions arising. From an exhausting encounter, won by the English, who scored tries – who were surely the better side? Away; in France; that place suspected by lilywhites at large of producing dangerously cynical and belligerent forwards and twinkling but unsteady backs. But hadn’t that former twinkler turned prosaic boss Saint-Andre bolstered the French weakness for girly expressivity through wholesale changes at half-back? In doing so surely delivering a hoof-enhanced robustness to his side? Indeed he had. It just didn’t work, entirely.

It didn’t work because Beauxis and Dupuy kicked poorly and because what we should surely now be calling Stuart Lancaster’s England flashed and stormed before them, being both flickeringly, individually inventive and collectively hearty. There was a welcome confidence and edge about England going forward and something close to invincible defiance, yard by yard, in retreat. Late in the game, when the home side finally shook that dark mane free, having lifted its head from some icy barrel, this thing became a Proper Test. A home crowd roaring, a home pack suddenly surging beyond its capacities with a momentum that churned the stomachs of the watching English. But not, apparently, their players.

Every tackle in that relative Parisian crisis bred an eager and an instinctive but heads-up realignment. On 78 minutes Farrell – remarkably – heaves Harinordoquy to a standstill. On 80 plus he hammers the ball jubilantly, in pain, sideways into the crowd before crumpling at the moment of celebration, his ribcage and shoulder area a bruised concertina. The last eight minutes or so had been a huge and increasingly physical challenge for Lancaster’s posse; it was one that almost to a man they accepted and rebuffed with equal and united purpose. These minutes alone may have seen off the challenge of Nick Mallett as well as the challenge of this ultimately ordinary French side. Perhaps.

The subject of Lancaster’s seamless promotion has already occupied most of the post-match coverage. Rightly, Sir Stuart-in-Waiting has eloquently side-stepped the issue – in much the same way that the strikingly rejuvenated Croft eased by a bewildered Rougerie for his stunning try. Lancaster – sometimes to my frustration, I admit – has talked a good game, an even-tempered game, in a way that makes some of us want to throw soft toys at the telly. He is so deep into the culture of Coaching Responsibility and Calm that he appears on time to have sacrificed any real personality he may have for some imagined cleaner, higher purpose. (Either that or he is one terrifying boring bastard.) However, even cynics(?) or optimists(?) like me who crave for the ungroomed or the truly original must surely concede the man has done a blinding job.

England have had players for some years. Now they have a unit which has a powerful understanding of fair expectation; to commit bravely and fully and generously to the wonderful and silly notion that mates and fans alike must be carried, connected, on that national badge, through that roll of emotion and pride and volcanic charge to some fulfilling, unknowable end. A place where your best is good enough, provided it is a wholehearted best; a best expressive of actually rather profound, communal aspirations. Lancaster’s lot really do appear to have re-connected to this… for want of a better phrase… love of the game. And – not insignificantly – they have won three times now away from home.

But look; let’s get realer. This stuff may not move those who will choose the next England coach. They will quite rightly take a dispassionate view; one fostered by continual exposure to rule by committee. They will examine the credentials of the small handful(?) of contenders and they will do it whilst twirling expensive pens in an airless room where even memories are nullified. The immediate renaissance of fleshy resistance from Robshaw and co may not register here. Hypothetical achievements under contrasting new leaders will be imagined… and the weightless protractedly weighed. And Lancaster – despite being in post and serenely so – may not get the nod. Because a) ‘things aren’t that simple’ and b) there simply is no justice.

So that ten minute period – that mauve patch? – in the first half at The Stade, when England destroyed the French with (amongst other things) a crushing tackle from the stropmeister Ashton, brilliantly exploited by Dickson’s quick hands and Tuilagi’s irresistible charge, may not be as seminally influential as it felt. The nature, the ludicrous majesty of Morgan’s bursts into rural France, followed by his exquisite offloading to support may not count for his gaffer. Even though we felt they were landmark statements of new-found belief; such things fade; such things fade.

In beating France, in finding something to believe in, the English have transformed both themselves and arguably this Six Nations tournament. They have genuinely become the second best team in Europe. They have begun to shake off their unholy and unworthy past. They have, in a really good way, made the choice for their next Head Coach a very, very big call.

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?

Oh England my lionheart?

I may junk this first sentence because you may not get how treble-edgedly smart it is – how both insinuatingly and philosopho-buntingly alive it is – despite appearances. Let’s try…

It’s a big week for England.

So big it needs exposure; like some craggy castle or monkish retreat now unveiled as home to bulging but youthful talents previously hushed by authoritarian loonies. Like Capello; or Johnson; or Margaret Thatcher – Boadicea! So big because two magisterial rivals come to call, bringing again their frankly superior entourage of exotic skills. Wales and Holland; the passionate and the cool. Welsh brio again soon to be anthemically lit by amply-lunged, prop-proportioned women in red; Dutch ease fanned by a sea of orange madmen in Wember-ley.

A zenith of sports-cultural counter-activity approacheth, or so it feels, as “Gwlad” rehearses itself in the dingle-dell that is the red soul of Wales and the misleadingly understated Nederlandpeeps fold their tangoesque flags. Buildup of a particularly rich, vocal and simmeringly intense quality is building up. In Wales a low appreciative hum has begun to throb as news of the return of Warburton and Wynne-Jones and Lydiate has slid ominously around. You don’t need to know the Welsh for “kop that bach” to sense the tectonically impressive confidence around the confrontation with Lancaster’s undemonstrative charges. No arrogance yet, but a belief amongst the star-hung valleys that Wales rugby – with the stamp of world-wide approval – has a real current supremacy throughout these allegedly United Kingdoms.

And Holland, who despite their comparatively low ebb, are expected to carouse serenely around the very emblem of ‘our patch’ like the special edition Martin Dobsons or Alan Hudsons we know them to be. Sometimes almost cruelly or arrogantly brilliant, Dutch sides have a habit of quietly handing out a lesson or twelve in the art of composure and ball retention. Admittedly this does not always end in victory but typically it does end in the revelation of inadequacy amongst their English oppo’s. Such is the potential for embarrassment against this particularly Dutch capacity to bypass traditional (anglo-saxon?) confrontation (er… by passing) that I am clear Stu Pearce’s selection of tumbling youth is made in full consciousness of the likely outcome of a ‘full-strength side’ competing. They’d get quietly outplayed, probably, as usual.

Cynical? Perhaps. But the selection of a slack handful of worthy young’uns removes fears of more than one variety. In truth I expect the starting line-up for England to look… how can I put it…? Unreckless. In a squad looking frankly short of top talent – remember the Terrys’, the Ferdinands, the Lampards, for all their diverse frailties did have international quality – a 4-4-1-1 of Hart/Richards,Jones,Smalling, Cole/Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Young/Rooney/Sturridge or pretty similar might be our strongest available. Expect run-outs or more from Cleverley and Wellbeck as additional elements of youff-encouragement. The chronic shortage of goal-keeping back-up remains an issue, as do the centre-half slots and arguably the striker(s). Can we swap a right back with somebody, I wonder?

But let’s not kid ourselves. The rugby is infinitely more tantalising a prospect. Stuart (Clive Woodward School of Smart Blandness?) Lancaster has done a decent-plus job of bringing England round from their World Cup hangover. He sits somewhere between articulate Yorkie schoolteacher and Rugby Bore in a way that worries me slightly; like Woodward he might seem inadequate and slightly out of time if England lose anywhere badly. Currently – as they have managed to win bravely but fairly badly in Italy and in Scotland – he remains untested in that respect. (A diversionary footnote here; did anyone else who saw Woodward’s ‘mare of a performance on Hardtalk the other night – dull/reeking of fusty anoraks – question how much of All That Stuff He Achieved was actually down to him, I wonder?)

New model Stuart L’s England have played like a side run along well-propounded dictums; solidly and with conservative purpose rather than inspiration. Hodgson’s absence for this weekend has – in the great tradition of Best Teams Selected By Injury – realigned an especially well balanced English back line; one that may yet prove to be exceptional. Half-backs Dickson and Farrell; centres Barritt and Tuilagi; wings Strettle and Ashton; Foden at full back. This is a good lineup. It has composure in defence and power and the possibility for electrification going forward. What it lacks, relatively, is of course experience (and tries?) placing a huge burden upon young Farrell at pivot.

But Farrell seems very much the unflappable type – possibly even culturally so, given his lineage. Whether a close-quarters encounter with Sam Warburton’s ludicrously enhanced biceps might change this impression is hard to predict… but Owen does seem unflappable. He gathers, he kicks. He plays within himself and almost certainly within the (arguably fairly limited?) game plan. Given that England are not likely to stray too ambitiously from a containing/territorial game against the gifted Welsh the likelihood may be that a tightish affair ensures; unless somewhere a dam breaks.

On the colourifically-aspirational side for the whites, the selection of Tuilagi amplifies hopes for some liberation from repeatedly prompt felling of English attackers at the gainline. This boy can run. And the way he runs suggests a love of that simple pleasure – cradling the ball whilst sinuously, boy-in-the-parkfully rampaging up the pitch. Indeed the battle of the centres in this match (both Roberts and the now fully-emerged Davies surely Lions-in-waiting in every sense?) could be either (oh go on, take those liberties!) swervaciously or, more prosaically crunchingly magnificent. It really could be wonderful – would that England come out and play!

They probably won’t. Certainly not early on. Surely? Even if the quadruple-bluff of an immediate Barbarian-style English onslaught has fabulous appeal, surely they won’t. Coaching thoroughbred that he is, Lancaster will have them ear-twitchingly prepared; nose-bagged up; with a freshly-pressed but learned-by-rote game plan. The skipper will lead his men nobly. Morgan and Dickson will be ready. Foden will have the occasional foray. But the occasion will demand foremost that the dam not be breached. And anything further… becomes a bonus, an opportunity, as Lancaster might say, upon which we must capitalise.

Blandishments aboundeth? I’m personally fed up with the word ‘mentality’ tripping so pretentiously/unpretentiously from the rehearsed mouthings of the England camp. So much that I’m going to use it and leg it past, sharpish – treat it like the stink-bomb it is. The quality of this match will depend far too much I’m afraid on the mentality of the men in white. They have it in their hands to deliver us something sensational but the reality is likely to be ordinary.

Previously I have waxed – and then some – on the profound successes of the Welsh. If they do, as I think they may, go to Twickenham and again demonstrate the kind of fearless yet focused rugby fizzing with the simple joys then they will march on with the support of the morally-enhanced majority. A classic ding-dong confrontation, in which a rejuvenated England play a full part until Welsh brilliance finally denies them, is surely the ideal scenario – even England fans might appreciate that? Eventually.

There’s no action at all

The colours are beginning to gather and swirl.  Or at least in my head they are.  And this year, there is a freshening up of if not the hues or emblems then certainly some of the imagery.  Ireland swap perennial likeable erratic celtic scurrying for stolid consistency. England go skinny-dipping into a brave new brick-pond.  Wales – dashing and smashing Wales – seek quietly desperately to do what they just did once more.  France try fundamentally to get a grip, Italy to get a win (again) and Scotland… Scotland gathers once more into a determined huddle with a rare degree of authentic belief.  This much at least suggests itself from the recent announcements of 6 Nations personnel.

On balance it seems great; a feistily competitive tournament awaits; an even one perhaps, where England may have been transformed from the Great Boring Shadow over the affair into The Real White Fluffy Bunny of Hope.  Ideally.

Or where Wales accept the challenge of doing that thing all over again and do, whilst breaking down the walls of tradition through being majestically/counterintuitively pragmatic in order to win.  Or where Scotland really really actually actually do beat people they threaten to beat on paper, following their allegedlyinfact real progress.   And these are just the obvious shifting gems in my own particular admittedly Brit-centric kaleidoscope.

I’m actually guessing England’s necessary evolution will stereotypically not feature some flamboyant casting off of the recent dull iron.  The talk of youth and the manifest rejection of Tindall/Banahan and arguably Easter points to a healthy injection of pace and flexibility, with the newboys Farrell and Barritt for example looking suitably geared up to facilitate that requirement.

Yet talk really is cheap when it comes to the international level; particularly in reference to ‘playing a more expansive game’.   Getting notably duffed up in the first ten by a politically motivated Scots back-row might throttle back rose-tinted English  ambition pretty sharply I sense.  And more specifically, if Lancaster does go for Hodgson Farrell Barritt(?) as 10-12-13, half of England as well as all of Scotland will be initially concerned with how they cope, never mind how they play.

Hodgson has been widely admired as a top and consistent performer in the Premiership but am I alone in wondering whether he has the temperament or (go on, say it) The Bottle to boss things on an international stage?  Particularly one that specifies Murrayfield first-up.  His nature and my memory of said nature suggests otherwise.

But such is the lot of the 10.  Current expectation, history and some large hairy geezer all bearing down…

Unquestionably though, the ability or otherwise of the English to reinvent themselves into a modern/competitive/fit for purpose top level international side is clearly going to impact on the destination of the 6 Nations trophy.  Not particularly because any of us expect them to win it but because they have, as they say, players.

But do they have a team?

Wales have different pressures.  A near-magnificent Word Cup adventure; a coaching triumvirate in Gatland/Edwards/Howley that gathered them then to a collective peak of confidence and execution, now needing to do that most challenging of things – rinse and repeat.  Dangers of expectation and of maintenance; maintaining that spirit; maintaining intensity without shackling that glorious expression; maintaining composure when suddenly Faletau/Warburton are getting knocked back.  Defending without distraction when every fibre screams out for release.  And maybe most pointedly, plastering over cracks where key players should be.

I have a hunch that Priestland, perversely, may find life in the 6 more testing than it appeared at the World Cup.  His chief attribute seemed then his general coolness – the boy making no claim to threaten the exclusivity of King John and his mercurial followers in the national out-half slot.  He succeeded in being effective without sparkling and I wonder how that key balance – territory versus terrorism? – will play out this time.

Hook is surely a bigger talent, but one flawed or compromised or perceived to be, following the occasional interception of a killer pass.  Given that much of the gut-churning tension generated by test matches inveigles its way into the heads/hearts/feet/hands of the number 10’s, the pulse of the Welsh side will calm or quicken according to the quality of will and the steel shown by Priestland or by Hook.   Because – in one of their bigger calls? – the coaches have dispensed with the doughty Stephen Jones.  May youth and imagination prosper.

The Irish fascinate me.  Not just through their capacity to produce the world’s finest and most rewardingly sustaining drink – although many a thesis could be written to conjoin Guinness and creative genius – and then link that dubiously to numbers 4 to 7/possibly 8 on a rugby pitch.  (I’m not going there, quite.)  But Ireland have been and do remain a threat mostly(?) when the O’Connells to the Heaslips seem possessed of an electrically charged, patriotically driven fury.  Then low-centred centres have relentlessly exploited newly-exposed soft-centres.  That is still likely to be the Irish Way.

To be more specific, there are times when the Irish carry irresistibly – when the pick and go is developed into a carousel of green violence few can resist.  O’Connell will be selflessly but in every sense leading this charge; as skipper and as totem for that special kind of focussed but physical examination.  Ireland do have quality in the backs – witness the omission of Luke Fitzgerald – but a certain BOD has often been the baton-carrier into the lethal phases, has he not?

It strikes me that Bowe in flight is a classy but a pretty rare sight in recent times because of this sniping midfield obsession; one which works fiercely but historically only intermittently, often off the back of a roaring home crowd. Is this, I wonder a reflection of the lack of ubertalent as well as a mark of the propensity for world-class defiance?

So I am fascinated by the onward roll of a part-green part-gold generation; which despite its relative consistency has spikes of over and underachievement.  Which of these Irelands, these Wales’s, these Englands will actually turn up?

My opening gambits.  As such they are hardly exhaustive – and I do intend to take on the Scots and the rest more forensically later.   But with kick-offs so invitingly, so deliciously approaching, it does feel good as well as appropriate to be all mouth and no action for now.

A Knight in Shining Foil?

There’s been a whole pile of stuff written about JW this week, following his typically understated exit from international rugby.  Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph wrote with notable insight and sensitivity to the various and often conflicting Wilkobsessions, offering a real sense of the uncalm crypto-buddhism thing haunting or guiding the extraordinary Englishman.

For Jonny was/is at once the least fly of fly-halves, the most lion-hearted mute, the most innocent and most experienced body.  He is special and yet magnificently, unchangingly doubty; robotically brave and yet disappointingly free of ambition.  We’ve seen a knight in shining foil – often cruelly exposed to the lances of Backrow Baddies or occasionally brittle self-confidence.  And yup; Jonny’s been kinda DEEP.

And that’s hugely rare for a really top level sports-guy, right?  (Or maybe not?)  But peculiarly, Jonny has enjoyed or endured almost Beckhamesque levels of interest and exposure during his decade of world domination; being in relative isolation the single most obvious rugby player on the planet for a good deal of that time.  And being handsome and beautifully mannered and loyal and utterly worthy and yes… impervious and deep.

England’s World Cup winning side were the only team for decades to really break the Tri-Nations stranglehold on the number one slot in the global game.  For maybe 2 years they were the unlovely best – but they were the best.  During and after this period a frequently less than fully fit Wilkinson deconstructed all-comers with a stunning if relatively narrow mixture of tactical and goal kicking.  Combined with the likes of Hill, Johnson, Back, Dawson, Greenwood he threw a blanket over any ambition the opposition might have had… then punished them.  England should have won the tremulous final against Australia by 15 points, such was their superiority but it was entirely right that Jonny coolly – with his weaker foot – slotted the deciding kick.  Entirely right.

What we need to do perhaps is look at his gifts – what he offered – as well as calibrate his undoubted efficiency.  Foremost amongst these was/is surely a kind of ultra-honesty; an elite selflessness.  Jonny gave massively to the cause. He was central rather than sensational. Indeed, the somewhat brutal truth may be that he was simply not extravagantly gifted; therefore we do revert, rightly, to prosaic assessments of his legacy; to points.

I mistrust records – points on any board always being a function of external qualities – era/opposition/position/role etc etc – but in Wilkinson’s case it is his metronomic facility to punish and reap from infringements and opportunities presented that describe him most fully.  For years he was the most feared accumulator in world rugby.  You went off your feet – he punished you.  You encroached at re-alignment – he punished you.  It’s therefore perfectly appropriate rather than begrudgingly limiting to describe him as an Ice-Cool Points Machine.

As is now being acknowledged widely, he mattered, had to be factored in to every game plan – not because he was Barry John (and therefore he might feint and dance mercurially through you) – but because he would punish you if you offered him 3 points.   This may mean that he is less great than some members of the Gene Kelly School of outside halves; but in the modern game, where it feels as though preparation (mind games) and Game Management (Mind Games on a White board?) play an arguably disproportionate role, Wilkinson has really mattered.

That iconic moment when he finally slotted the World Cup winning drop was, for me, mostly memorable as a uniquely liberating moment of personal triumph for ‘Jonny’ – Jonny personally.  When have we seen him so purely ecstatic?  When else has the responsibility of Wilkohood slipped  so deliciously away?  And how long after did he leave it before trudging out again to practice?

Perhaps he’s entrapped me here, through that punishing introspection of his, into indulgence, navel-gazing; but I find myself wondering how lovely it might have been for us to see him enjoy things more, ‘express’ himself more.  However this probably misjudges him.  He more than anyone has personified a kind of streamlined, ineffable but heroic purpose.  He wants to get the team through.  In game mode, he would rarely – very rarely – contemplate beyond the necessary, the management of the game, the kicking of the kick.

So pointless – hah! – to judge him as though he is capable of going beyond his remit, which was what, again?  Oh yeh… to be perfect.  To be ludicrously brave in the tackle (braver than any 10, ever); to be the best kicker in the world to the extent that Games Were Won Almost Always By Him Alone.  And, incidentally, to be uniquely, hair-shirtedly whiter than white.

Don’t ask him to be Carter or even Contemponi.  He is not.  Jonny Wilkinson is, iconically, a great sportsman and appropriately in an age of highly-crafted Business Bull, a Team Player Extraordinaire.  Respect!