… But don’t call this a steppingstone…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Six Dimensions.

Through that haze of beer and banter the single most memorable thing about Wales’ outstanding defeat of England is simply that it was a fabulous sporting occasion. Whether you were there, in the pub (like me), or at home flying miserable solo. I have little no doubt that even you residents of Billy-No-Matesville found the telly-throbbing energy of the thing compensating pretty entirely for your (on reflection) shocking absence from Cardiff itself. Meanwhile in the er… Six Dimensions of the pub I can tell you it was fierce and joyous and fun.

This is a unique fixture anyway – we all know that. Ludicrous or not, the hairy-arsed oval-ball diehards and the clean-cut and the metro-sexually svelte amongst the Welsh would pretty uniformly trade failure elsewhere in order to win this one. Because it’s England. The argument that this seepage of energy in a single direction may effectively undermine more serious campaigns against (for example) the Tri-nations elite barely penetrates the national consciousness here. Blame Owain Glyndwr or Dylan Thomas or Ivor The Engine if you will. Or watch Alun Wynne-Jones (that’s Al-leeen, by the way) sing ‘Mae hen wlad fy’n hadau’ then just go with the irresistible flow of it – the Taffness of it – because the scope of this one is not, in fact, to be described. Only to be felt. It felt extraordinary yesterday.

What you don’t see outside the principality is that huge numbers of ordinary Welsh people – old/young/sporty/non-sporty – get their red kit on and join in. There is a kind of post-Boyceian National Grid running off the generally good-natured but admittedly fast-twitch-fibrous boozy nationalism centred around the capital. On days like yesterday, with England in town, with the roof closed, with Everything To Play For, the Millenium Stadium itself does generate something special. The word ‘atmosphere’ falls short; this being something simultaneously cathartic and communally-shared, inspiringly epic and piercingly, soul-searchingly intimate – for players and crowd. So deal with that, England.

Pre-match there was speculation around the relative inexperience amongst Lancaster’s side, specifically the lack of Millenium experience. It was one of many sub-plots to the contest that alcohol-fuelled or fuelling cod-psychologists such as myself raised with our glasses. Who might be brave enough to be calm in such a maelstrom? Farrell? Possibly. Young/Launchbury/Marler/Goode? Who knows? Clearly there was an advantage for the homesters – might this really tell? Within about six minutes, it had.

Wales absolutely de-stroyed the English pack at an early scrum… and then again… and the pattern was effectively set. A retreating England reverting to conservative type (understandably) but crucially feeding the glowering opposition possession, via more or less aimless kicks from Goode, Youngs and Farrell. Kicks which fell either deliberately or accidentally several yards beyond any follow-up chase. If the policy was to hoist and sit back and defend resulting charges with composed resolution, both the law of averages and the intimidating scenario mitigated against success. Wales (or anybody else half-decent) will hurt you if you give them 70% of the ball. Most likely, kicks were nervously over-hoofed.

Wales dominated every area and as the game grew, so did that domination. Robshaw started well but was ultimately swamped under the outstanding Welsh back row – where Tipuric matched at least the excellence and ferocity of Warburton. Wood and Croft seemed near-irrelevant. Likewise Tuilagi, the one possible source of loose canonry from the whites. The most natural of the English runners took his eye off a perfectly catchable pass half-way through the first half and was never seen again as an attacking force. Ashton – who quite frankly had no right to have set foot on the park, given his desperate contribution to the tournament – made only a further decisive grab for the individual wooden spoon, as worst player in the #6nations. This the most obvious error by the England management.

Beyond that, Lancaster and co sat back and went through their full, eighty minute grimace routine. The irresistibility of the Welsh was to most a thing of some wonder… but not, I suspect, for the watching Rowntree, Farrell Senior and Lancaster himself. Rowntree will know he has to take a long hard look at himself and his forwards, post the mangling they received in every facet of play. The fly-half’s dad will not either have enjoyed much of what he saw. His son stood up to be counted with a huge second half hit in midfield that momentarily stemmed the flow but even that defiant clump counted for little. Remarkably, Wales were not just winning the championship, they were absolutely rampant, with Cuthbert scorching in for two tries as the scoreboard went into Cymro-dreamland.

The tempo of the Welsh game, upped from the outset by a re-energised Phillips enabled an unthinkable demolition of a previously doughty English defence. Momentum is maybe the word of the sporting decade; here Wales had it in spades, in lorry-loads; they were mining it. After maybe five minutes of parity, at no time in the game did England threaten. But think on that. Even when looking an effective side, they have looked somewhat toothless, have they not? Goode and Brown seeming competent or composed often enough but rarely menacing. As chirper-in-chief Austin Healey has said, they still lack magic.

At the Millenium, with Barritt looking a solid defender but little else and Tuilagi as absent as any white from the line-breaking stats, Wales indulged. Roberts finally found some form, making headway for the first time for aeons. Davies ran with belief and both Cuthbert and North cut through. Wales – the team and the nation – could barely believe its luck; full-on and wonderful indulgence followed. It looked, sounded and felt spectacular; like top, top international rugby football does.

It’s unwise I know to use words like ‘massacre’ in the sporting context. But that was what we were saying, in the pub, when the screen said 30-3. You wondered, looking at good English players being repeatedly over-run or out-flanked or out-fought by this Brotherhood of Redness, whether the occasion had swallowed them, or had their limitations been simply found out? Or more exactly I wondered that – the rest of Wales was bouncing now, in (and I don’t mean this critically!) dumb euphoria at a win against the English.

Afterwards and later – yes – the ifs. Principally, ‘If Wales had turned up in the first forty against Ireland… blahdiblah’. They didn’t. As England were here, Wales were simply blown away that day – that one half – by the passion and the belief and the pace of the opposition. Otherwise, obviously, a Welsh Slam. That both the Irish and the French should have such crushingly disappointing tournaments – such bad ones – maybe does reflect the ordinariness of some of the fare. Perhaps this #6nations did need a carnival farewell ? Thank you for that to Wales and the Welsh.

 

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A parliament of hunches.

Have no idea what the collective for suppositions is but will hoof it swiftly past that anyways. On my way to a scurrilous series of toe-singers. (That’s sin-jers, not Shirley Bassey’s, by the way. Toes dipped in hot… oh please yerselves!!)

Sometimes we need to free ourselves up, ‘allow’ ourselves to push/shove/eat the envelope and now feels like such a time. On the eve (dingding!) of round 3 of the #6nations, after that deliciously distracting interval, I’m so-o ready to loosen up the collar – or maybe turn it up, Cantona-like – affect some languid and yet authoritatively blokey pose and spray loose parler around the place, laced or made piquant with that hint of you know… omelette-sur-visage. Potentially.

Because France have no chance. Everything points to them getting solidly beat by a better, better prepared, more competent, more confident England side.

There we have it. That deadly/perfectly reasonably constructed argument/opinion thing. Opined with shameless confidence – the pre-cursor, as we know to disaster. But what can a fellah do when the instinct coalesces so convincingly with the box-ticking review of the evidence? England are good/France have been bad; England have order and faith/France, apparently, do not. No matter that the French line-up is transformed into something looking like a proper international side – with particular quality in the back row and in midfield, methinks – the overwhelming likelihood is that England are too good and too on it to succumb. That’s the essence of this bébé, surely?

Everyone can score a breakaway try, mind. Farrell could throw a loose one and Fofana intercept. England’s immaculately shorn ice-man could get momentarily flustered under a charge from Dusatoir or Basteraud (who wouldn’t?); a charge down and suddenly England are under the cosh. All this could happen. But what is more likely is a measured territorial game from Les Blancs leading to more expansive phases as the try-line beckons. And then French indiscretions… which are punished by young Owen. Or, more excitingly, the likes of Goode or Ashton burst from deep and the French defence – which I expect to be brave but not flawless – is breached. England will not need too much encouragement to make a right mess of a disorganised away side in constant fire-fighting mode. This is my hunch centrale.

Yes of course Les Bleus have big brave men who will stun any rampaging Ros Bifs; I wonder though, if they will do it consistently, inviolably, across the back line(?) Tuilagi and Ashton and Lawes in particular will surely be primed to race or blast away and if the whites do maintain the composure that seems currently their chief asset, Dusatoir and Basteraud can’t be everywhere. I expect therefore, England to score.

The likelihood is that a substantially changed France (even whilst being a substantially improved France) will get found out. Because on the one hand England are a more multi-dimensional side than for many years – witness the availability and the presence and the intelligence of Robshaw and the full-on rangy athleticism of Lawes – and on the other France appear rudderless and (actually) soulless. The restoration of the underwhelming but steadyish Trinh-Duc and the generally excellent Parra admittedly nudges the match closer to a broadly competitive fixture but this collection of good French players has most often played (let’s be honest?) embarrassingly poorly over the last two years. And yes, I do include in that their weirdly inept adventure to the most recent World Cup Final.

Freakishness or yellow cards stand out as the main hope for Les Bleus; a rush of blood from Lawes, a midfield calamity for Goode or Farrell. Otherwise, they get comprehensively whacked.

The real game is likely to be happening at Murrayfield, where Scotland take on Ireland. This is dangerous territory for any of us sifting for a winner. So much so that all I am falling back upon is that ole feeling that the Irish are stronger all around… and that this will somehow see them through. I would feel a tad more confident about this if Bowe and Sexton were lining up, for sure, but again my hunch is that the ferocity and keenness of the Irish back row may tell here. That and something I can only identify as the greater energy of the green group – or maybe a higher threat level within that energy(?) Most unscientific, I know but I am happy enough to sniff out the visceral here rather than break out some teat pipette.

Crass but probably true, Ireland will be spitting blood over their relative no-show against England and the poor displays by certain generally key individuals in that game. They will be more fired up than a very fired up thing. The clearing out around rucks will be wince-inducing, I suspect. The round-the-corner charges will be of the hallucinating wildebeest variety. So if Ireland manage to dominate or even share possession and territory… I fancy them. If not – and this may be the aesthetically more pleasing option – if Scotland have and spread the ball convincingly and do manage to break that gain-line… look out. An all-new and more fully competitive member of the 6 nations brotherhood might emerge.

Scotland knows and feels that again they are on the brink of something; they have BACKS, for godsakes! Is this side – motivated by the recently installed bent cop/bad cop combo, remember? – really about to square up and legitimately compete, though? Without getting contemptuously swatted aside? Or will it flirt and dart and disappoint? Let’s hope, for the good of this tournament, that Murrayfield really roars.

Italy have lost their lynchpin, their idol, their skipper, their sole world-class player. So they must surely lose at home to Wales. Parisse has been chopped for chopsing and though ’tis a grievous loss, ’tis prob’ly for the best. (I have seen no evidence of what was actually said but suspect he overstepped an important mark. Rugby cannot go the way of football in terms of abuse of the ref.) Sadly, this may be instrumental in the Italians falling back, significantly, towards their previously relatively undignified scramble for an occasional home win. Shame.

Wales meanwhile have the opportunity to lay down a marker for the perennial monster mash-up against England. If they can expand upon that mighty but mighty ugly win against the hapless French, Ryan Jones’s gathering operation may further hike expectations as well as tensions for the Millenium clash. Making Wales-England a game with a proper championship feel to it; I guess? In Rome, Wales should win and win with a clutch of tries.

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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.

 

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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!! amzn.to/SSc9To

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.