Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.
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Women’s World Cup: Nederlands v Italia – & everything.

Live-blog; being updated and ideally improved as the afternoon/evening proceeds. Might mean it’s worth reading twice, six hours apart… or might mean nothing. 👊🏻

Blazing sunshine apparently, in London and visibly in France but not here. Actually quite a relief to sink back into the settee and squint into that dazzling screen, for Italia versus Nederlands, on an immaculately striped pitch looking strangely lush, given reported temperatures.

We’re off. Several minutes of rushes and errors; familiar banks of orange; Miedema still walking about the place; and did I mention (perhaps not, it might be foolish) how gratifying it feels to see a black woman (Gama) skippering the Italians?

After 17 minutes Bergamaschi rather hurries, rather fluffs the first significant chance, merely gently hoisting a knock-on that she might have waited on, then smashed home. Despite the heat, there’s not much measurement of things, so far.

Not long after, the same striker cuts in from the right, creates space for a left-foot screamer but executes an ego-shrinking scuff. But Italy have gone ahead on points, in an admittedly rather mediocre bout, thus far.

Last night, in contrast, we were treated to a fabulous, deliciously-heightened occasion, with the home nation beaten in the end by a U.S. team that surely reaffirmed its status as the most powerful side in the world. Rapinoe, that symbol both of sparky liberal activism (off the pitch) and sparky-but-powerfully-efficient authority (on the pitch) scored twice as the Americans snuffed out the French Dream.

Diani kindof epitomised the cultural difference. The French forward was swift but infuriatingly imprecise – raw in a way that Morgan or Rapinoe or anybody in white just wasn’t going to be – USA doing streetwise and competent or better, much more than they were ever going to do ‘frenetic’. (This doesn’t mean the visitors weren’t ruffled; having established a 2-0 lead they were challenged, brilliantly at times, by a French comeback prompted by the consistently excellent Henry).

Bottom line, the stronger team came through, in my view with reputation and expectation enhanced. Their organisation and athleticism seems a notch higher even than that of an encouragingly developing England, to the extent that the main hope for Neville’s side really might be that the Yanks have been drained from the standout occasion of the event so far, sapping as it was – Le Grand Match, as it was widely described.

But back from that truly exhilarating and hopefully inspirational action to Holland-Italy: 0-0 at the half, with a four-out-of-ten performance from the first named. Both disappointing and a little surprising, as the women in orange have more quality and greater depth of quality than their opposition this afternoon.

Perhaps the extreme conditions suited the Dutch less well? Might figure. Whatever, the six-out-of-ten Italians would be sucking more contentedly on their ice-lollies (that’s what we do in a heatwave, right?) during the break.

Second half and Holland are better by a percentage. Not entirely a surge but a quiet reversal. From a corner, Van de Donk finds Martens, who has acres just outside the box. She shapes to curl… but finds the top of the bar. A goal, however, *may be coming*.

Wow. Spitse drills a boomer of a free-kick from best part of thirty yards, striking the outside of Giuliani’s right-hand post – reminding me (I think) of Arie Haan or somebody clouting it from four miles distant in the Mexico(?) World Cup. Holland increasingly dominant.

On the negative side… well, let’s start with a positive. Refereeing standards at this event are up on previous tournaments. However, the officials are (amongst other things) spending waay too much time in protracted, sometimes overly animated ‘discussion’ with players. They need to be saying less and enacting the laws more promptly. Onwards.

Miedema scores. Miedema who has yet again mooched about moodily and barely broken the proverbial, despite egg-frying heat, has nodded… and notched. You don’t know whether to hate her or love her. She is a lazy, flukey, pesky-in-an-irritatingly-non-irritating way kindofa something. She does nothing but score. She’s a bloody genius!

In the 79th, van de Gragt nods a second. Thirty seconds later, Miedema could drive a third but no. But now it is feeling ver-ry different. Like the game is up.

Italy respond with some urgency but little belief (and because, frankly, of that lack of quality) fitfully. They can’t sustain the effort, the possession: they are generally two-nil worse than Holland. Often that means nothing; today – the day that Miedema once more scoffed in the face of meritocracy – today it felt just enough.

 

Germany Sweden. Expecting a German win, because you do. They start though they expect exactly that. Sweden should be pret-ty durable but they may not be able to resist the predicted wave of attacks. Maybe.

Magull half-hits a free-kick which Lindahl takes comfortably. Then some reaction.

Sweden rush forward repeatedly, with some commitment and not a little ingenuity. It’s an important sign that this won’t be what we used to call ‘Backs and Forwards’ in the good old days. Germany are going to be tested, defensively, rather than merely resisted. Good.

Ah. Then Dabritz drives, centrally and flips a delicious pass into the box. It’s bouncing but Magull adjusts and shifts beautifully before crashing home. Great goal, for Germany.

Great stuff (though). On 22 minutes, Sweden equalise. They have been playing with intent – like their opposition – in a game that’s sharp, open and promising. Both defences look porous, both sides are pleasingly proactive – ‘attacking’.

Second half. What we need is a Swedish goal to really stir it up. The wonderfully-named Stina Blackstenius obliges, profiting from a palmed half-save following a cross from the right. Now we have the model scenario – Germany, a hungry, determined, energetic Germany, chasing the game.

It’s becoming too bitty, though, to be a classic. On the plus side, both teams have heads up and are looking forward – are trying to play Bright Football. On the other, it’s not quite happening. Popp and Dabritz we know can be lethal… but the links are missing somehow.

Blackstenius nearly punishes a German error. In masses of space, attacking the centre from the left flank, she has only to skirt Hegering and she’s in. The centre-back times her tackle.

As we wait during a further drinks break, the sense that Germany need to raise this is growing. Despite a certain level of good possession they aren’t hurting Sweden. Indeed they no longer look the more threatening – just the more comfortable on the ball.

On 80 minutes this is urgent; still Germany pass and manoeuvre. Oof; a big moment as Popp is clattered by the keeper’s arm in an aerial challenge. Lindhal is lucky – she was clumsy and she cannot have known that Popp was marginally offside. VAR gets this right and we move on.

The goalkeeper makes a further error, failing to clear another right-wing cross but Oberdorf’s header is cushioned agonisingly wide. Germany are going for broke now – at the risk of conceding.

Dabritz has a half-chance but her left-foot shot across Lindhal is easily gathered. Six minutes of added time.

Hegering, thrown forward, can’t get over another inviting chip to the far post and nods over. Jakobbson, released, heads for the flag. The lines-person makes a hash of a corner/throw thing. Time ticks out.

A final threat peters out (should that be pieters out?) and Sweden are through. Seemed unlikely but this has been no fluke: hard-won, marginal, but no fluke. They beat a better team by being determined, well-organised and hugely committed. They will play the Netherlands in the ‘other semi’, believing that they are close to something remarkable.

The bulk of the universe has been focused heavily on the England/USA/France side of the draw and naturally now that England USA match-up will again draw most of the watching world’s attention. Whoever wins it will be favourites to win the tournament.

Because of their athleticism, experience and mental toughness, I imagine this will be Rapinoe & co. However, because of Houghton and Scott and White and Bronze, I do not rule England out. Further, because of Miedema, Blackstenius and the capacity, in sport, for belligerent, beautiful, baffling, magical lunacy, I’m *just not sure about this*.

Bronze makes it hers.

So a great win then. White again looking a complete, all-round centre-forward, Bronze finally absolutely grabbing the game, England generally looking a better-drilled, more luxuriantly-equipped side.

Norway a tad disappointing, if we’re honest. The energy of Engen was again noteworthy, just more in the defensive gathers than any attacking forays. Graham Hansen, possibly the greatest talent in the tournament (and in that sense something of a loss as we reach the endgames) significantly underachieved, looked pained and rather petulant, at times.

Jill Scott won’t care. The Lionesses’ heart yet again beat out the rhythm of the performance, being irrepressibly ever-present once more but again without quite reaching her max in terms of accuracy. Look out France/U.S./Whoever, if Scott *really does* find her radar; her rather heeled-in goal last night was just reward for another nonstop effort.

Neville and his staff got most things right again: Greenwood had to be dropped, Parris and Kirby had to shake off their lethargy or nerves and make more telling, more impactful contributions.

The flying winger was instrumental in much of England’s goal threat but still flashed and flickered rather. (She also missed a second pen of the tournament – one which given her in-&-out performance, she might never have taken). Word is Parris a bit of a card, a bit of a ‘character’: my guess is that there’s a whole load of front there but some real insecurity beneath – hence the recurring mixture of brilliance and frailty. More arms-round from Neville may still bring out more of her best, more often.

Kirby likewise improved, whilst still seeming occasionally wasteful or simply unaware. However, she starts from such a high base that even a 78% performance was always going to embarrass Norway on the night.

Because Norway were exposed, rather than England, to greater effect, repeatedly.

Jonathon Pearce, in commentary got things about right when he suggested a 5-2 scoreline might have been fair – whatever that means. The team in red were pretty much swept away *but*… how they failed to register will remain a mystery.

Houghton is close to the best centre-half in the world: for most of the game she looked it and the central-defensive partnership with Bright was looking more imperious than not. Then came some moments.

Bright appeared to take some hallucinogenic drugs through the second half and her skipper may have dabbled. They were weirdly off it, for a while, in a way which inevitably drew comments of the “can’t do that against such and such” sort. True enough. On balance though, England coped, being better organised, more strategic everywhere, and they defended well enough.

Stokes at left back, in for the frazzled Greenwood, started well and without being flawless, looked strong and quick throughout. Indeed in the first period, defensive concerns for England came almost exclusively – but okaaay, still rarely – from the other flank. Parris repeatedly drifted from her defensive duties, allowing space towards that right corner flag. Norway might have profited.

After Scott’s early pass into the net, Parris put White in for a volley smashed against the far upright and also engineered the tap in for the ‘Lionesses’ Harry Kane’ – a name I’ve heard but wish I could erase from the memory. Could well be that Ellen White may finish up top scorer in this Women’s World Cup whilst actually playing well – something her male counterpart has thus far failed to do. 😉

If the general story is about England marching more convincingly on, the the headlines will and should be about Bronze. Famously, Neville has challenged her publicly to show that she may be the Best Player in the World. Privately, after another decent but relatively restrained showing against Cameroon, he must surely have reiterated or re-worded that challenge.

Maybe he said…

“Bronzey, how about bursting out a bit more? Can see you doing the mature, composed international thing and love that. But how about showing these fuckers that they’re not fit to be on the same pitch as you – that you’re playing a different game. Go grab that game – go make it yours. All of us in the camp know that you can do that. You know that you can do that. Get out there and make this World Cup yours!”

She has – or has started to. The surge in the third minute, to make Scott’s opening goal. The heightened, more positive display. The goal, a thing of real beauty and power, a cheeky, ill-read double-bluffing re-run of stuff Norway should have noticed earlier – a triumph both personal and collective, having been plainly rehearsed prior to and during the match.

Norway should have been ready but Bronze blasted their belated rush into oblivion. What a strike!

So 3 – 0 again. And a part-brilliant performance. Who next?

England really will fear no-one; the quality they have is beginning to shine through the team, as opposed to just via individual contributions in the moment. Only Duggan seems to remain palpably below her par. Such is that development, it could now be that remaining sides would choose to avoid meeting Neville’s Posse ‘til the final, if that were possible? Because they really are a threat.

But next up, Bronze goes home – to Lyons. Might that be a further spur towards something special? But who against, who might be least accommodating to those English Dreams? France, or the U.S?

If I were choosing, I’d play France, anyday. Even with the possibility that they might ride the crest, they are less controlling, less controlled, less consistent. Great potential but so far a lot of waste, too, from the hosts. Let them have a night to remember and a staggering, exhausting extra-time win tonight… and let Lucy Bronze dispatch the French later.

Eng v Cameroon. Women’s World Cup.

Saying something about this game *without prejudice* is a challenge. When everything to rouse or confirm most every prejudice is in there: sex; race; notions of competency; deep frustration and moralistic anger.

Describing the action – ‘sticking to that’ – might help, you would think. But when the game is so lost in the bawl-fest and drift of the VAR, not necessarily. All of us, if we’re honest, stopped caring about the football, somewhere around the hour mark.

That was when England’s most frazzled player on a variously frenetic and rather feeble night, found herself on auto-pilot (this time in a good way) in the opposition box, scoring first-time from Duggan’s corner. Greenwood. Ridiculous. Three nil.

THREE NIL and then some. Some fallout, some previous, some pettiness and worse – something gone.

Hard to put your finger on the exact what or when or who of this, because the event was so littered with utterly deflating incidents, but no disputing that the game was actually done, come that 60 minute mark – arguably before. We were past sport and into travesty, more in the sense of betrayal-of-the-game (any game) than any clear injustice against team A or B.

I hardly dare go back – and when I do it won’t be to relate much of the detail of the endless horror-show that was the ‘drama’. The series of VAR interventions, interminable delays and, frankly, abdications from the referee, plus the ensuing near-mutinies by the aggrieved Cameroonians were an embarrassment to football.

Sounding high-handed? Possibly. But hard to avoid some level of fervour, here. Cameroon were angry – we get why they were angry – but they were out of order.

(It may be noted at this point that England’s signal achievement on the evening was to retain their own discipline: the more I reflect on this the more credit accrues, in fact. There was barely a spiteful challenge from Neville’s team. Just as pleasing, arguably, was the almost complete absence of kidology, or ‘drawing’ of fouls, pens, cards, from his players, who must have known pre-match that their opposition would be prone to what might be called The Agricultural).

Anyone who actually watched Cameroon’s previous matches will have expected issues to arise against an England who have manifestly better, more professional players.

We have to take care with our language – fair enough. Cameroon have shown spirit, have shown running power but have been (in the tournament, overall) on the ordinary side of naïve, with a modus operandi including athletic clumsiness alongside more malign intentions. They lack resources, they lack quality: some of this is neither the players nor the coaching staff’s fault. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Cameroon have looked a poor side, and (actually) a rather dishonest one – dishonest mainly in terms of being prone to (in the further euphemism?) “losing their discipline”.

Whilst I found the England Manager’s post-match interview a tad one-eyed and self-righteous on this, clearly Neville had a point when he said Cameroon, like anyone else facing disappointment or controversy, had to “deal with it”. This is part of sport. Instead they nearly had the game abandoned, such was the level of mutiny and dissent.

The ref and the VAR were certainly complicit in the ruination of the match but the Indomitable Lionesses were equally distinctly unimpressive: in fact even allowing for the emotion of the moment and the cultural-historical baggage they will have felt they were battling against, Cameroon were awful – they lost it. Let’s talk about the football.

England won 3-0 and yet they were disappointing. Kirby and Scott were available but strangely, consistently cross-wired – Kirby to the extent that consideration will be given to her playmaking position. (She made little of England’s comparatively little play).

Parris was again below par; Neville has work to do to gather some confidence around her. Greenwood might have been brought off at the half, such was her discomfort. The possession-based game that England are striving for wasn’t there: instead, they fluffed too many easy passes, made too many poor decisions to find any real flow. Bronze – a tremendous player – is maybe doing that thing where you play so far within yourself that you fail to impact on the game in the way you can, or should: so both mature… and mildly frustrating.

Come the end of this profoundly unsatisfactory match, the gaffer might well have been proud of his side’s discipline – I get that. But he will be concerned that some of his best players are finding it so tough to bear the weight of that England jersey in tournament football. (Sound familiar?) Eyes seem a tad glazed over, out on that park.

Neville appears (again broadly, from a distance) to be doing an outstanding job with his squad: they are, however, entering the phase where exposure is more acute and margins get finer. Norway are much better than Cameroon: they have more skilled, controlled football at their disposal.

Could be, naturally, that the shift into a higher level of match suits these England players – gets that adrenalin, that sharpness going. The Cameroon Game was so-o shapelessly wretched that perhaps England were denied their right to play: maybe this explains, in some part, another unconvincing performance?

Let the authorities look at the implications around VAR, around the officials and at repercussions or warnings to the Indomitable ones. Meanwhile, despite their comfortable win last night, these England Lionesses do need a shot of something.

Going in…

Going in, who are/were favourites? Surely England, after a staggering-in-a-good-way performance against Ireland and an efficient one against France. (Wales have been okaaay, yes?)

But don’t we all love how history churns up the facts and the feelings about This One in Particular? How the stats befuddle, contradict, re-inforce, tease or spear-tackle what actually happened or will happen?

I just read something about England’s strong record in Cardiff. Then waded through my twitter feeds – apparently sponsored by Scott Gibbs Multinational. Then heard the following through some dreamily duplicitous channel or other; ‘it’s 14 degrees and no wind; the roof will be open; Barry John’s a late change, for Wales – Brian Moore, for England’. What, my friends, to believe in? It’s joyously-slanted carnage, before we start.

Carnage but fab-yoo-lussly so. Opinion, wise and otherwise, flooding the senses (and nonsenses?) like marauding hordes lusting for glory or a pint.

My hunch is England have found an extra, critical gear that may prove too much. But Wales have their strongest squad for years – a squad that has manifestly underachieved, performance-wise, so far, in the tournament – and it would therefore be plain daft not to accept that at home, vee Ingerland, they might *find something*. Wonderful questions remain.

The roles of Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies have received particular attention: the former because of both his electrifyingly brave attacking game and the recent English penchant for probing kicks ‘in behind’. Williams has been somehow less dynamic, for Wales, of late but clearly might win them the match, either in attack or defence. He is Proper Welsh in the fearless, lungbursting, ball-carrying tradition. My other Hunch of the Day is that he may find something bloody irresistible at some stage, this afternoon.

Davies is a player. If he had not suffered significant injury, he may already be being described as one if the game’s greatest ever centres. He has that silky-mercurial thing, the capacity to see things invisible to the mere mortals around him, plus a solid and sometimes inspired kicking game. Add in the elite-level non-negotiables (engine, courage, goodish pace, consistency) and you have a serial Lion. My Hope of the Day is that ‘Foxy’ relentlessly oozes class… then scores.

England have been so good, alround, that singling out either their stars or weaknesses feels weirdly inapplicable. Jonny May’s rightly been grabbing those headlines but it’s surely been the powerful performance-levels from 1-15 that have told.  Ireland were smashed and ransacked – Ireland! – France were largely dismissed. The despised Red Rose has to be respected, in rugby terms at least, for epitomising something so impregnably, communally awesome.

This latter phenomenon of course will merely serve to heighten desire amongst the Welsh. The arrival on their patch of a brilliant, ‘all-powerful’ England is tailor-made for the next instalment of this most tribal of fables. Going in…

Poor decision from the ref offers first chance to England. A kick from 40-odd metres. Suits left-footer more than right (despite being within Farrell’s range) but Daley pushes it slightly nervously wide.

Wales have good field position but their lineout again proves vulnerable – to a fine leap from Kruis. Noisy, frenetic, as expected, early-doors. Quite a number of England fans in the stadium: “Swing Low” gets whistled down.

Kick tennis. England in the Wales 22. Important defensive lineout for Wales. Again England make trouble – winning a free-kick. Wasted, by Farrell, with an obvious forward pass. “Ferocious start”, says Jiffy on the telly. He’s right. No score after 15.

Finally some points. Penalty almost in front of the posts – contentiously given, usual issue, scrum failure – Farrell accepts the gift. 0-3.

Couple of flashes, from Liam Williams but no significant line-breaks from either side. Wales penalty; again kickable but Anscombe aims for the corner. Wales secure the lineout then gain a penalty; should be a formality – is. Anscombe from 18 metres. 3-3.

From nowhere – well, almost – Curry runs through unopposed from ten yards out. All of us thinking “how the hell?” Farrell converts, to make it 3-10.

Immediately afterwards, Curry robs possession again, as England gather control. Wales must raise it – the crowd sense that and try to lift them. It is Wales who are under more pressure.

Finally, Wales find touch deep in the England half. But…

Lineout is clean but knocked forward from the tip-down. Frustrating for the home side – and crowd.

Feels like a big moment as May breaks out, chasing his own kick, deep. Parkes gathers but May, visibly pumped, hoiks him easily, bodily into touch, before bawling into the crowd. Wales hold out – just – and the half finishes with the visitors deservingly ahead. 3-10.

Consensus among pro pundits is that Wales must be more expansive – but clearly there are dangers around this. Slade, May and co can be pret-ty tasty in an open game.

Second half. Pacy, lively start. Eng, to their credit, look at least as likely as Wales to throw it wide. Nowell and Slade both prominent. They force another Wales lineout inside the 22.

England look to have pinched it again but they’re penalised for using the arm. So Wales escape but England better – dominating. *Bit of feeling* between the players, now.

Messy period follows; happily for Wales this results in May being penalised for holding on, after gathering just outside his 22. Anscombe nails the penalty.

It felt vital that  Wales troubled the scoreboard next: England seem simply a tad better, thus far and therefore unlikely to concede many points. Now the deficit for Wales is back to 4 points, at 6-10. Can the crowd change the mood? They’re certainly trying, now.

England may be a tad rattled. A high tackle by Sinckler (whom Gatland had baited, remember?) offers Anscombe another straightforward pen: accepted. 9-10 and game on. Wales have barely threatened but they are absolutely in this.

England, through Tuilagi and Vinipola, respond. Biggar enters, to a roar. Who has the nerve for this, now?

Earlyish Man-of-the-Match contender Curry strips Parkes again, to offer Farrell a 35 metre kick, in front. Slotted. 9-13.

Possibly the first sustained onslaught from Wales. Through at least one penalty advantage, via seemingly endless crash-bangs from the forwards, they finally score, through Hill! Predictably, Biggar succeeds with a truly testing conversion. The crowd is now a real factor. Wales lead 16-13.

72 minutes. England must produce… but suddenly Wales are bossing it, with Biggar already influential. Williams follows the stand-off with an inspirational kick-and-chase. Both players catching balls they had little right to claim. The crowd love it: the players are visibly lifted. Fabulous turnaround – England look done, Wales irresistible.

Hymns and arias.

The Finale. Biggar, with a ‘free play’, hoists one laser-like crossfield. Again, the Welsh player is second-favourite. Again – this time through Adams – it’s the Welsh that come out on top. Adams scores in the corner!

Huge, huge win. Wales were second best, by a distance for 50 minutes. They turned it round. At the end, they were undeniable – wonderfully so. They ran all over Jones’s men, who looked shell-shocked and muddled when they had to be focused, ambitious and bold.

The England camp will be furious and distraught. If it was The Plan to stay with a kick-based game and out-biff Wales, that plan was deservedly (and some would say righteously) exposed. Gatland’s lot were too tough, too organised and ultimately too hearty to capitulate to that. Wales endured… and then they roared.

*Mild cough*. Man of the Match? Liam Williams.

 

Marker.

Wow. A wonderful and possibly intimidating few anthem minutes, as the mythic ‘whole of Ireland’ stands tall, is followed promptly by a remarkably assured and attacking two minutes from the visitors. Farrell fires one riskily wide but flat; a further sharp exchange and May is in. The skipper caps off a stunning start with a crisp conversion. 7-0.

The try scorer then hurries a clearance kick to enter touch on the full: the subsequent phases end with mark being called by the same player, under some pressure. Play goes back, though, for a penalty and Sexton pots an easy one. Game on, inital nerves shed.

Playing conditions are significantly better than in Paris but it’s already clear that Proper International Rugby has broken out, here. The only notable error in the first 13 minutes is from the England flanker Curry, who misjudges a hit on Earls and is binned. Marginal but nonetheless infuriating for Eddie Jones, after an impressively solid start from his side. Ten demanding minutes to come.

They survive it, manfully throwing a blanket across the park – even breaking out, at times. It’s tense but the players look watchful and engaged.

Ironically, 45 seconds after Curry’s return, Ireland batter a way over in the corner. The combination of forward power and relentless baying from an impassioned crowd enough to make that score inevitable. Sexton drills a beauty through for the extra points. 10-7 after 26.

England respond. Farrell and Daley dink a couple of probing kicks to test out the new fullback’s mettle. Henshaw is quality, for me but the second of these does create some angst – to the point that Daley drops onto the resulting spillage, in Stockdale and Ireland’s ‘Huget moment’. Farrell dismisses the conversion through the sticks, magnificently. 10-14 now, to England.

It may not be exhilirating but this is engrossing – raw competitive in the extreme but disciplined, largely and fluent enough. England look close to their powerful, all-court best, as the half approaches. Best throws a skewed one, close to his own line and England have the scrum five yards out.

The melée delivers nothing conclusive. Neither does the review; Vunipola is denied, reaching and diving for the score. Penalty given, mind, and again Farrell smashes it through nervelessly. 10-17 does not flatter England as the ref blows.

Cat and mouse for ten minutes. Then England surge through the phases, left and right. They seem destined to grab more, possibly decisive points. They don’t.

Instead their attack breaks down and Ireland hoof ahead. Again the ball on the ground proves murderous. From nowhere, Ireland have pressure: ultimately that counts. Sexton penalty, 13-17.

As expected, defence from both teams is both organised and brutal. Everybody appears to be tackling like Tuilagi. England lose Itoge, injured and the changes start. Almost shockingly, the flawless Farrell misses a presentable penalty and the tension ratchetts up yet further, despite the measure of control exercised by the men in white.

Joy for Slade as he combines with May before winning the foot-race to the line. It’s reviewed (for possible offside) but the try counts. In the 67th minute the visitors’ lead has stretched to nine points and their combination of composure and guts looks like it will tell.

When Farrell makes a huge penalty – right at his limit – the lead is 12 points. Given that Ireland have very rarely threatened, this is now a relative cruise. Slade – looking strong and gifted on this most demanding of occasions – somehow intercepts, juggles and scores. Farrell converts.

13-32. Bonus point. We’re looking at an awesome win, a special marker, now.

Fair play, Ireland respond. An opportunistic try, with Sexton drop-kicking the conversion as we enter stoppage time. It ends 20-32.

If Wales’s win yesterday was extraordinary for its deliriously scruffy drama, this was different level. Ireland are a fine side: today they were well, well beaten. Of course it’s merely the start but this was such a complete performance that England will justifiably be favourites for this tournament… and seriously competitive *beyond*.

 

 

 

The Man Who Missed That Pen.

I will be updating this post live. Foolishly. Ghoulishly, perhaps.

 

Call it pre-match nerves but I feel a preamble coming on. No – worse. A pre-ramble.

I think it’s a fact that most of us with any interest in Ingerland were a little disappointed when Southgate was appointed; we feared that traditional lack of bite, spark, genius amongst England Managers would go on. Simple. The bloke’s another Fairly Bland One, reassuringly measured, non-controversial, after the boorish moron Allardyce. That’s what we thought.

Today at fourish, interviewed by the accomplished Gabby nee Yorath of the Beeb, he again piled up the evidence of our chronic underestimation. Not just eloquent but witty. Not just calm and responsible and shrewd but streetwise and persuasive. Clever but humble in a particularly good way.

I still harbour concerns but in the rough and tumble of things – if, specifically Colombia duff up his Young Lions later – I will be writing to my MP to express furious injustice and note to the universe that ‘Southgate has holistically transformed the way of things around the national team: that indeed may be his signal achievement, whatever happens, results-wise’.

England, under Southgate’s direction, are simply way more intelligent. Or are they?

In the sense that Southgate is palpably operating at a high level of sensitivity and awareness in respect of man-management – yes. With regard to playing style – yes (probably).

The Gaffer absolutely gets that the massaging or manouvering of egos or frailties is as central here as anywhere. By that I mean in any team the leader must understand the blend, the chemistry… but then be able to intuit (or rally, or bully) towards effective action or choice beyond.

Some people get that, some don’t. Southgate is strong in this – stronger than noisier, more obviously ‘inspirational’ managers, perhaps? Increasingly, it seems possible that his apparently quiet way is a way to create something surprisingly mercurial; players playing beyond expectation.

So a positive view really might suggest that largely because of the exercise of these soft skills (and of course essentially good tactical knowledge) the Man Who Missed That Pen has steered a refreshingly enlightened course. This doesn’t change, if England lose tonight: neither do my concerns.

Despite Southgate’s excellence, I wonder if too many of his players might feel the heat, if not literally, then via that fearful blowtorch conjured through brutally-heightened exposure and (that word again) expectation. I have been both supportive and critical of Sterling and remain concerned about his capacity to drift or disengage from Big Challenges. Let’s start with him.

I understand the guy’s a talent but would I be offering him that lynchpin/unpicker/punisher number ten role? Probably not. He’s been too anaemic too often and despite his goals for City his finishing is often dispiritingly poor. If you were twisted enough to bet on somebody ‘disappearing’ then maybe it would be him.  (I hope I’m wrong on this and if so then this will be another triumph for Southgate-as-Quiet-Wizard).

Elsewhere, Lingard’s progress feels patchy and like Rashford’s his talent appears inconsistently expressed. Hope he and his United colleague (who we imagine will start as sub, yes?) can get their incisive, threatening heads on rather than those wasteful ones.

The main threat to England, though seems likely to be from carelessness or overplaying at the back. Stones, Maguire and Walker can look fabulous and imperious but all have an error in them. With that in mind, I’ll be kindof expecting Colombia to press crazy-high and hard, early on, to try to force a clanger. If England do concede – especially through a goalkeeping or defensive howler, then that enlightened culture is going to be tested… which is as it should be, eh?

Enough, for now. It’s 17.57 so I better start my own, intensive warm-up.

18.50. Southgate on ITV, now. Cool. Emphasises ‘mental resilience’. Prob’ly read the blog? Then bloody adverts.

18.55. Glenda as Chief Pundit? Na. Get him to chip the keeper,  or hitch his shorts up… but talk? Nah.

18.58. Anthems.  An away game, then, for England.

Time for a ridiculous prediction? I think England are 4-1 better than Colombia. But that’s ridiculous!

Last thought, pre-kick-off, looking at the team. Not great quality but the blend… hmmm.

19.02. Neither team pressing really high.

19.05 Chance for England. Free-kick in danger zone, followed by threatening cross but disappointing corner.

19.08. Early signs that Lingard looking brisk and sharp. But Alli may be doing that too-cool-for-his-own-good thing. Maybe.

19.15. Great full-back’s tackle from Trippier – comprehensively robs the winger. England on top but no chances so far.

19.15. Brilliant move from England. Trippier flies round on overlap and ver-ry nearly finds Kane at the far post. Can’t get over the header.

19.20. Decent game. England dominating, as expected, Lingard and Kane going well.

19.22. First half-chance (nearly) as the ball squirts across the England box, then wide. Falcao can’t capitalise and his left-midfielder blazes ludicrously over.

Colombia into the game. England happy to drop in to a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 out of possession.

19.28. No sign of Alli in the game. Sterling quietish, too – or unable to make anything happen.

At that, he has his first decent run… but slightly wimps out on the shot or the killer pass.

19,32. Some girlie physicals from Cuadrado, on Maguire. This would be the Cuadrado who was an embarrassing failure in the Premiership – as was his team-mate, Falcao. Falcao at least looks like he wants to be involved, tonight.

19.35. Any momentum England had… now lost.

19.38. Clumsy challenge on Kane offers the England talisman a juicy 23 yarder. Around which, there are handbags.

Henderson, rather crassly provokes some physical contact with the head from from Barrios. The Liverpool man then does a Neymar, the lead commentator talks garbage… and Trippier – not Kane – doesn’t make anything of the opportunity. The game has become feisty and scrappy.

19.40-odd. Now expecting more a tense, messy 1-0 to somebody – or maybe 2-1. Can’t be certain if Dele Alli is still carrying a knock but either way you’d be tempted to hoik him at the half and prepare Rashford for the usual Sterling swap soon after. (Interesting test for Southgate’s positivity, that). The City man’s been unconvincing – ineffectual.

After a good start for England, the game reaches the half goalless and rather ugly. Opt not to listen to the over-hyped discussion about a potential red card. Cobblers; Henderson stoked it then faked it – can’t be more than a yellow for that!

Also… didn’t enjoy Maguire – who was close to the incident and therefore will have seen Henderson’s exaggeration as well as the defender’s lack of discipline – gesturing for VAR. Bit cheap, I thought.

Second Half.

First thought; really hope England don’t chicken out and ‘play patient’, in the expectation of a late goal or extra-time. Think they’re better playing with energy – think that instinctive, hearty stuff is contagious.

20.11. Lingard again lifts the pace and offers a threat. Almost.

20.14. Nice in-curling free-kick from Young nearly offers Maguire a free header… but no.

Then; MOMENT.

20.16. Kane is pretty much shafted by his marker (Sanchez) during yet another embarrassing fracas at a corner. Ref rightly gives a pen. It takes about an hour to placate the outraged Colombians before the England skipper nervelessly clips it home.

Real danger that England could get sucked into the anarchy, here. The Colombians are frankly out of order at almost every moment, early in this period. Henderson is foolishly booked, for responding. Daft.

20.23. With the overwhelmingly pro-Colombian crowd in a fury, their players join in. Falcao is prominent in some shocking and intimidating abuse of the referee. There appears no way that the South Americans can finish the game with eleven on the park..

There is almost no football, now – just spite. The experienced Young, fouled but hardly decapitated, has a long lie down to take the sting out of things.

20.30. Minor moment of casual petulance and frustration gets Lingard – England’s best forward player – booked. Then England gift one or two further, unecessary free-kicks away – but not in defensive positions. Stones, notably, remains staggering composed in possession; Maguire is not far behind on this; he also carries the ball forward with some purpose and offers a threat at the occasional set-piece.

20.36 means only about 15 minutes to see this out – if that’s to be England’s approach.

20.37. Lingard, breaking almost clear, throws away most of his brownie points by patently trying to draw a pen instead of smashing it past the keeper. Cynical and depressingly dumb. Could have won the game right there.

20.42. Dele is finally removed: 20 minutes late. Dier.

Oof. Walker offers Colombia their  best chance of the night. In space and with a decent angle, Cuadrado drives unimpressively over.

Things are urgent, suddenly for and from Colombia. Falcao leaps over Henderson to only head tamely. There is some angst but little in the way of real threat. The disappointing Sterling makes way for Vardy.

20.51 & we have five minutes extra. Feels like England should be okaaay… until Pickford has to pull off a worldie, for a corner.

MEGADRAMA though, as Mina, the centre-back nods it down-but-then-agonisingly-over Trippier… and into the net! 1-1. WOW.

Extra Time.

Firstly, there are now questions. About Lingard’s spurned opportunity; about whether Tripier misjudged the scoring header. Maybe too, about Southgate’s arguably reactive management. Alli was muted at best throughout – could’ve been hoiked way earlier. Sterling did okay but again lacked that killer instinct; I wouldn’t have started him.

21.03 it says on my ipad, as the whistle goes. Controversy immediately as Young (maybe more than his opponent) show the studs a little in a 50-50. Both inevitably roll about a bit.

Random thoughts: Henderson done little. Kane I think pretty ordinary in the second half. An almost complete lack of composure from nearly everybody on the park, now. Except Stones. Probably.

Dier’s come on and done nothing right – almost comically. Some signs maybe that Maguire’s legs have gone. A sense that Colombia are more likely.

Suddenly there’s no core to England. The central defenders can’t thread the ball into midfield – certainly not centrally. Rose is on for Young so England do now have pacy wing-backs but it’s Colombia who are playing with more verve and commitment, now. As the first half of extra time comes to a close, England look… if not gone… then up against it.

The Colombian huddle is characterised by positive energy – belief, maybe?

21.23 and the first chance falls clumsily to Vardy. His left-foot volley wouldn’t have counted – he’s off. Soon after he gets a second chance… but fluffs it, rather, disappointingly.

For some time, Henderson and Lingard have gone missing – or at least ceased to be influential. *Except* Lingard runs on and on, almost profiting after a good move from the right.

Rashford is on. Dier misses a golden chance, heading poorly, wildly over when absolutely unmarked, eight yards out. Ouch.

I had a feeling England might win it 4-1. Because of Lingard and Kane. Now, we have penalties.

Normally I’d wander off, disinterested at this point. So I will… after one more thought.

Southgate’s done well; he just doesn’t have the players. Except that just maybe, he does – the right complement of players. Young’s obduracy for Sterling’s relative frailty? Lingard’s running for Henderson’s one-pacedness? Kane’s killer-striker thing, absent elsewhere. This is Southgate’s team: could it yet be his triumph?