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.

 

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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?

 

 

Three Lions Meltdown… averted!

So England win. Probably Southgate deserved that. But there are *things*…

  • Sterling. We have to take care around Sterling, because the poor lad has had so much flak and much of it has had a racial component. I’m pretty clear that my long-held view that he’s a good player but has serially lacked the presence/confidence/bottle to take on the no. 10 role for England is not partial – it’s simply a football judgement. He was obviously weak again tonight. He will likely stay in the side because of a reasonable(?) level of loyalty from Southgate and because England won: he’s a lucky man in that respect.
  • Henderson was heroic in that workmanlike way that average international players can be. He was available, he nosed the ball around, fair play to him ; that stuff demands courage. But let’s again say the obvious: whilst he is pickable (because any side needs balance) he should not be England’s go to man to break team’s down or create an irresistible surge. He’s not good enough for that.
  • Kane nicked two goals, both half-decent finishes but for me his overall contribution was below par. Not enough physical presence, not enough movement and shocking that he didn’t rip the ball out of Ashley Young’s hands for that free-kick on the edge of the box. That moment was made for a captain, centre-forward and budding icon and Southgate should be having a quiet word about it. Kane should be winning more balls in the air, too – particularly hoofs down the park from Pickford. A) This is part of a centre-forward’s job. B) Given the generally poor standard of international defences, imagine the carnage that the occasional well-directed flick-on (to Lingard or Rashford) might cause.
  • Lingard played in occasional bursts but again missed presentable chances. In that way he resembles Rashford, whom we all like (right?) but who shares that tendency for wastefulness. The two are useful and sometimes electrifying but they are both still playing too fitfully – too much like teenagers – to be in the starting eleven together: unfortunately.
  • Alli may have been crocked from the outset – although this would seem to be an un-Southgatelike possibility – but he started brightly before disappearing, alongside Kane. He is a talent but another one who is burning waaay too sporadically. I quite like his spiteful streak, though not his propensity for raw cheating, which is at a more grubbily cynical level than Sterling’s weirdly childlike tumbles. (Not that Alli cheated tonight; he simply ghosted out of it.)
  • Stones and Maguire were untroubled generally (though not flawless) but it was the Burnley man who was a worthwhile protagonist going forward.
  • The keeper looked settled enough, though he was almost completely untested.
  • At full-back, Young played at his usual predictable pace, delaying throw-ins, setpieces and the flow of England’s game. (He is fortunate indeed to be in the side – presumably this is courtesy of his ’reliability’, experience and physical resilience). Trippier, on the right was excellent – or excellently positive. Keen, sharpish, urgent, bolder than anyone; unfortunately for him, playing at a higher tempo than his comrades seemed prepared to join with. He may destroy feeble Panama on his own.
  • England started hugely encouragingly but did drop into standard tournament mode briefly in the second half; self-pitying, directionless, unwilling or able to raise a response to opponents sniffing a Three Lions Meltdown. Maybe they were even a little lucky to get the win, so late, so simply, from such a defendable dead-ball situation?
  • But Kane’s finish – from Maguire’s lusty header – was both instinctive and skilful… and surely deserved, overall.

Twickenham.

Wales is foaming. The seas are stormy and the pubs, too. Faces are redder.

There’s expectation – because. There’s most of the Scarlets. There’s a dangerous surge.

I can tell you almost nobody in Wales has done that thing where you set aside the fervour of the moment and calmly assess where you’re at. The relative brilliance of last week’s canter past the woeful Scots has barely been picked over – or at least the perspective view has remained obscured, in the excitement.

Instead, there’s that red, misty, arms-wide-open longing. Because it’s Twickenham.

Wales apparently believes – again. Based around a new, Scarlets-inspired attacking game (plus Gatland’s rather more grounded philosophical buttressing), the historically oppressed are roaring. The ether here is flooded with that extraordinary mixture of faith, hope and bitterness that accompanies The England Game… and no other. Kindof hilariously and kindof rightly, given the surreally weighty meanings around the fixture, Wales believes a validatory win is within their grasp.

After the Scotland game, guess what? I didn’t. I admired a fine performance, in a rather second tier contest. It felt like about the eighth best team in the world playing – and comprehensively beating – the twelfth: or something. (I know this is innaccurate but that’s how it felt).

Coming into today, I expect a stronger England team – a team legitimately in the top 2 or 3 in the world – to beat a relatively unproven Welsh side. Quite likely, to beat them with something to spare.

Let’s see.

England score, early, following a superb but rather simple counter via the boot of Farrell. Then Launchbury, after a barrage from England’s Beefy Boys, finds a magnificent, soft offload to put May in again. After 20, England are 12-0 up.

Before the sense takes hold that this may be drifting early towards a disappointingly routine home win, Wales strike back.

They are denied a try – somewhat contentiously – as bodies dive in, hands stretching for the ball. Minutes later, Patchell strokes over a pen to get Wales on the board. Importantly now, the game *as it were*, is plainly, visibly a contest.

In difficult conditions – because coldish, because saturated – England have pressed the Limited Game Plan button. They know they are more physical; they expect to prevail in an arm-wrestle. But as the half draws to a close (and tempers fray, a little) Wales are looking like a Gatland team of old: in a word, durable. Davies is content to kick into row Z to finish the half, rather than probe (or risk) again. 12-3.

During the half-time analysis, the try-that-never-was doesn’t so much feature, as begin the swell to mythic dimensions. Laws have been changed, we’re told. Not much consolation for the many who will see Anscombe’s hand on that ball before Joseph’s every night for the next thirty, forty, fifty years. In short, in Cardiff, that’s given.

England start the second half with a prolonged encampment around forty yards from the Wales line – which suits them nicely enough. But it’s a frankly dullish match, now.

Shingler – a tremendous alround athlete – wakes the game up with an outrageous charge into space. Sadly, he can’t find a pass when Farrell comes in to smother, fancying instead a rather ambitious spot of footie. It doesn’t work but it’s a rare moment of free-running enterprise.

The weather is playing a part, as is the occasion, but there is no sense that a Mighty England is being brought down to the level of the Plucky Outsiders. Twickenham is quiet because this is a poor spectacle, an even game, yes, between two unremarkable teams in unhelpful weather.

England only rarely recycle with any pace or intent. Care – and he is not alone in this – shovels passes or floats short ones rather than gets things fizzing. It’s too safe.

If anything Wales do look freer. Without, understandably, finding full-on Scarlets mode, they find a little flow. Sure, they have to chase the game but all credit to them. Both sides have periods of possession but line-breaks are few. Anscombe, replacing Patchell at pivot, lifts the level of dynamism and the level of threat. Marginally.

It may be significant that the play of the day was Underhill’s stunning tackle on Williams as the Wales centre slid for the line. Extraordinary that after a lung-bursting sprint back to cover, Underhill conjures a movement that turns the man over to prevent placement of the ball.

As the second period plays out, England do make the obligatory changes, feeling for rather than chasing opportunities. Wigglesworth initially looks to have a brief to sharpen things up, but bodies seek contact rather than look for width.

We can’t know if Eddie Jones counselled aggressively for conservatism… but it looked that way. Denying Wales opportunities, in the wind and rain, was less risky than expansive rugby, so that’s the way it went.

Last fifteen and Wales seem impressively unintimidated by the onus to attack: why would they be, in this new era? However, because England remain watchful and doughty and organised, points are hard to come by. Anscombe slots a penalty in the 76th, after an encouraging attack and you can feel the red sleeves being rolled up around Wales but Gatland’s men cannot add to this total. It finishes 12-6.

A win that England will settle for. Devoid of style points – for which the Welsh will of course curse them – but continuing their march to European dominance. Uncle Eddie’s Boys were merely workmanlike – and he will know that. They did not, as I had expected, look more powerful or more accomplished than the opposition.

Meanwhile in Wales, the sense of a universal conspiracy gathers again. Sleep well, TMO.

 

 

 

Brighter and braver.

At least there was a little spite: we need that.  Glenda may have accused England of being ‘too lacksadaisical’ – rightly – after 15 minutes but there had already been some sense that, yaknow, this was England v Scotland.  There was more panic than savagery but it felt relatively spicyRelatively.

Scotland started brighter and braver.  My guess is that this was partly because Strachan’s simply entered shit-or-bust mode – his attacking line-up being more about his own mania than genuine consideration of English defensive weakness.  The Pinks (say what?!?) were nevertheless appropriately pumped… and swift… and (almost) incisive.

England, though, looked weak in defence.  Stones again tried hard to stroll but merely gave his colleagues either palpitations, or shocking passes, during an early period of Scots dominance.  For someone so brilliant, he was bloody awful – but he did recover at least some of that Coolly Ambling Geezer thing.

The single moment of quality in a first half largely characterised by clumsiness, abstractedness and weirdly open spaces in central midfield was a stunning goal by Sturridge.  Sturridge who had looked likely to disappear in the frenetic mediocrity all around.

The Liverpool man seems not to be one either for The Battle or the kind of Route One (Aerial) Scene this fixture seemed to be building – or un-building towards. But when England finally shifted the ball with purpose wide to the right then in, he stooped to flash a thrilling header home.

Neither Sturridge nor Rooney made a single other contribution of any significance in the half:  Sterling was mixed and wasteful but he was present in a way most were not.  Could just be me but the sight of Rose throwing himself to the floor in the opposition box late in that first period summed up something unsatisfactory about the general fare.  It was competitive but often almost shockingly amorphous.  Other than that gem – the goal.

After the break Scotland ran rings around England before being cruelly stung by Lallana’s flicked header.  Brown, Snodgrass, Griffiths and the willing but limited Fletcher – I say that principally in relation to his almost complete lack of goal threat, which again was notable tonight – were bypassing or bustling around England… but to no effect.  There were periods (early in both halves) where, had Scotland scored, the evening could really have turned traumatic for Mr Southgate.  England really could have got beat tonight.

Miraculously, the Auld Enemy failed to convert half a dozen clear cut chances.  Most of these were more about lack of awareness than misplaced shooting boots.  The lurid pink shirts seemed mysteriously elusive when colleagues broke into Hart’s danger zone: incredibly, almost, nobody played anybody in.  Strachan must have tempted to bring himself on in search of a composed final pass.

When England went 2-up, they probably deserved to be 2-1 down.  When Cahill (who like his central partner Stones had been everything from scarily bad to inconsistent) notched the third with a simple header, the game was up, smothered – along with natural justice.  England had been powerfully unconvincing in defence, strangely dysfunctional, sometimes absent in midfield and sporadically deadly up top. All of Stones, Cahill, Henderson, Dier, Rooney, Sterling and Sturridge plainly underachieved, yet the scoreboard read 3-0.

Henderson and Dier are limited and one-paced players with the limited remit of the deep-lying midfielder to protect them.  Yet too often the porous centre of the England defence was exposed, suggesting they either have inadequate noses for danger or, perhaps, too many instructions jangling round their craniums.  Surely their prime motive as soon as the ball is lost should be to deny space?  Keep it simple, keep your shape?

Rooney was again ineffective for the most part.  This may have been because (for me) Sturridge makes too few darting or threatening runs, shows too infrequently, particularly when games are tight and physical.  (He wins relatively few high balls too, incidentally – again reducing the possibility for drama/momentum/sudden goal threat.)  If nothing’s happening in front of you, you (as a midfielder) tend to pass without meaning or penetration – sideways.

This does not entirely account for Rooney or Henderson or Dier’s ordinariness tonight.  They need surely to mix the tempo and commit to runs, to add value to the possession they inevitably have?  Lallana did this stuff better – but then again he can sprint, and seems to like to sprint forward into space to receive or invite the pass.

A note on Sterling.  He was almost embarrassingly, distractedly, greedily, boyishly poor in the second half.  So poor words must be said.  It might be that he is something of a vulnerable soul, so Southgate or his successor might need to exercise some skill and sensitivity when dealing with this talented young man.  Either that or tell him to pass the fucking thing.

It couldn’t just be sport.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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