Letterkenny loveletter.

Reaction following an Ireland win is fascinatingly different to that which might have prevailed should England have secured this, or any other, #6nations, is it not? People all over the place seem pleased, for starters. I’m sensing a good-natured rolling up of sleeves or a philosophical ‘roly’ under the stars for most neutrals, as folks from Ballymena or Clonakilty march purposefully past into the pub. Most would recognise, however, the scope for either discord or hopefully debate around the concept ‘win’ when (as happened here) another protagonist has bitten at the arse of the victorious by er… beating them.

So did the best team land the trophy? Were champions Ireland sufficiently good at Twickenham to score a moral victory too? Is that the or any kindofa question? And does that question matter? I think it does: it is, after all, the stuff we’ll be talking about.

Half the fun of course is in the denial of (the undeniable truth of) that table, at the head of which now sits Joe Schmidt’s charges. And clearly allegation or conversational hare number one might be that because England beat them, Ireland are not the best team. Knowing we can’t measure any of this stuff I’d still like to do some sizing up; how ’bout you?

Look having no aspiration for journalism, I have neglected to check how often it is that the annual Northern rugby shindig is won by teams who got beat along the way and who are therefore susceptible to this judgement of wider values. Maybe that doesn’t matter either. The argument we are about to have is absolutely about the sweaty/swervacious/intuitive/finger-in-the-wind sense of it all – because that’s a) fun and b) human nature. So were Ireland or England better? And/or who deserved it more, this 2014 Six Nations Trophy?

As the road and the evening rises, I suspect my friends Danny, Sean and Brian in County Donegal, may, in the purity of their ecstasy, be breaking out treasured hooch of the Very Special Occasions Only variety, and I in no way want to subvert that glorious ritual. (Oh and by the way – no driving Brian!) However, they too will be distantly aware (probably) of issues of legitimacy/quality and kindof… honour. Because fans love to win with style, with class – yes and deservedly. Which legitimises my line of enquiry, I think; I’m in the metaphorical round and buying my share, I promise.

The coincidence of St Patrick’s weekend, O’Driscoll’s retirement and a #6nations trophy pretty much compels all of Ireland towards a big night out and I wish to god I was in Letterkenny to share in that. But instead I will ask of that European pool of generosity the following question… again. At Twickenham, was the confidence and control (even) that Ireland showed for periods of that match sufficiently impressive to cancel out the win (with home advantage) for Lancaster’s hugely improving side. Or does the view that England have blossomed to such an extent that even Welshmen might now confess to finding them good to watch hold sway on this?

Tough call. There were times in the England-Ireland fixture when I thought the Irish might cruise to a quietly magnificent away win. They recycled and blocked with such confidence that I was purring ’bout the brilliance of Schmidt – guesswork of a sort, inevitably – but I’m still happy enough to throw in the idea here that the Ireland gaffer may have been star of the tournament. Good sides – well coached sides, sides inspired by their coaches have purpose about what they do. And Ireland epitomised that, certainly for periods of the first half. But the fact is… then they lost.

There was something of that about Ireland again today, I thought. Once they got a hold of the ball, they went effortlessly through the phases and two tries came critically early; they looked like a team that believed. If Sexton had slotted two relatively simple kicks, they may have sustained a lead and utterly snuffed out any French response – after twenty-something minutes, that’s the way it looked.

France, perhaps inevitably, given the pasting they have taken from most of us, rose to their full height – or in Basteraud’s case bulk – and responded. The game became scrappy and tense rather than brilliant but this was more because the French aren’t good enough to do brilliant than anything else, I thought. Ireland struck again early in the second period and held on.

England smashed Italy with some style and this is the point. If you were an alien with some mysterious understanding of ball games but no pro-celtic baggage, you might be raising a green sucker or two in approval at the transformation of Lancaster’s mob from dour to something close to devastating. If nothing else that culture shift towards dynamic and open play deserves universal – or extra-terrestrial? – approval. In Brown and Farrell… and possibly Burrell and Launchbury and Lawes, they had players who might reasonably be nominated Player of the Tournament in some poll or other.

England were often good and sometimes alarmingly watchable, both against Italy and in the Six Nations generally. It may be that only the intensity of the ‘rivalry’ between the warring parties keeps Wales in with a shout against their World Cup 2015 opponents on current form, such is the great leap forward from Lancaster’s men. They surely ran the ball back more freely – more liberally even – than anyone else. The nature of their intent was sharply different to previous England sides, the coaching staff clearly now having committed to an all-court game demanding pace and invention as well as balls-out defending. Good on them for that; they are both right and righteous, methinks.

Whole lot of sentiment here, then. Weighing up in the abstract the feel of a title run-in. Doing that all over, I guess.

Ireland won though and their outside centre will understandably garner what I will foolishly call the Lions share of media coverage subsequent to that victory. O’Driscoll for me has had a flawed championships; he made errors against the French as well as the fairly occasional sharp intervention – chiefly that trademark low-slung burst and absurdly casual switch, eyes fixed everywhere but where the ball’s fizzing or popping. The man’s a genius alright, for his brutal combination of rapidity and control – and for his savvy. But his specialness is surely a cumulative phenomenon? Year after year of explosive burst and soft hands, violent challenge and then god-given, frame-freezing awareness. He, certainly, is a deserving champion.

@Jiffyrugby doesn’t get much wrong, yaknow. And he may have it about right when he says the definitive question of this tournament is the one England will surely be asking themselves – “How did we not win in France?” Well… they didn’t. And Ireland? Ireland did.

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Delivery.

Friday nights at the Millenium. Ethically dodgy – what with all that post-match faffing for the fans – but kinda glitzy and undeniably charged with extra, anticipatory energy. Once folks are in there they forget the duff train services issue, that general low-burning contempt for the fans thing and even (maybe) the suspicion that Cardiff Chamber of Trade have conspired with somebody hefty on the rugby side to bundle thousands of visitors into a wallet-sapping overnighter. ‘ Midst these very 2014 challenges only a proper occasion can see us through. The quality of the ether and then the game – the night – has to be good.

Cardiff delivers again, on this. A packed house (72,000) gathering late under a closed roof, followed by an emphatic home win. Plus the ungraspable stuff – the bonhomie, the boozy camaraderie, the gentility even between fans – charming and occasionally cockle-warmingly fabulous. (At the end of this one, we walked out into the cool dank of that riverside terrace past a single Frenchman nodding genially and with what seemed affectionate rather than affected grace whilst applauding the Welsh fans out. Ca c’est vraiment formidable, n’est-ce pas?)

If there is such a thing as an ambience matrix it was sweetened early in the game – which helps. France gifted a slack handful of points to Halfpenny and North in a fashion that felt faintly under-earned. The big wing/centre arguably pressured the error leading to his try but it was still an error; Halfpenny (mostly) capitalised on offers arising from ill-discipline, nerves or bad luck on the French side. Suddenly, Wales were flying – and yet not quite.

In truth there was real spirit but mixed execution from both sides first half… and in fact, throughout. De bonnes heures there was that familiar exchange of penalties and of midfield moves – most more lateral than penetrative – and therefore competently smothered. It was less ding-dong than kicktennis/squish/wallop/clunk as errors intervened. Broadly, as imagined, Halfpenny’s superior kicking game told.

On times that much-vaunted clash of beefy but more-or-less spring-heeled line-breakers – the centres North/Roberts Bastareud/Fofana – threatened to entrall us but much ended in minor disappointment. Full-on Gatland-Plus Wales rugby threatened to break out but (was it just me, and/or was this Priestland, particularly?) passes were floated too often when crispness or elite sleight-of-hand was required. In fact France were denied a try when the Wales pivot was nearly exposed mid-pass. In row 14, we tutted almost as much as we shouted.

So an improvement yes but Wales were flawed, even when in control of the scoreboard and naturally some of this underachievement was traceable to Priestland. Given that the game was presented to him early, he fell a tad short again on the commanding/inspiring front. I say this in the knowledge that he is very much in the modern mould of undemonstrative Game Managers rather than some idealised wizard and that these guys tend to play within themselves and expend all available energies on focus, not heart-stopping glory.

Fair enough. I appreciate that stuff but in my judgement Priestland has to manage things really well to justify his place. And I’m not sure he did… and I’m not sure he instills confidence in those around him.

If angst then turned to excitement early amongst the home support, this proved something of a deception. True that before any real pattern had emerged, Les Bleus were up against it. Webb had started brightly and with palpably greater fizz than that pre-loved and perhaps more predictable warrior Phillips; faux or fancy-dressed leeks amongst the crowd shuffled or at least arced expectantly forward in the breeze of expectation. Early points, high hopes for Wales. I swear folks were wondering if Gorgeous George, high himself on adrenaline and undreamt of quantities of ball, might carve out a rout? That seemed possible ten minutes in.

How mightily might the natural order be reaffirmed? If Wales went joyfully berserk, how might the French respond?

Answer – they did okay. In the sense that for me, the final score flattered Wales – France having competed but failed to prevent Warburton’s blaze and Halfpenny’s punitive hoofing. At no stage did the home side reach or sustain that feverish pitch of brilliance longed for by the crowd and the French were beaten not annihilated. Les Bleus had passages of play but still a) only fitfully resembled a working unit and b) missed crucial and relatively simple kicks.

At the half I thought France were only a tad worse than a decent Wales but later continual dissent and disbelief over refereeing decisions undermined both their performance and the level of sympathy any neutrals may have felt. They disintegrated into some ignominy, with Picamoles sarcastically applauding Allain Rolland, and a cluster of Bleus bawling at nearly every call the man made late in the game. It was unseemly – no matter what provoked it – and it wasn’t rugby.

I’m guessing many of us came into this one relatively sure that Gatland would have significantly stirred, if not wound up, his men, and that there would be a response. Ireland was for Wales, a shocker. The forwards were battered extraordinarily, via mauls that rolled embarrassingly on and by those rips and gathers by O’Mahony in particular. The pack of Friday night – featuring a late change of Ball for the unavailable AWJ – needed to turn up, front up and palpably restore some pride.

Job done on that; Gethin Jenkins, loved by most of Wales for his redoubtable core, his was singled out as man of the match. Warburton similarly gave notice that he was back and not to be underestimated. His extraordinary dominance in the line-out was one of the most striking features of the contest. How much of this was tactical tweaking from Gatland and how much a response to the late change at lock, who knows? In the set-piece, predictably, the one blight was the age lost in re-setting scrums; Rolland appeared to have little grip on this and his dismissal of the two props in the second half may have either been dead right and a significant step forward … or total guesswork.

Pre-match I had indulged the unwise thought that France- this France – ain’t up to much. Yes Nyanga and Fofana are always likely to be rather tasty and rather spookily elusive respectably, but otherwise… not special. So Wales – a bottoms slightly smarting Wales – would put 20 points on them. (Witnesses are available – the wife, anyway.) The fact that Les Rouges, whose squad strength looked markedly down again in the absence of just one or two major players, did win by that margin can be moulded around a range of arguments for and against an encouraging rebound into form. My feeling on that? Don’t read too much into this one performance – or more accurately, this one result. Wales are strongish but confidence may not be inviolable.

Reflecting now on some hours with The Millennium rammed and colourful to the point of cartoonish and an occasion genuinely enriched by the presence of our friends – yes! our friends! – from Lille or La Rochelle, I am (as they say) conflicted. The spirit is hugely restored in terms of the feel of an international. I am not so pleased to be judgemental of the French either as a side or on their discipline. And the balance of the result felt wrong. France were mixed, Wales a bit better. The scoreboard and maybe, arguably, the ref(?) conspired to be inhospitable to the visitors. But the night, the night was great.

A parliament of hunches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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selected and exclusive posts, with an intro from Paul Mason and compliments from Brian Moore and Paul Hayward, amongst others.

So that’s it then… he said, coolly.

Wales have rightly claimed their Grand Slam. Good teams do stuff like that; express their superiority; by winning things. Following on from a World Cup where they were indisputably the darlings of the watching globe, it is surely particularly appropriate that we can actually treasure – all of us – a time when that most thrilling combination of liberated running and invincible belief have overcome more prosaic cultures. Because that’s what’s happened.

Wales have carried that flame for flair and expression thereof more convincingly and more closely to their hearts than anyone else. Because the essence of what they are doing is notably purer than all the remaining Six Nations sides. Because the Welsh nation wills it. Because the coaches – Gatland, Howley and Edwards – believe they have the personnel to make it work in a cynical age.

So what we get is a fascinating mixture of olde-worlde philosophical generosity (does that sound faintly laughable?) and modern drive. Gatland is clearly a gritty but inspiring sort; Howley a past master of many of the graces perpetrated by ‘girls’ and Edwards a challenger, an enforcer, a furious, steely bundle of aggressive stepforwardnowism. What is Cardiff Central here is the ability to engender real trust and belief. Not the flip-chart version; the mild-mannered or over-coiffured version. The real deal. This the Welsh leadership have managed – along with virtually everything else – modestly, with supreme confidence and not a little style.

The combination – that word again – of contrasting personalities all apparently gathering, picking and going in the same direction is one of the more discussed and imagined notions in successful team sport; it is however, rarely observed in the flesh. It’s here in Wales. In a land uniquely (probably) close to and well informed upon its national sport, people proudly identify with Warburton’s previously described Brotherhood of Redness. They might do that as a matter of course. But things take flight, passions and glorious expectations rise when there is an understanding of some value-adding extra dimension in play. It’s here in Wales. This icing-on-the-cake goodness thing. What’s not to love about your own team being both mighty successful and magnificently entertaining?

This, of course, is mere context. Welsh Windbaggery. And what pleasure it gives me to wave this flag for sporting poetry and – yes maybe – pomp, pretty secure in the knowledge that the Six Nations Table concurs with my view of this emblematically Welsh triumph; goals (or equivalents) paying that rent. Lest this ode deteriorate further into hagiography however, I would like to say a few things about what these victories were grounded upon; actually.

Start at the front. There has been an argument that Wales were in some sense not big or brutal enough to compete at the Very Top Level Up Front for some years. This argument may have had some merit to it in days when there was evidentially a shortage of cover for Adam Jones or Gethin Jenkins (say.) (This could and was also said about the second row, mind you.) In other words there was an informed view that Wales did not have a sufficiently strong or deep pool of front five assets. Fair cop. It may even be an issue now against the Tri-Nations heavies -possibly. But Wales front three against France today contained at least 2 world class performers for me – and the third, Matthew Rees – is no mug.

The second row has likewise more than held its own in this tournament but Alun Wynne Jones and Ian Evans lack the obvious class of the fellows immediately to (and up and against) their rear(s.) This hardly makes them weak links, mind. They are merely decent internationals – Wynne Jones being almost worth his place for the brio with which he sings “Mae hen wlad “etc etc.

That back row for Wales is, in the current jargon, immense. The full complement of Lydiate/Warburton/Faletau at 6/7/8 compares favourably with anything anywhere on current form. Lydiate was justifiably Man-of-the-Match today for his fierce commitment and industry, his ability to deny the opposition. Warburton is rightly already famed for his sensational athleticism and power and Faletau has the uncoachable knack of always and often crucially beating that first tackle. They have, as a unit, taken up the challenge and indeed the mantle of whirlwind All Black back rowers who have achieved almost unplayable heights in terms of their dynamism and ability to unzip the breakdown. The opposition now fears an open game against Wales for many reasons – one of them being the dangers posed when the likes of Faletau and Warburton flash from phase to phase.

But let’s face it, the fabulous truth is things get exciting when the ball goes wide. Jonathon Davies has had a superb Six Nations; Jamie Roberts a good one. But the new beasts, the cherubic outhouses on either flank have probably garnered most coverage, most glory and most points. (Haven’t checked – but you know what I mean.) George North has arrived, often with a mass of Englishmen/Italians etc attached or being swatted contemptuously aside – that’s if they had the fortune (good or otherwise) to actually lay fingers upon him. He looked like some choirboy-alien in red; some babe born immediately before the match, at 19 stones, then hurriedly unbuilt or transported to nothingness for the following week. So that the fluently superlative but somehow other-wordly charging through normally – hah! – proportioned defences could begin again. He’s er… beyond stardom already.

And then this bloke called Cuthbert turns up. Weighing in at a similarly absurd tonnage, with similar gifts for elephant-trampling or – apparently – tap dancing. Massive.

Again let me dig out one of my pseudo-anecdotal wotnots here; about this linkage between Welsh back play and culture. The fans, the people of Wales really know they have something extraordinary going for them. They know this both intuitively – in their Red Souls – and in the detail. A young woman (Sales Rep, as it ‘appens) waxed authoritatively to me recently about the weight and power advantage Wales had in the backs for their trip to Twickenham. (Meaning obviously the likes of North against say Strettle). I was fascinated by her appreciation and her relish for this new turbo-injected Dragonstuff. Glee was certainly present at the gateway to this new, physically enhanced dominion. But the nature of our conversation remained almost spiritual; does that sound laughable?

She understood, she knew, it was implicit in what she said that the game in Wales has not departed from its upliftingly sunlit dingle. Moved on, yes, but not departed. Gatland has led a revolution for mad, old, daft ideas. Both icily as well fervently – he has chafed as well as smiled no doubt. He has prepared his Brotherhood quite possibly better than any rugby team ever before. They have a remarkable team ethic because they believe in him, in something. And as that something is clearly and obviously to do with the expression of gifts as well as the exercise of power and planning, I am unable to refrain again from using this word poetry. Meaning a kind of inherently beautiful expression. In this case, on a pitch.

The difference

The mood in Wales is different this time. There is a quieter surety about the thing. People – and in Wales this means nearly all the people – are bustling along with purpose, reflecting the emergence of a different language of being. Rather than being predicated upon that naturally occurring defiance – that celtic fire – this all-new, cooler mothertongue is born of some elite cryo-therapeutic confidence, it seems. As though the whole nation has been queueing up to march into those portable cubicles now favoured by the Brotherhood of Redness itself – the national rugby side.

Can it really be the case that in car parks from Haverfordwest to Harlech, butchers and bakers and candlestick- makers have been topping up their god-given verve by chilling to the Amazonian Max? Is Dai the Taps really freshly emerged from a minus 120 hit of re-energising bliss? Can he really stow away those spanners and tighten up with miraculous finger-power alone? And is Dafydd the Doors really shaving them down with his daily-renewable but diamond-edged bristles? Too right. For this is the era of the supermen.

Wales knows rugby and it knows something has changed. They have gone from being merely the best Northern Hemisphere side to watch into being the real powerhouses of European rugby. They have enormous talent and enormous backs. They look unstoppable. Right now, as Merv the mighty Swerve is rightly remembered, a new breed of animal is snorting in the background, ready – unbelievably ready – to step out and make their own statement. These fellahs are equally as proud and passionate as the former number 8 was. But they are utterly different in terms of their levels of conditioning – one reason amongst many that Warburton’s team will surely roll through any legitimate nerves to extinguish French hopes of spoiling the national party.

And yes, there will be a party.

Look away now.

Dowson family… look away now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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