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.

Great win but move on sharpish.

Six Nations, or Division 12 West? An extraordinary bar-of-soap fest in Paris somehow fell, exhausted and drunk, through icy showers, into the arms of the grateful Welsh.

They had been willing but mostly awful but the locals had been mercifully, embarrassingly über-French.

The inglorious hat-trick of amateur passes that gifted George North the game served yet again as a reminder that Les Bleus have been merely shifting their degree of residence within la Mode Shambolique for a decade; that this laughable refrain about ‘not knowing which France will turn up’ is the very hollowest of clichés. We know, alright.

But in the first half, as the rain lashed and the were kicks missed and the passes were dropped, the home side accumulated.

Picamoles was ushered towards the line by defenders either distracted by conditions or the man’s physical bulk. Either way it felt a tad feeble. Parra set the tone for some similarly forgettable kicking, by missing the conversion.

The home pivot was very much joined in this by Anscombe, who may only retain his place because it’s Italy next, for Wales, and his skills in open play may bloom in that context. Last night he was profoundly ordinary with boot and in terms of his dictation, or otherwise, of proceedings. I repeat the mitigation that conditions were tough but this offers less of an excuse to those charged with executing the kicking game(s), eh?

Likewise re- defending. North can’t blame conditions for the clanger that let in Huget out wide of him. Predictably (but mistakenly, surely?) North’s two tries marked him out as Man of the Match but in truth he seemed somewhat marooned again, between Child-Monster Prodigy and Growed-up International Star. Yes, he won the bloody game but does he look, consistently like a talent, a threat, an influencer? Weirdly, no.

Liam Williams had either been unlucky or greedy when breaching the line, mid-half but the referee, who spent much of the evening asking politely for calm – ‘lentement, lentement’ – got this one right promptly enough.

(Not sure if the drama or dynamism of the second period was particlarly enhanced by Mr Barnes’s steadying hand: in fact once more there was the sense that he may have luxuriating quietly in the knowledge that the cameras were upon him. However overall, he took us through competently enough).

A penalty then a satisfying drop, late on, from Lopez sent Wales in 16 points down but it had been a mess: you wouldn’t rule-out anything here, including an error-strewn or error-prompted comeback. It’s kindof what we got.

Josh Adams, in a rare moment of slinkiness, eased into space and put scrum-half Williams in. Anscombe converted. Then Parkes hoofed hopelessly forward, only for Huget to spill catastrophically at the line. North accepted.

Moriarty was rightly denied a try, following a block by AWJ. France got some possession but this remained – despite the spirited fightback – a non-classic muddle. Moriarty and Tipuric were good but you’d be hard-pressed to locate anyone else into the 7/10 zone. Except Davidi, maybe – increasingly, as the game went on. The introduction of Biggar was inevitable, in the name of structure.

70-odd minutes and Wales are down again, after a scrum penalty and a straightforward nudge over from Lopez. 19-17. Lashing rain. Cold. Then France – the real France? – really do throw it all away. North anticipates the most telegraphed pass in Six Nations history (almost) and gallops clear.

For Wales, the kind of win that might spark something. Certainly some challenging verbals, I would think, from Gatland and co. They were poor and yet magnificent… and that happened. What an opportunity, now, given their fixtures!

The consensus is that Wales have grown and deepened as a squad, in recent times. Impossible to tell, from this. Next up, some quality, please: then, who knows?

 

 

 

 

 

Staggering.

Impressions. Of a gallivanting, glorious final day, sweeping away fears of a ‘ludicrous advantage for England’, or a ‘recipe for corruption’. Staggered kick-offs and staggering entertainment. Wave upon wave of wondrous, anarchic sport – emphatically combative but almost perfectly fair in both complexion and in spirit. Liberated and liberating in a toss-your-hair-from-the-sports-car-of-your-dreams kindofaway.

Six Nations Rugby is entitled to feel a wee bit smug; maaan, has it delivered. Under the raging bull-charge and the murderous tick tock of receding or encroaching targets, the players showed remarkable – and surely marketable? – and generously honest endeavour. So generous that a) the games were ecstatically expressive of that kind of running rugby we feared we may have lost b) gert big holes were left around the park for the opposition to gleefully run into. C) We never knew what the hell or who the hell might win the thing.

First Wales had to do it all, then Ireland then England. And make no mistake, on a day when 221 points were scored in the three matches, they all did it all. It was magnificently slapstick – only real – with nails bitten and nerves frayed and hearts broken and mended and palpitating and soaring and WAAOORRRRRA. It was too much christmas puddin’ wi’ that brandy butter, it was.

To even start to record the detail …we all may need a sit down and a drink. As we do so, let’s consider this; that given the import of the games and the utterly bone-crunching level of collisions, maybe we really should pause to appreciate the quality of labour undertaken. By the players. For there to be almost no cynicism or cheating or abuse of officials in these precious hours was remarkable. (I recall a sly trip from Haskell and a contentious launch from Lawes leading to proverbial handbags. Tellingly, when Haskell was rightly yellowed he jogged obediently off without a word. Other than that – nothing. Nothing other than sportsmanship during extreme combat of an impeccable standing. Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger – were you watching?)

Italy-Wales started it. By going from superbly competitive (yes, honest!) to absurdly but surely exhilaratingly one-sided within twenty minutes either side of the half. George North went from Disappointment Revisited to Giant Sex-bomb. Biggar and Webb went from Championship winning half-backs (with ten minutes to go) to peeking through their fingers from the bench as things just dipped away.

Why Gatland and co gave them the hoik when they had (over time) so brilliantly dismantled the opposition may be debated in the proverbial Valleys for generations to come. (It struck me as one of the finer examples of ‘overthinking’ from a management mob in recent memory. Given how fluent and commanding they were – and considering there was no requirement to save them for subsequent challenges – why not let them see it out and rack up the inevitable 70 points?) Instead, changes are made, Davies drops a pass when clear, and they concede a try.

Yes I know the maths may not point to a Wales championship win anyway… but the sums may have been significantly different should the Welsh A-team half-backs have remained. That Gatland is vindicated may seem unarguable; however I do at least point out that Wales were better and more successful here with two Williams’s on the field and an instinct for free-form rugby unleashed. Gatlandball – specifically the Roberts and up-the-jumper caricature – will not be enough for the later stages of the Rugby World Cup. Wales may be back (again) but there must be more again.

Italy are meanwhile marooned; or treading water unconvincingly. Their disappearance from this contest was maybe the most predictable thing to happen all day.

Apart from the Irish win in Edinburgh. What’s to say there, except that Scotland need a slap? They were simply dismissed… too comfortably. Even accepting their poor all-round level, this felt close to unacceptable and must have hurt their backroom staff and their long-suffering fans. At home, having shown some attacking form – or threatened to – they simply should have done more.

I had Ireland down as comfortable winners – meaning 12 -15 points – but as a neutral who really rates them and genuinely enjoyed O’Connell’s deserved triumphant moment early on, I felt the drama overall had been served inadequately via the Scots capitulation. 30 points is too much. I accept that the void where a competitive player pool might be is unanswerably relevant here but hoped for more – more dog – from those assembled under the thistle.

The Irish have been great, mind. They have the best coach and they are, for me, in every way marginally ahead of the English and the Welsh. More fiery and consistent than England, more deadly and angular and pacier, actually, than Wales. They throw a mighty green blanket across the park in defence and kick-chase relentlessly. And on that Sexton-centricity I wrote about previously I concede that the fear or the ‘fact’ that Sexton may be irreplaceable to them could have been said of almost any side in history with a stand-out stand-off. (Think England/Wilkinson, perhaps?) You can’t clone the feller, so crack on! If he’s out then look to Bowe and Henshaw and Kearney on the charge, after somebody else’s Garry Owen. The pattern is there. The players are there.

In fact there’s much more to Ireland than that roaring up the pitch and leaping to catch. They have a real efficiency and experience. They will keep the ball for an age and wear you down. They will stand toe-to-toe or they will scorch round your flanks. Or break you down just where you think you’re inviolable. The world knows about O’Brien and Heaslip and O’Connell and now O’Mahony but do they know about Henshaw and Payne? This a strong, well-rounded unit and one that really may challenge for the yet more substantive trophy later in the year.

England were weirdly patchy. They were almost embarrassingly porous – conceding five tries(!) – but also devastatingly ambitious. It was, as so many have noted, like sevens. Ben Youngs was an utter menace throughout and Joseph and Nowell enjoyed a rare opportunity to go wild in the jungle (absolutely free-style.) Twickers sounded like it knew something extraordinary was happening. There were so many simultaneous heady possibilities that it was unclear whether Eddie Butler, Brian Moore and Sonia Wotsit were actually playing. Certainly I think Sexton and O’Connell and Bowe still were. And North and Halfpenny and Barry John and Slattery and Walter Spanghero.

After all the psychotic flux of it, the rampage and the flood of emotion, the fact is Ireland rightly won this tournament, closely followed by England, then by Wales. The table, remarkably makes absolute sense, despite the marvellous nonsense in Rome, at Murrayfield, at Twickers. The table says there wasn’t much in it but man oh man, there was.
Foolishly, at the end, I congratulated EVERYONE on twitter – because it felt like we’d all won – or they all had. It was magic… and it was rugby… and something was shared.

Staggering.

Impressions. Of a gallivanting, glorious final day, sweeping away fears of a ‘ludicrous advantage for England’, or a ‘recipe for corruption’. Staggered kick-offs and staggering entertainment. Wave upon wave of wondrous, anarchic sport – emphatically combative but almost perfectly fair in both complexion and in spirit. Liberated and liberating in a toss-your-hair-from-the-sports-car-of-your-dreams kindofaway.

Six Nations Rugby is entitled to feel a wee bit smug; maaan, has it delivered. Under the raging bull-charge and the murderous tick tock of receding or encroaching targets, the players showed remarkable – and surely marketable? – and generously honest endeavour. So generous that a) the games were ecstatically expressive of that kind of running rugby we feared we may have lost b) gert big holes were left around the park for the opposition to gleefully run into. C) We never knew what the hell or who the hell might win the thing.

First Wales had to do it all, then Ireland then England. And make no mistake, on a day when 221 points were scored in the three matches, they all did it all. It was magnificently slapstick – only real – with nails bitten and nerves frayed and hearts broken and mended and palpitating and soaring and WAAOORRRRRA. It was too much christmas puddin’ wi’ that brandy butter, it was.

To even start to record the detail …we all may need a sit down and a drink. As we do so, let’s consider this; that given the import of the games and the utterly bone-crunching level of collisions, maybe we really should pause to appreciate the quality of labour undertaken. By the players. For there to be almost no cynicism or cheating or abuse of officials in these precious hours was remarkable. (I recall a sly trip from Haskell and a contentious launch from Lawes leading to proverbial handbags. Tellingly, when Haskell was rightly yellowed he jogged obediently off without a word. Other than that – nothing. Nothing other than sportsmanship during extreme combat of an impeccable standing. Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger – were you watching?)

Italy-Wales started it. By going from superbly competitive (yes, honest!) to absurdly but surely exhilaratingly one-sided within twenty minutes either side of the half. George North went from Disappointment Revisited to Giant Sex-bomb. Biggar and Webb went from Championship winning half-backs (with ten minutes to go) to peeking through their fingers from the bench as things just dipped away.

Why Gatland and co gave them the hoik when they had (over time) so brilliantly dismantled the opposition may be debated in the proverbial Valleys for generations to come. (It struck me as one of the finer examples of ‘overthinking’ from a management mob in recent memory. Given how fluent and commanding they were – and considering there was no requirement to save them for subsequent challenges – why not let them see it out and rack up the inevitable 70 points?) Instead, changes are made, Davies drops a pass when clear, and they concede a try.

Yes I know the maths may not point to a Wales championship win anyway… but the sums may have been significantly different should the Welsh A-team half-backs have remained. That Gatland is vindicated may seem unarguable; however I do at least point out that Wales were better and more successful here with two Williams’s on the field and an instinct for free-form rugby unleashed. Gatlandball – specifically the Roberts and up-the-jumper caricature – will not be enough for the later stages of the Rugby World Cup. Wales may be back (again) but there must be more again.

Italy are meanwhile marooned; or treading water unconvincingly. Their disappearance from this contest was maybe the most predictable thing to happen all day.

Apart from the Irish win in Edinburgh. What’s to say there, except that Scotland need a slap? They were simply dismissed… too comfortably. Even accepting their poor all-round level, this felt close to unacceptable and must have hurt their backroom staff and their long-suffering fans. At home, having shown some attacking form – or threatened to – they simply should have done more.

I had Ireland down as comfortable winners – meaning 12 -15 points – but as a neutral who really rates them and genuinely enjoyed O’Connell’s deserved triumphant moment early on, I felt the drama overall had been served inadequately via the Scots capitulation. 30 points is too much. I accept that the void where a competitive player pool might be is unanswerably relevant here but hoped for more – more dog – from those assembled under the thistle.

The Irish have been great, mind. They have the best coach and they are, for me, in every way marginally ahead of the English and the Welsh. More fiery and consistent than England, more deadly and angular and pacier, actually, than Wales. They throw a mighty green blanket across the park in defence and kick-chase relentlessly. And on that Sexton-centricity I wrote about previously I concede that the fear or the ‘fact’ that Sexton may be irreplaceable to them could have been said of almost any side in history with a stand-out stand-off. (Think England/Wilkinson, perhaps?) You can’t clone the feller, so crack on! If he’s out then look to Bowe and Henshaw and Kearney on the charge, after somebody else’s Garry Owen. The pattern is there. The players are there.

In fact there’s much more to Ireland than that roaring up the pitch and leaping to catch. They have a real efficiency and experience. They will keep the ball for an age and wear you down. They will stand toe-to-toe or they will scorch round your flanks. Or break you down just where you think you’re inviolable. The world knows about O’Brien and Heaslip and O’Connell and now O’Mahony but do they know about Henshaw and Payne? This a strong, well-rounded unit and one that really may challenge for the yet more substantive trophy later in the year.

England were weirdly patchy. They were almost embarrassingly porous – conceding five tries(!) – but also devastatingly ambitious. It was, as so many have noted, like sevens. Ben Youngs was an utter menace throughout and Joseph and Nowell enjoyed a rare opportunity to go wild in the jungle (absolutely free-style.) Twickers sounded like it knew something extraordinary was happening. There were so many simultaneous heady possibilities that it was unclear whether Eddie Butler, Brian Moore and Sonia Wotsit were actually playing. Certainly I think Sexton and O’Connell and Bowe still were. And North and Halfpenny and Barry John and Slattery and Walter Spanghero.

After all the psychotic flux of it, the rampage and the flood of emotion, the fact is Ireland rightly won this tournament, closely followed by England, then by Wales. The table, remarkably makes absolute sense, despite the marvellous nonsense in Rome, at Murrayfield, at Twickers. The table says there wasn’t much in it but man oh man, there was.
Foolishly, at the end, I congratulated EVERYONE on twitter – because it felt like we’d all won – or they all had. It was magic… and it was rugby… and something was shared.

More than this.

Maybe it’s only through the rear-view window that the fascinations of this third Six Nations weekend reveal themselves. Having driven on, I can see that what last time out felt like the death of Gatlandball may be the start of something yet. Suddenly strange to think of an uninspiring but robustly competent Welsh performance in France as in any way pivotal but Ireland’s rumbustious, Sexton-centric win over England had the feel of pressures – maybe edges? – closing in around it. As we all chug along together towards the Rugby World Cup it’s not just us passengers who are shuffling for that energising ride… those mythical box seats.

Broadly, with Ireland playing for forty-something minutes and losing their mighty fulcrum to injury, there may be an argument that Europe’s finest either are or will simply be no match for New Zealand and South Africa when this admittedly significant preamble is over. Meaning the gulf persists. Meaning the ordinariness of the fayre on Sun afternoon (second half, certainly) points to another domestic scuffle played out beneath, behind the level of the elite. This then to be confirmed, cruelly rubber-stamped by events later in the year.

Negative? Okay. But England were so abject at kicking and catching they lost the right to be considered contenders (unless something pretty remarkable happens). Ireland, whilst having the best team pattern (courtesy the best coach) and that tremendous gnarly will, remain a threat but must pray to gods contemporary and celtic that their number ten stays healthy. Wales emerge again into this because their limitations – Gatlandball itself – simply suit group-stage tournament play. Thus the pack(s) ha-ha, are a-shufflin’.

Saturday had its moments – ‘course it did. But the game at the Stade was relatively ordinary and Scotland bombed disastrously back into that third division; it was – despite the possibility that Wales may yet win this thing – a prelude. Sunday in Ireland was the one; that was what we thought. A win for Gatland against the most extraordinarily and perennially badly organised and under-motivated French was no big deal; France are almost hopeless; Wales are solid and powerful and they have Halfpenny. So what?

Well whilst there remains the possibility that Ireland may find another level and go on to boss this championship (and therefore grasp that momentum we all more-or-less recognise) that feels less likely, does it not, than previously? With Wales if not on the march then certainly re-stating something relatively profound, the drift to dominance of the Irish and arguably the English is stalled. Because Wales really might do Ireland at home… and because England once more marked out the distance yet to travel with a shabby performance in Dublin.

I have to emphasise here, as a critic of the Gatland ethos, that Wales’ one-dimensionality will be obstructive, ultimately, in terms of the World Cup. However as we re-calibrate our appreciation for England downwards, the odds on Wales coming through their mutual ‘group of death’ have risen. Because a spunky and solid Brotherhood of Reds really might do England, or at least the seemingly lost England that lacked discipline, nerve and tactical nous yesterday.

At the Stade de France the natives surely could barely believe that Les Bleus could be so Pollockesque. In their flecked swoops and swooshes they lacked again the majestic prescience – or even science – of the great expressionist. They doodled occasionally and never joined the thing up. Again. It was another trauma, a can-can on marbles for the locals.

As this capacity for Frenchness, for swashbuckling misunderstanding, for the art of duffness, soars yet further into parody so inevitably the Wales win is devalued a notch. Gatland, Howley, McBryde and co may beg to differ. They’ll be quietly congratulating themselves on the long, wise game they’ve been playing. The one that gets them to a World Cup quarter-final – and bollocks to their critics.

The game itself was rarely entertaining. Roberts made a point or two, Halfpenny was metronomic and there may have been just the hint of Davies finding his game. Williams had little opportunity, in truth, but his bow-legged scampering seems to add to the whole. North remains the Giant Who Sleeps – or who is concussed, perhaps, by the system? The try fashioned by Webb and Lydiate and finished by Biggar was the stand-out moment. Searing support runs and a mercurial offload from the back-row man. A killer move that deserved to separate these sides.

Ireland started gloriously against the English, the difference in quality between the respective teams kicking and catching being evident almost from the whistle. Sexton and Murray hoisted well and often, with Bowe and Henshaw racing in to threaten and compete. Ford played well enough, but England’s kicking and kick-chase – or lack of it – were shambolic. It may be that they had made the tactical decision not to compete for their own bombs but this of course meant that the Irish backline could gather unopposed, gain confidence and legspeed and energise the hoolie blowing down the pitch. Everything from England was hoisted ten yards too far.

If this was simply poor execution of a relatively basic skill then 9, 10 and 15 have some serious work to do. If as I suspect Lancaster believed his lads would be big enough, tough and well organised enough to play a containing game and look to break out with devastating effect then the suspicion arises that too much coaching has been going on. All games at all levels are simple. Possession and confidence are key.

Ireland could have been out of sight at half-time. Sexton was dominating the whole pitch, being as powerfully present in the hand-to-hand as he was with that boot. Henshaw and Bowe looked a threat and what the Welsh call the hwyl was visibly up – again, partly because England delivered so much possession into Irish paws. At the break an emphatic win for Schmidt seemed overwhelmingly likely. But things did change.

After about 50 minutes, England stirred and Ireland were finally retreating. (It may not have been a coincidence that around this time Sexton walked gingerly from the park reaching for his hamstring). Weirdly, England’s kicking and catching continued to be disastrous but with Easter and maybe Wrigglesworth, things lifted. The backs freed their legs once or twice. Astonishingly for me, the mundane Twelvetrees came on when the deficit at this point cried out for Ford at 10 and Cipriani at 12.

Predictably, England’s bench made a difference but Lancaster’s use of it was as poor as his side’s execution throughout. There was a fleeting sense of a gallant come-back… but then no. The Irish deservedly held out. In the win, however, there were concerns; that reliance on Sexton being foremost. Here’s hoping that the brilliant Schmidt will not be too satisfied with what he saw. Us Europeans will need more than this, come September.

Great but not that good.

Fascinating start. Fascinating but not carry-me-high triumphantly- not even for the French, I suspect. Fascinating with some real drama (Italian tries/Parisian palpitations) but I wonder if the Irish may be most encouraged by events in the opening two games of #6nations 2014. Because Wales were in a game, a match, rather than in processing to victory mode and because the other fancied side, England, were utterly mixed.

So a flurry of emotions as Wales threaten, then are held in check by a surprisingly durable Italian effort and England stretch from the shocking to the fluent.  A beginning loaded heavy with that full spectrum of error and mischance and with as many flukes as joys –  which may be standard, on reflection.

Perhaps this ‘great stuff’ works in terms of the best-value build towards maximum, arse-quaking tension. It certainly helps out re the option for recourse to @WelshDaliLama’s now annual bingerama – relief being offered via our enlightened friend in the form of… well, alcohol.

Wales got their win and Gatland will be okay, you suspect, with the fact that Italy come out of the opening game with most credit. He might believe, with some justification, that the visitors were always likely to expend a disproportionately huge amount of their budget of #6Nations energy on this fixture. They probably did but this should not in any way deflect from another step up from the Azurri. They brought their usual passion but have built something more concrete now – a game that has a certain purpose and shape to it all round the pitch. Sure they still lack both the consistent killer instinct and the all-round kicking game of a top level side but let’s hope their achievements include more regular wins against those sides currently nearest to them – Scotland and.. whoever. Good for the tournament, methinks if the Italian effort can be sustained?

Positives for Wales included signs that Jamie Roberts may be influential again, following a longish period where injury plainly undermined him. He made a simple try for his centre partner through composed, direct running and was persistently, reliably available, engineering or maybe bulldozing into space in the manner of old. However despite the various weapons available to Priestland, there was never the sense that a rout was likely to be orchestrated by him or anyone else. The Wales pivot again neither emphatically confirmed himself nor gifted the job to Biggar. Perhaps this was why the Welsh performance proved acceptable rather than exceptional.

But look, pundits having gone over the Gatland-as-one-trick-pony thing endlessly, let me offer a view on this. It strikes me that Wales have such broad skills as individuals, such quality when at full strength, that this notion that they are essentially bish-bosh is a tad cheap. Yes you might argue that (for example) Halfpenny rarely comes into the line (and that smacks of caution) but hang on there. With two genuinely deadly wingers combining power, pace and dodge-ability, plus Roberts and ideally a certain J Davies at centre, it’s surely ludicrous to consider Wales one-dimensional. It might be true that the former tri-nations outfits may smother – may have smothered – Welsh aspirations in recent years but their pattern of play tends to be more of a springboard than a straight-jacket. It’s simply harder to get things to work against the very best.

Gatland has more guile and wit than many give him credit for. And Wales deserve to be favourites in this tournament despite the uniqueness of the burden – or hat-trick challenge – ahead of them.

But back to the booze. Stuart Lancaster and his extensive backroom staff may have needed a tipple after their cruel defeat. Midway through the second half, with the opposition looking both jaded and a tad downhearted, a ten point plus win seemed likely for England. France had the better of the first half, without ever seeming fully joined up, but around 50 minutes it appeared the relentless work of Lawes and Launchbury in particular had sucked the life of the home side.

I don’t often write that England were cruising with some style but that was almost where we were at. Again this was predicated on top-drawer stuff from the forwards – more in the loose than at the set-piece, arguably – as Vunipola B roared around the park and Robshaw C got quietly on with his usual, intelligent patrolling, covering, presenting. The machine was purring with only the occasional turnover to disturb the serenity of its progress.

It didn’t matter. Or rather at least it was unsuccessful. Or at least – they lost. Meaning that however you dress it up, England’s purplish patch was (yes) encouraging but insufficiently decisive; they (in their own terminology) failed to execute… enough.

Why was that?

Throughout the game, France lived off scraps. Even in a first 40 that they conspired to dominate, Les Bleus still had the look of a side thrown together – again. The halfbacks continued in the historic, less than convincing vein, their interventions neither demonstrably positive nor particularly polished. In midfield, the match was a mess, for both sides. Only at the breakdown, where Nyanga scrambled ravenously, or through English error, did the game come back to France. In other words, this game was so-o there for the taking. At half-time, despite a small deficit, Lancaster would have been rightly optimistic that the precious away win to start was entirely achievable and this likelihood turned to a racing certainty as England utterly outplayed France for much of the second period.

It may be churlish to mention that the cataclysmically inept opening thirty seconds were in fact critical but inevitably they impacted – on the board and in the mind. A bog-standard claim was so misjudged by a quaking coterie of Englishmen that a French try resulted only a handful of seconds later. Do the math. Five points were conceded and more. Nowell – Lancaster’s most significant gamble, perhaps? – was, unfortunately right in the midst of this horror show and despite frankly bewildering figures later issued by England Rugby suggesting the young winger carried well, he went on to have the marest of all mares, poor love. Caught in possession, at fault for or culpable for more than one try… my god it was painful to watch. He might have been removed, with a carefully issued consoling word, at the half.

So England were nearly good but sometimes dreadfully error-prone. And Wales were… okay. Short of an incredible injection of wit, discipline and consistency, Lancaster’s aspirations for World Cup Leading Contendership seem a long, long way off to me. Despite that famous England win over the All Blacks and their own alleged obviousness, Wales remain closest to the main men.  In this World Cup of the North, only the Irishmen can get to them.

 

What I did in my holidays, by bowlingatvinny, aged 624.

Travel. Culture. National ‘type’ or character or that thing about how a place feels. Rich but loaded territory. I stumble over it here and waft airily through memories following a break in France and Spain, foolishly crossing over into stuff which we may have to label judgement; knowing it’s not just ludicrous but probably downright wrong to make comparisons between places. It is, however, bloody tempting to try to capture some sense of what was wonderful – what we loved most.

Hey look I’m still cruising down the slope back into the Valley of the Working. Having recently nosed through the Vallée d’Aspe and then gawped at the Pyrenees from both sides, I remain 70-30 (percentage-wise) in the grip of Post Hols Daze-Virus Effort. And I have no raging urge to deny the affliction by deigning to re-enter normal life. Why should I, when so recently we were on Penä Oroel in the balmy heat watching some Aragonese bloke launch a paraglider? Into thermals us West-Walians would poetically-enthusiastically describe as liftin’ with vultures, mun? Why would the everyday exclude or even intrude on that? No, let’s loiter in that memory, please, have tâpas with it and drain the slowest of slow coffees. Until finally we click over into school pick-ups and yaknow, rain.

Yup we went from Wales to France and Spain, flying Stansted-Biarritz and picking up a car to skirt, drift and boot through the mountains to Jaca, Aragon. Critically, we could stay with friends in a tiny hamlet where climbers wipe before entering Los Pirineos; both on a financial level and in terms of accessing local cultural/geographical highlights this helped. In fact it simply made it possible.

Emerging from the likeably tiddly airport at Biarritz, more than faintly disoriented by the cack-handed Megane somebody foolishly hired me, we GET AWAY remarkably. Admittedly I’m looking for the wrong mirror/wrong life-endangering juggernaut but we are unmistakably away and into the drive – into our holiday.

We see some French roads – some Basque roads – and trees and villages. We look at the strangely conflicted words on the signs and fail (consistently) to say half of them. Whilst not quite meandering we draw in some of the local stuff – sweetcorn, mainly – and the colour red and the colour white. And tiles. Then poplars being sentries but maybe the sort that welcome rather than guard. We get in to that French Basque zone, gently… but sure… like tourists. Wondering how San Sebastian can be the same place as Donostia summink-or-other? Maybe searching for some dubious link between Basque and Welsh but ultimately leaving that one be. And just looking.

The flight had been okay. Ryan Air. Meaning a slightly edgy mob of wannabe guitar players, surfers and youngish families, all pretty unashamedly shedding the usual courtesies (here I do mean the passengers more than the staff, who were fine) and unzipping that myth about Brits queuing beautifully. The head stewardbloke – who may in truth have been directing the frenetic activity around him from a position of some Eckle(s)burgian insight – was actually genuinely good value as local prompter and wit, as well as accommodating er …host.

However the incoming flight had been slightly late, meaning an almost worryingly quick turnaround – raising certain perfectly legitimate questions. Like would the pilot need a drink? Or a kip? Would they make sure they had air-in-the-tyres/diesel in the tank/a shammy leather handy to wipe the driver’s window? We were all thinking this, or the aerial equivalent, I know: not just little old ahem plane-phobic me.

No the flight was fine but I’m kindof with Dennis Bergkamp on this. And soon enough, as our drive progressed (and my palms aired) there came to pass a seamless and vacation-appropriate gradation into ease. Bidache; Navarrenx; Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The visual momentum built as we went from countryside with a whiff of the special, to full-on gobsmacking, as we slid, in fact, into the Vallee d’Aspe. Now ’twas proper rip-roaring glacial scenery and proper mountains seen very close up, from the laughably tight valley floor. A brief, syrupy downpour and then tunnels into the guts of all this rock; into Spain.

We’d slithered south-easterly across France and now we plunged north-south just the few tens of kilometres to Jaca, through the area allegedly dotted with ski-resorts. (They are there – around Candanchu – but they simply weren’t on the mission schedule.) With the east-west grain of the Pyrenees at our backs as we ploughed on, we began to recognise gaps or drops into sleeping but boulder-strewn streams and the shoulders of some of the peaks; all this hauled or sprung from the memories of our previous visit, three years ago. We knew something of this place, ‘course we did. And the names now… Sabinanigo, Huesca, Castiello de Jaca. Familiar but still exotic.

About three hours all told to get from Biarritz to our stony, amiably street-dog-friendly village. Clunk the doors and look at the mountains – the foothills actually – Los Pirineos now being a few klicks to our north. Feel the hard, Spanish sun; the heat. A quick shuftie at the map confirms we’re at about Snowdon-height, looking up to between six and seven thousand feet; Snowdon times two, pretty much. Visau’/Bisaurin away and left, Monte Perdido maybe an hour going right. Hikes immediately – and I do mean immediately – available…

Wow. Must walk up there later – remember that next ridge? We walked it. That do-able on a mountain-bike?

(Answer – no, not for me – I tried it. Constant slippage or wheelies or punishing, pointless effort in near enough 90 degrees. My fitness is decent but we just skated on the gravel, on the dust. To be fair it was crazy steep.)

There followed days of exploring and rediscovering. Trudging then latterly floating up Penä Oroel , part shady yomp, part dreamy alpine meadow, concluding with stunning open views which genuinely (in that inadequate phrase) stirred the soul. Or driving with relentless purpose to blissfully little-known pools – pozas – to launch into deep pockets of sometimes shockingly refreshing mountain water. Then perhaps most memorably of all, trekking the bulk of a day, through, over and onto retreating snowbanks around 6,000 feet, faithfully following cairns in the absence of signage or people, to scale Pico d’Aspe. Looking down on France and the universe and (real) chamois(es?) flitting over the snow.

Mix in a dollop of ice-cream or fried squid in the town (Jaca), twenty minutes of Real Sociedad on the telly in the sports bar, plus a mowsie round the cave-cathedral that is San Juan de la Penä… and there you have it – or a flavour of it. Wonderful things and daft things. Like my daughter blowing all her holiday money on riding at Caballos el Pesebre, where instead of Pembrokeshire Nags there were sub-Arabian beauties. Where she cantered round (almost absurdly but beaming) beneath Los brooding but beautiful Pirineos. And I just sat and watched and read further into Homage to Catalonia!

I can’t pretend we engaged deeply with either the local social or political milieu. I am aware, for example, of the disaster that is youth unemployment in Spain and have views on that. I know that dangerous wee bit about the Spanish Civil War and have some relevant history; some; enough maybe to feel the nearness of Franco and hear the enduring bitterness towards the Guardia Civil. But we were tourists, staying with a family of (fluent Spanish-speaking) non-natives. So what was it, exactly, that made me fall for Spain?

The Pyrenees I find stunning and evocative. I failed, I admit, to entirely separate the view from the heroic defiance, the anarchistic militancy and indeed the sacrifice of the population (as was?) Ground like this is going to foster pride and passion and maybe a little wildness and given the essential local connection between folks and earth through time it makes sense that something preciously approaching a worker’s province could emerge here. I am very close to writing that you can still see that – feel it – the land simply seems worth fighting for.

In the 1930’s a truly remarkable revolutionary fire swept through much of Spain and continued to flicker defiantly here, in the forests and the farmsteads. Partly, no doubt, because the geography is with the rebel, the guerrilla, not the government. Partly, I like to think, because the people are big enough, generous enough to battle in order to share. Standing on a peak in Aragon, looking at a land that could not be mastered – not that gorge, not that Alpine slope! – I got sucked into all that… romance.

It’s a leap from here/there to the following – that I prefer Spain to France – but I will make it, without, on this occasion accounting for the frisson around the subtext. I’ll simply own up to the preference for (imagined) 20th century Spanish defiance over (imagined) French capitulation; that should do it.

There’s a certain deep richness to rural northern Spain which blows me away. Kindof uniquely. There is, in Los Pirineos, this endless slew of mountains, a splendid, inviolable peace; no doubt related to – arising from? – the scope, the scale of the view, the physical realities. But there is something else, beyond, beneath.

Even allowing for the fact that I was re-reading Homage to Catalonia at the time of our visit and am therefore likely charged with Engaged Lefty Wistfulness, I will dare to suggest that culture, politics, the mix of daily grind and grand philosophical breach – of war, of war, in fact! – breathes into this. In the wonderful, silent greenness of the slopes and the ochre plain I found something very rich and hearty and intoxicating. And though on returning to the French side I was much taken with St Jean de Luz in particular – Spain does it for me.