Et vives?

The French must be bawling. Slumped on the fields of Alsace ou Normande, bitterly weeping out their heartbreak. Gawping in the cafe-bars of Biarritz, over the affaire discombobulatingly cruelle. Who could have foreseen it; the day when the English – Les Anglais! – usurped them as the great enigma of 6 Nations rugby? When the lily-whites, the ros-bifs actually actually appeared more difficult to read than the magnificently, enigmatically opaque Bleus. When England from 9 to 15 were that ludicrously French phenomenon, the Unlikely Lads. Or worse- the Unknowably Untested Lads. Or the Godknows What Will Happen Lads. But such is the current, anti-intuitive scenario.

France, of course are still reassuringly in pieces. Some bits toweringly, even tempestuously brilliant – Harinoduquy? Dusautoir? Whilst others others skulk and feint too easily in the traditional allegedly gallic manner. They are, therefore yet again likely to be consistently inconsistent, despite the swapping of guard following Lievremont’s departure preceding a comparative calming of the perception of changes perpetuelles. (If my taking of diabolical liberties with the French language offends, please send your complaints to P Idgin, Two Veg Row, Hampton le Cobblers, Dorset.)

For the arrival of Philippe Saint Andre – and his selection of a 30 hommes squad – seems to have been relatively quietly appreciated and indeed commented upon in rugbygossville. Notable picks are Beauxis, the Toulouse pivot and the returning Poitrenaud and Nyanga. Elsewhere the Yachvilis and Parras and Vincent Clercs give the thing a spookily familiar, if not (ever?) trusty look.

But when this is a side that recently featured in the World Cup Final, why wouldn’t it look familiar? What’s to be gained by too much faffing, now the Fiddle-Meister-in-Chief Lievremont has disparu? The fact that his charges were possibly the most unlikely and almost unbelievably ungraceful (and therefore unpopular) French side in memory that somehow woke up to find themselves in a WCF is interesting rather than seminal. They were actually shambolically crap; but they almost made it. Like France would. Now they must add structure and consistency to the engagingly, maddeningly French stuff. So there won’t be too many changes; unless Saint Andre can fashion some conviction and some unity; in which case they might win the thing at a canter.

Scotland have surely no chance of winning the tournament. Certainly not with just the two home games – England and France? Their contribution to and competitive streak in the tournament is, to their credit, gathering but the retirement of Paterson leaves them further adrift in the putting points on the board stakes, does it not? For all the recent highs – the heartening resurgence vol. XXlV – it just appears that that minor detail (execution from the backs) eludes them. I do not discount the achievements of either Edinburgh – sitting pretty ‘midst the Heineken Cup Quarters elite – or Glasgee – sitting pretty pretty in the pro12 – but who amongst the back division is actually going to score?

Ross Ford is a mighty and a proud wee leader of men I’ve no doubt, and the famed back row in particular may yet marmalise (in particular) the soft centre of their first, momentarily white-suited opponents. But the quality they have at 9 and 10 is rarely matched outside. Consequently the Cussiter/Blair/Parks axis either has to really make something very new happen, or energise the loose forwards towards more than the occasional or moral victory.

Andy Robinson – a man treated poorly I suspect by both players and officials at Twickers – knows all this and is no doubt icily smouldering for a win against the English first up. That’s certainly do-able. Given the genuine all-court progress Robinson has led, plus the inevitable key Mel Gibsonian roar of the sporran-touting masses, Messrs Hodgson/Farrell and co might be forgiven for pooping their Calvin Klein’s at the prospect. The Scots may not need any backs to win that one; which may be just as well. Paterson is scheduled to take a fond adieu in one of those cringingly orchestrated ‘farewells’ that pro sport does these days; before kick-off; against the English. He, like us, just won’t know which way that one will go.

The Italians, under new coach Jacques Brunel mirror some of Scotland’s shortcomings, only maybe in a hall-of-mirrors kindofaway. They are at times, more weirdly inadequate, especially as they approach the opposition 22. If they ever do. Cruel? Perhaps. But the Azurri, who battle bravely and with some efficiency at scrum and at breakdown – where the likes of Castrogioavanni and Parisse and to a lesser extent Bergamasco deny smug notions that they are there to make up the numbers – are… short of numbers. Numbers 10 to 15 typically. And maybe 4, 5, 6. Ish. Consequently, the feeling and the likelihood remains that they can’t quite compete. Not in more than one or two games. Not really.

There have been times when those of us who love the game and rate the Italian zest for it have chorused endlessly on the subject of kickers. The lack of which has been absolutely key to preventing the Roman hordes from further, more rewarding pillage. (Remember they did beat the French in Rome last time out.) The chronic shortage of place-kickers in particular has de-empired them before the legions have been dispatched. I have myself, on many occasions, volunteered to step up at time of need, having struck successfully for Italia on many occasions – I kid you not – in the Thunder Bay and District Midwinter Soccer League. (‘Nother story- let’s leave it.) I wouldn’t, believe me, have missed. Not like that.

Now, again, the question may be How To Stay In Touch with those who are just that bit better, that bit more likely to ‘execute’. Whilst watching another convincing flurry from scrum to about halfway, I, for one, will be wishing our Italian brothers well.

France can’t win because…

It’s the finalist of all finals, the most singularly lopsided. The homesters versus the recently unloved; the latter, (the French) having excelled themselves at the fine art of pretending to be England, minus the booze, the women (probably) and the ferries. Is there even a sort of Daily Mailized Forces of Order and Good v Dale Farm Junkies and Dishonourable Reprobates about it too, I wonder? The fearsomely beautiful and no doubt milky-lamb-cuddling ‘Blacks v the foie gras munching bootboys with no respect. With press this bad, surely even the French don’t want France to win? But could they?

The answer is a relatively confident No. And given that time is now short and that once more it feels appropriate to spill the guts of an argument rather than tease it out surgeon-like, here are a few reasons to be fearful for the French.

  • They’re outgunned in every department, pretty much, lacking the blistering intensity levels the All Blacks have copyrighted as their own since… since Agincourt. (Where’s the French Nonu or McCaw or Dagg? Etc.)
  • The All Blacks, in case it’s slipped you’re notice, are at home, with the heat of a nation – a truly great rugby nation – scorching at their backs.
  • Though we might expect a few nervous moments, a chronic and infectious bout of under-achievement should not blight the All Blacks, or enough of the All Blacks for long enough, to give the French a look-in.
  • If on the contrary the AB’s start as they did against Australia, the French capacity to sulk and even disappear may be invoked by about the 15th minute; because the cause may already be lost.
  • Whilst the French pack may be reasonably competitive in the scrum (maybe) they will surely not live with the AB’s at the line-out/breakdown/generally marauding round the park?
  • Perhaps Harinordoquy and Dusautoir aside, the French lack the crucial combination of real class and spirit. And they are relatively faceless behind the scrum.
  • Israel Dagg, I fancy, may have a field day whilst opposite number Medard is likely to wilt.
  • Whilst 9 and 10 are not special for the AB’s, they are functioning and brilliantly supported by the midfield and by loose forwards. Yashvilli and Parra have had nothing around them except chaos.
  • Most obviously perhaps the difference in belief and unity should tell; the Blacks are mighty and together and they know it; the French are cock-fighting or backing different snails.
  • Lievremont is enigmatically unloved; Henry is the Headteacher worth listening to.

Most important of all, dear reader, we the World Community of Rugby Lovers simply won’t allow it (a French win, I mean).

  • Because without any doubt the All Blacks – the New Zealanders – are fine and even magnificent exponents of and believers in rugby as an electrifying, honourable pursuit.
  • Because they will give EVERYTHING and truly, sadly, the French have given virtually nothing (and arguably therefore, have no right to represent the North. That honour should surely have ideally fallen to the Brotherhood of Redness – see 57 previous blogs).
  • Because, in other words, put crudely but honestly, the All Blacks deserve it. And we will congratulate them.

Enter the North?

The foibles and fateful wotsits have begun to weave their magic and so, in truth , have the Celts. The World Cup Draw, that dull calendar formerly only notable in terms of the scramble to avoid the All Blacks, is now animated; a northern beacon being run across its landscape. Following just a few tweaks of the original presumptions – Ireland and Argentina and Tonga having been arguably the chief protagonists – firstly the balance of the draw and now we hope its democracy, its capacity to permit open challenges has been transformed.

Because Wales should have beaten South Africa; because Ireland did beat Australia and Tonga did beat France, the possibilities swung wide as the draw narrowed against the Tri-Nations. Australia’s defeat effected an unfortunate consequence; they joined South Africa and the home nation in the Quarters. With the Wallabies facing the Springboks for a place in the semi’s and the All Blacks facing Argentina not Scotland (no great surprise, that one) only one of the great Southern powers can reach the final. One the one hand this is a clear affront to sporting justice – the Tri-Nations still providing 3 of the top 4 rugby-playing nations – but on the other this also means that a Six Nations side must make the final, thereby providing a true all-world centrepiece.

I imagine the residents of Sydney or Darwin and possibly Jo’burg berating this freak of fortune; but the truth is a) if the Aussies had beaten Ireland they would have faced Wales not the Springboks and b) Wales punctured most of the arguments for Southern superiority during their group match against the ‘boks, which they contrived to lose (again) from a position of clear … superiority. Wales have now gone on to produce the most fluent and complete performance of the tournament by annihilating Fiji – Fiji, mark you, not Russia or Namibia! – 66 points to nil. In doing so, the names of Warburton and North have been beamed powerfully into the consciousness of the event; Warburton for his inspired leadership and supremely athletic presence all round the pitch and North for his joyful bursts to the line. Wales suddenly have a right to believe they may earn a place in the final. Only Ireland and then perhaps England stand in their way.

The Irish have risen from nowhere to join their Celtic brothers in the Quarter-final. For a year or more prior to this tournament, despite the presence of powerful and experienced players throughout their squad, the Irish have seemed frankly a bit lost. Unable to convincingly raise the traditional fires or play expansively with any consistency, it seemed they arrived in New Zealand as makeweights. But the outstanding win against the Wallabies, plus today’s pasting of the Italians makes a nonsense of former blandness. They may be only muttering quietly and darkly in the corner, but Ireland too believe.

England remain both an enigma and a bore. Miraculously shapeless and uninspired – given the awesome proportions and reputation of the Man (very much) At The Top – they have bundled through like the Leeds United of old, knowing they are generally loathed but, unlike Revie’s mob, unable to use that for motivation. But they are immensely durable. Their recent World Cup history is of impeccable over-achievement. They really might play near-shocking ‘winning rugby’ to another final, having bored France and Wales out of the way; a sort of dull parity around the pitch followed by rare interventions by Foden or Ashton really might do it. Possibly even with Wilkinson miscuing – although I fancy his position may genuinely be under review. As should the manager’s, if France beat them.

France have been more French than the French, having gone largely and directly from worse to worse. And this time their propensity for gallic squandering seems likely to fully express itself; following a dour defeat by England they will surely miss the flight home and be found sobbing in isolated clumps in the cheapest of local nightclubs. There to be hugged generously by Mike Tindall.

So – sticking my neck out – New Zealand or Australia or South Africa will meet Wales or Ireland or England for ultimate glory. It’s as simple as that. That, mind you, is discounting the Pumas. But surely the All Blacks couldn’t..? No… no… no.