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?

 

 

 

 

 

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Swing Higher?

Australia deservedly beat the Lions in the second test on Saturday, in another match shrill with nuclear-button-moment tension. In this case, mercifully, several things;

one – ’twas all centred round a mere but alarmingly late and decisive kicking event (again!) as opposed to something major going off in Korea/Iran/someplace else the Americans are pooping their panties about.

Two – this time it was us wot missed.

Three – the nuclear-freeness of said event did not significantly reduce the weight of angst where I was watching… and latterly enduring it.

Once more, remarkably, the overtime phases of the game offered nerve-shredding possibilities for all or nothing in terms of this series. For supporters of the reds, like me, ultimately, as I/we/they slunk away to bars and hotels or the small comfort of family life, it was the bitter hard stuff that lay in wait – not the smilier-fizzier accoutrements of quadrennial glory. The redoubtable Halfpenny – he of the doe-eyes calmly fixated – had failed to hoof open a new chapter in long-shotdom; the 50-odd metre penalty he struck falling some way short of the now untroubled crossbar. (Earlier a similar attempt had rebounded cruelly to a Wallaby hand.) It was another moment of drama in a now confirmed triptych – the contest going as a result to the final match in Sydney. And rightly so.

The build-up on and off the box had been full of the usual hum and hokum; banter, bullshit and – where I was – brilliant, informed debate. Much of it around the Vunipola Question. Or maybe the Back Row Question. Meaning that a fair number had bought in to the bulk of the changes – enforced or otherwise – Gatland had made. For example, despite the fact that Mike Phillips is a son of Banc-y-felin, a thirty mile meander from base camp (in Haverfordwest Cricket Club, if you must know) not too much earache on that. ‘Mike’s ‘been bit laboured, see? Godda get that ball OUT, mun!’ No; much more earnest discussion and yes, dissent, over the perceived vulnerability of the England prop. A straw poll would have put Grant in there for starters and allowed the younger fella to rumble round destructively once the game had opened out. Strength not at issue – just too much to expect him to show the maturity, discipline and composure to hold under targeted pressure. He couldn’t.

There were awful moments close to the 25 minute mark when, following general world-wide indictment (and more importantly, concession of penalties at the scrum) Vunipola seemed destined to be unceremoniously hoiked. Then he dropped a pass… and it became inevitable. The fact that he and the Lions scrum scrambled back towards an admittedly sketchy and frankly unattractive ‘parity’- and that in fact he was not removed early – reflects admirably on the England debutant. Words had indeed been said – shouted in fact, at the alleged Englishman but the Lions effort had not started so loaded down with disbelieving expletives.

It began with a storm, in fact, or a storming, the away side looking both impassioned and focused. We thrilled and yes, roared as things clicked encouragingly over from our lot piling into ’em in the time-honoured fashion to some adrenalin-fuelled but controlled rugby of a Wallaby-threatening order.  Sadly, this lasted for all of about eight minutes before… before the magnificent free-spirits up on the screen realised this was a Test Match… with a whole lot riding.

Then conservatism and error and often shapelessness broke out, in the game at large, in both camps. It was rare that either side went through more than a handful of phases before something was up – an infringement or an error, typically. The intensity made it feel like a spectacle but maybe take that series-decider thing out and… what? Scrappy and again frustratingly bound to interpretation of what went on in the scrum and – less obviously in this encounter – at the breakdown.

In the scrum it really may be that concepts are all we have; real, corporeal ascendancy being no longer a possibility, given the shambles around engagement and the put-in. Scrums are no longer contests because a) there is no hooking b) the objective seems to be the prompting of a ‘legitimate’ claim to a penalty following infringement from the other side. Meanwhile the historically essential delivery of the ball to the centre of the melee is apparently an irrelevance, as far as the officials are concerned. Scrums now are far too often an enraging travesty; one which will inevitably lead to some explosive reaction from one of the betrayed protagonists.

The early minutes suggested at least that policing of the breakdown might be less cruelly restrictive than the previous match. O’Driscoll sensed he may be in the game and Warburton most certainly was – if not pilfering outright then genuinely competing without fear. This augured well. In fact though, the inability of the Lions to build (and literally expand) upon a fabulous start by drawing and passing and recycling effectively – adding width following gains in yardage – meant there was no penetration. And they can’t blame the ref for too much of that.

Whether this is a cultural thing with Gatland is open to debate; some mutter darkly about a one-dimensionality in the Gatland Master Plan. As though it’s essence is relatively stoppable, if you learn to read it. It may not be the same thing but there was a sense here that either by instinct or design the Wallabies had options available, even in a crowded midfield, in a way that the Lions didn’t. Davies and O’Driscoll were nullified and North and Bowe almost absent. Beyond that perhaps – they rarely looked like creating. That could not be said of their opposite numbers.

Clearly the brilliance of Genia plays a part in this disparity. He seamlessly links, he moves the centre of threat, there is that unsettling but nonetheless purposeful flux about him. He’s bloody difficult to stop. Allow him a few phases and before you know it every manjack in the backline is feeling indefuckingstructible mate. If he had a real pivot outside him you worry that the Lions would suffer a pasting – but they didn’t. The Australians won, deservedly, because they were markedly more ambitious; they offloaded and brought runners into the game – particularly in the second half. There is an argument that they had no choice but I think that’s slightly cheap. The Wallabies really took the Lions on – courageously, defiantly – and they won.

For the Lions, changes will again be made; both necessary and tactical. The potential absence of Warburton and the loss of the totemic O’Connell may possibly be the end of it, who knows? Parling is a good man but not a legend. The inclusion of a fit Tuilagi, to the squad, if not the team, seems likely, with the Davies-BOD combination somewhere between pallid and competent so far. Nothing wrong with Bowe and North – they just need the pill to carry round a bit. There need be no culture-change in the front row, merely a reversion to an experienced, workmanlike posse including Grant(?) with limited objectives. Compete; behave; stop the other buggers. Selecting the back row is more critical, you feel.

There may be some in the Lions camp pressing for a blanket over things; a fire-response or even better a fire-prevention unit. Tough, reliable types – Lydiates. The argument maybe being that an opportunity will come anyway, for North or Bowe, or somebody and that therefore no need for a Croft or a Tuilagi to go gambolling too recklessly. Issues around fitness of individuals may of course steer this debate but clearly the make-up of the back row will to a large extent control the nature and the pace and the ambition – higher/lower? – of the game plan. Whether Warbs misses out or not, the case for Lydiate is strong. So how do we juggle Croft’s classy athleticism and Tipuric’s great form and O’Briens passion and… which way, what will characterise how we go? With Heaslip? Do we just give Heaslip a bollocking and demand some more or does the thing need a revolution? Perhaps not. But it does need a spark.

In our club the chorus of ‘Swing Low’ heard mid-match was not met with universal enthusiasm. To some these Lions felt disappointingly a bit trad English – meaning inexpressive – dull, frankly. Where were the players ‘seizing the moment’, playing ‘heads-up rugby?’ Well, they weren’t wearing red.

For Gatland there is some serious thinking to be done. I don’t see him as some conservative soul – he’s better than that. But he may feel that trouble lies ahead if his side fails again to release players into space and/or take the risks associated with width. Or he may not. He may I suppose conclude that a tight, forward-led approach is percentage-wise most viable, most advantageous. Many of us would counter that so far the Wallabies have dealt more than adequately with the Lions 1-8 but found 11 and 14 less easily contained. In other words Gorgeous George in particular is nigh on unfuckingstoppable (mate.) So let him have that ball.

Breakdown.

In a lookawaynow kind of fashion, the first Test between the Shackle-dragging Crimino-brotherhood and The Lions crashed, swung its irons, walloped and all-round prime-timed our dislocated, mid-morning senses. Principally, Blokes were magnificently knocked out every few minutes – characteristically… Australians! Transformer-like Other Blokes sprinted and jinked gargantuan jinks (as opposed to JJWilliams jinks) from one state to the next before palming the ball down triumphantly. It was mega; it was neanderthal and modern and glossy and balletic in a free-form staccato-eruptive flood. And The Lions won; 21-23.

Maybe that’s all you need to know. Maybe – as, let’s be honest, I may well be preaching to the converted here – you knew all that. Allow me then to throw in some free and colo(u)rific insight, some twinklacious observo-punts re the signage as well as the ‘actual events’. Or you could piss off back to the telly.

The  pre-match tension, from the scene of my watchingment, appeared to fix upon whether or not to slurp a beer or several during the game – most of us gathered being more or less committed to playing cricket (sub-the-judice of the effing weather) immediately post the ludicrous mid-morn kick-off. (CUM ON, PEOPLE! Like how’s a man supposed to watch a Test AND slurp beer at 11 am. With a cricket match after? OK. I know. We generally do that cum Lions-time.) So there was that inane banter thing going on around Jamie Roberts and stuff whilst we exorcised the ghostly whiff of hops or worse – the need to slurp. Then boot, hussarr… it started. And so did the drinking, actually.

Within a few minutes the sustaining hunch that Sexton would do okay if he didn’t have to kick pressure kicks and that our lot would actually be more together than their lot of outofpositionflungtogetheradmittedlyflair-enabled southerners seemed a stable concept, amid the inevitable hurly. This is not to say that the homesters looked nervously dysfunctional but more that The Lions, equipped more than adequately in the Experienced and Proper Lion stakes (BOD, POC, AWJ, you cuddle up to your own, bullocking ledge) seemed pidgeon-chestedly at home in this environment. Youngs did the Youngs things, POC the POC, etc. The lads – our stupendously leonine (if birdlike) and capable and whole-hearted red-shirted heroes – did their thing with enough assurance to convince all of us and the watching world that Lions can (oof)… and will… (yowch!) lay it down… (hoiyahh!) in committed style… (aaaah) for The Lions.

Slightly more specifically, Jonathon Davies absolutely laid out Lealiifano, without resorting to malice, in 50 seconds. To his credit, the Welshman – who gave surely one of the great non-Test performances in Lions history in the game against Waratahs last week (yup, I really think it was that good) – immediately called for aid to his stricken opponent, knowing he was haway with the (presumably Aboriginal) faeries. This was merely the warm-up gig in the stretcher-fest that was to wheel its Pete Townsendesque way through the game. Kerrang!! Lealiifano. Kerrang!! Barnes. ‘Allo San Fransisco! McCabe. Power-chord after migraine-inducing power-chord, the physical intensity of the thing was taking its toll; on the Australians.  We drank to that, funnily enough.

There was much to admire and enjoy in the first period. Two tries by the Australian George North – bloke called Folau, who apparently picked up a rugby ball for the first time last week – plus a similarly dashing-bison moment from Gorgeous George himself.

Personally I was convinced the first Folau try followed a scandalously obvious in-at-the-side intervention from an Aussie prop but this was not the only moment of controversy around the breakdown. The man O’Driscoll, whom followers of the game may have heard of, quite plainly decided he needed to absent himself from these challenges following two bewildering pings; this will be a matter for ahem… discussion between Mr Gatland and the authorities, I feel, before the Second Test. In all seriousness, the ‘interpretation’ of rulings on what is permissible – or how bodyweight is judged to be perched – as players try to gather in legitimately contestable ball should not be excluding great and honourable and experienced professionals from plying their trade entirely. BOD could subsequently make only intermittent contributions for his side, something of a travesty for the contest, IMO. This issue will remain central to the series no doubt but if the other, healthier, more roaaarringly uplifting facet of the game – namely the propensity for giant blokes to leg-it like fuck through pathetically flailing defenders – persists, then clearly we are in for some wonderful entertainment.

Folau and Cuthbert and North delivered something special which drew crucially upon the moment… and that was fabulously proper sport. Tries of course can win matches but if the hapless hoofers from the SD colony had even remotely approached Halfpennyesque levels of proficiency with the boot then The Lions would have got beat. As it was, Leigh was again close to exemplary in virtually everything he did, whilst a series of probably under-prepared and possibly unwilling Aussie novices blinked up at the posts before hoiking right, left, or cruelly fell on their understandably quivering ample arse. Beale – the one with alcohol issues – cruelly exposed, kicked drunkenly wide or short or both, when the moment OF WINNING THE FIRST TEST beckoned. My Magnificent Little Pony (Halfpenny – earlier), did not.

In a finale that was supremely tense rather than classic, failures of composure and technique told – failures we might link to selection issues, for Australia really had gambled more than their gallantly stolid opponents. The Wallabies had the Wrong Bloke doing really important stuff too often. So they lost.

However, they did have the finest player on the park by some distance – Genia, who played as though pressure does not and never did exist – but even his brilliance fell short. When the shackles were flung off rather than dragged, the Aussie back line did look a threat, even in midfield, in a way that BOD and Davies rarely did. Much of this was to do with Genia’s comfort and expressivity. Phillips by contrast looked upright and sometimes laboured; his place now more closely under threat from t’other Youngs, perhaps? The Lions came through thanks to bursts of invincible running amid general good (but conservative) stewardship of the line-out and acceptably tidy work from Sexton. They will want more and they may need it.

With the result undecided ’til virtually the last kick and the intensity relentlessly freakish, this First One was damn competitive. Hence, I suppose the attrition on Australians. (Did I mention that?) The Lions are strong but not decisively so – not yet. Two tries conceded. If the Wallabies can truly and effectively re-group they have already shown that they have real firepower – likely the equal of the boy North, even. What we need as lovers of the game is both for the big guns to be unleashed and for the less spectacular contests to be fully played out rather than watch players tiptoe around the referee’s interpretation of the rules. Players/viewers don’t want to obsess about the flippin’ breakdown; they/we want to see it happen – Warburton or BOD v their lot, in action!

It’s simply not possible to play through the breakdown when your movements, your instincts are compromised by those fears. BOD’s withdrawal from this key part of the game was maybe, on reflection, notable as opposed to central to the result – fortunately. But when things get tight… phew, you wanna grab that ball, right? And that might cost. In the fury and the shades-of-grey it became heart-stoppingly close. But as O’Driscoll said after – we’ll take an ugly win. Cheers.

Triumph by degree.

Triumph. Glory. Worryingly loaded terms, both, as though there’s no escaping the association with imperial excess or sultry machismo – both of which I oppose with every laddish ounce. ‘Tis a challenge, this all-consuming contemporary imperative towards proportion – one I typically moon at, as you know. Is there really no way to write innocently in the post post-modern age? Shame, eh? If it’s too rash to affix words like them there onto mere sport, even on the understanding – you do understand, right? – that nothing’s rilly that serious and… my eyes they are a twinkling. The cunning plan then will revert to a crypto-psychological airing of notions around degrees of triumph. In sport, this weekend; rugby football in fact.

(You know) I love the talk around this stuff. The banter, sure, but maybe more so that slightly higher grade proffering of views about the shape of sides, the intent, the possibilities. An example? The leaking out from this cloud of (often though not always) nationalistic passiogubbins of the contention that the Scottish back three may be the best in the 6nations. This is not an assertion that could have been made with any degree of seriousness in donkeys years. Hold with that thought then combine with the impressive and surely contagious positivism practically washing out of Scott Johnson and key elements seemed in place ahead of the Italy game for either a triumphant expression of 15-man rugby or …yet another Murrayfield trauma. It was pretty much the former, something approaching a try-fest and a crucial breaking out from those dispiriting Scottish failures. A triumph of the Thank Christ For That variety as well as a champers-popping treat.

Caveats will need to be included re the relative weakness of their opponents. Italy, whilst playing again with occasional verve were suicidally open at times but Scotland the nation has every right to bristle and glow over the arrival of a competitive-plus back divison. Despite being clad in a kit they apparently modelled on motorway signage, the home side hustled with an altogether more convincing energy than for some appreciable time. They flipped and flashed in and out of the overtaking lane; not uncontrollably or recklessly but with the clear purpose of getting someplace quickly. The threat was there – a real threat, you felt – as opposed to the bound-to-end-in-fumbling-failure version that had become the depressing norm.

In a compelling and genuinely exciting game freed up rather than stifled by expectation, tries surely loomed. Sure enough Vister darted and stepped (far too easily in fact) off his wing to score. Then in one of those moments when action and symbol clang together, Matt Scott juggled one off his chest before bursting free. (Insert that particular instant into almost any midfield scenario for Scotland over the last five years and surely the chance would have gone to ground; this time the centre scurried clear to score unopposed.) Even Sean Lamont – who had scored but a single try in 42 matches – found himself likewise in freedom’s honeyed pastures as he gathered up from the deck and bolted… with surely some quiet ecstasy?

The electrifying interception by the fullback Hogg that caterpaulted him almost the full length of the pitch was the game’s stand-out moment. As exhaustion closed in around his utter joy he drifted somewhat from the posts but this naivety was not chief amongst the concerns of the baying crowd, who expunged a decade’s frustration at butchered opportunities with a tremendous hollering. Would that a certain Bill McClaren had been there to describe the moment. Hogg, certainly, is a Lions contender – though quite possibly behind both Wales’s Halfpenny and Ireland’s Kearney. And maybe England’s Goode!

It’s true then, Scotland can attack, can even cross the whitewash; how fabulous. This ritual unshackling – so sweet, so thrilling in its nature – we can justifiably, with an affirmative slug of fine malt, file under the ‘t’ word. For the Italians, destined to make incremental progress contradicted by days such as these, it must have hurt. Going to Murrayfield believing they were in the best shape for aeons, having duffed up the French? Facing the side most obviously and most frequently vying with them for that wooden spoon? And getting mullered? They will need to gather yet more steel into the matrix of what they are building and go, again, in search of that second win in the 2013 tournament.

In Paris, Wales beat France in the first duff game of the 6nations. Or so the general perception will go. Led by Ryan Jones, they dug out a win whilst the French crowd broiled. The game was clunky, with few passages of quality handling. Halfpenny got man-of-the-match but it could easily have gone to his skipper, the eloquent Jones, who is one of those blokes you really want to do well for his utter but intelligent commitment. In the context of where the two sides are at – in the 6nations, in terms of their ahem development – there was a quasi-spiritual aspect to the game, with the French flailing about for something to believe in (a way of playing?) and the Welsh needing ideally to reassert their own pattern but more prosaically, to win. In reality, this was not the rugby of or for the gods.

The French were almost unbelievably poor; shambolically led from half-back, almost comically unimaginative with ball in hand. Apart from the occasional mega-hit from Bastereaud, they seemed either dilatory or glazed-eyed, unable to see or burst through the slough of nerves. Michalak was not the only one to play what felt like a career-ending role in the game.

Wales must of course take real credit for much of the host’s embarrassment. In team meetings they will surely have spoken about denying the French rather than levering the game open. But it wasn’t pretty – in particular that first half, where Phillips was again in contained and containing mode. Slowly going through phases until an error inevitably came; monitoring rather than playing. Fortunately for Wales, the longer the game went on the worse the hosts seemed to get; it hardly mattered that the Welsh back line seemed pedestrian by their standards and that the word ‘urgency’ appeared to have disappeared from the Franco-Welsh lexicon. Wales, solidly marshalled by Biggar, abided. And yet…

Sure, us Welsh-sympathetic types naturally hoped for a searing run from Davies or Cuthbert but the reality shelved most of that indulgence in exchange for the blanket thrown over the pitch. Bravely and with great discipline the forwards smothered and the backs kept the seal intact. There seemed not the remotest possibility that the French would score but in the absence of guarantees, things remain tense, yes? Even from the depths of their paucity some blur of French brilliance might spark? Pas de chance, as it ‘appens. They were – unpredictably – relentlessly, predictably crap.

As the thing rumbled in almost classically turgid style towards deserved victory for Wales, so the restlessness in the crowd grew. With every concession of possession by Les Bleus a chorus of the gallic equivalent of harrumphing gathered. The Welsh were ahead, without a meaningful cushion in terms of points but ahead. Following George North’s powerful burst for the line humiliating whistles and prolonged booing broke out around the stadium. Music to Welsh ears. French supporters left – disgracefully, in my view – in disgust. This was the kind of low-diff, plough through-the-sodden-meadow victory that practically erects a conveyor belt of foaming pints of beer on the players bar. Exhausting but rich in terms of its bond. There was at least a whiff of the Brotherhood of Redness about it; the redeeming, the reclamation of something, through powerful, powerful unified work. I would have let Ryan lead his men in a pint or two last night. A triumphant one.

Finally came England. With a win we’d be calling truly impressive if the game hadn’t been so decimated and reduced by conditions. My guess is England would have despatched Ireland with something to spare had the ball been less appallingly soapy. As it was, even the initially imperious Farrell was largely flummoxed by the pitiless rain.

England started superbly, with that kind of away team composure coaches dream about. Even early on there was no real width but Farrell prompted then penalised the Irish for any transgression. When the homesters awoke it was with that intemperate flame that might either overwhelm or threaten self-immolation; they were fierce but unfocussed. Sexton was ordinary – then hurt – and the Irish fumbled. The intensity was right off the scale but ambitions were promptly scaled right back as allegedly straightforward catches were dropped and the ball was lost in contact. The mid-section of the match was relatively poor, with periods when Irish forward dominance seemed likely to be critical cancelled out by further error. England were always more efficient but the midfield never had, nor were ever likely to have quick ball or space to create. The English back line was admirably watchful and assured in defence whilst being anonymous going forwards.

Tuilagi, having come on early in the second period had the two sole try-scoring opportunities of the game but in each case his spatial awareness and footballing skills let him down. Was I the only one waiting for him to get a run at O’Gara? That run never came. England eased to victory, to a strangulating, appreciative-slap-on-the-back-engendering win rather than anything too… too triumphant. Lancaster will live with that. And – cue the unwisely charged denouement – England march on.

 

Wanna check out my triumphant ebook? Out now on Amazon – amzn.to/SSc9To. Recommended by Brain Moore/Paul Hayward/Kate Webb. Intro by Paul Mason.

 

No fat lady has sung; to my knowledge.

Read something really quite interesting the other day. On the subject of fickleness, I suppose, or at least regarding the alleged facts of fandom – whether or not this notion of the part-time or unreal fan is a fair kop. (That worth a ha ha?) Or whether it’s always been statistically the case that most fans either have more than one true love in their football ether, or actually go to watch more than one club; god forbid. Anthropologists studying that commonly identified sub-group The Bloke will be unsurprised I think that within this revealingly sharp and often vitriolic debate about Prawn Sarnie Munchers being Scum-a-the-earth or the Financial Lifeblood of the Premier League, there is a historical narrative for infidelity. Apparently, for yonks, it has been gently gently secretly the case that supporters have been de-tribalising themselves in order to watch better teams outside the immediate thrall of The Manor, or shouting Ev’ton one week and Liv’pool the next (for example.) Thereby dancing silently upon the grave of their own authenticity in the eyes of all right-minded people – like themselves.

God it’s a twisted world.

In life I make a point of a) being a huge optimist but b) never really believing anybodies facts and figures, so I won’t mention that the above research on home supporters is liberated from an article in Spiel magazine, lest you go accepting/reading it. Besides, I’m dealing in the woozily general again here, and do not intend (even) to write an article about football. I merely throw in this psycho-geographically resonating lifebuoy to provide comfort to those unable to persist with a post that turns out… against the early expectations… to be, in a roundabout way, about rugbystuff.

So what are we like, eh? One minute we’re crowing or guffawing at either George North or the Irish Pack; the next we’ve drifted. Back to the Real Sporting Giants – Drogba/Suarez/Torres and soon enough Rooney. As though they can or rightfully do satiate our needs both for sporting drama and mighty role-models. Providing us with everything a fan – fickle or sanctimoniously beyond those apparently spurious judgements – could ever ask for.

The Six Nations comes to an unseemly deadstop, like some campaign in the Daily Mail undermined because it suddenly seemed Leftie; quietly and terminally, mirroring something of the muffled bitterness articulated by those dubiously rugby-converted purple rinses with their suddenly cultivated obsession for Our Stuart Getting That England Job, ahead of that Mallett man, with his unsettlingly dark features. The natural order of things succeeding, in The Mail and the proper world; properly.

The sudden smotheration of not just The Six Nations but of the existence of rugby in the British(?) consciousness so soon after that final toot at Twickenham last weekend must surely be a metaphor for something. As well as being another one of those alleged facts. Perhaps it means that – shock horror probe – folks are not died-in-the-wool, touch-pause-engaged fans in the real head-to-the-left-now-hit-like-fuck sense. They – like most of the referees at international level – have no genuine feeling for, or understanding of the dark arts or finer points of frontrowdom. They admire something of that knightish physicality; wonder how that game can go on like that with that bloke reeling around under the trainer’s insensitive touch, four foot six away from the ongoing action. Why don’t they stop, like in proper games? And how does that counter-rucking thing work anyway? And how can that thing there be right, when thingumee just pawed oosit with his studs? Like that!?! Deliberately. What ARE the rules exactly, about that?

In Wales and quite possibly Ireland there is some general understanding. The Vinnygeez has waxed lyrical often enough about this. (In Wales) red cloudbursts of communal expression; joy through clumping; tries against the English as symbols of nothing more than reasons to exist as a nation. Proper engagement on a national, visceral and poetic level. Max Boyce as the Pope/Tom Jones as The Singing Pope – or something. Something like a very much friendlier triptych than might be produced (on a post Grand Slam bender?) by Francis Bacon, let’s say, who despite his fringe-celtic toff-centric out-there-ism I suspect didn’t know much about the game of rugby. Like many residents of Soho. Apart from Brian Moore. Who really does know plenty.

But I fear I digress. (Like for a living, almost.) The point I wish to make is that there is some sudden flopping off the continental shelf going on here, as the Fact Of Rugby slips like some unappreciated gloop into the all-consuming depths. And I am interested in the reasons for that. I have a hope that because the general level of sportsmanship, commitment, fitness and honourability amongst top rugby players is so absurdly high that therefore its profile and relevance and capacity to touch the hearts of (ideally) nine year-old boys and girls will deservedly soar. Leading to – amongst other things but as a suggested minimum – a manifest improvement in respect for the planet and all who inhabit it/the necessary election of a series of humanitarian socialist governments. Because rugby really is pretty wonderful, containing as it does a uniquely focused and encapsulated form of selflessness, teamwork and bravery that entitles it fully to snort derisively at (for example) Drogba’s ham-and-pineapple quattro-staggione-in-one-day blousy affectations. Rugby I know not being perfect but rarely being that embarrassing. But I fear I digress.

Look the rugby season for our friendly Six didn’t finish just because those games did. In fact right now the club season approaches its critical phase; Heineken Cup; Premiership Trophy; equivalents and more to the massively more exposed football carnivals. So let there be space for both in your own personal calendar.

And on the international scene this enthralling but actually parochial knockabout recently enjoyed may well feel disappointingly clubby compared to summer tours or autumn internationals against the acknowledged kingly beasts and champions of the game – the Tri-Nations posse. Either way, don’t look away so prematurely, so part-time-supportedly, so uninformedly now. Because quite frankly if you invest a touch more of your time into appreciating what these backs and forwards are up to, you may well find it’s shockingly expressive of the greater sporting instincts. Those that touch pause engage upon support; heart; camaraderie. Remember them?

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.

Wales New Breed – same old.

David Lacey once wrote brilliantly of the journo’s need, on occasion, to invent a spectacular new breed of cliché with which to describe sporting drama. Following the er… apocalyptically wonderful contest between Ireland and Wales yesterday, I am shamelessly either jumping on or over the moon that is Mr Lacey’s bandwagon; I think. Because words provide suddenly insufficient ammunition to fight the necessary war with the need to reasonably but excitedly represent the alleged actuality of this extraordinary fixture; (Brian.) The truths of this particular occasion being heightened almost beyond belief.

Coming into this their first 2012 Six Nations fixture, the Welsh squad were entitled to feel somewhat buffeted by worries aired (by commentators like me) regarding perceived weaknesses in their group. In particular, injuries to players as diverse but central as Roberts, Priestland, Jenkins, Wynne-Jones, Rees – whether they be niggles or more long-term knocks – threatened, some of us imagined, to seriously undermine the Welsh challenge. Certainly it may have appeared that Wales pool of brilliance was in some danger of dilution; this, the argument went, would be a great shame for the tournament, as Gatland’s crew have already done enough to suggest themselves as the purist’s and neutral’s favourites.

The size of the strapping on Priestland’s thigh as he jogged rather carefully out did little to assuage the concerns of those doubters and worriers. However, the day after an encounter with Ireland that if anything confirmed Welsh Power not frailty, all of us need to shake away some of our cynicism and enjoy ; this Wales appearing now more deeply brilliant as well as more resilient than feared.

In the first twenty minutes in particular, the combination (again) of all-court skills executed with utter confidence even under conditions of pretty extreme physical stress (step forward Messrs O’Connell/O’Callaghan/Heaslip et al) and passionate bias from a characteristically boisterous Dublin crowd were mightily impressive. All things considered – or perhaps all superfluous things forgotten – the Brotherhood of Redness continued in emphatically the same style as at the recent World Cup, to the extent that in the opening quarter they threatened to simply bewilder the home side through what I am tempted to call – during a period of proportion amnesty – an understated tour de force of dynamic movement and expansive glee.

One of the toughest things in sport is to maintain elevated standards contingent upon real ambition; that is, in this case, on the belief that generosity, pace and control works. Wales executed this fabulous/ludicrous plan with a now customary flourish, bursting through phases and fearlessly throwing the ball about with irresistible energy. It was simply pretty close to magnificent as an alround team performance and I make no apology for labouring this point about how important the Welsh positive worldview is; fans know what good and exciting looks like and for the dragons to be modelling a winning (in every sense of the word) version of the game is especially heartwarming. If it seems either glib or pompous to talk of a wonderful example being set, then blame Lacey for licensing such sloppy talk.

I suspect the Irish fans may not entirely see it that way, the greens themselves making a wholehearted if slightly more prosaic contribution to the game that nearly bundled them through. With O’Connell and O’Callaghan disrupting the line-out to good effect – in O’Callaghan’s case by waiving and bawling at Huw Bennett to pressurise the throw – this was on the face of it always a contest rather than a procession. Amongst the vaunted beasts of the Irish back-row Heaslip grew into the game and mid-match and beyond things felt poised. And yet, somewhere mysteriously beneath, until the binning for the errant Bradley Davies, quiet supremacy in favour of the Welsh existed.

To be more specific, throughout this outstanding game of rugby, Wales characteristically put pace and width on the ball, meaning that the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North in particular rampaged widely and to great effect because they were trusted to do exactly that.
With a leanish, meanish and engaged Mike Phillips pulling the strings in the manner of old, that (sorry, here come those clichés) mercurial Welsh Whirligig-thing was fully operational. Despite the fact that a) Warburton did not emerge for the second half and b) Priestland’s goal-kicking was poor, Ireland – indeed all of us – were periodically breathlessly overwhelmed. Almost.

In point of fact the greens were still in it, then ahead, then pegged, then the full technicolour tensionfest kicked in as the game seesawed to that gut-churning climax. Ireland may have been robbed by two controversial decisions – Davies surely should have gone/Ferris (less surely) innocent when pinged as guilty – but
few neutrals would have argued which was the classier, more ‘deserving’ side. It was Wales, who were both inventive and focused.

For any side to construct phases in the last moments of a game, away from home, against a seriously committed opponent, in the knowledge that any error would be terminal
is impressive. For those phases to lead seamlessly from within a dozen metres of your own goal-line to a central position within kicking range is a statement, I would argue of class. And the manner in which this fraught enterprise was achieved spoke of a maturity that the likes of the aforementioned North and Davies have no right yet to own. The crucial penalty awarded, it seemed entirely appropriate that the generally excellent Halfpenny should smash it emphatically between the uprights.

Ultimately, when Mr Barnes of Somewhere Now in Hiding, England finally tooted that final toot, the elation and relief on the faces of this new breed of Welsh Hero was there for all to see and surely enjoy. Again The Story centred upon their liberation of oft-shackled ideals; for it bears repeating that winning is nearly everything but winning like this… is winning.