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.

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There’s no action at all

The colours are beginning to gather and swirl.  Or at least in my head they are.  And this year, there is a freshening up of if not the hues or emblems then certainly some of the imagery.  Ireland swap perennial likeable erratic celtic scurrying for stolid consistency. England go skinny-dipping into a brave new brick-pond.  Wales – dashing and smashing Wales – seek quietly desperately to do what they just did once more.  France try fundamentally to get a grip, Italy to get a win (again) and Scotland… Scotland gathers once more into a determined huddle with a rare degree of authentic belief.  This much at least suggests itself from the recent announcements of 6 Nations personnel.

On balance it seems great; a feistily competitive tournament awaits; an even one perhaps, where England may have been transformed from the Great Boring Shadow over the affair into The Real White Fluffy Bunny of Hope.  Ideally.

Or where Wales accept the challenge of doing that thing all over again and do, whilst breaking down the walls of tradition through being majestically/counterintuitively pragmatic in order to win.  Or where Scotland really really actually actually do beat people they threaten to beat on paper, following their allegedlyinfact real progress.   And these are just the obvious shifting gems in my own particular admittedly Brit-centric kaleidoscope.

I’m actually guessing England’s necessary evolution will stereotypically not feature some flamboyant casting off of the recent dull iron.  The talk of youth and the manifest rejection of Tindall/Banahan and arguably Easter points to a healthy injection of pace and flexibility, with the newboys Farrell and Barritt for example looking suitably geared up to facilitate that requirement.

Yet talk really is cheap when it comes to the international level; particularly in reference to ‘playing a more expansive game’.   Getting notably duffed up in the first ten by a politically motivated Scots back-row might throttle back rose-tinted English  ambition pretty sharply I sense.  And more specifically, if Lancaster does go for Hodgson Farrell Barritt(?) as 10-12-13, half of England as well as all of Scotland will be initially concerned with how they cope, never mind how they play.

Hodgson has been widely admired as a top and consistent performer in the Premiership but am I alone in wondering whether he has the temperament or (go on, say it) The Bottle to boss things on an international stage?  Particularly one that specifies Murrayfield first-up.  His nature and my memory of said nature suggests otherwise.

But such is the lot of the 10.  Current expectation, history and some large hairy geezer all bearing down…

Unquestionably though, the ability or otherwise of the English to reinvent themselves into a modern/competitive/fit for purpose top level international side is clearly going to impact on the destination of the 6 Nations trophy.  Not particularly because any of us expect them to win it but because they have, as they say, players.

But do they have a team?

Wales have different pressures.  A near-magnificent Word Cup adventure; a coaching triumvirate in Gatland/Edwards/Howley that gathered them then to a collective peak of confidence and execution, now needing to do that most challenging of things – rinse and repeat.  Dangers of expectation and of maintenance; maintaining that spirit; maintaining intensity without shackling that glorious expression; maintaining composure when suddenly Faletau/Warburton are getting knocked back.  Defending without distraction when every fibre screams out for release.  And maybe most pointedly, plastering over cracks where key players should be.

I have a hunch that Priestland, perversely, may find life in the 6 more testing than it appeared at the World Cup.  His chief attribute seemed then his general coolness – the boy making no claim to threaten the exclusivity of King John and his mercurial followers in the national out-half slot.  He succeeded in being effective without sparkling and I wonder how that key balance – territory versus terrorism? – will play out this time.

Hook is surely a bigger talent, but one flawed or compromised or perceived to be, following the occasional interception of a killer pass.  Given that much of the gut-churning tension generated by test matches inveigles its way into the heads/hearts/feet/hands of the number 10’s, the pulse of the Welsh side will calm or quicken according to the quality of will and the steel shown by Priestland or by Hook.   Because – in one of their bigger calls? – the coaches have dispensed with the doughty Stephen Jones.  May youth and imagination prosper.

The Irish fascinate me.  Not just through their capacity to produce the world’s finest and most rewardingly sustaining drink – although many a thesis could be written to conjoin Guinness and creative genius – and then link that dubiously to numbers 4 to 7/possibly 8 on a rugby pitch.  (I’m not going there, quite.)  But Ireland have been and do remain a threat mostly(?) when the O’Connells to the Heaslips seem possessed of an electrically charged, patriotically driven fury.  Then low-centred centres have relentlessly exploited newly-exposed soft-centres.  That is still likely to be the Irish Way.

To be more specific, there are times when the Irish carry irresistibly – when the pick and go is developed into a carousel of green violence few can resist.  O’Connell will be selflessly but in every sense leading this charge; as skipper and as totem for that special kind of focussed but physical examination.  Ireland do have quality in the backs – witness the omission of Luke Fitzgerald – but a certain BOD has often been the baton-carrier into the lethal phases, has he not?

It strikes me that Bowe in flight is a classy but a pretty rare sight in recent times because of this sniping midfield obsession; one which works fiercely but historically only intermittently, often off the back of a roaring home crowd. Is this, I wonder a reflection of the lack of ubertalent as well as a mark of the propensity for world-class defiance?

So I am fascinated by the onward roll of a part-green part-gold generation; which despite its relative consistency has spikes of over and underachievement.  Which of these Irelands, these Wales’s, these Englands will actually turn up?

My opening gambits.  As such they are hardly exhaustive – and I do intend to take on the Scots and the rest more forensically later.   But with kick-offs so invitingly, so deliciously approaching, it does feel good as well as appropriate to be all mouth and no action for now.