Marker.

Wow. A wonderful and possibly intimidating few anthem minutes, as the mythic ‘whole of Ireland’ stands tall, is followed promptly by a remarkably assured and attacking two minutes from the visitors. Farrell fires one riskily wide but flat; a further sharp exchange and May is in. The skipper caps off a stunning start with a crisp conversion. 7-0.

The try scorer then hurries a clearance kick to enter touch on the full: the subsequent phases end with mark being called by the same player, under some pressure. Play goes back, though, for a penalty and Sexton pots an easy one. Game on, inital nerves shed.

Playing conditions are significantly better than in Paris but it’s already clear that Proper International Rugby has broken out, here. The only notable error in the first 13 minutes is from the England flanker Curry, who misjudges a hit on Earls and is binned. Marginal but nonetheless infuriating for Eddie Jones, after an impressively solid start from his side. Ten demanding minutes to come.

They survive it, manfully throwing a blanket across the park – even breaking out, at times. It’s tense but the players look watchful and engaged.

Ironically, 45 seconds after Curry’s return, Ireland batter a way over in the corner. The combination of forward power and relentless baying from an impassioned crowd enough to make that score inevitable. Sexton drills a beauty through for the extra points. 10-7 after 26.

England respond. Farrell and Daley dink a couple of probing kicks to test out the new fullback’s mettle. Henshaw is quality, for me but the second of these does create some angst – to the point that Daley drops onto the resulting spillage, in Stockdale and Ireland’s ‘Huget moment’. Farrell dismisses the conversion through the sticks, magnificently. 10-14 now, to England.

It may not be exhilirating but this is engrossing – raw competitive in the extreme but disciplined, largely and fluent enough. England look close to their powerful, all-court best, as the half approaches. Best throws a skewed one, close to his own line and England have the scrum five yards out.

The melée delivers nothing conclusive. Neither does the review; Vunipola is denied, reaching and diving for the score. Penalty given, mind, and again Farrell smashes it through nervelessly. 10-17 does not flatter England as the ref blows.

Cat and mouse for ten minutes. Then England surge through the phases, left and right. They seem destined to grab more, possibly decisive points. They don’t.

Instead their attack breaks down and Ireland hoof ahead. Again the ball on the ground proves murderous. From nowhere, Ireland have pressure: ultimately that counts. Sexton penalty, 13-17.

As expected, defence from both teams is both organised and brutal. Everybody appears to be tackling like Tuilagi. England lose Itoge, injured and the changes start. Almost shockingly, the flawless Farrell misses a presentable penalty and the tension ratchetts up yet further, despite the measure of control exercised by the men in white.

Joy for Slade as he combines with May before winning the foot-race to the line. It’s reviewed (for possible offside) but the try counts. In the 67th minute the visitors’ lead has stretched to nine points and their combination of composure and guts looks like it will tell.

When Farrell makes a huge penalty – right at his limit – the lead is 12 points. Given that Ireland have very rarely threatened, this is now a relative cruise. Slade – looking strong and gifted on this most demanding of occasions – somehow intercepts, juggles and scores. Farrell converts.

13-32. Bonus point. We’re looking at an awesome win, a special marker, now.

Fair play, Ireland respond. An opportunistic try, with Sexton drop-kicking the conversion as we enter stoppage time. It ends 20-32.

If Wales’s win yesterday was extraordinary for its deliriously scruffy drama, this was different level. Ireland are a fine side: today they were well, well beaten. Of course it’s merely the start but this was such a complete performance that England will justifiably be favourites for this tournament… and seriously competitive *beyond*.

 

 

 

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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.

Ireland loves Gatland – as Capello!

Dublin. Where Wales were dumbfounded – as indeed were most of us – by the utter control exerted by the Irish. Indeed so shocked were the dragons management in my view that they forgot themselves, much as the gobsmacked-in-a-very-bad-way Capello had done for England in a recent (footie) World Cup. They forgot they had to do something – send on subs. (Hook/Tipuric!) This had nothing whatsoever to do with #BODgate… and everything to do with freezing whilst getting simply battered.

So as I write, all manner of hostelry in the fair city, from the corporate schmoozer-zones to the dodgiest of boozers must surely be taking an almighty hammering, as elated locals and bemused visitors take stock. I imagine Martyn Williams was slumping back disappointed into a comfy chair and reaching for a consoling pint as he tweeted, but the former back-row maestro summed things up neatly enough when he dinked out the following;

Didn’t see that coming. Hats off to the Irish. Totally dominant.

Agreed; in every respect. But how? Yes we’re aware of this suggestion that Wales may have just the one way of playing and are therefore susceptible to being ‘found out’ (though I’ve never really accepted this.) Yes there was a whole lot of emotion, a whole lot riding on this one, with most of it pointing to positive inflammation of Schmidt’s Green Army. And yes Ireland got off to a flying start last week. But surely a tight and tense and fulsomely impassioned affair would ensue? Full of fire and endless demonstrations from all sides of the phenomenon rugbyfolks simply call ‘dog’? But no – well certainly not from the Welsh – only the Irish howled. Wales were numbed, muzzled and blunted in everything they did, from almost the first moment to the desperate last.

Perhaps it’s ungenerous to put it this way – as though denying the Irish some rewarding chunk of their triumph. However I do so because it strikes me that the utter absence of Wales from this match was more remarkable than anything. From the reds there was no penetration, no threat, barely any phases, in truth, despite the gallumping nature of their backs. But worse, perhaps, there was no sense that any of these things were likely. The 26-3 score-line in no way flattered the home side.

Ireland meanwhile were superbly organised and composed. Sexton was close to immaculate with his control, through tactical hoofing and through his mixture; he absolutely built the framework for his side and this, consistently, together with outstanding blanket defence eased – and I do mean eased – his side to a straightforward win.

In the first half Trimble was darting bravely and covering or slamming into contacts, O’Driscoll was steady and safe rather than hugely notable but around the breakdown O’Mahony in particular was a giant. Wales panicked and infringed and hurried things or lost the ball before they could execute their own hurrying. With O’Connell predictably battering and Irish hands on the ball almost obscenely quickly, Welsh possession never felt secured. Ireland’s did. Without blasting open the Welsh lines they emphatically held their own. Typically Sexton put them somewhere that felt good and then they asked those questions of the Welsh attack. Sharpish enquiries that Priestland never looked able to respond to.

Two final things. Gatland’s back row is very very good at snaffling athletically and with purpose around the breakdown. Today, the dominance of the Irish in this area – Warburton’s specialist subject – was both most striking and decisive. With barely believable constancy that much-vaunted back row of Wales was marmalised. Penalties came and were largely gratefully accepted by Sexton.

Secondly, there was the lack of response from Wales. Priestland is not either brilliant or raw gutsy enough to single-handedly gather in a real game. Phillips is looking close to his natural end. Combine this with the failure of Gatland and his backroom staff to act – by (probably) sending Hook and Tipuric on at the 50 minute mark – and well… you might find yourself in the same place as Capello. Somewhere faintly embarrassing.

In Edinburgh England strolled to a win against a Scotland side barely deserving, on this form, of a #6nations berth. Though the pitch and the weather were awful – both conspiring to drastically reduce the odds on a free-flowing display from the visitors – a rout seemed on after about five minutes. Vunipola B again looked ridiculously comfortable as he legged it unopposed through the mud, sharing the egg casually pre-tackle. Burrell again emphasised the power and explosiveness of his running – scoring a fine try in the process. Even the previously disappointing Twelvetrees broke confidently and played with oxygenating freedom. Farrell kicked poorly but still ran the game with something of a smirk.

Lancaster will on the one hand be delighted at a victory without conceding a point and on the other be exasperated his team somehow conspired to avoid the seven or eight tries that were surely available. But England do look like they have a certain invention about them now, what with Brown and May and Burrell all looking un-Englishly, ‘naturally’, expansively brisk.

Scotland though, are gone. Simply not competing at the same level. Their game against Italy seems their only hope of validation, never mind meaningful points on the board. Too early in this Calcutta Cup Laidlaw had missed two kickable penalties and you knew Scotland simply could not afford that waste. The problems seem frighteningly universal, leaving Scott Johnson an unenviable task; it seems the best he can hope for is to sit out the storm and try to keep chins up. Whether he has made this more difficult through the summary dispatch of former skipper Kelly Brown, who knows? If there are egos at work in his camp as well as issues with available talent, the man’s in awful … deep… shite.

On a lighter note Brian Moore’s continuing support of a certain shall-we-say de-spiritualized *religious icon continues apace. I would have bought him a pint – and necked one – if he’d have slotted the phrase ‘Is this a dugout which I see before me’ into commentary. Aah well, time yet.

* For the uninitiated – possibly literally – @WelshDalaiLama has a drinking game via twitter.  The boy Mooro (roped in) has been gratuitously quoting Shakespeare to draw those who indulge into downing their poison.

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.