#RugbyWorldCup2015; questions arising.

There are loads of positive things to be said about the Rugby World Cup; so I’m gonna say some of them.

It’s now clear that the two best teams in the tournament will contest the final – and this is good. The All Blacks, without engaging that simultaneously immovable and extra-dimensional (All Black) winning gear until really needing to (against the Boks), have brought the fella Carter to his first World Cup Final. (Absurd but true.) The Aussies meanwhile have slung the ball round the park plus been ferociously competitive – not just at the breakdown but in the scrum and line-out – and deservedly have a tilt at a third title.

Compadres from The South (the Argentinians and the Boks) have both contributed heavily to the drama and entertainment of this hugely successful tournament but the first of these were seen off by a combination of Pocock’s rapacious work at the breakdown and through their own repeated spilling of opportunities. The Pumas have rightly been neutral’s favourites for their gorgeously developing expansiveness and infectious energy, but a cold hard review of their semi-final defeat will savage their levels of execution: they threatened and they built but then they fluffed things, time and again. We might credit the Aussie defence with some of this ‘non-execution’ but the Puma’s coaching staff should not and will not.

Signal moments in t’other semi included Nonu’s 874th surge leading to Beauden Barrett’s critical try and one particular tackle/turn from McCaw that effected a turnover around the hour mark. Both spoke of something near godlike about the AB’s; their capacity to cut through, to re-stamp the AB symbols (principally, to press that We Are Invincible button) in this case amid belting rain, extreme physical confrontation and, theoretically, the most acute pressure. New Zealand denied all that contextual cobblers, without aiming or needing to be the dashing monstermen who annihilated France. They simply brought out the mainly metaphorical hand-off, for twenty minutes, in a World Cup semi, against The Boks.

Other highlights on anybody’s reel of memories would surely include gloriously free-spirited Japanese offloading of our preconceptions about a) Japan b) relatively normal-sized blokes c) What’s Possible. And unreal defending from the instinctively attacking Aussies against the lion-hearted Welsh. Plus the many uplifting bursts of proper international rugby dished up by Namibia/Georgia/Uruguay and other Second or Lower Tier nations. Plus notably storming and re-validating contributions from Scotland, who may now for the first time for aeons be expecting to compete, kosher-style, in the 6 Nations.

The night the Cherry ’n Whites bewildered the Boks in Gloucester may really never be forgotten. If, in reverting to sepia-tinted appreciation of that night – which was thrilling, dashing, utterly wonderful – I fall into political incorrectness or mere sentiment well what the hell? It was the most perfect and invigorating example of an occasion where the underdog joyously raced… and barked… and wagged its tail in ecstasy. It was unbelievable and yet the websites say Japan 34 South Africa 32. It was a proper, gobsmacking sporting triumph and though time and Laidlaw caught up with them too soon after, we might note perhaps that Japan also beat Samoa 25-6 and made history in their glorious, three-win exit.

The blitzing of Roberts and Cuthbert and co by a catastrophically undermanned Wallabies posse was also so remarkable we may yet look back on it as a defining moment for the tournament – particularly if Australia win the thing. Wales, crocked so heavily that ultimately even the English had a certain sympathy for them, may or may not have lost their opportunity to hoist their defiance into the latter stages by failing to prise open a 13-man Wallabies team but the deep, dramatic heat they provided in this game (and through their widely-admired and supported defeat of the hosts) further ennobled Wales as a force in world rugby.

One of the more fascinating conundrums (because it surely echoes far beyond the Welsh scenario?) remains this question of whether a dancier, fleeter-of-foot, (dare-I-say-it?) Roberts-less, (or less Roberts-centric?) approach from a fit Wales squad might have been a deadlier combination.

Gatland’s cruelly depleted side clearly had spirit, spadefuls of courage and a back row to die for. If it is widely accepted that the great (Southern) sides have also wit and subtlety – or what has simply been referred to as ‘skills’ – could a darting Rhys Webb, fit Liam Williams and a wily Jonathan Davies have sharpened the arguably monolithic approach cartoonised as Gatlandball? And does it not seem that this option towards skills – in the game, not just in Wales – is not only necessary to compete with New Zealand but kinda spiritually good for international rugby? England remember, are viewed as a failure because they seem dully outdated in this regard.

Given that Lesson One as received by most pundits and coaches and fans around the world does seem to be around upskilling/heads-up rugby/expressing awareness as opposed to the allegedly predictable contact/crunch/recycle style of England, France, Wales, whoever, it will be fascinating and indeed enlightening to see the level of commitment from nations in The North towards the kind of transformation made so obviously by The Pumas. Dare they/we actually get backs to seek space as often as contact? Might they even ‘step’ – as the more than slightly magnificent Gerald Davies has suggested? Will it be expected that even here in the heathen North the Great Big Lumps have great, soft, intelligent hands?

Who knows? But these are questions arising, are they not?

We re-gather now and look forward to the final. After a minor scare it seems that the non-cited McCaw and the hugely deserving Carter will grace the event. But will they simply whip out the cloak of invincibility all over again and ‘ease’ to victory in that slightly suffocatingly brilliant mode, or will the Aussies force more out of their stonily humongous rivals? Could we see (some of) the All Blacks who massacred the French, please?

If Cheika once more insists his side play without fear then we may hope for a spectacle as well as a contest. Pocock, Hooper, Genia and co seem to understand the game as a gambol as well as a trial of strengths – indeed this is their lesson to us. Will that be the message booming out as the coach psyches them up in the hour before kick-off? What will be offered, then?

I’ll share a tinnie with the bloke who says

‘Fellas, it’s a dash; a test of your ambition; how much do you wanna believe in yourselves? Go show us – go on.’

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That’s so-o welsh, that is!

  • After today’s ‘sport’ I could do one of many things, including;
    • buy a pint for Pete from Merthyr, who had that nervy but jovial but mainly Welsh thing going on, live on Radio Wales’s (footie) post-match phone-in. Garrulous and neck-deep in val-leees singsongaciousness, Pete started by saying
    I’m on top a the moon boys! – clars-sic, mun, surely? – before reeling off more homespun but genuinely heart-warming clichés than your favourite uncle. (Actually, I think Pete is my favourite uncle.)
    • or… I could buy a few tinnies for the Aussie rugby boys, who out-Walesed Wales, by turning adversity – two men down – into some bloody, black-eyed, backs-to-the-wall Alamo/exemplar.
    • or go off on one about how even though I’m as fed up as you lot with hearing the word ‘execution’, Wales surely really did need to execute one of the forty-three chances to get points on the board whilst Genia and some other bloke were unemployed for ten minutes each. Because that would have been the difference and mostly there had been no difference in the levels at which the two sides were playing – unusually, for a contest between northern and southern hemispheres.

I may do all three – or I would like to. Or one of many other things which reek of or speak of the cultish-crazy, leeky, drunken, stolid, donkey-derby wonderwallness of the day.

Wonderwall because hope is somehow scorching dizzily through. Rightly and deservedly if not entirely predictably for Biggar and Roberts and Davies; amaaaazingly and deservedly for Ramsey and Hennessey and Bale.

But donkey derby? Dare I be ‘avvin’ a pop at the lack of quality somewhere here? In (let’s say) that team of Coleman’s? How could I? Why would I? ‘Fraid I must. Though I’m the daydreamiest of believers in hwyl and teaminess, I do have guilty concerns about Wales’ football achievements; or rather about what happens next.

On the one hand it’s clearly and unarguably marvellous that a side with only three international players – Ramsey/Bale/Williams – has shown such a durable mixture of organisation, work-rate and (crucially) togetherness that they’ve fair scooted through the qualification process. That Coleman fella – who many of us were labelling simply out of his depth in elite level togger – has engineered an inviolably significant and maybe particularly personal achievement here. But the thing is that despite remaining unbeaten against Belgium and that stand-out 3-0 away win in Israel, Wales have shown little quality other than those qualities that have seen them through. They’re gonna need more.

Many hackles will rise at this point and I understand why, when – DOH! OBVIOUSLY – those qualities are all part of the spirited package that is sport. I get that. In fact I spend much of my working life and most of my scribbling time BIGGING UP the notion that soulbrother or sisterhood is both an essential and a hugely rewarding facet of these daft games of ours. And yet.

And yet there must be skill; we should aspire to the beautiful and the profoundly pleasing as well as to brothers-in-arms resolution, a) because it’s philosophically right and b) because that’s how the success builds. So though I absolutely applaud what is an undoubted success for Coleman’s crew, I exercise my right as a fan to want more/advise for more. Please.

For much of today’s game Bosnia struck me as a team playing close to the lowest acceptable standards for international football. Consequently, early in the second half, without ever looking fluent or (actually) entertaining, Wales were coasting. But they lacked the quality to pick off their poor opponents.

Even with Bale on the park, Wales lacked a real threat, a focus, as they fluffed the opportunity to dismiss the Bosnians. (Incidentally, despite his goal-scoring record, I think Bale has been decidedly average, or certainly disappointingly inconsistent, too often in this campaign. Am I alone in that?) Robson-Kanu meanwhile, epitomises the Willing But Limited category that the bulk of the side (regrettably) fall into.

Some of this sounds spiteful and/or simply illogical. Let me swiftly express again my suspiciously amorphous disquiet at the relative absence of refined talent in the group… and then we’ll move on. What I suspect we can all share and enjoy is the delicious Welshness of the moment of qualification; via a crap result against a crap side. And that not mattering.

Plugged in as usual to the twittersphere, I loved that so much of the day’s #bantz seemed to belong to The Principality – and no, don’t be daft, I don’t mean the mob who’ve just bought the rights to the Millenium – I mean Wales. Before dropping back into events at Twickers, mind, we should really be noting the further hike in #RWC2015’s dander during and following the boshtastic Scotland Samoa game.

The evident passion, commitment and commitment to drama in this encounter re-lit the tournament for the umpteenth time and was again a proper fillip for rugby globally. This was a match where onslaught followed onslaught and the world again shared Samoan grief as though it was our own. The pride and the bonkers levels of what we may have to call bonding or devotion were sensational… and the boy Laidlaw dun well again.

But on The International Day… for Welshnesses we need to conclude with a flash through other worthy daiversions. I’ll remember
• timelines full of jokes about how appropriately (i.e. welshly) Gatland’s and Coleman’s teams achieved their notable successes; firstly by both getting roundly defeated and secondly by acquiescing in the universal conspiracy to give them what they deserved, anyway.
• And I note the kind of start – in fact the kind of first half from Wales rugby – that said something rather profound about being comfortable in the challenge. Perhaps this then was the Welsh Haka? An expression of confidence… and a welcoming for the trial? It did feel like a validation – like Wales were being clear that they knew they were worthy – and ready. And that may yet project forward (who knows?) to powerful advantage.

However, turns out Wales rugby too wasn’t quite skilled enough to execute/penetrate/skewer the enemy. When those endless yellow moments came the Roberts-centricity of the Gatland era was maybe exposed? Phase after phase was rebuffed by the inspired bison in gold ‘n green. Whether this was an opportunity criminally and terminally missed (I suspect it was), or whether this Hen wlad will resurrect yet again in all its perversely gog or cardi or starless and bibleblack glory, who can tell? But in defeat, in squeaky-arsed glory, the day belonged to Wales.

A Brotherhood of Reds?

In my radico-sentimental revolutionary thingy, which commences immediately the stands have all been cleared of flags, corpses and Monster Energy cans (yeh, right!), Manu Tuilagi will either be Minister for Transport or Court Jester. But the significant posts in government – such as it is – will be held by Welshmen. Like Gatland, Edwards and Howley. For quite simply they have earned it, having shown leadership, guts and a flair for the inspiring word that nobody in the world (I mean this tournament) could match. They have, to paraphrase the great Confucian scholar bowlingatvinny, utterly and invincibly demonstrated how true encouragement of the truly gifted is both the essential function and the highest aspiration of coaching. That this infers an exchange of an essential trust is (only) a reflection of the need for generous hearts in the pursuit of achievement. So much of life, it seems, is about opening up.

My surreal meritocracy – administrated with libertarian aplomb from Machynlleth and let’s say… Grimsby – would certainly feature billboard poster-size recognition for a whole list of flag-bearers for natural expression through sport. Tuilagi’s easy but devastating bursts might have him on the metaphorical bench – in the same way that after this morning’s semi Barnes and O’Connor from the Australian backs warrant squad places – but the bloc itself is surely justifiably red; as in dragons; as in blood; as in heart. This is my elegy to all that redstuff flooding often majestically this last month across the consciousness of the Nations – not Six, not Tri, but many, many nations.

The Rugby World Cup is drawing to a close, an appropriately worldly close, in the sense that the ferocious and surely unbeatable South (NZ) play the strangely unloved North (France) this weekend. Circumstances have to some extent conspired for the French – a hugely contentious decision effectively gifting them their semi-final against the adored Welsh – but they have both comically and cynically fallen on their own onions too, to befuddle or bore a way through. It’s a final with only one winner and a fall guy already being slated in confident anticipation of a hopelessly inept appearance.  Ali versus Bugner, perhaps?

In fact to slalom at least a tad nearer to the point, it’s a tournament already over; the main stuff already learned; the inevitable slight anti-climax of the third place play-off played out. Whilst we now hope for a stunningly climactic exhibition of 15-man rugby from the mighty All Blacks we are not so naive as to expect it. No, we expect a relatively nervy, relatively tight final, in which further proof lumbers out of the ability of ballistically charged ‘modern’ defence to deny attacking patterns (and, incidentally, the crowd) the oxygen of excitement. France will hold out for long periods and maybe even break out. In their exasperation the AB’s will knock-on passes previously clasped whilst juggling four other passes, whilst asleep. The crowd will get restless until the dam finally bursts, in about the third minute. (If only). It could be either a close(ish) non-event or the most one-sided sporting event since Davide and Goliath. Please god deny Davide his sling.

The rugby world – the political world, the realworld! – wanted a Wales New Zealand final. As soon as the Welsh began to rise (which may have been pretty early in the South Africa game) the thing perked up. In contrast to the dour and disgraced English and the shambolic and disloyal French, Warburton’s posse planted a flag of brilliance and heart. Their spirit and their youth drove them irresistibly past a resurgent Ireland to their fateful date with the moment most of us will remember most keenly from this event; that tackle. A million words have been spent on the subject so I will find three more only; it felt wrong.

On his punishing warm-down jog (three times round the southern hemi) to the SOUNDBITE training ground, Sam Warburton will have no doubt have seen posters from the old regime saying “Warburton – the new McCaw”. In truth, the Wales skipper is such an outstanding athlete that McCaw may yet look one-dimensional in comparison. Over the natural span of a match, he is so often the difference at key phases – whether offloading, at the shoulder, or in the bone-crunching meat and drink of the breakdown – that many of us feel he would have not merely thrown a blanket over any (presumably accidental) French attacking notions, but quite feasibly effected the critical break himself. When they lost him at the 17 minute mark Wales were closer to being down to 13 than 14 and despite the gladiatorial brilliance of Phillips and Roberts amongst others, the reds were trussed up by the Lilliputian French.

But the tournament had already been graced by stellar performances from Halfpenny, North, Faletau. The world applauded as the current for allegedly “winning rugby” was stemmed, turned and embarrassed by (let’s hear it, let’s applaud it!) Welsh belief in skill over stats. Sure Gatland, Murphy, Howley did the preparation – better than everyone – but then, critically, their liberated posse played better than everyone. Until that moment. That ideal final may have served only to undermine the quality of ecstasy served up by Phillips and co. but hands up those who would’ve bellowed their support for a Welsh final opportunity. Certainly there is a consensus that a Brotherhood of Redness might have at least offered a real challenge to the wonderful and mighty bastards in the black. (No offence – imperfect gag).

Instead the hamstrung realist – poor sod – is left with the relative disappointments of a comfortable Australian win, in a bronze-rated, atmospherically flattish game which finished with a brilliantly irrelevant try for My Little But Magnificent Pony. Maybe that’s a disservice to the excellence of Barnes and O’Connor in particular, who may consider themselves honorary Lions in the new Red Occupation. Stonking tackling was not, in truth, the only thing these game Aussies brought to the party. But let’s be clear; it was a match that didn’t matter that much in a tournament illuminated by the positivity and generosity of the Welsh.

Anticipation is so much better?

Phworr the frisson, the low-heat pervy distractedness of it; clock-glimpses and trouser-hitches and coughs. Waiting rooms; except no… more like changing rooms… because surely we’re in there, waiting… to play.

You can be one of the French if you like, you miserable English bastard, but I’m Roberts… or maybe Hook. And maybe when I’m Hook I’ll be the Magic Man that Hook really can be, with a wonderful throwback moment to when I/he was just that bit less muscled; when I gambolled just that touch more freely; before they got me in the gym. And I won’t break that line, I’ll glide and dance there and no-one will lay a finger.

But tough call this. When Roberts is blasting holes in the side of French Buildings tomorrow morn that might have to be me. With my head down, like a hulk-cum-baby-carrier, the ball nestling; in all that magnificent poetic violence; that bicep-fest. But I do blast through, into the mintiest, airiest low-alcohol but most intoxicating space, filled with Welsh Voices roaring and a me-like Hook in support. And we exchange passes twice and then I feint, draw half the crowd – never mind the full back – and switch to slow-mo for the moment we put them to the sword. A blind reverse pass and he dives over under the sticks. And he’s me and I’m him and we’re Wales; and there’s no answer from the French.

Wales win, the Game wins.

It would be unfortunate if my recent critique of Martin Johnson’s England – full of dispiriting observations as it was – drew attention away from the gathering triumph of the Welsh. Because Gatland/Howley and their fiery English right-hand man have led their team to the brink of something remarkable. They are now favourites to beat France next weekend and go on to face Australia or hosts New Zealand in the World Cup Final. Let me repeat that; Wales… in the World Cup Final… unarguably on merit. (Okay, okay – they’re not there yet, but please…)

What is special, particularly against the backdrop of England’s humiliating exit, is the manner of Welsh progress through the tournament. They began, way back when, with one of those poisonously rosy Almost
Days when they nearly-deservedly beat the South Africans. At the time I may have danced rather close to a kind of bitterness in my description of what felt pretty close to a Welsh Choke. Suffice to say that it was a game they should have won; again.

Many teams may have been demoralised by such a massively expensive, failed effort. Wales, no doubt led by their management posse, have responded with perverse magnificence, by visibly cranking up belief in their singularly positive vision. They have re-launched with a fierce and often brilliant combination of brave defence and shimmering attack; playing a brand of rugby that antidotes and puts into perspective the dull cynicism of Johnson era England. Surely the world has been smiling as Roberts, Phillips and North have burst through the allegedly inviolable defensive walls of the modern game? After all this talk of flair and expansiveness and pace on the ball, to actually see it so thrillingly and winningly enacted has been the highlight of the World Cup.

I would go further even than this. Whatever happens from here forward – and please god let us have a Wales / New Zealand Final* – I am clear that the abiding memory of the tournament will be that Wales showed us again that success can come from a liberal dollop of faith in talent. Fearless confidence facilitates brilliance – it may even be a pre-requisite for it. So yes, prepare your team in terms of tactical awareness, attack and defence; but mostly inspire them, unleash them, invite them to stretch not merely appear. My personal view is that the two most complete performances of the World Cup have both come from Wales – against Fiji (66- 0) and now against Ireland over the weekend. However disproportionate or naive this may sound, that feels like a triumph for joy over pragmatism.

So much for the general waffle. In the matrix of faithful and often heroic team effort, individual performances call out for further celebration. This is something I wish to address, after an admittedly tortuous diversion.

I am one who has long felt that James Hook has been unfortunate to say the least to remain on the fringe.  It seems odd, frankly and contradictory, that Wales’ most obvious talent at fly-half has not, it seems, been encouraged or supported enough to make the Magic Man berth his own. (I am reminded of what has I’m sure in the past been called Glenn Hoddle syndrome).  And 18 months ago Lee Byrne was close to being the best number 15 in the world. Neither Hook nor Byrne started; instead Half-Penny, more generally used on the wing was piloted in to full back. He proceeded to give an almost faultless display of courage and focus and relentless busy-ness, pausing only to slot a kick from halfway. It compels those of us who aim to describe these matters to wheel out phrases like “in a masterstroke from the coach”…

Warburton has been rightly lauded and applauded for his energetic contribution as skipper and breakdown maestro. He was outstanding again against a strong Irish back row. Priestland – though possessing substantially fewer of the lustrous gifts genetically programmed into the average Welsh 10 than Hook – gave another remarkably mature performance. But as a soppily passionate supporter of The Lions, I confess to being most substantially hoiked towards the edge of my seat by the sight of Jamie Roberts back to his barnstorming best. Perhaps only occasionally, but that surely is merely the nature of the game, which will always put some frustrating limit on a centre’s influence.

When he got it, however, Roberts had that look of old about him. Unstoppable; unplayable; at the limit of control; blowing holes selflessly; still holding the dynamite. His spirit – so perfectly expressed in the tight kaleidoscope of Lions Tests and now coupled to that of an effervescent backline – is rising. It is a spirit which denies the practice of the ordinary and the over-rehearsed. It is a particularly traditional craft of the inspired Welsh and it reminds us and them I think, of a kind of freedom. So come next weekend, with this righteous notion flaring in all of our nostrils, could it be, is it too much to hope that sport – beautiful and ludicrous as it is – might coincide with justice?

*Actually, and for the record, both my hunch and my preference is for Wales / Australia.