A parliament of hunches.

Have no idea what the collective for suppositions is but will hoof it swiftly past that anyways. On my way to a scurrilous series of toe-singers. (That’s sin-jers, not Shirley Bassey’s, by the way. Toes dipped in hot… oh please yerselves!!)

Sometimes we need to free ourselves up, ‘allow’ ourselves to push/shove/eat the envelope and now feels like such a time. On the eve (dingding!) of round 3 of the #6nations, after that deliciously distracting interval, I’m so-o ready to loosen up the collar – or maybe turn it up, Cantona-like – affect some languid and yet authoritatively blokey pose and spray loose parler around the place, laced or made piquant with that hint of you know… omelette-sur-visage. Potentially.

Because France have no chance. Everything points to them getting solidly beat by a better, better prepared, more competent, more confident England side.

There we have it. That deadly/perfectly reasonably constructed argument/opinion thing. Opined with shameless confidence – the pre-cursor, as we know to disaster. But what can a fellah do when the instinct coalesces so convincingly with the box-ticking review of the evidence? England are good/France have been bad; England have order and faith/France, apparently, do not. No matter that the French line-up is transformed into something looking like a proper international side – with particular quality in the back row and in midfield, methinks – the overwhelming likelihood is that England are too good and too on it to succumb. That’s the essence of this bébé, surely?

Everyone can score a breakaway try, mind. Farrell could throw a loose one and Fofana intercept. England’s immaculately shorn ice-man could get momentarily flustered under a charge from Dusatoir or Basteraud (who wouldn’t?); a charge down and suddenly England are under the cosh. All this could happen. But what is more likely is a measured territorial game from Les Blancs leading to more expansive phases as the try-line beckons. And then French indiscretions… which are punished by young Owen. Or, more excitingly, the likes of Goode or Ashton burst from deep and the French defence – which I expect to be brave but not flawless – is breached. England will not need too much encouragement to make a right mess of a disorganised away side in constant fire-fighting mode. This is my hunch centrale.

Yes of course Les Bleus have big brave men who will stun any rampaging Ros Bifs; I wonder though, if they will do it consistently, inviolably, across the back line(?) Tuilagi and Ashton and Lawes in particular will surely be primed to race or blast away and if the whites do maintain the composure that seems currently their chief asset, Dusatoir and Basteraud can’t be everywhere. I expect therefore, England to score.

The likelihood is that a substantially changed France (even whilst being a substantially improved France) will get found out. Because on the one hand England are a more multi-dimensional side than for many years – witness the availability and the presence and the intelligence of Robshaw and the full-on rangy athleticism of Lawes – and on the other France appear rudderless and (actually) soulless. The restoration of the underwhelming but steadyish Trinh-Duc and the generally excellent Parra admittedly nudges the match closer to a broadly competitive fixture but this collection of good French players has most often played (let’s be honest?) embarrassingly poorly over the last two years. And yes, I do include in that their weirdly inept adventure to the most recent World Cup Final.

Freakishness or yellow cards stand out as the main hope for Les Bleus; a rush of blood from Lawes, a midfield calamity for Goode or Farrell. Otherwise, they get comprehensively whacked.

The real game is likely to be happening at Murrayfield, where Scotland take on Ireland. This is dangerous territory for any of us sifting for a winner. So much so that all I am falling back upon is that ole feeling that the Irish are stronger all around… and that this will somehow see them through. I would feel a tad more confident about this if Bowe and Sexton were lining up, for sure, but again my hunch is that the ferocity and keenness of the Irish back row may tell here. That and something I can only identify as the greater energy of the green group – or maybe a higher threat level within that energy(?) Most unscientific, I know but I am happy enough to sniff out the visceral here rather than break out some teat pipette.

Crass but probably true, Ireland will be spitting blood over their relative no-show against England and the poor displays by certain generally key individuals in that game. They will be more fired up than a very fired up thing. The clearing out around rucks will be wince-inducing, I suspect. The round-the-corner charges will be of the hallucinating wildebeest variety. So if Ireland manage to dominate or even share possession and territory… I fancy them. If not – and this may be the aesthetically more pleasing option – if Scotland have and spread the ball convincingly and do manage to break that gain-line… look out. An all-new and more fully competitive member of the 6 nations brotherhood might emerge.

Scotland knows and feels that again they are on the brink of something; they have BACKS, for godsakes! Is this side – motivated by the recently installed bent cop/bad cop combo, remember? – really about to square up and legitimately compete, though? Without getting contemptuously swatted aside? Or will it flirt and dart and disappoint? Let’s hope, for the good of this tournament, that Murrayfield really roars.

Italy have lost their lynchpin, their idol, their skipper, their sole world-class player. So they must surely lose at home to Wales. Parisse has been chopped for chopsing and though ’tis a grievous loss, ’tis prob’ly for the best. (I have seen no evidence of what was actually said but suspect he overstepped an important mark. Rugby cannot go the way of football in terms of abuse of the ref.) Sadly, this may be instrumental in the Italians falling back, significantly, towards their previously relatively undignified scramble for an occasional home win. Shame.

Wales meanwhile have the opportunity to lay down a marker for the perennial monster mash-up against England. If they can expand upon that mighty but mighty ugly win against the hapless French, Ryan Jones’s gathering operation may further hike expectations as well as tensions for the Millenium clash. Making Wales-England a game with a proper championship feel to it; I guess? In Rome, Wales should win and win with a clutch of tries.

My ebook, by the way, is here – amzn.to/SSc9To –

selected and exclusive posts, with an intro from Paul Mason and compliments from Brian Moore and Paul Hayward, amongst others.

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Look away now.

Dowson family… look away now.

Not only is your magnificent specimen of a boy about to be laid very low by his own hugely brave but slightly bambi-esque attempt at last-ditch defending but he is about to get a face-full of studs from a no doubt grateful but in this moment elsewhere-fixated colleague. A bloke called Croft, who has earlier almost single-handedly doused French fires before accidentally and unfortunately crowning your son’s nozzer.

This can happen; to anyone. Anyone who is laying their body on the line – that particularly significant lime-washed line – in the dying moments of an Anglo-French rendez-vous characteristically loaded with thuddingly adversarial ros-bif. Also, in this climactic period, (some of) the family Farrell wince as the relatively diminutive Owen of their nobly tuned-in clan trammels up some oncoming euro-bison as he pounds into the 22. It’s a juddering impact shared by those in white – fist-clenchingly triumphant – and the bleu contingent, who might only acknowledge the English pivot’s ‘ballons’ in some cafe-bar, later, with a now depressingly articulated gallic shrug.

Emotions arising. From an exhausting encounter, won by the English, who scored tries – who were surely the better side? Away; in France; that place suspected by lilywhites at large of producing dangerously cynical and belligerent forwards and twinkling but unsteady backs. But hadn’t that former twinkler turned prosaic boss Saint-Andre bolstered the French weakness for girly expressivity through wholesale changes at half-back? In doing so surely delivering a hoof-enhanced robustness to his side? Indeed he had. It just didn’t work, entirely.

It didn’t work because Beauxis and Dupuy kicked poorly and because what we should surely now be calling Stuart Lancaster’s England flashed and stormed before them, being both flickeringly, individually inventive and collectively hearty. There was a welcome confidence and edge about England going forward and something close to invincible defiance, yard by yard, in retreat. Late in the game, when the home side finally shook that dark mane free, having lifted its head from some icy barrel, this thing became a Proper Test. A home crowd roaring, a home pack suddenly surging beyond its capacities with a momentum that churned the stomachs of the watching English. But not, apparently, their players.

Every tackle in that relative Parisian crisis bred an eager and an instinctive but heads-up realignment. On 78 minutes Farrell – remarkably – heaves Harinordoquy to a standstill. On 80 plus he hammers the ball jubilantly, in pain, sideways into the crowd before crumpling at the moment of celebration, his ribcage and shoulder area a bruised concertina. The last eight minutes or so had been a huge and increasingly physical challenge for Lancaster’s posse; it was one that almost to a man they accepted and rebuffed with equal and united purpose. These minutes alone may have seen off the challenge of Nick Mallett as well as the challenge of this ultimately ordinary French side. Perhaps.

The subject of Lancaster’s seamless promotion has already occupied most of the post-match coverage. Rightly, Sir Stuart-in-Waiting has eloquently side-stepped the issue – in much the same way that the strikingly rejuvenated Croft eased by a bewildered Rougerie for his stunning try. Lancaster – sometimes to my frustration, I admit – has talked a good game, an even-tempered game, in a way that makes some of us want to throw soft toys at the telly. He is so deep into the culture of Coaching Responsibility and Calm that he appears on time to have sacrificed any real personality he may have for some imagined cleaner, higher purpose. (Either that or he is one terrifying boring bastard.) However, even cynics(?) or optimists(?) like me who crave for the ungroomed or the truly original must surely concede the man has done a blinding job.

England have had players for some years. Now they have a unit which has a powerful understanding of fair expectation; to commit bravely and fully and generously to the wonderful and silly notion that mates and fans alike must be carried, connected, on that national badge, through that roll of emotion and pride and volcanic charge to some fulfilling, unknowable end. A place where your best is good enough, provided it is a wholehearted best; a best expressive of actually rather profound, communal aspirations. Lancaster’s lot really do appear to have re-connected to this… for want of a better phrase… love of the game. And – not insignificantly – they have won three times now away from home.

But look; let’s get realer. This stuff may not move those who will choose the next England coach. They will quite rightly take a dispassionate view; one fostered by continual exposure to rule by committee. They will examine the credentials of the small handful(?) of contenders and they will do it whilst twirling expensive pens in an airless room where even memories are nullified. The immediate renaissance of fleshy resistance from Robshaw and co may not register here. Hypothetical achievements under contrasting new leaders will be imagined… and the weightless protractedly weighed. And Lancaster – despite being in post and serenely so – may not get the nod. Because a) ‘things aren’t that simple’ and b) there simply is no justice.

So that ten minute period – that mauve patch? – in the first half at The Stade, when England destroyed the French with (amongst other things) a crushing tackle from the stropmeister Ashton, brilliantly exploited by Dickson’s quick hands and Tuilagi’s irresistible charge, may not be as seminally influential as it felt. The nature, the ludicrous majesty of Morgan’s bursts into rural France, followed by his exquisite offloading to support may not count for his gaffer. Even though we felt they were landmark statements of new-found belief; such things fade; such things fade.

In beating France, in finding something to believe in, the English have transformed both themselves and arguably this Six Nations tournament. They have genuinely become the second best team in Europe. They have begun to shake off their unholy and unworthy past. They have, in a really good way, made the choice for their next Head Coach a very, very big call.

Talentspotting.

I like to waffle on about the expression of talent; the role of coaches as receptors or guardians of that magical stuff. How it can seem blisteringly obvious that player x or y has simply ‘got it’. How essential this ability to read gifts really is. How often we think we’re right when… you know…

I’m aware of course that this athletically coiled cyclical meta-discourse is kindof sprung from some despicable arrogance on my part – namely the assumption or belief that I know or understand or have the gift myself of identifying and appreciating the level of god-given wotnots parading before me at any given time. If that is inferred by the following, in my defence, might I say – with hands gathered apologetically if not pathetically around my head – I only allow myself this shocking indulgence on the following grounds;

  1. I freely open up this indulgence to everyone, ‘allowing’ and enjoying the multi-faceted banterfest that we might then serve up (scampi and chips-in-a-basket-style?) as the essential craic, as pub-talk, prompted to then flourish as debate rather than monologue
  2. I’m happy enough to be publicly wrong
  3. My contribution to this aforementioned (sporting) debate is reasonably well-informed, because I know and live and love sport- for its daft majesty, its laughable life-or-deathness, its ludicrous capacity to bewitch; I love sport.

And I meander through this NOW because following the beginning of my own new season of coaching yesterday, those perennial markers begin to spring or flicker once more. Boy A (8) times and middles a straight drive in a ‘knockabout game’ to eye-moistening perfection. Girl B (9) takes an absurdly good catch, substantially after the ball’s flown past. OOFF!! That… is brillee-yunt. Beautifully, life-affirmingly brilliant. Speaking personally, these quietly defining moments, that give us such an opportunity to enthuse and support, are both a delight and an inspiration. All the more so because the inspiration – the dripfeed of mini-triumphs – reccurs.

The transferability or contextualisation or rating of these gemlike examples of skills is the business of the coach. Somewhere we need to be weighing them as well as filing them away for reference. In my own, current case this is particularly fascinating and even demanding because this is the first time I have seen most of the wee talents gallivanting before me. Ultimately though – after much entertainment and encouragement – a team has to be picked. At every level, this is both an endpoint and the new beginning for continual reassessment; for when matches begin so does that frisson around pressure; who can live off that adrenalin, who might crumple? At every level pressure exists… and counts, bringing us back into this precious kaleidoscope where skill level and belief and confidence are shifted around. The coach has to predict who is most likely to thrive under the vagaries of the moment, the opposition, the conditions, the various overlapping psychologies. Knowing who to choose for what is a fascinating and a fraught enterprise- and a hugely revealing one. No wonder we’re all doing it… picking our teams.

A brief scan of current sporting scenarios of various sorts throws up a couple of what Sue Barker is probably calling Sporting Conundrums. They both present rich territory for the coach or the fan to sink deep in the quicksand of the Decision-making Process. Enter on the one hand Martin O’Neil – recently appointed Manager of Sunderland AFC – and on the other, more muscled wing Stuart Lancaster, the new Head Coach of England Rugby.

O’Neil is the likeable but rather serious new gaffer at the ambitiously titled Stadium of Light, Sunderland. (No – let’s get off that fence – at the completely ludicrously named Stadium of Light, Sunderland. At the ground that has every chance Brian, of being renamed The Stadium Where The Northern Lights May Possibly Occasionally Be Visible Given Recent And No Doubt Ongoing Meteorological Events. (Sunderland.) But I digress…)

The point about O’Neil is that he is by common appreciation one of the great motivators around and is therefore a focus no doubt for study/gobsmacked hagiography around the matter – the reality – of his ability to coach. In a matter of weeks he has utterly transformed the nature of his club, from that of a (self-?)defensive also-ran with little, brittle or no confidence to one broiling with ambition, fight and the type of lungbursting commitment unthinkable three months ago. But am I right in thinking that even those close to the team itself talk unspecifically of MO’s general gift for enthusing and generating belief rather than any revolutionary tactical nous? So what is it, exactly, that is succeeding so well here?

Clearly O’Neil’s sides do have a particular shape and energy; they also characteristically have a robust team ethic rather than say… a galactico-led swagger. But what seems to be key is simply a faith in the boss and a willingness to give freely to the cause. Players buy in to a refreshing and often inspiring O’Neil picture of how things might be. An infectious mixture of positivity and generous, not to say near unbeatable work-rate appears to be remarkably swiftly engineered in a fashion which seems mysterious, yet is surely ‘only’ the result of great management of individuals (as individuals) and outstandingly peppy pep-talking. Individually and collectively, those Sunderland players will now run through fire for O’Neil and for the club; suddenly, they believe.

We’d have to have the privilege of being absolutely (as Martin might say) on the inside to get further than this fans-eye appreciation of what O’Neil actually does. But it’s clear to all of us, is it not, that he’s got something special working for him? Maybe something particularly attractive because it feels like it’s to do with a kind of honesty?

Stuart Lancaster has certain things in common with Martin O’Neil. He’s a bloke; he’s articulate. But the style of motivation is surely less hands-on in his case, or, my suspicion is, less heart-on-sleeve; making it different in its non-personal or less personal nature. I am currently fascinated by choices Lancaster has to make; choices of the sort we all make whether as coaches at local level or as armchair punters berating our alleged superiors in sport.

The England boss has sounded rather bland to me; now Lancaster the man has to emerge, has to decide for example whether or not to change a winning side now that key(?) talents have become available to him; Courtenay Lawes, Manu Tuilagi and Toby Flood. This is a juicy one, a defining moment in my view, for off the top of my head I can think of the following live issues around selecting these guys and/or dropping their colleagues.

  • Some coaches really don’t change a winning side
  • To accommodate Lawes a lock has to be jettisoned; despite the unconvincing nature of the England lineout there is an argument that they defended manfully in both games and that 4 and 5 played a significant part in this(?)
  • Yes, but Lawes is better/more athletic/more of a dynamic force around the pitch
  • Tuilagi has to play, he is simply the most gifted and terrifying centre England have
  • Barritt is undroppable currently, even if he is less of an attacking threat
  • Farrell is undroppable currently, because of his composure
  • Flood must play if fit – he was underappreciated previously and was nailed on starter at ten before his injury
  • Hodgson has done reasonably well and scored two tries from chargedowns!
  • The England attack, despite its novelty value and its relative youth, has rarely attacked…

Mere starters in the racing jumble of factors the England Coach must rate and then relate to those quivering hearts in the dressing-room. Who goes? On what basis? We know that these days all things are tracked and measured – from tackle counts to yardage gained. But where does intuition kick in, if ever? How do you measure the balance of a team – the way personalities as well as gifts complement or undermine success? What, even, is success? Playing wonderfully at your limits or in some dirge-like state of control? Does Lancaster really want to liberate his team, or does he want to win? Does this coach view those concepts as mutually exclusive?

What’s your hunch?

A poisoned flagon?

L

I have heard, in the last few moments that there are now 2 live inquiries into the England Rugby World Cup fiasco and one dead one. (Fran Cotton is presumably grazing his four cabbages this morning with stoic indifference, having feared or expected further administrative chaos). “Cock-up – again” I hear him saying. Thus the last word kindof becomes the first?

                                    

Any time now he will get the nod. Probably initially in airless private but soon mindlessly beaming members of an alleged hierarchy will be chivvying him towards the public, grey but humming hotseat. Thus the All New England Rugby Manager will meet the press; meet us plebs.

There will no doubt follow a platitude-fest of second row proportions. Eventually, once even the journalists are bored of hearing the flawless laundry that is Managerstuff rinse and repeat relentlessly, the hierarchy (yet to be announced) will commit further overfamiliar but nonetheless profoundly inept acts of ushering to get their man out to a waiting bar – I mean car. Safely ensconced in the back of this dark but bland executive vehicle he will breathe deeply – very deeply – and then consider what the fuck he has done… as, no doubt, will the ushers.

In this rare moment of privacy The All New England Manager may reconsider his options whilst leafing through a dossier on the current playing staff, material that is unlikely to energise the soul but may – if the mood were lighter – provide a few laffs. What could be funnier than a royal wedding failure/a humiliated chambermaid/a swallow dive off a ferry? (Okay, I think the latter was mildly amusing and Tuilagi’s undeniable talent insulates him from further unnecessary flak. But the list of positives from – appropriately? – the WC is surely hysterically brief?) Of the 153,276 words featured in the review imagined by my good self, ‘crushing’, ‘boring’ and ‘he constitutes another loose cannon’ are statistically prevalent. Sensing this, the staff driver (I picture a Devonian prop with tractor driver’s sideburns and a whimsical nature) at this point knowingly produces a hip-flask and a wink. “Wait ’til you get to page 3 boss”.

On page 3 there is a discussion on the Captaincy Issue which may or may not suggest that Mad Dog Wilkinson is still considered a suitable force for er… English crypto-buddhist wholesomeness. Oh, and the captaincy. Only slightly more surprising is the revelation that the hierarchy are also looking at the following as live candidates for the role;

Andy Ripley; Fay Weldon; Julian Barnes; Mahatma Ghandi.

The driver’s eyebrows have arched.

But we, in our frothy excitement, get ahead of ourselves. Who will be choosing the captain? Woodward? Mallender? Henry? Or can talk of Johnson’s survival be right? Given that pretty immediately prior to this All New Captain thing the over-riding impulse of the (yet to be announced) hierarchy would certainly have been to find a Manager who will be a safe pair of hands whilst the team is (again) ‘in transition’, we might reasonably fear exposure to a worryingly imaginative choice scenario. In other words, a foreigner. Assuming Martin Johnson is jettisoned – on merit – the pool of realistic candidates (my cheap jibes notwithstanding) would need to include those of a Tri-Nation persuasion, surely?

Unless there’s a fait accompli favouring somebody like Clive Woodward? Or is it ludicrous to wonder if Henry has been tapped up with some elder statesman role in mind… with Shaun Edwards as enforcer? Fanciful but interesting? Gadzooks! Could English rugby turn out interesting? Contemplation of that question makes me return to the thought – already expressed in certain papers – that Martin Johnson will stay in post. This is such a laughable proposition that it fits almost perfectly the mould – giant-sized cock-up revisited.