A Knight in Shining Foil?

There’s been a whole pile of stuff written about JW this week, following his typically understated exit from international rugby.  Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph wrote with notable insight and sensitivity to the various and often conflicting Wilkobsessions, offering a real sense of the uncalm crypto-buddhism thing haunting or guiding the extraordinary Englishman.

For Jonny was/is at once the least fly of fly-halves, the most lion-hearted mute, the most innocent and most experienced body.  He is special and yet magnificently, unchangingly doubty; robotically brave and yet disappointingly free of ambition.  We’ve seen a knight in shining foil – often cruelly exposed to the lances of Backrow Baddies or occasionally brittle self-confidence.  And yup; Jonny’s been kinda DEEP.

And that’s hugely rare for a really top level sports-guy, right?  (Or maybe not?)  But peculiarly, Jonny has enjoyed or endured almost Beckhamesque levels of interest and exposure during his decade of world domination; being in relative isolation the single most obvious rugby player on the planet for a good deal of that time.  And being handsome and beautifully mannered and loyal and utterly worthy and yes… impervious and deep.

England’s World Cup winning side were the only team for decades to really break the Tri-Nations stranglehold on the number one slot in the global game.  For maybe 2 years they were the unlovely best – but they were the best.  During and after this period a frequently less than fully fit Wilkinson deconstructed all-comers with a stunning if relatively narrow mixture of tactical and goal kicking.  Combined with the likes of Hill, Johnson, Back, Dawson, Greenwood he threw a blanket over any ambition the opposition might have had… then punished them.  England should have won the tremulous final against Australia by 15 points, such was their superiority but it was entirely right that Jonny coolly – with his weaker foot – slotted the deciding kick.  Entirely right.

What we need to do perhaps is look at his gifts – what he offered – as well as calibrate his undoubted efficiency.  Foremost amongst these was/is surely a kind of ultra-honesty; an elite selflessness.  Jonny gave massively to the cause. He was central rather than sensational. Indeed, the somewhat brutal truth may be that he was simply not extravagantly gifted; therefore we do revert, rightly, to prosaic assessments of his legacy; to points.

I mistrust records – points on any board always being a function of external qualities – era/opposition/position/role etc etc – but in Wilkinson’s case it is his metronomic facility to punish and reap from infringements and opportunities presented that describe him most fully.  For years he was the most feared accumulator in world rugby.  You went off your feet – he punished you.  You encroached at re-alignment – he punished you.  It’s therefore perfectly appropriate rather than begrudgingly limiting to describe him as an Ice-Cool Points Machine.

As is now being acknowledged widely, he mattered, had to be factored in to every game plan – not because he was Barry John (and therefore he might feint and dance mercurially through you) – but because he would punish you if you offered him 3 points.   This may mean that he is less great than some members of the Gene Kelly School of outside halves; but in the modern game, where it feels as though preparation (mind games) and Game Management (Mind Games on a White board?) play an arguably disproportionate role, Wilkinson has really mattered.

That iconic moment when he finally slotted the World Cup winning drop was, for me, mostly memorable as a uniquely liberating moment of personal triumph for ‘Jonny’ – Jonny personally.  When have we seen him so purely ecstatic?  When else has the responsibility of Wilkohood slipped  so deliciously away?  And how long after did he leave it before trudging out again to practice?

Perhaps he’s entrapped me here, through that punishing introspection of his, into indulgence, navel-gazing; but I find myself wondering how lovely it might have been for us to see him enjoy things more, ‘express’ himself more.  However this probably misjudges him.  He more than anyone has personified a kind of streamlined, ineffable but heroic purpose.  He wants to get the team through.  In game mode, he would rarely – very rarely – contemplate beyond the necessary, the management of the game, the kicking of the kick.

So pointless – hah! – to judge him as though he is capable of going beyond his remit, which was what, again?  Oh yeh… to be perfect.  To be ludicrously brave in the tackle (braver than any 10, ever); to be the best kicker in the world to the extent that Games Were Won Almost Always By Him Alone.  And, incidentally, to be uniquely, hair-shirtedly whiter than white.

Don’t ask him to be Carter or even Contemponi.  He is not.  Jonny Wilkinson is, iconically, a great sportsman and appropriately in an age of highly-crafted Business Bull, a Team Player Extraordinaire.  Respect!

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Ingerland – you must be joking.

There are many precedents for hoofing England sides when they’re down; players and managers having frequently felt the pointy end of a brogue/doc marten/baseball boot/Manolo Blahnik (delete according to choice of accessories or date.) For those blessed with responsibility in the high profile sports – I’m thinking men’s football, rugby, cricket in the main here – judgement lurks cruelly close.

Currently one hypothesis, supported by hugely influential figures such as myself, suggests English football and rugby are still critically enmeshed in post-World Cup trauma; but that cricket is on a significant high. Capello and Johnson presided over such epically lurid debacles that their ability either to motivate or to proactively act seemed paralysed. In contrast, a certain Zimbabwean-born England and Wales cricket supremo has brought direction, unity, discipline and success to his side. Management, it appears, is massive. Perhaps especially when it makes comment superfluous?

Perceptions inevitably link results to the performance or authenticity of managers as well as players; thus Harry Redknapp, a ‘proper football bloke’, good former player and now demonstrably an inspiring coach is admired and respected precisely for the realness of his understanding of the game. Encouragingly, this implies judgements beyond mere (acknowledgements of) rates of success – a belief in genuine quality, no less. Would that we could sustain such generous worldviews.

Paralytically conversely, memorable custard pie-plus moments have surely included the tide of puss emanating from the tabloids towards the unfortunate Graham Taylor – a decent but not, arguably, a brilliant enough or sophisticated enough man to be at the helm of a national side generationally in skill-deficit rehab. Sven, McClaren and indeed now Capello have, on occasion, likewise felt most of the full force of press and public contempt. It –as they say –goes with the territory. Martin Johnson, whilst leaving, accepted that – almost nobly.

The fabulous diversity of opinion over teams we think represent us prevents the meaningful construction of a graph following median/mode/mental views of a particular manager’s status during office; there are, for example, wildly divergent views of Capello’s performance even when England have been cruising through qualification for the majors. (These range from the jingoistically buoyant to the cerebrally disturbed. Just when is he going to sort out Lampard/Gerard/Wilshere, Johnson/Walker?) Certainly the Capellograph would have to twitch alarmingly, as though reporting back from Etna rather than say, The Emirates.

Fabio, like a whole host of previous incumbents, may be in the process of being reconstructed by fluky inheritance. Recent friendlies against Spain (where they were outclassed but won) and Sweden (where they showed little but won) have thrown up sparks. Whether Phil Jones manages to continue to make absurdly serene progress towards a central place (literally?) in the England side whilst shouldering Duncan Edward’s comparisons may now be influential. Whether the likes of Rodwell/Walker/Wellbeck, through a kind of swifter natural expression of their talents come to Capello and England’s rescue may be… influential. The truth is, Capello has found them chiefly/only after

a) injuries to seniors

b) depressing performances by seniors.

My last word on the Italian is that having presided over such a shocking World Cup, having failed utterly to inspire or change a visibly desperate side, he should have been gone.

Martin Johnson has. With that familiar mixture of churlishness, largeness, restrained vitriol and … almost some emotion, he jumped the ferry before being escorted down the plank. England RUFC, having hugely overachieved at the previous World Cup under a player-undermined manager, appointed Johnson hoping for quiet, broodingly Churchillian leadership. He couldn’t do it. In his absence, there now ensues a near-interesting and even mysterious phase of non-appointment, featuring a non-Mallett but lots of clattering in the background. As with the football scenario, a sea-change in direction as well as personnel may trip or bumble towards us, either obstructed or otherwise by the RFU furniture. But given that Shaun Edwards has stayed righteously in Wales, it seems too much to hope for radical improvement.

It may be, therefore, seasonally unfortunate for all of us that we are denied much-needed sporting cheer due to a current lack of England cricket -that being by some distance our most upliftingly successful game. Suddenly, it seems, we have a worryingly stable and consistent crop of outstanding players. And a generally brilliant team ethic. This has not happened entirely by chance – although the contemporaneous emergence of top individuals (Strauss, Cook, Trott, Swann, Anderson…) clearly helps, cool and authoritative leadership off the pitch has been critical. To the point where the following notion bounces in.

Surely numbers stricken by Seasonally Affected Disorder could have been hugely reduced by heart-warming exposure to the further exploits of Strauss , Cook et al this winter? Contemptuously tonking all-comers at Test Level would plainly be markedly beneficial to the national psyche so, why on earth did the government fail to act on this? Couldn’t somebody have rigged up a few Tests/few big screens in shopping malls and…

Back to cool and authoritative. At a time when crises of management or certainly leadership run rampant over our whole lives(!) some contemplation of what works might seem appropriate.  (A yes for cricket, no and no for footie/rugby.) But, sporting opinion and contemplation being mutually exclusive, maybe I’ll bawl with the rest of them… Just who is running this ship, anyhow?

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.

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.

Shooting…

Predictability is a kind of death, is it not, in sport? If your opposition knows what you’re up to; if you ‘telegraph’ things. Practice and conditioning and the set plays or grooved moves of the training pitch are rendered meaningless if they are expressed poorly, robotically. Fans detest and are actually depressed I think, by what they feel to be insultingly obvious routines transferred moronically into the real-deal arena; we hope for some liberation from our sporting heroes rather than mere regurgitation.

Following a clump of disappointments for the English I propose to heroically subvert the prevalence, the dominance of dull order and drudgery by throwing a few wild passes into the mix. Not for me (on this occasion) the considered appreciation hitherto expected of the mature journalist. I’m bullet-pointing you towards my gut. And – even though Capello’s arrogant, undisciplined, unprofessional rabble have again infuriated us – let’s start with the rugby.

  • England went out of the Rugby World Cup at the Quarter-Final stage, in humiliating fashion.
  • Clearly we can blame both the players and the management team; they both failed. Failed to contribute enough.
  • Martin Johnson must surely be sacked. For an age ‘his side’ have been dull, crude, uninspiring, rudderless. It’s his job to facilitate the expression of their talents.
  • Instead he has aimed cynically low – at a kind of “winning rugby” that has won neither admirers nor a particularly high percentage of big games.
  • Against France his players were almost uniformly shockingly poor. They appeared strained rather than energised, wooden rather than dynamic. Being that uncomfortable is a clear failure of preparation, of culture. Johnson takes the blame for that.
  • The central place that Mike Tindall has played in Johnson’s squad is a depressing symbol of their failings. Tindall is surely the most perfectly one-dimensional centre in international rugby. He is allegedly a solid defender but he rarely carries the ball with pace, grace or menace. He rarely passes the ball sharply or with imagination. Contrast his alleged presence and influence with that of Tuilagi, who moves powerfully, sinuously, alarmingly, beautifully even. How obvious does a profound dearth of talent need to be before it is pulled?
  • England have real rugby footballers in different areas. Foden, Ashton, Tuilagi most significantly and perhaps Lawes from amongst the pack – most of whom are legitimate international players but not more than that. Their failure has been largely a thing born of ugliness beyond pragmatism; unambition masquerading as tactical minimalism. This is a central cause for the contempt with which they have understandably been held in the hearts of rugbyfolk worldover. They have largely chosen to deny the beauty and lifeblood of the game by opting for monotones. It is therefore appropriate that the manner of their defeat by an awakening but hardly inspired French side was chastening to the point of embarrassment. People feel that it is just.
  • Aside from this thin tactical meanness now exposed, surely Johnson’s inability to truly motivate his players was also reflected through a lack of leadership on the pitch. Lewis Moody was crippled but was more of a loose cannon by nature. Tindall… ’nuff said. There was a core of very senior players who despite their undoubted honesty lacked belief. If that was because they understood the shallowness of their plans, I look forward to hearing their liberating dissent.

Next up… we sling mud at the footballers.  Or… we revel in the brilliance of the Welsh.