It couldn’t just be sport.

If I started this with ‘Some say… that this was just a game of rugby’ then I’d sound like Jeremy Clarkson… and this would not be good. 78% of female readers would exit more sharply than a reasonably-priced car ever could, shivering with sisterly repulsion. 88% of Welsh, male readers would do likewise, engaging the default mode for aversion to pompous English Middle Class gits in the process. Meaning there is an English Dimension here – possibly even more than there is an England-Wales dimension. (Tonight I may argue this was important.)

As the whistle blew ‘for no side’ one nation – Warburton’s, Biggar’s – stood baying at the beeyoootiful moon. The air was heavy as meaning (meaning!) went on a suburban rampage in Richmond and in Rhyl.

I’m simply unable to de-symbolise any of this, despite the apparent reality of 40-odd blokes haring round a pitch in a violent but unfeasibly honourable homo-erotic bagatelle. This ‘game’ is/was a theatre for unreliable symbols – symbols as elusive as Barry John – and Wales, the Wales where I live, breathe, stew and grow, rises to this stuff; it may even exist for it. England, in the World Cup. The primest of prime opportunities to stick one on Clarkson, or Cameron, or Thatcher, or Will Carling or unnamed and quite possibly unheard BBC Journalists from 1930’s radio, agents of Home Counties supremacy and imperial pig-dom. Like the public school lads in white – just perhaps?

There is an argument that Wales won an exhausting contest because their number ten hoofed the ball between the sticks with the proverbial unerring accuracy all night; there may even be some truth in that – Biggar having notched seven penalties.  But the activity in (for example) my front room (where allegedly grown adults were performing some kind of noisily angular tribal-ecstasy) suggests that what happened in Twickenham was merely a part of something radically more humongous.

Distil it and maybe this is how it is; The English are the opposite of what the Welsh want to be. Where the English had Edward Heath, Wales had Nye Bevan. Where the English had Larkin, Wales had Dylan Thomas. Where the English had Seb Coe, Wales had Iwan Thomas. Where the English had David Beckham, Wales had Mickey Thomas. To all fair-minded people this must mean The Welsh are demonstrably more human humans.

Could it be then, that May’s admirable try and Farrell’s drop goal and five penalties were simply out-biffed by an undeniable outbreak of irresistible humanity?  Or did it just feel like that… in Wales?

Could it be that a now cruelly depleted Wales may lose to Aus and struggle against Fiji… and therefore be lost to the competition… and that this – this Twickenham – might still be enough, for the Welsh?  Meanwhile vanquished England (with their bonus points) shuffle through?

The thing may move further yet into fable and redemption – or re-birth – for the whites.

How Lancaster needs that! Though his crunch calls seemed an irrelevance come the hour (Farrell was outstanding, Burgess strong) the England gaffer is weirdly and may yet be fatally subsumed by the whole cosmic cowabunga. His lot got beat in a manner that points to spookily gargantuan forces no mere ‘coach’ could be expected to counter – hence the ludicrous speculation in these paragraphs.

Even those in Wales who have never read Dylan Thomas feel the power, the redeeming, daft-glorious brilliance of the notion of ‘Wales-in-my-arms’. And I do mean feel. Whether by poisonous osmosis of modern political truths or some mysterious saturation in the deeply Celtic, The Welsh have an essence to aspire to, to live up to, and this essence has become inseparable from the need to oppose. They oppose the English, in particular, because they know them to be superior and somehow ungenerous when they themselves are hearty and defiant and inviolably ‘good.’ In no sense is Jeremy Clarkson good.

But Mike Brown – despite being a hated arse in Barry – is good. And so is Farrell, it turns out. But now we’re talking rugby when (try as it might) this ‘match’ could not – could not! – escape the clasp or pull of history or fate or mania or whatever it is or was or will be that drives Alun Wynn Jones. And Dan Biggar. And the four players from Haverfordwest Under 12’s who came on when half the Welsh were slain on the battlefield; I mean injured. Don’t tell me that a story this big, a turnaround of this magnitude could be merely, merely sport. It just couldn’t. Could it?

Wales won at Twickenham in the most stirring and cauldron-defying manner imaginable. In an absorbing but rarely beautiful game, Dan Biggar stamped his authority on an occasion that his opposite number – the immaculate Farrell – coasted through almost equally as nervelessly. Indeed it was the extraordinary contest between these two that provided the bulk of the drama and the quality throughout the match, as ball-striking of a supremely high order broke out.

Ultimately, with A N Other and his wheezing pals flung onto the park to make up the numbers for Wales, they found something. After a first half where England showed the more ambition, Wales gathered by deed and (noticeably) by word from their relentlessly grooved out-half. Biggar willed them to a victory that will quite possibly never be forgotten – by either set of players or supporters.

In the days of limited attention span we tend to look for five things that mattered. Here are mine.
• The spot-kicking of both number tens – which was remarkable.
• The recovery of the Welsh forwards – having been quasi-mullered in the first period.
• The pep-talk Biggar gave to half his team during one of the eight zillion stoppages for injury.
• The early removal of Ben Youngs.
• That left-footed dink infield from Lloyd Williams.

Let’s swiftly reiterate that the kicking from Biggar and Farrell, in a game of this magnitude, was fantastic. Perhaps particularly from the England fella, massively exposed as he was by Lancaster’s switch-to-end-all-switches. To strike so purely and confidently with 80,000 people on your back and a trillion watching elsewhere was truly outstanding.

(By the way, on the Big Call issue I was immediately clear that Lancaster’s reversion to a kind of circling of the wagons policy – ‘we’ll be ready for ‘em’ stylee – was always going to unnecessarily stoke the defiance of the Welsh. Gatland would surely have punched the air on seeing that conservative, stiff upper lily-liver thing confirmed? For Farrell to come through all that nonsense and go play rugby of this calibre was hugely to his credit.)

The recovery of the Welsh forwards may have been as much about a falling off in flow and intensity from England in the second half as improvements from the Welsh. Substitutions and injuries unhinged or undermined events. The mighty Alun Wynn looked a tad mightier and Warburton/Faletau began to influence but between about 40 and 60 minutes the game lost its shape, allowing Wales to creep back in there.

The job of the number ten has changed. Nowadays – regrettably, perhaps – even in Wales they no longer look to the fly-half for magic of the hip-swerving kind. Instead it’s about ‘game-management.’ This means expressing the tactical plan for the team; finding territory; choosing the moment to use width or thrust directly, seeking to suck opponents into energy-sapping contact, before darting wide again. Biggar’s management today was outstanding – as was his courage and his leadership.

Who knows what was said during that pep-talk but it was clear that he was sure of the mission… and sure that he was leading it.

At the moment of writing I confess I am unclear if the substitution of Ben Youngs was ‘tactical’ or for injury. If the former then the defeat may be laid at Lancaster’s door. Youngs is an in-out player and I thought him poor against Fiji. Tonight he was largely in… and on it. If it was pre-planned to ‘freshen things up’ by introducing Wrigglesworth early then I scoff at the overcoaching psycho-bollocks implied by that. Youngs was jinking and linking and England looked good for much of the first 40 minutes; then they stopped playing. If possible, he had to stay on.

A Wales win was undeniably made possible by *moments like* the deft nurdle inland from Williams, enabling Gareth Davies to dive under the posts. Post-match, exhausted and enriched, we know that the fella (in this moment) dived right past rugby.

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… But don’t call this a steppingstone…

After all the talk of key steps towards (you know) 2015 or psychological plusses or markers, England get their win. And Geech puts on record the blandly positivist view – that Lancaster should and would be pleased with how they came through. Fair enough. Except that other than the admittedly reasonably significant fact of the scoreline, very little suggested a further gearing up towards any realistic or legitimate challenge for the World Cup on home soil. In fact much of it felt like a reverse. England were ordinary; disjointed, lacking in dynamism and organisation, unimaginative.

In a relatively poor game in which the opposition’s finest asset – Genia – was barely visible, Australia were still able to coast for the first hour. Only in the final period did England in any sense test the Wallabies defence through fleetness of foot, phases, angles or width. Even then it was hardly fluent and only via a couple of contentious decisions did the critical points come. The whites were lucky and no more than about three of them could feel satisfied with their own contribution. Lancaster would surely be more concerned than pleased.

If that’s a downer then I feel it too. I anticipated the occasion – the series! – in my usual juvenile froth, with the vinnytwinkle on fast-fibre alert. I was, believe me, more than ready to leap off me barstool. I’ve binned most of that in favour of a column on… Match One.

England then – wisely in my view – booked a slot against Australia first up. Certainly it made sense to schedule in at least one All Black warm-up game – and yes, I know that may offend… but surely there is some truth in that wicked suggestion? – Oz being pretty fine but a whole lot more beatable than the AB’S.

Pre-match I expressed concerns about the balance of the pack and the load on youngish/newish partnerships at halfback and centre particularly. I waffled on about Dickson’s lack of presence and that hunch I had that the forwards simply might not achieve – did not feel like a unit. (True I did also admit to worries about Vunipola at eight but he proved a real success – if a semi-detached one.) Some of this I had right.

Dickson was picked a) on form b) to get the ball out and about sharpish. He did that okay but between him and the oddly out of sorts Farrell there was little or no genuine urgency; passes manifestly did not fizz; breaks were rarely engineered, much less inspired. They were ordinary; even Farrell’s goal-kicking was a let-down, as he found a groove three feet west of the posts. To his credit, the stand-off stood and fought his way to more meaningful contributions late in the game – long after he might reasonably have been withdrawn, in fact. Dickson, as previously for England, failed to make a persuasive argument for his retention but he is likely to get a further opportunity, I suspect. Too many changes and all that. The question remains; he can play but can he fire things up at international level?

At centre Tomkins announced himself with a technically ragged but telling early tackle on Folau, before slightly disappearing into the muddle of midfield. Within this zone of disquieting under-achievement we might I imagine still find a forlornly felled Twelvetrees – was it simply nerves? – sucking his thumb beneath a security blanket name of er… Blankey. If both the half-backs and centres are kindof out of sorts, it simply ain’t possible to play, right?

Rarely have I seen so many plop-passes or flop-passes or stationary receivers – all signs that people don’t feel comfortable, don’t want the responsibility of leading or making something happen themselves. Having hoped for some flair and some brightness from form players, we got mainly a bit of A Flap. Meaning that in a game that England won and which Australians will say they stole, few in white lived up to their billing.

Mike Brown was the notable exception. He was almost faultless, projecting forth beyond that typical coolness into an elsewhere rarely-troubled land of creativity, via leggy but balanced surges into space. Only he and possibly Vunipola B looked remotely like disturbing the Wallabies’ calm. Australia may bawl at him all it wants but the full-back can hardly be blamed for his skipper’s dodgy try – scored painfully soon after Brown stood clearly in touch whilst gathering a punt deep in his own territory. And overall, following superb presence and quality under the high ball from the kick-off, England’s guardian was a shoe-in for the home side’s Man of The Match, whilst further cementing his place in the side. That he will justifiably keep the gifted and arguably more elusive Foden out speaks volumes for the incumbent and releases (or confines?) a proper talent to the bench.

A word on the captain. Robshaw apparently has his critics; but once again in a match where his side were underperforming around him, he led. This is not to say he was as outstanding as he often has been… but he was present and he played with intelligence and commitment. I rate him for his consistency and his knack for an important intervention – like that snaffled try, or, more often, the key bridging or protection of the ball come the ruck. Often when something good gets done by an England forward, it’s by him.

Lawes I wonder about. Clearly a tremendous athlete and a force of nature at times, I simply don’t see it happening for England. More a hunch than an observation perhaps but he seems to me too hot/too cold. In this encounter he took about an hour to get going and I sense this may be because he daren’t free himself up for fear of infringement. His natural mode would appear to be rampage rather than cruise control; I may be wrong but this suggests to me that he has both some significant maturing to do to (for example) play a central role in line-out calls and that edginess is essential to his game. Reined in, he loses a lump of his value. (Line-outs, by the way were a shambles.) Courtenay could be a world-beater but can he stay in the team while we wait?

I’ve said the Aussies had every right to be aggrieved at the Brown/Robshaw ‘incident’. Less clear perhaps was the other major beef – Hartley’s blocking of their defender as Farrell darted in to score. Certainly the Saints hooker denied passage to the tackler but some have said he would never have gathered in the England 10 and that therefore it was fairly judged. Personally, in the moment, it seemed a home decision – one swayed by a Twickenham crowd eventually finding some hope out there in the action – but one that will add further to the list of historic grievances between these deliciously, sometimes brutally keen rivals. Oh… and it decided the match.

In short, can I please be both underwhelmed (by England) and remain jig-ready, then? With multifarious and multicoloured flyers and dancers yet to engage, the juices will be flowing yet.

Triumph by degree.

Triumph. Glory. Worryingly loaded terms, both, as though there’s no escaping the association with imperial excess or sultry machismo – both of which I oppose with every laddish ounce. ‘Tis a challenge, this all-consuming contemporary imperative towards proportion – one I typically moon at, as you know. Is there really no way to write innocently in the post post-modern age? Shame, eh? If it’s too rash to affix words like them there onto mere sport, even on the understanding – you do understand, right? – that nothing’s rilly that serious and… my eyes they are a twinkling. The cunning plan then will revert to a crypto-psychological airing of notions around degrees of triumph. In sport, this weekend; rugby football in fact.

(You know) I love the talk around this stuff. The banter, sure, but maybe more so that slightly higher grade proffering of views about the shape of sides, the intent, the possibilities. An example? The leaking out from this cloud of (often though not always) nationalistic passiogubbins of the contention that the Scottish back three may be the best in the 6nations. This is not an assertion that could have been made with any degree of seriousness in donkeys years. Hold with that thought then combine with the impressive and surely contagious positivism practically washing out of Scott Johnson and key elements seemed in place ahead of the Italy game for either a triumphant expression of 15-man rugby or …yet another Murrayfield trauma. It was pretty much the former, something approaching a try-fest and a crucial breaking out from those dispiriting Scottish failures. A triumph of the Thank Christ For That variety as well as a champers-popping treat.

Caveats will need to be included re the relative weakness of their opponents. Italy, whilst playing again with occasional verve were suicidally open at times but Scotland the nation has every right to bristle and glow over the arrival of a competitive-plus back divison. Despite being clad in a kit they apparently modelled on motorway signage, the home side hustled with an altogether more convincing energy than for some appreciable time. They flipped and flashed in and out of the overtaking lane; not uncontrollably or recklessly but with the clear purpose of getting someplace quickly. The threat was there – a real threat, you felt – as opposed to the bound-to-end-in-fumbling-failure version that had become the depressing norm.

In a compelling and genuinely exciting game freed up rather than stifled by expectation, tries surely loomed. Sure enough Vister darted and stepped (far too easily in fact) off his wing to score. Then in one of those moments when action and symbol clang together, Matt Scott juggled one off his chest before bursting free. (Insert that particular instant into almost any midfield scenario for Scotland over the last five years and surely the chance would have gone to ground; this time the centre scurried clear to score unopposed.) Even Sean Lamont – who had scored but a single try in 42 matches – found himself likewise in freedom’s honeyed pastures as he gathered up from the deck and bolted… with surely some quiet ecstasy?

The electrifying interception by the fullback Hogg that caterpaulted him almost the full length of the pitch was the game’s stand-out moment. As exhaustion closed in around his utter joy he drifted somewhat from the posts but this naivety was not chief amongst the concerns of the baying crowd, who expunged a decade’s frustration at butchered opportunities with a tremendous hollering. Would that a certain Bill McClaren had been there to describe the moment. Hogg, certainly, is a Lions contender – though quite possibly behind both Wales’s Halfpenny and Ireland’s Kearney. And maybe England’s Goode!

It’s true then, Scotland can attack, can even cross the whitewash; how fabulous. This ritual unshackling – so sweet, so thrilling in its nature – we can justifiably, with an affirmative slug of fine malt, file under the ‘t’ word. For the Italians, destined to make incremental progress contradicted by days such as these, it must have hurt. Going to Murrayfield believing they were in the best shape for aeons, having duffed up the French? Facing the side most obviously and most frequently vying with them for that wooden spoon? And getting mullered? They will need to gather yet more steel into the matrix of what they are building and go, again, in search of that second win in the 2013 tournament.

In Paris, Wales beat France in the first duff game of the 6nations. Or so the general perception will go. Led by Ryan Jones, they dug out a win whilst the French crowd broiled. The game was clunky, with few passages of quality handling. Halfpenny got man-of-the-match but it could easily have gone to his skipper, the eloquent Jones, who is one of those blokes you really want to do well for his utter but intelligent commitment. In the context of where the two sides are at – in the 6nations, in terms of their ahem development – there was a quasi-spiritual aspect to the game, with the French flailing about for something to believe in (a way of playing?) and the Welsh needing ideally to reassert their own pattern but more prosaically, to win. In reality, this was not the rugby of or for the gods.

The French were almost unbelievably poor; shambolically led from half-back, almost comically unimaginative with ball in hand. Apart from the occasional mega-hit from Bastereaud, they seemed either dilatory or glazed-eyed, unable to see or burst through the slough of nerves. Michalak was not the only one to play what felt like a career-ending role in the game.

Wales must of course take real credit for much of the host’s embarrassment. In team meetings they will surely have spoken about denying the French rather than levering the game open. But it wasn’t pretty – in particular that first half, where Phillips was again in contained and containing mode. Slowly going through phases until an error inevitably came; monitoring rather than playing. Fortunately for Wales, the longer the game went on the worse the hosts seemed to get; it hardly mattered that the Welsh back line seemed pedestrian by their standards and that the word ‘urgency’ appeared to have disappeared from the Franco-Welsh lexicon. Wales, solidly marshalled by Biggar, abided. And yet…

Sure, us Welsh-sympathetic types naturally hoped for a searing run from Davies or Cuthbert but the reality shelved most of that indulgence in exchange for the blanket thrown over the pitch. Bravely and with great discipline the forwards smothered and the backs kept the seal intact. There seemed not the remotest possibility that the French would score but in the absence of guarantees, things remain tense, yes? Even from the depths of their paucity some blur of French brilliance might spark? Pas de chance, as it ‘appens. They were – unpredictably – relentlessly, predictably crap.

As the thing rumbled in almost classically turgid style towards deserved victory for Wales, so the restlessness in the crowd grew. With every concession of possession by Les Bleus a chorus of the gallic equivalent of harrumphing gathered. The Welsh were ahead, without a meaningful cushion in terms of points but ahead. Following George North’s powerful burst for the line humiliating whistles and prolonged booing broke out around the stadium. Music to Welsh ears. French supporters left – disgracefully, in my view – in disgust. This was the kind of low-diff, plough through-the-sodden-meadow victory that practically erects a conveyor belt of foaming pints of beer on the players bar. Exhausting but rich in terms of its bond. There was at least a whiff of the Brotherhood of Redness about it; the redeeming, the reclamation of something, through powerful, powerful unified work. I would have let Ryan lead his men in a pint or two last night. A triumphant one.

Finally came England. With a win we’d be calling truly impressive if the game hadn’t been so decimated and reduced by conditions. My guess is England would have despatched Ireland with something to spare had the ball been less appallingly soapy. As it was, even the initially imperious Farrell was largely flummoxed by the pitiless rain.

England started superbly, with that kind of away team composure coaches dream about. Even early on there was no real width but Farrell prompted then penalised the Irish for any transgression. When the homesters awoke it was with that intemperate flame that might either overwhelm or threaten self-immolation; they were fierce but unfocussed. Sexton was ordinary – then hurt – and the Irish fumbled. The intensity was right off the scale but ambitions were promptly scaled right back as allegedly straightforward catches were dropped and the ball was lost in contact. The mid-section of the match was relatively poor, with periods when Irish forward dominance seemed likely to be critical cancelled out by further error. England were always more efficient but the midfield never had, nor were ever likely to have quick ball or space to create. The English back line was admirably watchful and assured in defence whilst being anonymous going forwards.

Tuilagi, having come on early in the second period had the two sole try-scoring opportunities of the game but in each case his spatial awareness and footballing skills let him down. Was I the only one waiting for him to get a run at O’Gara? That run never came. England eased to victory, to a strangulating, appreciative-slap-on-the-back-engendering win rather than anything too… too triumphant. Lancaster will live with that. And – cue the unwisely charged denouement – England march on.

 

Wanna check out my triumphant ebook? Out now on Amazon – amzn.to/SSc9To. Recommended by Brain Moore/Paul Hayward/Kate Webb. Intro by Paul Mason.

 

Rugby, mainly.

Following a weekend where the relentlessly uplifting drama of the 6 Nations (rugby) yet again provided a wonderful if boomtastic example of the value and maybe the purpose of sport, I am entitled, I think, to go off on one. As you may know, this a mode I favour – hollering wildly, excitedly but hopefully not entirely unsoundly about the daft-punk glories of chasing balls around in some childlike, pore-cleansing flush.

This time I’m surely entitled; my Waltonian disproportion being compleatly proportionate to the primeval stirring (for example) when Ireland exploded over Saturday lunch. When England, finally, after best part of twenty years in a stultifying, fearful or cynical brace, broke out emphatically into some refreshingly fizzing new era, featuring a notably more Go Full Pelt and subsequently (gor blimey) successful instinct. When Italy, through a combination of mature, legitimising tactical weave and sheer and selfless fronting-up, put one over on the French.  When rugby, god bless its ample ass, showed the way. Join me then, in a post-euphoric smiling-jog warm-down (if this is possible?) through those games.

Wales were first up. Here, following a series of bruise-black blows to the dingle-dongle soul of the cherub-child’s pre-Christmas ritual – that would be the Autumn Series, then – the annual provincial rugby-lust yardstick was laced with concern. About Zebo, for one. And about the possibility that Declan Kidney (hitherto a most conservative choirmaster to the baying Irish) might come over all musically fruity and dashing and fearless – which, it soon transpired, he had. Or so it seemed when his charges unleashed an unimaginably dynamic 15 man Blackbush-anschluss/chorus upon the home side, leaving them quite quite bollocksed, before the first 40 was out. Only the irresistible quality of that surreally pogoistic Irish dance deflected that feeling of utter humiliation for Warburton’s distraught posse; when the score ticked to 20 odd points for the visitors and none for the reds.

The second, irrelevant period came over all wonderfully Welsh. Firstly – and you did feel rather typically – because Wales instead of reducing the ludicrous deficit allowed a further Irish score… but then… then something stirred. In a blur of Duw Duw aavitmun counters and scampers and painfully pointless but point-scoring ripostes, Howley’s men finally stood and fought, heroically.

Heroically because they were done, from the outset; because the late drama never had a cat in hell’s of actually making a difference; not, at least to the result.

Ireland deservedly won. The match was though, for the neutral, spectacular and for the Irish around 50% dreamlike in a very very good way indeed. Wales mind you, find themselves in maybe the most painful kind of crisis – on merit. More broadly and touchy-feely-smilingly, the lesson in life here was very much to do with how electrifying and rewarding the whole-hearted rage can be; Ireland’s early energy and commitment and unity being a thing of some beauty as well as unanswerable power.

The Calcutta Cup game between England and Scotland was the 43rd watershed moment on the bounce for England, who have been either threatening or promising to join the Actually We Really Do Believe in Expansiveness Pardee since Richard III parked up in Leicester wearing his Tiger’s scarf. Scotland meanwhile turned up with an appropriately Wallace-like leadership; the duo of Craig Johnston and Dean Ryan being preternaturally worrying and convincing in the role of arse-flashing, violence-hinting subverters of all things cosy. (Like maybe… England?)  The previous incumbent, incidentally – Andy Robinson – had possessed many of the defiant qualities necessary to commit to that particularly Scotch effort but despite manifest improvements his side basically still mostly got beat. There is a sense that under Johnston and his English enforcer that may change.

At Twickers, however, despite a brilliant start, Scotland were beaten in some style by a now properly resurgent England. In another fabulous game of rugby, in which the Farrell the Younger operated in exhibition mode almost throughout, such was his general excellence, the story was all about fulfilment (by the whites) of those oft-aired aspirations towards ‘really playing’. Again forgive the dodgy extrapolation towards quasi-cultural concept; but how else are we to describe the shift from veteran and weirdly lily-livered bore(s) to young-buck dynamos. England have crossed now – have executed – the transition into something exbloodyciting; something real and open and filled with generous possibility rather than dullness. After all the right noises, they are finding the right game; which is rugby, in fact.

On Sunday, the onus was on the Italians to further hitch up the quality of our glee by blasting further through the barriers of reasonable expectation. Sure they had beaten the French before but the Azurri had not, as yet, evidenced their assembly of Proper International Rugby Players in sufficient volume to be fully 6nation worthy. Or so the subtext continued to read. They were, in fact – even when making outstanding progress year on year – frustratingly short of the mark. Sunday, this changed.

Italy played better and they won. Their success rarely seemed in any doubt. What may be most encouraging for the Italians is the fact that this victory was not entirely built upon their small quota of hyper-talent – Parisse, certainly, Castrogiovanni, arguably – but through a revelatory level of general competence and comfort at the playing of bona fide international rugby. They kicked and passed and tackled throughout – and throughout the team – to an all-new and belief-hoiking height; somewhere right up there – somewhere legitimate. Neutrals like me celebrated with extravagant Mediterranean gestures (well, we pumped our fist and took a deep slug of some Chianti-substitute) because this was feeling like a further rich episode in some tectonic shifting; towards hearty goodness and brotherhood and – who knows? – Europe-wide meritocracy.

Okay. I may be over-egging the pasta here. There may, in ‘reality’ be no link between great sport and things round and about getting better. And therefore I may again be indulging. I remain, however relatively unapologetic at expressing these myopic or delusional pleasures. Feelings may indeed be total cobblers. But there was a great dollop of joy around this rugbystuff this weekend; there was magnificent excitement and achievement and yes, a kind of sacrifice in that sheer, exhilarating teaminess. Overall and unquestionably, the Generous View of Things trumped the ordinary or the constricting. And – let’s keep this simple? – that’s surely good.

The political angle that I should be keeping out of all of this stuff is, of course, a function of zillions of things that collectively make up our individual standpoint. Mine, after this weekend, is more than ever fired up by sport; coloured with the inspiration and the instinct and the poetry that fuels or arises from knockabouts like these. To me it figures absolutely that (to pull a not insignificant name out of the political matrix) Michael Gove doesn’t get this sport thing, poor sod. Not only was he no sportsman – not that this matters, necessarily – he is unreceptive to the essentials of team games; essentials that include deep comradeship, courageous generosity, the capacity to work like hell in order to give. Really… that’s such a shame.

I’ve written an ebook. Which I’d like you to see/buy. It’s here, it’s £2.83!! amzn.to/SSc9To

Ten

In Wales, people really do carry the notion of flyhalfism around with them. Women have it tucked in the crook of their armpit as they hightail it down to Morrisons, blokes tucked behind their left ear, like a casually stashed but much-anticipated ciggie. It’s all true yaknow – Welsh kids are born knowing who Phil Bennett was – many have been known to jink bewilderingly past the approaching midwife. It’s maybe not the same everywhere, but the Ten is important here.

Just a few minutes ago I read a report effectively linking a certain Jonny of the half-back persuasion to next year’s Lions Tour. Which focussed – well, everything’s relative – the loose pondering I’ve been engaged in for the last hour or two around that subject of flyhalfism, generally. Focussed it and broadened it out, in fact, because… because The Lions can do that, right? But back to Jonny, momentarily.

Until the wise and oft-crocked-but-indestructible one (now of France) intruded, I had been gainfully employed in ruminations of a hypothetical but distinctly Celtic nature. Like who will play Ten for Wales… and then whether Sexton might finish up as Lions playmaker. (Here, sloppily, I nearly wrote ‘god forbid’.) So hang on – let’s leave the (other) Jonny Factor out of this for now – and return to Wales-in-my-arms again.

Rhys Priestland – he of quite possibly relatively seriously damaged self-confidence and now genuinely compromised lower body-part – is out for months. Crocked. Leading to the likely inclusion of Osprey’s Dan Biggar in the Wales set-up for the Six Nations. Whilst Biggar is widely perceived (in Wales) to be currently best equipped to challenge James Hook for the national half-back role, he is unlikely to threaten the Lions squad. Nor is Rhys Patchell, the emerging Blues star, who may have real quality, but remains a non-starter at this level for his lack of years and experience.

Like Priestland, Biggar is capable; looking to direct with a quiet authority rather than too much explosive brilliance. For them both – and perhaps I do mean this as a slight criticism? – Game Management is all. They are not the Magic Men many would like. Hook, on the other hand, has been known to be.

Like Wilkinson, Hook now plies his trade in France. And the sense is that regular starts in the Ten slot for Perpignan are doing him a power of good – why wouldn’t they? Like many of The Gifted before or since, Hook may not always have made an inviolable case for his own inclusion. He’s thrown intercepts; he’s drifted in and out; we can use that word ‘languid’ against him; we’ve wondered often if he has enough of that controlling thing going on. But Hook has danced past folks… he has genuinely created, when before… there was nothing.

Young James could play the kind of off-the-cuff rugby that most international coaches now perennially enthuse about – and then seem to de-bar amongst their backline employees come match day. In few cases does it seem that the liberated approach survives the transition from interview room to pitch. Meaning even in an expansive-game-friendly Wales, Hook became droppable rather than essential.  Moreover he bulked up, he conformed, becoming more like everyone else and less mercurially James.

One view is that he just wasn’t sufficiently favoured or trusted, entirely, to orchestrate. Or that and the fact that he may simply be short of durability in defence, or for the longish haul of a Six Nations or World Cup campaign. Personally, I think the management of James Hook may be amongst the most serious errors committed by the Wales backroom staff over the last six-eight years. If he felt secure enough, wanted enough, I think Hook may have been the man. Now it feels as though he may not even inherit from the stricken Priestland. Gatland will take a close look at Patchell for Wales but Hook may remain in that destabilising limbo whilst Biggar steps in.

So a Wales Ten for the Lions seems unlikely. Over to Ireland.

In the last year Johnny Sexton has usurped the previously untouchable Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s leading fly-half. He has also been prominent in the three or four year storm that is Leinster Rugby, hoofing them capably towards a state of European dominance. This bone-crunching process has naturally boosted his profile – he seems a quietish sort? – whilst relentlessly exposing him (generally in a good way) to healthy, high-level competition. Thus a relatively slick and uncontested accession of the O’Gara berth in the national side has been achieved – plus an undeniably significant bucket-load of Big Match game-time. Sexton may have much of what Gatland is looking for, given the secure national role and this familiarity with hyper-intensity Heineken hoopla. However. I’m not convinced.

I had a great argument very recently with a passionate Irishman who (dammitt!) pretty much dismantled my objections to Johnny S. He was outraged, frankly, that I suggested the Leinster Ten as a possible liability if called upon for Lions action. When asked to describe exactly his alleged vulnerabilities compared to the other candidates, I could only offer the feeling that Sexton has the capacity to implode… or maybe his kicking does? Which then buggers up the rest. He hasn’t, for me, looked either supremely talented enough or doughty enough to lift either himself or a tight game, when the most searching issues arise. When the psychology of the thing (as well as the meat-and-drink physicality) begins to rumble and rail against his will, what might he manage then? Another hunch? Perhaps I am wrong to doubt him.

To Scotland. And away, swiftly, because they have no credible contender for the post in mind.

England I think have one – Farrell. The slightly more experienced but slightly less durable Flood is edged very narrowly out, I think. Farrell is cool, strong with a relatively mixed game. What he lacks is what Sexton, Priestland, Biggar and perhaps Flood too lack – real dash. Whether this rules him out or in remains to be seen. But he will fight… he has bottle… and a compelling will, I think. Farrell nips in ahead of Sexton for me.

What is maybe most striking in all this is the lack of an obvious candidate; maybe that’s actually a worry for us Lions fans? If all those named above apart from Hook are a shade one-dimensional, where might that leave our hopes in Oz? Head-thumpingly frustrated? When the one thing that the Australians seem to have consistently brought to the rugby party of late is invention in the backs, are we likely to get simply outscored? Will Howley really be able to generate a Wales early 2011-style Brotherhood of Liberation amongst the Lions backs? Or will a phone call go out – it couldn’t, could it – to that other Jonny? The English one.

I have just published an ebook of selected posts, plus substantial new material.  It features an introduction from Paul Mason and kind support from Brian Moore and Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph, amongst others. It’s really not bad – and it’s only £2.83!

You can find it on Amazon ebooks, under the title ‘Unweighted – the bowlingatvincent compendium’.  Check it out.

Look away now… and over here!

Certain things remained unsaid. So here they are- well, some of them

  • France are ordinary. (Okay, I said that but it bears repeating.)
  • Sharples was unfortunate to be Yellowed and Yellows matter. He was also, I thought, guilty of either that Rabbit-in-headlights emotion or lack of focus at two or three moments. Couple of pretty embarrassing ‘tackles’ which will not be acceptable.
  • So Strettle will come immediately back in, if fit.
  • Is it just me or are people generally enjoying Ashton’s current malaise? Despite another relatively low-key performance he made a sensational midfield hit which led directly to Tuilagi’s outstanding try. He’s got something; if he gets his rugby-player-not-football-player head back on… look out. That’s if he’s not dropped for that penalty clanger. Mouth!
  • Morgan had at least two superb breaks, where he looked spookily fleet of foot for a big man… and then showed fabulous hands to offload cutely out the back door – on one occasion putting Foden directly in. A huge find for England.
  • It was commented upon by the indomitable Mr B Moore esq, but worth noting that brotherly backslapping from England backs to packmeisters after great work in the scrum. Almost as though they’re on the same side!! (Moore made a brilliantly astute comment about English moral victories in the scrum (in Paris) opening up a wound in the ‘French psyche’.)
  • Croft, as all have observed was massive; in Lineout and in the loose; everywhere. His pace and the nature of his movement around Rougerie for the try was class.
  • The removal of Beauxis when a drop was almost inevitably going to be key was surely mad. Trinh Duc has barely gotten on the pitch and he has that dumped on him? Nah.
  • Farrell was really very good again- but not perfect. Bad penno miss and mixed kicking from hand. But his tackling was often stunning. Quite possibly in pole position for Lions 10 berth, amazingly.
  • Lastly, England did really very well. Their united white wall for the last ten was impressive. France, however, looked like strangers.

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.