Can you cope, Julian? (A Likely Story.)

I was this week reminded that Julian Cope – that’s turtle-shell carrying, woollen blanket butnotmuchelse wearing, Prehistory-with-wife’s-boobs-out-spookily-often/incidentally Julian Cope – is exactly the kind of individual English rugby lacks. Despite being quintessentially er… Red Rose, he congenitally avoids the programmed, the blandly lily-livered, the cynical and the mundane. In a particularly noteworthy psychotic flourish, Cope has (for example) debunked the myth of suicide bombing nirvana, whilst jack-knifing the English language around anti-melodic hairpins. (Do your research people, check out youtube!) Which is why I would have picked him ahead of Charlie Hodgson. Who has no such genius.

My argument therefore, with Murrayfield awaiting, goes like this. Cope might bring the magnificent radico-lunacy of “All the blowing themselves up”; Hodgson can surely only bring Premiership Control or nerve-jangled ‘disaster’. It’s a no-brainer. Give Cope the ball and let him loose.

England have surely contemplated such revolutions of the soul. Troublingly, they have doubtless done this in focus groups in airless rooms bearing photo’s of Henry Ponsonby-Doppelganger, the faux-riche Chair of the Breath of Fresh Air Committee. As a direct consequence, some of us wonder if the changes made by allegedly new man Lancaster will have the galvanising effect of a lick of white paint on a very very very white wall. But in this matter of philosophical intent, I get ahead of myself; typically.

Let’s get back to basics, as someone addressing a Fresh Air Committee has no doubt once intoned. The Six Nations starts with France v Italy tomorrow, when issues of flowery ambition interface with that altogether more corporeal and occasionally nauseating phenomenon, The Hit. At the moment that the French and Italians first Take The Hit I may well then quieten my freewheeling ode to oval expressionism and a) poop my pants and b) get real in the face of the conflict. Certainly I have already reconsidered the Julian Cope Theory and now, responsibly, elect to start him as a sub. And discuss the draw.

France start with two home games – Italy then Ireland. Even a ‘typically’ gallic performance – one loaded with fumbles/too much hair/unconvincing but ultimately successful raids into the Italian 22 will see them home in game un. Jeu Deux, however, in which they face a Paul O’Connell-led Ireland, threatens to be a crushingly even contest between two sides sharing that muted but feltinthekidneys feeling of likelihood. Ireland – with three winnable home games and riding a Heineken Wave as surfable and irresistible as the Blackwater Bore – will look to roll their sleeves up and summon the traditional perverse fury. (Even if there proves to be no Blackwater Bore.)

O’Connell himself may be key in setting a tone of relentless focus; if ball can driven forward with control, with that sense of repeating intensity then perhaps the French penchant for either indiscretion or indulgence may tell. I can see a frustrated Bonnaire or a frustrated Rougerie overstating nay breaking the fine line of fine judgement; by pressing too early, by passing too lazily. However, a scrambled win for the homesters in this one would see them visibly settle into the likelihood of a serious challenge for both title and maybe Grand Slam.

Except that Wales stand in the way.

With Roberts and Priestland now pronounced ‘fit’- plainly they are not? – the worry over an injury-compromised tournament may have receded somewhat for the dragons. The suspicion lurks however, that lack of squad depth (in particular in the entirely feasible scenario of niggle-aggravation or worse) could hurt Wales. Talent? Tick. Preparation? Tick. Belief? Almost certainly tick. But absences may bedevil and undermine Gatland’s charges in a way that seems unlikely to trouble France and (weirdly?) England. Positives plainly exist; many of us are looking forward to see Warburton/Faletau/Roberts/Halfpenny play; if the side raise themselves to World Cup level then rugby prospers. Again. Wales thrive on that kind of love.

First games are always major in any tournament because they do, generally, set a tone. The clash in Dublin of the green and the red Celtic Likelys, (first up), will be a bone-crusher, the imagined brotherhood of anti-Englishness being relatively a myth. A complicated rivalry exists predicated on stuff not easily available to followers of linear history; it’s just there, percolating.

Purists may hope for Wales to continue to lavish that free-spirited hwyl around the place. My concern – not just for this testing encounter – is that Priestland, fully mobile or not, may find himself targeted more successfully than he was at the World Cup, where his novelty value was mysteriously untested, I thought. The boy may find Irishmen hurling themselves at him from the previous week, so early and determined is/was their passion. There is no god (Shane Williams) and no BOD in the fixture, but interventions of a divine nature may come, most likely from the Welsh backs, if this game levers opens. Ireland – expected to be the narrower and arguably more predictable of the two sides – should prosper in line-out and hand-to-hand combat to the extent, I think, that they win it.

After France, Wales and Ireland – possibly in that order, England are the other remaining Likelys – though likely to do anything – including disappoint, despite the luxury that is their unfanciedness. Their opener in Scotland is beyond meaningful prediction. Except that given the absence of Bad Bad People and Bad Bad Players symbolic of Bad Former Things, England must surely at least be different?

This though, does not necessarily mean better. I have previously expressed doubts about the doughtiness of Hodgson but it appears logical that the Sarries Bloc may endure if not prosper. Farrell is nothing if not confident and Barritt is there to shore up perceived vulnerabilities – Hodgson’s. Therefore, despite English nerves and Scots fire around the breakdown and despite, actually, the absence of a certain ferry-diver, England’s backs should shade the annual Calcutta clout-fest, narrowly. But that’s only the start. There are likely to be other stories.

BOD or BOFG? Silly to compare!

There is something alarming about Paul O’Connell’s forearms; or at least I think there is.  I hope this has nothing whatsoever with prejudices I may have against Irishmen, Ginger Monsters or ham, but there is something in the club-like nature of that leading section of his limbs which has the worryingly hypnotic power normally associated with unhinged propellers.  Or – I suppose – mad, ginger-haired Irish hams.

Not that the recently reappointed skipper is himself either fully or sectionally unhinged – far from it.  In fact, on the contrary, there is something (else?) both powerful and controlling about the Second Row’s clasping gear.  It appears – it feels – as though he has uncommonly massive forearms; forearms with an extra dimension.   One where even extraordinary physicality is only part of the bundle.

This potential for extra-curricular stature is essential to O’Connell’s appeal.  As a captain – of both Lions and Ireland on occasion, remember – and as a standard-bearer leading the charge.  For a man who lacks pace, he picks and goes as effectively as any Front Fiver, having a weirdly unassuming relentlessness that smacks of indomitable courage rather than extroverted heart.  Again and again, O’Connell leads; again and again – whether in the lineout or into contact – he is present.  Such is the rather wonderful and possibly anti-heroic nature of his contribution.

Being myself mercifully six or seven inches shy of the typical Second Row’s elevation I can only speak from a respectful distance of the frequency and abrasiveness of the clashes of these titans.  O’Connell has had his share.  But what strikes me generally of the man – in particular the later vintage (Limerick)Munsterman – is the degree of control he retains whilst either being, or being in, a tide of hyper-conflict.   The temptation towards devilry when confronted by the likes of … name your most feared or revered international 4 or 5 (Botha?)… has been known to be challenging to the point of decisive – particularly in the modern era – where yellow cards for cynicism, slackness or raw violence do occur.

Paul O’Connell, though I suspect not remotely fazed by the thought of succeeding Brian O’Driscoll as captain of Ireland, is nevertheless succeeding a man who by common appreciation is one of the greats of the game.  O’Connell is not, he will know, quite in that highest echelon – though this is certainly partly a matter of differences in gearing.

O’Connell epitomizes that low-diff grungy but rangy Land Rover thing whereas BOD has the possibility for thrilling, fuel-injected glory.  The Lock, who I am tempted to burden with the BOFG moniker (Big Occasionally Friendly Giant) will never electrify us; 4 and 5 don’t do that stuff.   He will however make us roar, us Lions fans, with an imperious catch and subsequent drive, or a low-slung but vital scurry for yardage as a 10 waits dry-lipped for a drop attempt.

In addition, the aforementioned catch/drive/scurry is likely to be repeated with an efficiency destined surely to grind down or erode the confidence of the opposition.  Thus O’Connell executes.

O’Driscoll and O’Connell; two good Irishmen and true who unquestionably share a capacity to absorb or inflict pain for the cause.  As a result they’ve shared injuries and the breaks in continuity they bring.  But such is the influence both exert that they tend to feature pretty much immediately upon teamsheets at every level, right up to those conferring preciously regarded Lionhood.

As the one (BOD) steps away from some of these privileges, few would question that Paul O’Connell – magnificently armed specimen that he appears – is entirely equipped to be a worthy successor, captain or not.  And that brilliant, thunder-stealing but short-arsed centre cannot, in all likelihood rob him of one particular accolade – that of being the B.O.F.G.