Delivery.

Friday nights at the Millenium. Ethically dodgy – what with all that post-match faffing for the fans – but kinda glitzy and undeniably charged with extra, anticipatory energy. Once folks are in there they forget the duff train services issue, that general low-burning contempt for the fans thing and even (maybe) the suspicion that Cardiff Chamber of Trade have conspired with somebody hefty on the rugby side to bundle thousands of visitors into a wallet-sapping overnighter. ‘ Midst these very 2014 challenges only a proper occasion can see us through. The quality of the ether and then the game – the night – has to be good.

Cardiff delivers again, on this. A packed house (72,000) gathering late under a closed roof, followed by an emphatic home win. Plus the ungraspable stuff – the bonhomie, the boozy camaraderie, the gentility even between fans – charming and occasionally cockle-warmingly fabulous. (At the end of this one, we walked out into the cool dank of that riverside terrace past a single Frenchman nodding genially and with what seemed affectionate rather than affected grace whilst applauding the Welsh fans out. Ca c’est vraiment formidable, n’est-ce pas?)

If there is such a thing as an ambience matrix it was sweetened early in the game – which helps. France gifted a slack handful of points to Halfpenny and North in a fashion that felt faintly under-earned. The big wing/centre arguably pressured the error leading to his try but it was still an error; Halfpenny (mostly) capitalised on offers arising from ill-discipline, nerves or bad luck on the French side. Suddenly, Wales were flying – and yet not quite.

In truth there was real spirit but mixed execution from both sides first half… and in fact, throughout. De bonnes heures there was that familiar exchange of penalties and of midfield moves – most more lateral than penetrative – and therefore competently smothered. It was less ding-dong than kicktennis/squish/wallop/clunk as errors intervened. Broadly, as imagined, Halfpenny’s superior kicking game told.

On times that much-vaunted clash of beefy but more-or-less spring-heeled line-breakers – the centres North/Roberts Bastareud/Fofana – threatened to entrall us but much ended in minor disappointment. Full-on Gatland-Plus Wales rugby threatened to break out but (was it just me, and/or was this Priestland, particularly?) passes were floated too often when crispness or elite sleight-of-hand was required. In fact France were denied a try when the Wales pivot was nearly exposed mid-pass. In row 14, we tutted almost as much as we shouted.

So an improvement yes but Wales were flawed, even when in control of the scoreboard and naturally some of this underachievement was traceable to Priestland. Given that the game was presented to him early, he fell a tad short again on the commanding/inspiring front. I say this in the knowledge that he is very much in the modern mould of undemonstrative Game Managers rather than some idealised wizard and that these guys tend to play within themselves and expend all available energies on focus, not heart-stopping glory.

Fair enough. I appreciate that stuff but in my judgement Priestland has to manage things really well to justify his place. And I’m not sure he did… and I’m not sure he instills confidence in those around him.

If angst then turned to excitement early amongst the home support, this proved something of a deception. True that before any real pattern had emerged, Les Bleus were up against it. Webb had started brightly and with palpably greater fizz than that pre-loved and perhaps more predictable warrior Phillips; faux or fancy-dressed leeks amongst the crowd shuffled or at least arced expectantly forward in the breeze of expectation. Early points, high hopes for Wales. I swear folks were wondering if Gorgeous George, high himself on adrenaline and undreamt of quantities of ball, might carve out a rout? That seemed possible ten minutes in.

How mightily might the natural order be reaffirmed? If Wales went joyfully berserk, how might the French respond?

Answer – they did okay. In the sense that for me, the final score flattered Wales – France having competed but failed to prevent Warburton’s blaze and Halfpenny’s punitive hoofing. At no stage did the home side reach or sustain that feverish pitch of brilliance longed for by the crowd and the French were beaten not annihilated. Les Bleus had passages of play but still a) only fitfully resembled a working unit and b) missed crucial and relatively simple kicks.

At the half I thought France were only a tad worse than a decent Wales but later continual dissent and disbelief over refereeing decisions undermined both their performance and the level of sympathy any neutrals may have felt. They disintegrated into some ignominy, with Picamoles sarcastically applauding Allain Rolland, and a cluster of Bleus bawling at nearly every call the man made late in the game. It was unseemly – no matter what provoked it – and it wasn’t rugby.

I’m guessing many of us came into this one relatively sure that Gatland would have significantly stirred, if not wound up, his men, and that there would be a response. Ireland was for Wales, a shocker. The forwards were battered extraordinarily, via mauls that rolled embarrassingly on and by those rips and gathers by O’Mahony in particular. The pack of Friday night – featuring a late change of Ball for the unavailable AWJ – needed to turn up, front up and palpably restore some pride.

Job done on that; Gethin Jenkins, loved by most of Wales for his redoubtable core, his was singled out as man of the match. Warburton similarly gave notice that he was back and not to be underestimated. His extraordinary dominance in the line-out was one of the most striking features of the contest. How much of this was tactical tweaking from Gatland and how much a response to the late change at lock, who knows? In the set-piece, predictably, the one blight was the age lost in re-setting scrums; Rolland appeared to have little grip on this and his dismissal of the two props in the second half may have either been dead right and a significant step forward … or total guesswork.

Pre-match I had indulged the unwise thought that France- this France – ain’t up to much. Yes Nyanga and Fofana are always likely to be rather tasty and rather spookily elusive respectably, but otherwise… not special. So Wales – a bottoms slightly smarting Wales – would put 20 points on them. (Witnesses are available – the wife, anyway.) The fact that Les Rouges, whose squad strength looked markedly down again in the absence of just one or two major players, did win by that margin can be moulded around a range of arguments for and against an encouraging rebound into form. My feeling on that? Don’t read too much into this one performance – or more accurately, this one result. Wales are strongish but confidence may not be inviolable.

Reflecting now on some hours with The Millennium rammed and colourful to the point of cartoonish and an occasion genuinely enriched by the presence of our friends – yes! our friends! – from Lille or La Rochelle, I am (as they say) conflicted. The spirit is hugely restored in terms of the feel of an international. I am not so pleased to be judgemental of the French either as a side or on their discipline. And the balance of the result felt wrong. France were mixed, Wales a bit better. The scoreboard and maybe, arguably, the ref(?) conspired to be inhospitable to the visitors. But the night, the night was great.

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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.

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.