Welsh rugby. How could it be such a pale shadow so alarmingly quickly? After that wonderful World Cup; after that seemingly world-wide groundswell of lurv was drawn to it, by the nature of what they did, in New Zealand. (If you didn’t see, or can’t remember, they lifted the whole tournament, breathing a genuinely friendly fire into its pallid rounds.) They charged and offloaded our expectations, our understandings of what ‘winning rugby’ might be. They – in their fanatically/fascistically brutal/beautiful condition – recaptured something preciously liberated… and hearty… and filled with Gareth Edward’s dive-passes. And in offering it to us, they denied cynicism; they attacked; they welcomed something back. And my god how quickly it’s gone.
The nation is in quiet mourning these dewy mornings. Since Argentina; since Samoa. Since those doubts ate up that freedom. In a land where rugby IS king, there is bound to be ‘discussion’.
I am mildly fascinated in the as yet relatively unaired suspicion that the awesome Polish beastings may yet be packaged up within some argument for the Great Welsh Distraction. As though all that hardcore physical inevitably contributed to a retreat into Gym Bunny Blinkerhood – and failure. Certainly the unfeasible intensity of all that preparation grates with some, who fear some link between cryotherapy (for extending the level of punishment a man might take?) and the inability to naturally play what’s in front of you. Expressivity or power? Is it insightful or just plain daft to imagine the men from the Land of My Fathers make better poets than cyborgs?
Conversations tend not to be as sci-fi marginal as that, but conversations aboundeth. Everywhere I go they talk of team selection (the copper, in the playground)… and Gatland’s absence… and half-backs gone missing. It’s a much talked about unspoken clammed up dagger-to-the-heart secret everyone knows. The team’s gone backwards or sideways, the team’s not the same – the world’s Just Not The Same. It’s dead, or at least the hwyl is – our most precious bit is. And we who feel it, in this screeching valley of quiet, we are suddenly hopeless. We can’t run straight; any of us! We can’t get momentum or we can’t manage the game. All cruelly felt, in the post office or the pub. We who could jink and dance and juggle coal or sheep or yards of Felinfoel, or sing the starlings out the dingletrees cannot, apparently run. Our poetry is lost. This is the blackest, blackest thing.
Injuries. Wales lose two or three (Joneses? Byrne? Lydiate? Davies?) and the pool is exposed. Priestland dips and the relative ordinariness of Priestlandhood, the non-PhilBennetflyhalfness of Priestland becomes vulnerable. And with it, the whole of Wales. Phillips struts too much and darts too little and the principality shrinks before us. Or worse – before everyone. That whole punching-above-our-weight-thing deflates itself. It’s a fine line. Ryan Jones in and out. Warburton leader or no? Fine.
After the sound beating by the Pumas, the National Mood booked in for a once-over at the trusty local surgery. After Samoa it flung itself wheezing onto the slab. Can Dr Gatland restore? With a full complement of Edwards/Howley vaccine drawn down again from the shelf? Hard to say. Certainly when the patient is this crippled by unbelief the prognosis really may not be good. It really may not be good. And the particular pressure means that experiments – the necessary blooding of A or B – become a real danger to the integrity of the project. Or so it is felt.
If there is a consensus it may be around this notion that a Full Team Out – or something very close – means everything to Wales. Despite hopes a year ago for a splendidly inviolable SQUAD SCENARIO it now seems clear that numbers matter – unless you happen to be (back) in New Zealand. Wales don’t have the strength in depth to maintain some idealised period of domination. Not anymore, when the game is so ruthlessly dynamic and physical and unforgiving of weakness. So if some curly haired geezer disappears from the front row – or perhaps two Lions do? – then trouble. If the half-backs do splutter, or reveal some unWelsh one-dimensionality – then trouble. Because there is a train coming. Pretty much every match. And if there is a flicker in that inviolable, Brothers-in-Redness conviction that Gatland undeniably instilled… ouch. Look out.