Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.

Rugby World Cup: Japan v Scotland.

I needed a walk. You? After a wonderfully sapping game, watched from the safe distance of a zillion miles – safe cos storm, safe cos presumably yet more exhausting in Yokohama – a blissful but blustery gathering yomp. Time to think a bit.

I think, on reflection, it was remarkable both for being unimaginably, laudably entertaining and for being everything we imagined, in the laudable-entertainment department. Crazily predictable; wildly, culturally generous and simultaneously massively competitive.

Let’s go into a brief credit-frenzy; to players and coaches from both sides; to the officials (actually) who we barely noticed, right(?)… and to Japan. This was a game that might be a symbol, a touchstone, a model for how we might want elite international sport to be.

The home nation’s coach – inevitably not a native – has continued and now surpassed the work of his predecessors (and maybe we should be offering some appreciation here, to the erm, generally-much-loved Eddie Jones), through producing a team that play fabulous rugby. Sure they are ridiculous athletes but it’s the culture of endlessly bold, swift re-cycling and re-darting that the world is coming to love.

Mr Joseph and his colleagues are doing an extraordinary job, in circumstances of relative under-resource, to sustain expansive sport to such a peak. Four wins in the tournament, with South Africa to come.

Can they go further? As I say below, this may depend on the medium-joyless stuff: robustness, physicality, discipline under pressure from genuinely elite-level competition.

The sharpest amongst you may have noted a derogatory implication in the last sentence – towards Scotland. Bit cruel, after that? Yes.

However, despite a magnificent contribution to a sumptuous contest, Townsend’s side remain, in the main, a notch down on their comrades in Tier One. No disgrace; issues of resource are key here, too. *And yet*, as the Japanese example may be showing, brilliant, streetwise, hard-nosed coaching might be the thing that resolves this.

An abstract and possibly insulting thought but would a Gatland (or similar) at the helm have left any Scotland side of the past several years more durable? And if so – or even if not – why has the perennial lack of durability not been attended to? (Of course in saying this I appreciate that the initial difficulty is in attracting a Gatland to Scotland). 

Japan have an extraordinary flow about them. But they are also finding once, twice, against Tier One opposition, the resilience to come through. I for one hope they find it again in the quarter-finals.

Here’s my live report:

 

Rarely have the natural world and the explosively dramatic world of elite sport been in such sympathy. Am I the only one thinking this can’t be a coincidence?

Skies having gone from steamy-blue to steely-angry. Seas having turned tempestuous as the moment of *ultimate drama* approached. It’s proof, surely, that there is a god – and that she’s as foamtastically mad about rugby as the rest of us.

O-kaaaay, it may be unwise to jest when lives have been lost and property devastated: no argument. But has there not been something wondrous (as well as terrifying and humbling and god-awful) about the barrelling-in to the moment, here? That moment being Japan, the entertaining and engaging hosts, versus Scotland.

Hitchcockian. Busby-Berkleyian. Spielbergian. The awesome, extravagant, cinematic, inevitable whirlwind-to-stilled-pondness of it all could barely be imagined or surpassed. Japan v Scotland, with everything upon it; with hugely adored hosts needing only to maintain their inspiration. (Only). With the visiting, sometime-faltering Tier Oners surely ripe for exposure.

The general excellence – contingency plans notwithstanding – of this Rugby World Cup, in terms of hosting, support and that crucial, generous buying-in from the locals, has rather cruelly left an often warmly-regarded Scotland isolated. The brutal truth may be evidenced in their miraculously-contrasting efforts against a very robust Ireland side.

Scotland, on that occasion, were on the feeble side of crap; Japan were exhilaratingly fearless, imaginative and, critically, found a way to sustain a level that the watching universe could barely believe. It was a remarkable event.

Importantly, this has drawn that aforementioned universe to the side of the home nation. Neutrals everywhere, the sort of folks who might often find themselves bellowing encouragement telly-wards for a Stuart Hogg gambol, will be fixated on Tupou and Lafaele and co.

Broadly, this is surely wonderful? Magnificently testing for the Scots –  who may yet relish that – but with the drama spiralling to a peak (any minute!) it’s hard to recall a fixture more loaded with romance. The players are walking out…

“This feels very, very special”. So goes the commentary. A breathless start – what else? Innovation from Japan, from the kick-off but then Scotland get that shot-in-arm, the turnover. Phases, early, from the hosts.

A counter. Russell cross-kicks and maybe the wing should score… but no. Japan turn that over before losing possession. Suddenly things open up for Russell and (rather easily) he’s in. A seven pointer, slightly against the early grain but welcome, indeed, for Scotland and maybe perfect, for the setting up of the game.

There follows a period of predictably high-intensity ebb and flow before the home side gain a penalty some 40 metres out but straightish. Eventually, Tamura pushes it slightly – or rather fails to draw it back sufficiently.

It matters little. A racing, tumbling offload after some more bustling hands puts the rapid Matsushima in, almost under the posts. Tamura converts and we are level at 7-7, after 20 minutes. Great start, alround.

A delay as Koo is withdrawn, with rib damage, pre an important scrum 25 metres from the Japanese line. The poor lad (Koo) looks in tears. He may be emotionally restored somewhat, by the award of a penalty, to his comrades: looked a lottery, that one.

Twenty-five minutes in and again, the irresistible energy and sheer fizz of the home side pays. Outstanding period of possession-at-pace, again with fearless, athletic and sometimes almost balletic off-loading… and they score. Deserved, for all that enterprise and all that raw courage. 14-7, Inagaki having gone under those sticks.

Long look at a tackle from Gray, with the current context possibly conspiring against him and towards a yellow. Viewed as innocent; rightly, I reckon (at first look), because of the pace around the incident and lack of malice. We go on, exhaustingly.

Haven’t seen possession stats. On 33 minutes you’d have the hosts ahead on merit but hard to judge things with equanimity when the over-riding sense is of a whole-nation cauldron seething. Parity at the scrums, relatively but few of them.

Then two penalties conceded by Dell, for creeping. The Scotland prop looks mystified; he is a tad fortunate that the penalty is missed. However, again the home side brush the disappointment away. Lafaele links through skilfully and Fukuoka electrifyingly gathers before racing through. Fever pitch, welcome.

With the conversion completed, Japan have surged ahead, both in the game and in those calculations around it. Three tries, already. 21-7. Bonus point beckoning, worryingly early from the Scots’ point of view. Perhaps more significantly, the nature of the Brave Blossom’s performance is going to be seriously challenging Townsend’s pep-talk right now.

Japan are playing with imagination and relentless pace. They recycle and off-load with no fear of an error or interception. Absolutely central to their effort is the belief that this ambition will pay. And it looks like it will. And it deserves to. This is great coaching, great ‘culture’ and it’s why most of the world is smiling alongside them. Fantastic stuff..

The flip side is that Scotland – for all their open, attacking rugby over recent years – may again get ‘found out’, here. Yes there are questions about (their own) limited resources but they are rushing headlong into a further enquiry into the legitimacy of their Tier One status. Or they may be. In short, Japan are outplaying them, largely: *just in* possession stats. 78% for the home side, first half!

WOW. Fukuoka is in, after yet more rampaging defence, in midfield. The winger is suddenly bursting into space… and it’s another seven-pointer. The game may be gone one minute into the second period, as the hosts already have a bonus point for that fourth try. Sensational barely covers this, now.

With the crowd utterly ecstatic, and that emotion plainly reciprocated on the pitch, we’re into something extraordinary again. The commentary on ITV understandably relating this to Barbarian-style rugby. If this continues folks will be wondering if Japan can win the bloody tournament!

*Takes deep breath*. It’s true that when they’re going like this, Japan have something of the All Blacks about them. But if the real world still exists, I think it may remind us, in time, that the likes of the All Blacks (and possibly Wales, South Africa and England) *may* prove durable to a higher level. Perhaps.

Scotland respond. Nel rumbles and reaches to get in, in front. Laidlaw can’t miss and doesn’t. We have a period where the visitors get a real run. Russell and Hogg flicker.

The game is wild. Cummings roars forward, Gray rolls to off-load and Fagerson, astonishingly, is also in! The game – which seemed destined for glory a week or more out – is all of that. 28-21, after 55 minutes. Incredible that suddenly Japan need some possession.

Scotland have to chase and open up and of course this has risks. They ring the changes from the bench and resist a flurry of attacks. (It’s a horrid cliche but) it does seem that the next try is critical as we approach the hour.

Play is in midfield – a rarity. Japan maintain the high-octane approach but Scotland turn over before attacking from their own 22: no option. There is a sniff but the ball bounces unkindly. The pace of the game is staggering: those of us watching almost need a scrum or two, to gather in – unbeleeeeevably selfish of the players to deny us that.

The first sign of animosity. Harris has battered into two defenders, legitimately, but in the ensuing ruck, the Japanese have drawn a penalty. Verbals exchanged after the tectonic physical contacts: Richie has a word with Tamura. We go on.

The fly-half kicks, ‘within himself’ for touch, safely: a rare moment of un-ambition. Scotland re-gain possession but then are almost intercepted when again launching from deep.

We hit 70 minutes, with Scotland needing to win this *and deny Japan that second bonus point*. I think. But maybe don’t trust either me or anyone else, until this storm is over…

I’m not going to be the fella who uses the word b*a*e to describe Scotland. Is courageous better? They have certainly been that, in this second half – both adventurous and powerfully resolute. They win a pen but must kick for the line-out, ten metres out. No joy but then pressure creates a near-fumble and a Scotland scrum five out.

They recycle and challenge and burst but the hosts can resist again. We go right across the park before Japan turn over. The roar builds.

Death rites, for Scotland as the finals plays are executed – exhaustedly but with just enough control. We’re into the reddest, noisiest, most spent post-eighty minutes that you could conjure up. A magical day is over as the ball is hoofed into touch. 28-21. Heroically entertaining sport. Japan through.

 

A Brotherhood of Reds?

In my radico-sentimental revolutionary thingy, which commences immediately the stands have all been cleared of flags, corpses and Monster Energy cans (yeh, right!), Manu Tuilagi will either be Minister for Transport or Court Jester. But the significant posts in government – such as it is – will be held by Welshmen. Like Gatland, Edwards and Howley. For quite simply they have earned it, having shown leadership, guts and a flair for the inspiring word that nobody in the world (I mean this tournament) could match. They have, to paraphrase the great Confucian scholar bowlingatvinny, utterly and invincibly demonstrated how true encouragement of the truly gifted is both the essential function and the highest aspiration of coaching. That this infers an exchange of an essential trust is (only) a reflection of the need for generous hearts in the pursuit of achievement. So much of life, it seems, is about opening up.

My surreal meritocracy – administrated with libertarian aplomb from Machynlleth and let’s say… Grimsby – would certainly feature billboard poster-size recognition for a whole list of flag-bearers for natural expression through sport. Tuilagi’s easy but devastating bursts might have him on the metaphorical bench – in the same way that after this morning’s semi Barnes and O’Connor from the Australian backs warrant squad places – but the bloc itself is surely justifiably red; as in dragons; as in blood; as in heart. This is my elegy to all that redstuff flooding often majestically this last month across the consciousness of the Nations – not Six, not Tri, but many, many nations.

The Rugby World Cup is drawing to a close, an appropriately worldly close, in the sense that the ferocious and surely unbeatable South (NZ) play the strangely unloved North (France) this weekend. Circumstances have to some extent conspired for the French – a hugely contentious decision effectively gifting them their semi-final against the adored Welsh – but they have both comically and cynically fallen on their own onions too, to befuddle or bore a way through. It’s a final with only one winner and a fall guy already being slated in confident anticipation of a hopelessly inept appearance.  Ali versus Bugner, perhaps?

In fact to slalom at least a tad nearer to the point, it’s a tournament already over; the main stuff already learned; the inevitable slight anti-climax of the third place play-off played out. Whilst we now hope for a stunningly climactic exhibition of 15-man rugby from the mighty All Blacks we are not so naive as to expect it. No, we expect a relatively nervy, relatively tight final, in which further proof lumbers out of the ability of ballistically charged ‘modern’ defence to deny attacking patterns (and, incidentally, the crowd) the oxygen of excitement. France will hold out for long periods and maybe even break out. In their exasperation the AB’s will knock-on passes previously clasped whilst juggling four other passes, whilst asleep. The crowd will get restless until the dam finally bursts, in about the third minute. (If only). It could be either a close(ish) non-event or the most one-sided sporting event since Davide and Goliath. Please god deny Davide his sling.

The rugby world – the political world, the realworld! – wanted a Wales New Zealand final. As soon as the Welsh began to rise (which may have been pretty early in the South Africa game) the thing perked up. In contrast to the dour and disgraced English and the shambolic and disloyal French, Warburton’s posse planted a flag of brilliance and heart. Their spirit and their youth drove them irresistibly past a resurgent Ireland to their fateful date with the moment most of us will remember most keenly from this event; that tackle. A million words have been spent on the subject so I will find three more only; it felt wrong.

On his punishing warm-down jog (three times round the southern hemi) to the SOUNDBITE training ground, Sam Warburton will have no doubt have seen posters from the old regime saying “Warburton – the new McCaw”. In truth, the Wales skipper is such an outstanding athlete that McCaw may yet look one-dimensional in comparison. Over the natural span of a match, he is so often the difference at key phases – whether offloading, at the shoulder, or in the bone-crunching meat and drink of the breakdown – that many of us feel he would have not merely thrown a blanket over any (presumably accidental) French attacking notions, but quite feasibly effected the critical break himself. When they lost him at the 17 minute mark Wales were closer to being down to 13 than 14 and despite the gladiatorial brilliance of Phillips and Roberts amongst others, the reds were trussed up by the Lilliputian French.

But the tournament had already been graced by stellar performances from Halfpenny, North, Faletau. The world applauded as the current for allegedly “winning rugby” was stemmed, turned and embarrassed by (let’s hear it, let’s applaud it!) Welsh belief in skill over stats. Sure Gatland, Murphy, Howley did the preparation – better than everyone – but then, critically, their liberated posse played better than everyone. Until that moment. That ideal final may have served only to undermine the quality of ecstasy served up by Phillips and co. but hands up those who would’ve bellowed their support for a Welsh final opportunity. Certainly there is a consensus that a Brotherhood of Redness might have at least offered a real challenge to the wonderful and mighty bastards in the black. (No offence – imperfect gag).

Instead the hamstrung realist – poor sod – is left with the relative disappointments of a comfortable Australian win, in a bronze-rated, atmospherically flattish game which finished with a brilliantly irrelevant try for My Little But Magnificent Pony. Maybe that’s a disservice to the excellence of Barnes and O’Connor in particular, who may consider themselves honorary Lions in the new Red Occupation. Stonking tackling was not, in truth, the only thing these game Aussies brought to the party. But let’s be clear; it was a match that didn’t matter that much in a tournament illuminated by the positivity and generosity of the Welsh.

The definitive word… possibly.

They lost and there is no dispute; either of that fact, or that but for the quietly shocking dismissal of the Welsh skipper Sam Warburton, they would surely have won.

It may be no surprise to hear that the post-match atmosphere in Wales is heavily loaded with a disappointment close to grief. I can, however assure you that even allowing for the wonderful absurdities of the form/ability/results relationship and yes, the keener than usual levels of malingering celtic defiance, the game would have been won by Wales had Warburton stayed on the pitch. Fact or no fact – everybody knows that, feels that.

For Wales had started comfortably and were beginning to create. Hook – who sadly went on to have a relatively poor game, in truth – had absolutely nailed a testing penalty early on and although Phillips started quietly it seemed clear that Les Bleus as a unit could not match the threat and the verve of the Welsh. It was admittedly a blow when Adam Jones retired early injured, but by the quarter hour mark Wales has settled and the critical mass of their confidence was building, ominously.

Then at around 18 minutes, Warburton was the centre of what initially seemed a simply stunning hit. But the immediate reaction of the French lock Pascal Pape, who took near-violent exception to Warburton’s challenge, suggested something had happened. TV replays showed that indeed it had. Warburton lifted the oncoming French player and drove him up and back – all of which was legal. What happened next was critically, as they say, open to interpretation.

The man whose view counted most –referee Alain Rolland – understood that the felling of Vincent Clerc was dangerous because Warburton (he judged) after having lifted him drove him down towards the ground head and neck first. Thus it constituted a spear tackle and was a red card offence. Simply and pretty swiftly and without hesitation it seemed, Rolland proffered the card. The enormity of what had happened took a few moments to settle over the watching world. The game continued, whilst we tried to counter both our alarmingly sinking feeling(s) – muscle-memory played a significant part in this -and those more intellectually articulated emotions. In other words we shouted at the telly.

For this was major. In terms of judgement and impact: major.

The referee was in my view right that it was a spear tackle. (And there is no case against Rolland for having a general ‘shocker’). But critically Warburton actively released Vincent Clerc’s legs at the conclusion of the lift in the tackle – probably because he was aware of the danger to his opponent and to himself, in terms of facing a card. There was and to my knowledge never has been any substantial malice in a tackle from the Welsh skipper, a player who is now respected as one of the finest and most athletic and skilled exponents of the art of flankerhood in the world game. (In all seriousness… he is revered as a complete and honourable and genuine modern player.)

Some of this stuff is irrelevant to that tackle, I accept that. But the absence of malice is relevant, as is the release of Vincent Clerc’s legs, as is the completely untroubling context of the match at that point from the referee’s point of view. In a world-important game (and I know, only a game) it is surely worth a moment’s reflection to put such an incident into context – perhaps via a brief conversation with co-officials – in order to avoid the spoiling of the spectacle? A yellow card would have been fair and prudent; there was no need to make an example of anybody when there was no threat or suggestion of poor sportsmanship or deliberate foul play from any quarter. That moment meant that Wales could not play; it denied all of us a fabulous contest and delivered us a stunted, unsatisfactory affair. For these reasons (too), it’s hard not to be bitter.

Inevitably, Mike Phillips had something to say. As well as enjoying colourful and no doubt fluently expletive conversations with half the French pack, he darted through for the games only score. Ludicrously Wales dominated the second half – making a mockery of the notion that they might ‘hang on’. France – reasonably cutely – hung on; and waited. Wales missed three eminently kickable kicks and My Little But Magnificent Pony (Halfpenny) narrowly undercooked an effort from practically half-way. But Wales could not either quite raise brilliance or afford to raise it, being one superman short. At the death they went into overtime seeking a drop-goal or to force a penalty for Stephen Jones. The words tense, mighty and cruel do not, believe me, do it justice. After endless phases defended competently by the French… it fizzled out.

If I was a nobler man I would refrain from asking when – if ever – a team has done as little to get to a World Cup Final as France. They were okay against a diabolical England and okay against Wales. No better. Wales in contrast have been a revelation and more importantly, they have been good for the game. Had Warburton persisted, France would not have lived with his team’s energy, or pace, or passion, or confidence. In his innocence, Alain Rolland has denied the team of the tournament the right to play on.

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.

Enter the North?

The foibles and fateful wotsits have begun to weave their magic and so, in truth , have the Celts. The World Cup Draw, that dull calendar formerly only notable in terms of the scramble to avoid the All Blacks, is now animated; a northern beacon being run across its landscape. Following just a few tweaks of the original presumptions – Ireland and Argentina and Tonga having been arguably the chief protagonists – firstly the balance of the draw and now we hope its democracy, its capacity to permit open challenges has been transformed.

Because Wales should have beaten South Africa; because Ireland did beat Australia and Tonga did beat France, the possibilities swung wide as the draw narrowed against the Tri-Nations. Australia’s defeat effected an unfortunate consequence; they joined South Africa and the home nation in the Quarters. With the Wallabies facing the Springboks for a place in the semi’s and the All Blacks facing Argentina not Scotland (no great surprise, that one) only one of the great Southern powers can reach the final. One the one hand this is a clear affront to sporting justice – the Tri-Nations still providing 3 of the top 4 rugby-playing nations – but on the other this also means that a Six Nations side must make the final, thereby providing a true all-world centrepiece.

I imagine the residents of Sydney or Darwin and possibly Jo’burg berating this freak of fortune; but the truth is a) if the Aussies had beaten Ireland they would have faced Wales not the Springboks and b) Wales punctured most of the arguments for Southern superiority during their group match against the ‘boks, which they contrived to lose (again) from a position of clear … superiority. Wales have now gone on to produce the most fluent and complete performance of the tournament by annihilating Fiji – Fiji, mark you, not Russia or Namibia! – 66 points to nil. In doing so, the names of Warburton and North have been beamed powerfully into the consciousness of the event; Warburton for his inspired leadership and supremely athletic presence all round the pitch and North for his joyful bursts to the line. Wales suddenly have a right to believe they may earn a place in the final. Only Ireland and then perhaps England stand in their way.

The Irish have risen from nowhere to join their Celtic brothers in the Quarter-final. For a year or more prior to this tournament, despite the presence of powerful and experienced players throughout their squad, the Irish have seemed frankly a bit lost. Unable to convincingly raise the traditional fires or play expansively with any consistency, it seemed they arrived in New Zealand as makeweights. But the outstanding win against the Wallabies, plus today’s pasting of the Italians makes a nonsense of former blandness. They may be only muttering quietly and darkly in the corner, but Ireland too believe.

England remain both an enigma and a bore. Miraculously shapeless and uninspired – given the awesome proportions and reputation of the Man (very much) At The Top – they have bundled through like the Leeds United of old, knowing they are generally loathed but, unlike Revie’s mob, unable to use that for motivation. But they are immensely durable. Their recent World Cup history is of impeccable over-achievement. They really might play near-shocking ‘winning rugby’ to another final, having bored France and Wales out of the way; a sort of dull parity around the pitch followed by rare interventions by Foden or Ashton really might do it. Possibly even with Wilkinson miscuing – although I fancy his position may genuinely be under review. As should the manager’s, if France beat them.

France have been more French than the French, having gone largely and directly from worse to worse. And this time their propensity for gallic squandering seems likely to fully express itself; following a dour defeat by England they will surely miss the flight home and be found sobbing in isolated clumps in the cheapest of local nightclubs. There to be hugged generously by Mike Tindall.

So – sticking my neck out – New Zealand or Australia or South Africa will meet Wales or Ireland or England for ultimate glory. It’s as simple as that. That, mind you, is discounting the Pumas. But surely the All Blacks couldn’t..? No… no… no.