Great but not that good.

Fascinating start. Fascinating but not carry-me-high triumphantly- not even for the French, I suspect. Fascinating with some real drama (Italian tries/Parisian palpitations) but I wonder if the Irish may be most encouraged by events in the opening two games of #6nations 2014. Because Wales were in a game, a match, rather than in processing to victory mode and because the other fancied side, England, were utterly mixed.

So a flurry of emotions as Wales threaten, then are held in check by a surprisingly durable Italian effort and England stretch from the shocking to the fluent.  A beginning loaded heavy with that full spectrum of error and mischance and with as many flukes as joys –  which may be standard, on reflection.

Perhaps this ‘great stuff’ works in terms of the best-value build towards maximum, arse-quaking tension. It certainly helps out re the option for recourse to @WelshDaliLama’s now annual bingerama – relief being offered via our enlightened friend in the form of… well, alcohol.

Wales got their win and Gatland will be okay, you suspect, with the fact that Italy come out of the opening game with most credit. He might believe, with some justification, that the visitors were always likely to expend a disproportionately huge amount of their budget of #6Nations energy on this fixture. They probably did but this should not in any way deflect from another step up from the Azurri. They brought their usual passion but have built something more concrete now – a game that has a certain purpose and shape to it all round the pitch. Sure they still lack both the consistent killer instinct and the all-round kicking game of a top level side but let’s hope their achievements include more regular wins against those sides currently nearest to them – Scotland and.. whoever. Good for the tournament, methinks if the Italian effort can be sustained?

Positives for Wales included signs that Jamie Roberts may be influential again, following a longish period where injury plainly undermined him. He made a simple try for his centre partner through composed, direct running and was persistently, reliably available, engineering or maybe bulldozing into space in the manner of old. However despite the various weapons available to Priestland, there was never the sense that a rout was likely to be orchestrated by him or anyone else. The Wales pivot again neither emphatically confirmed himself nor gifted the job to Biggar. Perhaps this was why the Welsh performance proved acceptable rather than exceptional.

But look, pundits having gone over the Gatland-as-one-trick-pony thing endlessly, let me offer a view on this. It strikes me that Wales have such broad skills as individuals, such quality when at full strength, that this notion that they are essentially bish-bosh is a tad cheap. Yes you might argue that (for example) Halfpenny rarely comes into the line (and that smacks of caution) but hang on there. With two genuinely deadly wingers combining power, pace and dodge-ability, plus Roberts and ideally a certain J Davies at centre, it’s surely ludicrous to consider Wales one-dimensional. It might be true that the former tri-nations outfits may smother – may have smothered – Welsh aspirations in recent years but their pattern of play tends to be more of a springboard than a straight-jacket. It’s simply harder to get things to work against the very best.

Gatland has more guile and wit than many give him credit for. And Wales deserve to be favourites in this tournament despite the uniqueness of the burden – or hat-trick challenge – ahead of them.

But back to the booze. Stuart Lancaster and his extensive backroom staff may have needed a tipple after their cruel defeat. Midway through the second half, with the opposition looking both jaded and a tad downhearted, a ten point plus win seemed likely for England. France had the better of the first half, without ever seeming fully joined up, but around 50 minutes it appeared the relentless work of Lawes and Launchbury in particular had sucked the life of the home side.

I don’t often write that England were cruising with some style but that was almost where we were at. Again this was predicated on top-drawer stuff from the forwards – more in the loose than at the set-piece, arguably – as Vunipola B roared around the park and Robshaw C got quietly on with his usual, intelligent patrolling, covering, presenting. The machine was purring with only the occasional turnover to disturb the serenity of its progress.

It didn’t matter. Or rather at least it was unsuccessful. Or at least – they lost. Meaning that however you dress it up, England’s purplish patch was (yes) encouraging but insufficiently decisive; they (in their own terminology) failed to execute… enough.

Why was that?

Throughout the game, France lived off scraps. Even in a first 40 that they conspired to dominate, Les Bleus still had the look of a side thrown together – again. The halfbacks continued in the historic, less than convincing vein, their interventions neither demonstrably positive nor particularly polished. In midfield, the match was a mess, for both sides. Only at the breakdown, where Nyanga scrambled ravenously, or through English error, did the game come back to France. In other words, this game was so-o there for the taking. At half-time, despite a small deficit, Lancaster would have been rightly optimistic that the precious away win to start was entirely achievable and this likelihood turned to a racing certainty as England utterly outplayed France for much of the second period.

It may be churlish to mention that the cataclysmically inept opening thirty seconds were in fact critical but inevitably they impacted – on the board and in the mind. A bog-standard claim was so misjudged by a quaking coterie of Englishmen that a French try resulted only a handful of seconds later. Do the math. Five points were conceded and more. Nowell – Lancaster’s most significant gamble, perhaps? – was, unfortunately right in the midst of this horror show and despite frankly bewildering figures later issued by England Rugby suggesting the young winger carried well, he went on to have the marest of all mares, poor love. Caught in possession, at fault for or culpable for more than one try… my god it was painful to watch. He might have been removed, with a carefully issued consoling word, at the half.

So England were nearly good but sometimes dreadfully error-prone. And Wales were… okay. Short of an incredible injection of wit, discipline and consistency, Lancaster’s aspirations for World Cup Leading Contendership seem a long, long way off to me. Despite that famous England win over the All Blacks and their own alleged obviousness, Wales remain closest to the main men.  In this World Cup of the North, only the Irishmen can get to them.

 

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The slaying of our dreams…

I was thinking of compiling a list of the players who have ‘deserted’ Wales in the last two years; I stopped – too depressing. I may be wrong but this doesn’t feel like a case where the devil is in the detail. I’m not going to check who was first or last to go – although I know Osprey’s Ian Evans (… but that could soon change) was the most recent to enrol in French-for-Incoming-Giants classes. Before him that near-complete exponent of the midfield arts Mr Jonathan Davies muttered a shy bon
d’accords, tragically, for Scarlets fans. Details are for the Regional clubs and the WRU to grapple with. Fans meanwhile are just hurting.

We/they squirm and tut and alternate, I think between the volatile poles of stomach-churning disappointment and anger. Anger in the abstract, most often, unfocussed but nonetheless real and spleeny and deep. Rugby is the national game of Wales. Something essentially Welsh is expressed through the playing of this game, week after week, generation after generation. The notion that playing rugby for Wales is the absolute peak of life’s possibilities courses through every vein, every stream, every street. No wonder then there is the sense some dislocating robbery is underway. What with pathologically red-blooded icons of the sort of Mike Phillips and Gethin Jenkins amongst those who have departed – temporarily, admittedly, in their case. How on earth… why on earth…why can’t somebody do something? Stop it! STOP IT!!

I’m hearing volleys fired off against the WRU and the regions more than the players. The chief complaint being that there appears to be no sign at all that action is being taken by the alleged rugby authorities to fight the exodus. Traumatised hands are been thrown up in the air month after month across the nation as star player after star player leaves. Then somebody else does – another total hero for dads who should know better or for young Dafydd or Ffion who just can’t understand… why it’s still happening.

I’m pretty clear that both clubs and the WRU must be frantically working on plans from the immediate and spookily seat-of-pants variety to the long-term and deeply considered category to get the thing sorted. If not we must disembowel them immediately. But these fuzzily impotent pen-pushers – that’s surely how they’re seen/not seen by the majority? – can’t get it done. Because they are simply fighting against overwhelmingly sexier (and bigger) piles of moolah. If ever there was a time for men from the Grey Committees to break out of their anti-dynamic mould now is surely it?

Certain French – and English – clubs have private jet kind of money rather than the private bar (in-the-chavvie-nightclub) kind wielded by the Welsh Regions. It’s no contest. If players – like Hook, perhaps? – feel somewhat unwanted by Wales and they can quadruple their money… it’s the proverbial no-brainer. Even if some players then struggle to ‘adapt’ (Jenkins? Phillips?) the compulsion will surely be to go try it for a bit and bank the euros. I have it on good authority that Jonathan Davies is a lovely but quietish lad, something of a home-bird but given that he has quite rightly played his way into that very elite group of world-renowned players – and given that his club Scarlets are chronically strapped for cash and under-supported in terms of numbers – why wouldn’t he feel it’s both a healthy challenge and a financial godsend to flit to Clermont? I don’t blame him and neither I think do many Welsh fans. He may be playing with Wesley Fofana every week, fer gawd’s sakes. But… we are gutted.

Most supporters here endure the double frustration of us being powerless (obviously) and the rugby authorities appearing frustratingly un-able too. (Meaning somewhat worse than powerless, if you get my drift.) We hope for some gathering in of resources that might deny the attractions – or at least the financial attractions – of a cross-channel switch. But we can’t see it coming. There appears little prospect of either monumental support being air-freighted in to the Regions or from or to the WRU. No sign of a spondoolie-rich central contract system that players would be happy to bind themselves into. No sign of anything much. Could the Welsh Assembly intervene and cover itself in glory by funding a dramatic reversal of the currently Toulon-friendly status quo? Such a moment of inspiration seems unlikely; it would after all be arguably undemocratic and irresponsible – yet great ballot-box? Regrettably, the chief nail in that particular coffin would appear to be that it might require a significant dollop of imagination… meaning little chance then.

So the trauma continues. It may not be strictly accurate to say that most ‘top top’ players have already either left or have a pen twitching over some proposed mega-euro deal but that is how it seems. We await bad news on Warburton/Hibbard/Halfpenny. Perhaps Mike Phillips next club might be a Welsh club, who knows? But don’t go banking on it. In his case (‘scuse the pun) once the legal wrangling over his alleged boozing is sorted, expect to find him holding out the shirt of some other European Giant – be that English/French/Irish? (Weirdly, I slightly favour Leinster/Munster but… discuss?) Even in the twilight of his career, I’m not thinking the bristling scrumhalf will be settling for West Wales and home. Hope I’m wrong. And if either Warburton or Halfpenny do flit… the phrase ‘Nation in Mourning’ might justifiably be daubed across the Severn Crossings.

The pain is on that scale. We need something to turn, something to change. Might there be hope in the developing fable that is the Mike Phillips Story? Could the Bayonne estrangement be the catalyst for a soaring of hearts in the homeland? Hmmm.

Both Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies were raised close to where I live in the Carmarthenshire/Pembrokeshire borders – Scarlets/Ospreys territory. The possibility that the older geezer might return might make sense if money and recognition and that miserably modern concept awareness of profile meant nothing. But profile, in the age of agents and mega-dosh, is big, right? I can barely imagine that sentiment or loyalties of a local or national nature will trump the irresistible allure of big(ger) crowds and big money for Phillips, even now – maybe especially now, in his playing dotage. And whilst Scarlets and Ospreys are proper PROPER rugby football clubs, they are currently a shade second-tier in the European context.

Meanwhile Scarlets fans more or less ‘devastated’ by the Davies move will trudge a little more wearily to the Parc. Let’s hope that few of them actually stop going because their Foxy genius – a central attraction surely, at the club? – has ‘gone over’. Crowds are small enough in Llanelli as it is. So losing players of this calibre is … in the land of the bard and the windbag… like the slaying of our dreams.

Breakdown.

In a lookawaynow kind of fashion, the first Test between the Shackle-dragging Crimino-brotherhood and The Lions crashed, swung its irons, walloped and all-round prime-timed our dislocated, mid-morning senses. Principally, Blokes were magnificently knocked out every few minutes – characteristically… Australians! Transformer-like Other Blokes sprinted and jinked gargantuan jinks (as opposed to JJWilliams jinks) from one state to the next before palming the ball down triumphantly. It was mega; it was neanderthal and modern and glossy and balletic in a free-form staccato-eruptive flood. And The Lions won; 21-23.

Maybe that’s all you need to know. Maybe – as, let’s be honest, I may well be preaching to the converted here – you knew all that. Allow me then to throw in some free and colo(u)rific insight, some twinklacious observo-punts re the signage as well as the ‘actual events’. Or you could piss off back to the telly.

The  pre-match tension, from the scene of my watchingment, appeared to fix upon whether or not to slurp a beer or several during the game – most of us gathered being more or less committed to playing cricket (sub-the-judice of the effing weather) immediately post the ludicrous mid-morn kick-off. (CUM ON, PEOPLE! Like how’s a man supposed to watch a Test AND slurp beer at 11 am. With a cricket match after? OK. I know. We generally do that cum Lions-time.) So there was that inane banter thing going on around Jamie Roberts and stuff whilst we exorcised the ghostly whiff of hops or worse – the need to slurp. Then boot, hussarr… it started. And so did the drinking, actually.

Within a few minutes the sustaining hunch that Sexton would do okay if he didn’t have to kick pressure kicks and that our lot would actually be more together than their lot of outofpositionflungtogetheradmittedlyflair-enabled southerners seemed a stable concept, amid the inevitable hurly. This is not to say that the homesters looked nervously dysfunctional but more that The Lions, equipped more than adequately in the Experienced and Proper Lion stakes (BOD, POC, AWJ, you cuddle up to your own, bullocking ledge) seemed pidgeon-chestedly at home in this environment. Youngs did the Youngs things, POC the POC, etc. The lads – our stupendously leonine (if birdlike) and capable and whole-hearted red-shirted heroes – did their thing with enough assurance to convince all of us and the watching world that Lions can (oof)… and will… (yowch!) lay it down… (hoiyahh!) in committed style… (aaaah) for The Lions.

Slightly more specifically, Jonathon Davies absolutely laid out Lealiifano, without resorting to malice, in 50 seconds. To his credit, the Welshman – who gave surely one of the great non-Test performances in Lions history in the game against Waratahs last week (yup, I really think it was that good) – immediately called for aid to his stricken opponent, knowing he was haway with the (presumably Aboriginal) faeries. This was merely the warm-up gig in the stretcher-fest that was to wheel its Pete Townsendesque way through the game. Kerrang!! Lealiifano. Kerrang!! Barnes. ‘Allo San Fransisco! McCabe. Power-chord after migraine-inducing power-chord, the physical intensity of the thing was taking its toll; on the Australians.  We drank to that, funnily enough.

There was much to admire and enjoy in the first period. Two tries by the Australian George North – bloke called Folau, who apparently picked up a rugby ball for the first time last week – plus a similarly dashing-bison moment from Gorgeous George himself.

Personally I was convinced the first Folau try followed a scandalously obvious in-at-the-side intervention from an Aussie prop but this was not the only moment of controversy around the breakdown. The man O’Driscoll, whom followers of the game may have heard of, quite plainly decided he needed to absent himself from these challenges following two bewildering pings; this will be a matter for ahem… discussion between Mr Gatland and the authorities, I feel, before the Second Test. In all seriousness, the ‘interpretation’ of rulings on what is permissible – or how bodyweight is judged to be perched – as players try to gather in legitimately contestable ball should not be excluding great and honourable and experienced professionals from plying their trade entirely. BOD could subsequently make only intermittent contributions for his side, something of a travesty for the contest, IMO. This issue will remain central to the series no doubt but if the other, healthier, more roaaarringly uplifting facet of the game – namely the propensity for giant blokes to leg-it like fuck through pathetically flailing defenders – persists, then clearly we are in for some wonderful entertainment.

Folau and Cuthbert and North delivered something special which drew crucially upon the moment… and that was fabulously proper sport. Tries of course can win matches but if the hapless hoofers from the SD colony had even remotely approached Halfpennyesque levels of proficiency with the boot then The Lions would have got beat. As it was, Leigh was again close to exemplary in virtually everything he did, whilst a series of probably under-prepared and possibly unwilling Aussie novices blinked up at the posts before hoiking right, left, or cruelly fell on their understandably quivering ample arse. Beale – the one with alcohol issues – cruelly exposed, kicked drunkenly wide or short or both, when the moment OF WINNING THE FIRST TEST beckoned. My Magnificent Little Pony (Halfpenny – earlier), did not.

In a finale that was supremely tense rather than classic, failures of composure and technique told – failures we might link to selection issues, for Australia really had gambled more than their gallantly stolid opponents. The Wallabies had the Wrong Bloke doing really important stuff too often. So they lost.

However, they did have the finest player on the park by some distance – Genia, who played as though pressure does not and never did exist – but even his brilliance fell short. When the shackles were flung off rather than dragged, the Aussie back line did look a threat, even in midfield, in a way that BOD and Davies rarely did. Much of this was to do with Genia’s comfort and expressivity. Phillips by contrast looked upright and sometimes laboured; his place now more closely under threat from t’other Youngs, perhaps? The Lions came through thanks to bursts of invincible running amid general good (but conservative) stewardship of the line-out and acceptably tidy work from Sexton. They will want more and they may need it.

With the result undecided ’til virtually the last kick and the intensity relentlessly freakish, this First One was damn competitive. Hence, I suppose the attrition on Australians. (Did I mention that?) The Lions are strong but not decisively so – not yet. Two tries conceded. If the Wallabies can truly and effectively re-group they have already shown that they have real firepower – likely the equal of the boy North, even. What we need as lovers of the game is both for the big guns to be unleashed and for the less spectacular contests to be fully played out rather than watch players tiptoe around the referee’s interpretation of the rules. Players/viewers don’t want to obsess about the flippin’ breakdown; they/we want to see it happen – Warburton or BOD v their lot, in action!

It’s simply not possible to play through the breakdown when your movements, your instincts are compromised by those fears. BOD’s withdrawal from this key part of the game was maybe, on reflection, notable as opposed to central to the result – fortunately. But when things get tight… phew, you wanna grab that ball, right? And that might cost. In the fury and the shades-of-grey it became heart-stoppingly close. But as O’Driscoll said after – we’ll take an ugly win. Cheers.

Six Dimensions.

Through that haze of beer and banter the single most memorable thing about Wales’ outstanding defeat of England is simply that it was a fabulous sporting occasion. Whether you were there, in the pub (like me), or at home flying miserable solo. I have little no doubt that even you residents of Billy-No-Matesville found the telly-throbbing energy of the thing compensating pretty entirely for your (on reflection) shocking absence from Cardiff itself. Meanwhile in the er… Six Dimensions of the pub I can tell you it was fierce and joyous and fun.

This is a unique fixture anyway – we all know that. Ludicrous or not, the hairy-arsed oval-ball diehards and the clean-cut and the metro-sexually svelte amongst the Welsh would pretty uniformly trade failure elsewhere in order to win this one. Because it’s England. The argument that this seepage of energy in a single direction may effectively undermine more serious campaigns against (for example) the Tri-nations elite barely penetrates the national consciousness here. Blame Owain Glyndwr or Dylan Thomas or Ivor The Engine if you will. Or watch Alun Wynne-Jones (that’s Al-leeen, by the way) sing ‘Mae hen wlad fy’n hadau’ then just go with the irresistible flow of it – the Taffness of it – because the scope of this one is not, in fact, to be described. Only to be felt. It felt extraordinary yesterday.

What you don’t see outside the principality is that huge numbers of ordinary Welsh people – old/young/sporty/non-sporty – get their red kit on and join in. There is a kind of post-Boyceian National Grid running off the generally good-natured but admittedly fast-twitch-fibrous boozy nationalism centred around the capital. On days like yesterday, with England in town, with the roof closed, with Everything To Play For, the Millenium Stadium itself does generate something special. The word ‘atmosphere’ falls short; this being something simultaneously cathartic and communally-shared, inspiringly epic and piercingly, soul-searchingly intimate – for players and crowd. So deal with that, England.

Pre-match there was speculation around the relative inexperience amongst Lancaster’s side, specifically the lack of Millenium experience. It was one of many sub-plots to the contest that alcohol-fuelled or fuelling cod-psychologists such as myself raised with our glasses. Who might be brave enough to be calm in such a maelstrom? Farrell? Possibly. Young/Launchbury/Marler/Goode? Who knows? Clearly there was an advantage for the homesters – might this really tell? Within about six minutes, it had.

Wales absolutely de-stroyed the English pack at an early scrum… and then again… and the pattern was effectively set. A retreating England reverting to conservative type (understandably) but crucially feeding the glowering opposition possession, via more or less aimless kicks from Goode, Youngs and Farrell. Kicks which fell either deliberately or accidentally several yards beyond any follow-up chase. If the policy was to hoist and sit back and defend resulting charges with composed resolution, both the law of averages and the intimidating scenario mitigated against success. Wales (or anybody else half-decent) will hurt you if you give them 70% of the ball. Most likely, kicks were nervously over-hoofed.

Wales dominated every area and as the game grew, so did that domination. Robshaw started well but was ultimately swamped under the outstanding Welsh back row – where Tipuric matched at least the excellence and ferocity of Warburton. Wood and Croft seemed near-irrelevant. Likewise Tuilagi, the one possible source of loose canonry from the whites. The most natural of the English runners took his eye off a perfectly catchable pass half-way through the first half and was never seen again as an attacking force. Ashton – who quite frankly had no right to have set foot on the park, given his desperate contribution to the tournament – made only a further decisive grab for the individual wooden spoon, as worst player in the #6nations. This the most obvious error by the England management.

Beyond that, Lancaster and co sat back and went through their full, eighty minute grimace routine. The irresistibility of the Welsh was to most a thing of some wonder… but not, I suspect, for the watching Rowntree, Farrell Senior and Lancaster himself. Rowntree will know he has to take a long hard look at himself and his forwards, post the mangling they received in every facet of play. The fly-half’s dad will not either have enjoyed much of what he saw. His son stood up to be counted with a huge second half hit in midfield that momentarily stemmed the flow but even that defiant clump counted for little. Remarkably, Wales were not just winning the championship, they were absolutely rampant, with Cuthbert scorching in for two tries as the scoreboard went into Cymro-dreamland.

The tempo of the Welsh game, upped from the outset by a re-energised Phillips enabled an unthinkable demolition of a previously doughty English defence. Momentum is maybe the word of the sporting decade; here Wales had it in spades, in lorry-loads; they were mining it. After maybe five minutes of parity, at no time in the game did England threaten. But think on that. Even when looking an effective side, they have looked somewhat toothless, have they not? Goode and Brown seeming competent or composed often enough but rarely menacing. As chirper-in-chief Austin Healey has said, they still lack magic.

At the Millenium, with Barritt looking a solid defender but little else and Tuilagi as absent as any white from the line-breaking stats, Wales indulged. Roberts finally found some form, making headway for the first time for aeons. Davies ran with belief and both Cuthbert and North cut through. Wales – the team and the nation – could barely believe its luck; full-on and wonderful indulgence followed. It looked, sounded and felt spectacular; like top, top international rugby football does.

It’s unwise I know to use words like ‘massacre’ in the sporting context. But that was what we were saying, in the pub, when the screen said 30-3. You wondered, looking at good English players being repeatedly over-run or out-flanked or out-fought by this Brotherhood of Redness, whether the occasion had swallowed them, or had their limitations been simply found out? Or more exactly I wondered that – the rest of Wales was bouncing now, in (and I don’t mean this critically!) dumb euphoria at a win against the English.

Afterwards and later – yes – the ifs. Principally, ‘If Wales had turned up in the first forty against Ireland… blahdiblah’. They didn’t. As England were here, Wales were simply blown away that day – that one half – by the passion and the belief and the pace of the opposition. Otherwise, obviously, a Welsh Slam. That both the Irish and the French should have such crushingly disappointing tournaments – such bad ones – maybe does reflect the ordinariness of some of the fare. Perhaps this #6nations did need a carnival farewell ? Thank you for that to Wales and the Welsh.

 

Polite reminder; my e-book of posts and exclusive material now out here – amzn.to/SSc9To – great recommendations/intro by Paul Mason.  Snip at under £3!

A parliament of hunches.

Have no idea what the collective for suppositions is but will hoof it swiftly past that anyways. On my way to a scurrilous series of toe-singers. (That’s sin-jers, not Shirley Bassey’s, by the way. Toes dipped in hot… oh please yerselves!!)

Sometimes we need to free ourselves up, ‘allow’ ourselves to push/shove/eat the envelope and now feels like such a time. On the eve (dingding!) of round 3 of the #6nations, after that deliciously distracting interval, I’m so-o ready to loosen up the collar – or maybe turn it up, Cantona-like – affect some languid and yet authoritatively blokey pose and spray loose parler around the place, laced or made piquant with that hint of you know… omelette-sur-visage. Potentially.

Because France have no chance. Everything points to them getting solidly beat by a better, better prepared, more competent, more confident England side.

There we have it. That deadly/perfectly reasonably constructed argument/opinion thing. Opined with shameless confidence – the pre-cursor, as we know to disaster. But what can a fellah do when the instinct coalesces so convincingly with the box-ticking review of the evidence? England are good/France have been bad; England have order and faith/France, apparently, do not. No matter that the French line-up is transformed into something looking like a proper international side – with particular quality in the back row and in midfield, methinks – the overwhelming likelihood is that England are too good and too on it to succumb. That’s the essence of this bébé, surely?

Everyone can score a breakaway try, mind. Farrell could throw a loose one and Fofana intercept. England’s immaculately shorn ice-man could get momentarily flustered under a charge from Dusatoir or Basteraud (who wouldn’t?); a charge down and suddenly England are under the cosh. All this could happen. But what is more likely is a measured territorial game from Les Blancs leading to more expansive phases as the try-line beckons. And then French indiscretions… which are punished by young Owen. Or, more excitingly, the likes of Goode or Ashton burst from deep and the French defence – which I expect to be brave but not flawless – is breached. England will not need too much encouragement to make a right mess of a disorganised away side in constant fire-fighting mode. This is my hunch centrale.

Yes of course Les Bleus have big brave men who will stun any rampaging Ros Bifs; I wonder though, if they will do it consistently, inviolably, across the back line(?) Tuilagi and Ashton and Lawes in particular will surely be primed to race or blast away and if the whites do maintain the composure that seems currently their chief asset, Dusatoir and Basteraud can’t be everywhere. I expect therefore, England to score.

The likelihood is that a substantially changed France (even whilst being a substantially improved France) will get found out. Because on the one hand England are a more multi-dimensional side than for many years – witness the availability and the presence and the intelligence of Robshaw and the full-on rangy athleticism of Lawes – and on the other France appear rudderless and (actually) soulless. The restoration of the underwhelming but steadyish Trinh-Duc and the generally excellent Parra admittedly nudges the match closer to a broadly competitive fixture but this collection of good French players has most often played (let’s be honest?) embarrassingly poorly over the last two years. And yes, I do include in that their weirdly inept adventure to the most recent World Cup Final.

Freakishness or yellow cards stand out as the main hope for Les Bleus; a rush of blood from Lawes, a midfield calamity for Goode or Farrell. Otherwise, they get comprehensively whacked.

The real game is likely to be happening at Murrayfield, where Scotland take on Ireland. This is dangerous territory for any of us sifting for a winner. So much so that all I am falling back upon is that ole feeling that the Irish are stronger all around… and that this will somehow see them through. I would feel a tad more confident about this if Bowe and Sexton were lining up, for sure, but again my hunch is that the ferocity and keenness of the Irish back row may tell here. That and something I can only identify as the greater energy of the green group – or maybe a higher threat level within that energy(?) Most unscientific, I know but I am happy enough to sniff out the visceral here rather than break out some teat pipette.

Crass but probably true, Ireland will be spitting blood over their relative no-show against England and the poor displays by certain generally key individuals in that game. They will be more fired up than a very fired up thing. The clearing out around rucks will be wince-inducing, I suspect. The round-the-corner charges will be of the hallucinating wildebeest variety. So if Ireland manage to dominate or even share possession and territory… I fancy them. If not – and this may be the aesthetically more pleasing option – if Scotland have and spread the ball convincingly and do manage to break that gain-line… look out. An all-new and more fully competitive member of the 6 nations brotherhood might emerge.

Scotland knows and feels that again they are on the brink of something; they have BACKS, for godsakes! Is this side – motivated by the recently installed bent cop/bad cop combo, remember? – really about to square up and legitimately compete, though? Without getting contemptuously swatted aside? Or will it flirt and dart and disappoint? Let’s hope, for the good of this tournament, that Murrayfield really roars.

Italy have lost their lynchpin, their idol, their skipper, their sole world-class player. So they must surely lose at home to Wales. Parisse has been chopped for chopsing and though ’tis a grievous loss, ’tis prob’ly for the best. (I have seen no evidence of what was actually said but suspect he overstepped an important mark. Rugby cannot go the way of football in terms of abuse of the ref.) Sadly, this may be instrumental in the Italians falling back, significantly, towards their previously relatively undignified scramble for an occasional home win. Shame.

Wales meanwhile have the opportunity to lay down a marker for the perennial monster mash-up against England. If they can expand upon that mighty but mighty ugly win against the hapless French, Ryan Jones’s gathering operation may further hike expectations as well as tensions for the Millenium clash. Making Wales-England a game with a proper championship feel to it; I guess? In Rome, Wales should win and win with a clutch of tries.

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selected and exclusive posts, with an intro from Paul Mason and compliments from Brian Moore and Paul Hayward, amongst others.

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.

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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.