Delivery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Swing Higher?

Australia deservedly beat the Lions in the second test on Saturday, in another match shrill with nuclear-button-moment tension. In this case, mercifully, several things;

one – ’twas all centred round a mere but alarmingly late and decisive kicking event (again!) as opposed to something major going off in Korea/Iran/someplace else the Americans are pooping their panties about.

Two – this time it was us wot missed.

Three – the nuclear-freeness of said event did not significantly reduce the weight of angst where I was watching… and latterly enduring it.

Once more, remarkably, the overtime phases of the game offered nerve-shredding possibilities for all or nothing in terms of this series. For supporters of the reds, like me, ultimately, as I/we/they slunk away to bars and hotels or the small comfort of family life, it was the bitter hard stuff that lay in wait – not the smilier-fizzier accoutrements of quadrennial glory. The redoubtable Halfpenny – he of the doe-eyes calmly fixated – had failed to hoof open a new chapter in long-shotdom; the 50-odd metre penalty he struck falling some way short of the now untroubled crossbar. (Earlier a similar attempt had rebounded cruelly to a Wallaby hand.) It was another moment of drama in a now confirmed triptych – the contest going as a result to the final match in Sydney. And rightly so.

The build-up on and off the box had been full of the usual hum and hokum; banter, bullshit and – where I was – brilliant, informed debate. Much of it around the Vunipola Question. Or maybe the Back Row Question. Meaning that a fair number had bought in to the bulk of the changes – enforced or otherwise – Gatland had made. For example, despite the fact that Mike Phillips is a son of Banc-y-felin, a thirty mile meander from base camp (in Haverfordwest Cricket Club, if you must know) not too much earache on that. ‘Mike’s ‘been bit laboured, see? Godda get that ball OUT, mun!’ No; much more earnest discussion and yes, dissent, over the perceived vulnerability of the England prop. A straw poll would have put Grant in there for starters and allowed the younger fella to rumble round destructively once the game had opened out. Strength not at issue – just too much to expect him to show the maturity, discipline and composure to hold under targeted pressure. He couldn’t.

There were awful moments close to the 25 minute mark when, following general world-wide indictment (and more importantly, concession of penalties at the scrum) Vunipola seemed destined to be unceremoniously hoiked. Then he dropped a pass… and it became inevitable. The fact that he and the Lions scrum scrambled back towards an admittedly sketchy and frankly unattractive ‘parity’- and that in fact he was not removed early – reflects admirably on the England debutant. Words had indeed been said – shouted in fact, at the alleged Englishman but the Lions effort had not started so loaded down with disbelieving expletives.

It began with a storm, in fact, or a storming, the away side looking both impassioned and focused. We thrilled and yes, roared as things clicked encouragingly over from our lot piling into ’em in the time-honoured fashion to some adrenalin-fuelled but controlled rugby of a Wallaby-threatening order.  Sadly, this lasted for all of about eight minutes before… before the magnificent free-spirits up on the screen realised this was a Test Match… with a whole lot riding.

Then conservatism and error and often shapelessness broke out, in the game at large, in both camps. It was rare that either side went through more than a handful of phases before something was up – an infringement or an error, typically. The intensity made it feel like a spectacle but maybe take that series-decider thing out and… what? Scrappy and again frustratingly bound to interpretation of what went on in the scrum and – less obviously in this encounter – at the breakdown.

In the scrum it really may be that concepts are all we have; real, corporeal ascendancy being no longer a possibility, given the shambles around engagement and the put-in. Scrums are no longer contests because a) there is no hooking b) the objective seems to be the prompting of a ‘legitimate’ claim to a penalty following infringement from the other side. Meanwhile the historically essential delivery of the ball to the centre of the melee is apparently an irrelevance, as far as the officials are concerned. Scrums now are far too often an enraging travesty; one which will inevitably lead to some explosive reaction from one of the betrayed protagonists.

The early minutes suggested at least that policing of the breakdown might be less cruelly restrictive than the previous match. O’Driscoll sensed he may be in the game and Warburton most certainly was – if not pilfering outright then genuinely competing without fear. This augured well. In fact though, the inability of the Lions to build (and literally expand) upon a fabulous start by drawing and passing and recycling effectively – adding width following gains in yardage – meant there was no penetration. And they can’t blame the ref for too much of that.

Whether this is a cultural thing with Gatland is open to debate; some mutter darkly about a one-dimensionality in the Gatland Master Plan. As though it’s essence is relatively stoppable, if you learn to read it. It may not be the same thing but there was a sense here that either by instinct or design the Wallabies had options available, even in a crowded midfield, in a way that the Lions didn’t. Davies and O’Driscoll were nullified and North and Bowe almost absent. Beyond that perhaps – they rarely looked like creating. That could not be said of their opposite numbers.

Clearly the brilliance of Genia plays a part in this disparity. He seamlessly links, he moves the centre of threat, there is that unsettling but nonetheless purposeful flux about him. He’s bloody difficult to stop. Allow him a few phases and before you know it every manjack in the backline is feeling indefuckingstructible mate. If he had a real pivot outside him you worry that the Lions would suffer a pasting – but they didn’t. The Australians won, deservedly, because they were markedly more ambitious; they offloaded and brought runners into the game – particularly in the second half. There is an argument that they had no choice but I think that’s slightly cheap. The Wallabies really took the Lions on – courageously, defiantly – and they won.

For the Lions, changes will again be made; both necessary and tactical. The potential absence of Warburton and the loss of the totemic O’Connell may possibly be the end of it, who knows? Parling is a good man but not a legend. The inclusion of a fit Tuilagi, to the squad, if not the team, seems likely, with the Davies-BOD combination somewhere between pallid and competent so far. Nothing wrong with Bowe and North – they just need the pill to carry round a bit. There need be no culture-change in the front row, merely a reversion to an experienced, workmanlike posse including Grant(?) with limited objectives. Compete; behave; stop the other buggers. Selecting the back row is more critical, you feel.

There may be some in the Lions camp pressing for a blanket over things; a fire-response or even better a fire-prevention unit. Tough, reliable types – Lydiates. The argument maybe being that an opportunity will come anyway, for North or Bowe, or somebody and that therefore no need for a Croft or a Tuilagi to go gambolling too recklessly. Issues around fitness of individuals may of course steer this debate but clearly the make-up of the back row will to a large extent control the nature and the pace and the ambition – higher/lower? – of the game plan. Whether Warbs misses out or not, the case for Lydiate is strong. So how do we juggle Croft’s classy athleticism and Tipuric’s great form and O’Briens passion and… which way, what will characterise how we go? With Heaslip? Do we just give Heaslip a bollocking and demand some more or does the thing need a revolution? Perhaps not. But it does need a spark.

In our club the chorus of ‘Swing Low’ heard mid-match was not met with universal enthusiasm. To some these Lions felt disappointingly a bit trad English – meaning inexpressive – dull, frankly. Where were the players ‘seizing the moment’, playing ‘heads-up rugby?’ Well, they weren’t wearing red.

For Gatland there is some serious thinking to be done. I don’t see him as some conservative soul – he’s better than that. But he may feel that trouble lies ahead if his side fails again to release players into space and/or take the risks associated with width. Or he may not. He may I suppose conclude that a tight, forward-led approach is percentage-wise most viable, most advantageous. Many of us would counter that so far the Wallabies have dealt more than adequately with the Lions 1-8 but found 11 and 14 less easily contained. In other words Gorgeous George in particular is nigh on unfuckingstoppable (mate.) So let him have that ball.

Lions get real.

There is much talk about the limited value of Lions warm-up games. Mullerings of diverse quality have been minutely dissected or blathered about. This is not only fine, it is the essential accompaniment to the rumble and sometimes tumble of a real, engaging sporting tour. And the Lions adventure is certainly that, enmeshed or driven as it is by the gathering, glorious-daft Sea-of-Redness now showing at a screen near you… and more importantly, in a stadium light years away. Many of us – including, of course, womenfolk with a fondness for oval balls – are hooked, drawn in to the tide of intoxo-enthusiasm, the incrementally searing lust-funk of it all. Swaying or a-swingin’, staggering dad-dancingly but carrying that ball to the gain-line, or into contact or –YESSS – to the TRY-LINE. Being it, being involved because we’re excited and we care and it’s now so real.

Sure there is hype and there are the accoutrements, the merchandise, the £55 shirts, the beery badges of honour. Those of us unable to travel may have indulged in these minor falls from puritanically poi-fect Cliff Morgan-era zeal. Even that’s okay. Because it is feeling real, this huddle of celto-limey brilliance; this us-as-lion. We are gathering, drawn both the lure of a spectacle and surely by some druidic impulse to the standing stones that are the posts – our posts – which we will defend, defiantly together. Against them. Us and Griff and Nana and Reg and Rory and Whitey and Will. Quite possibly lubricated, quite possibly inspired; because this bigness, this generosity is real.

Folks understand. And there’s something of the Baabaa’s about the Lions – there has to be. Beyond the mere assemblage of ‘units’, beyond the gelling of limbs and the reading of calls. The timbre of the thing is different to ordinary international rugby. There’s an onus on those representing to really play. That’s a function of history but one spiced up with a kind of openness (and we hope ambition) to something alarmingly close to poetry and yes – brotherhood. Players are not being glib when they talk about the privilege of the shirt. They are moved as well as motivated by the support – both in the stands and in the blur of distant pubs and clubs and homes. They do know. They are in the moment, even now an attractively underprepared moment, conducive to the sparking up of genius, of glory. It’s special; there is a special joy awaiting as well as a responsibility to be grasped. Lionhood.

So games have been played and cud has been chewed. Chiefly around the diabolical liberties taken by (grrrr!) shackle-dragging selectors of (some say) insultingly under-strength teams. Teasing or taking the piss? Depends on (y)our level of national prejudice, I guess. But I say fear not. Gatland knew what was coming, pretty much. Why else would he have Hogg as a third fly-half? Because he knew a) he would be plenty good enough (for that particular game) b) because the coach can now flirt with option 58b – the possibility that the dashing Scot might come back to haunt or disassemble a retreating Aussie rabble should the Lions either be 2 Tests up or in need of a late burst from an unfeasibly sprightly 10. Thus the coaches too bob and weave, feint and shimmy.

We all know the arguments for ‘meaningful opposition’ but more intense matches may have come at a higher price in terms of injury – to either player or squad confidence. As it happens the Lions must be feeling close to invincible, with backs in particular hungry for another run-in to the line. What players want is the ball in their hands and points on the board. The coaching staff know enough about them as individuals, as players, to be able to select on the basis of skill and character and temperament. It’s in the nature of modern tours that a barrage of more or less distracting psycho-flares be fired up against you; I have every confidence that the Lions as a group have the spine and the spittle to waft this lame but pyrotechnic Aussie nonsense aside.

Much of the fascination at this stage of what I am tempted to call development surrounds Test places – naturally. Plenty of hot air around who deserves this or that as well as laughably heartfelt debate upon who will be actually be in Gatland’s fifteen. Fun to be had in deciphering the clues, following the declaration of the side for Saturday’s game against the Waratahs. Given the approach of the 1st Test, we might expect to see some of the famed ‘necessary units’ to be in place; Phillips/Sexton at half-back? A whiff of authentic grunthood in the front row and a possible lock combo in Alun Wynne-Jones and POC. Inconclusive? May be. Gatland is coming over all wily as well as worldly.

The bankers for a place appear to be Halfpenny, North, O’Driscoll and who? Hogg on t’other flank? With Roberts or Tuilagi at 12? I have always rated Davies at centre for his dynamism and perhaps particularly his opportunism but he seems unlikely now to get a sniff. Phillips and Sexton meanwhile seem sure to start, with Youngs an energetic 60 minute sub. For me both Phillips and Roberts may be a tad fortunate to coast in without showing much of the fire and inspiration of a year or three ago. Such that a Roberts-BOD combo will smack slightly disappointingly of – if not conservatism – an admittedly robust holding operation for the first Test.

The pack against Waratahs – see the team-sheet beneath – is worthy of a Test but delicious or raw spooky possibilities hang. Two weeks ago I thought Hibbard had swashed and buckled his way to a Test start. Now both the mess around line-outs and general questions over the efficiency of Lions set-pieces look to have thrown that one open. Youngs – who plays on Saturday -is a good mix of spirited and focussed. Props-wise Vunipola ticks lots of boxes and Adam Jones ticks all of them – the hairy one will certainly play, the rawer England prop is likely. The locks unit is classy, experienced, courageous, well-balanced but maybe one-paced; meaning I cannot honestly call whether that’s a superior dummy from Gatland or a full-on rehearsal. Richie Gray and Geoff Parling seem almost equally as accomplished and as likely. The back-row looks magnificent, with Croft the supreme athlete and inventor of open space, Warburton hopefully a Captain Marvel in the making and Heaslip a youngish buck with a point to prove. But whether more than one of them will start against the Aussies is another matter.

The back-row thing has got that frisson us fans love going on. Surely Warburton – despite outstanding challenges from within the squad and Gatland’s close appreciation of the Lydiates/Tipurics/Faletaus of this world – will lead, barring injury. O’Brien would bring some Celtic fire and blimey… where does that leave us? With an embarrassment of riches. None of us in our excitement should under-estimate the hike in BIGNESS and EVERYTHING that awaits in the first, crunching Test. Indeed we should relish that prospect – as should the players. Because this is the Lions; we share in it. It remains and indeed thrives ‘midst the hyperbole and the hype. It’s the Lions. Uniquely. And we love it.

Lions v Waratahs.

Backs; Halfpenny, Maitland, Davies, Roberts, Zebo, Sexton, Phillips.

Forwards; Vunipola, T Youngs, A Jones, AW Jones, O’Connell, Croft, (c) Warburton, Heaslip.

Replacements; Hibbard, Corbisiero, Cole, Parling, Lydiate, B Youngs, Farrell, Kearney.

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.