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.