Could it really be gone?

Welsh rugby. How could it be such a pale shadow so alarmingly quickly? After that wonderful World Cup; after that seemingly world-wide groundswell of lurv was drawn to it, by the nature of what they did, in New Zealand. (If you didn’t see, or can’t remember, they lifted the whole tournament, breathing a genuinely friendly fire into its pallid rounds.) They charged and offloaded our expectations, our understandings of what ‘winning rugby’ might be. They – in their fanatically/fascistically brutal/beautiful condition – recaptured something preciously liberated… and hearty… and filled with Gareth Edward’s dive-passes. And in offering it to us, they denied cynicism; they attacked; they welcomed something back. And my god how quickly it’s gone.

The nation is in quiet mourning these dewy mornings. Since Argentina; since Samoa. Since those doubts ate up that freedom. In a land where rugby IS king, there is bound to be ‘discussion’.

I am mildly fascinated in the as yet relatively unaired suspicion that the awesome Polish beastings may yet be packaged up within some argument for the Great Welsh Distraction. As though all that hardcore physical inevitably contributed to a retreat into Gym Bunny Blinkerhood – and failure. Certainly the unfeasible intensity of all that preparation grates with some, who fear some link between cryotherapy (for extending the level of punishment a man might take?) and the inability to naturally play what’s in front of you. Expressivity or power? Is it insightful or just plain daft to imagine the men from the Land of My Fathers make better poets than cyborgs?

Conversations tend not to be as sci-fi marginal as that, but conversations aboundeth. Everywhere I go they talk of team selection (the copper, in the playground)… and Gatland’s absence… and half-backs gone missing. It’s a much talked about unspoken clammed up dagger-to-the-heart secret everyone knows. The team’s gone backwards or sideways, the team’s not the same – the world’s Just Not The Same. It’s dead, or at least the hwyl is – our most precious bit is. And we who feel it, in this screeching valley of quiet, we are suddenly hopeless. We can’t run straight; any of us! We can’t get momentum or we can’t manage the game. All cruelly felt, in the post office or the pub. We who could jink and dance and juggle coal or sheep or yards of Felinfoel, or sing the starlings out the dingletrees cannot, apparently run. Our poetry is lost. This is the blackest, blackest thing.

Injuries. Wales lose two or three (Joneses? Byrne? Lydiate? Davies?) and the pool is exposed. Priestland dips and the relative ordinariness of Priestlandhood, the non-PhilBennetflyhalfness of Priestland becomes vulnerable. And with it, the whole of Wales. Phillips struts too much and darts too little and the principality shrinks before us. Or worse – before everyone. That whole punching-above-our-weight-thing deflates itself. It’s a fine line. Ryan Jones in and out. Warburton leader or no? Fine.

After the sound beating by the Pumas, the National Mood booked in for a once-over at the trusty local surgery. After Samoa it flung itself wheezing onto the slab. Can Dr Gatland restore? With a full complement of Edwards/Howley vaccine drawn down again from the shelf? Hard to say. Certainly when the patient is this crippled by unbelief the prognosis really may not be good. It really may not be good. And the particular pressure means that experiments – the necessary blooding of A or B – become a real danger to the integrity of the project. Or so it is felt.

If there is a consensus it may be around this notion that a Full Team Out – or something very close – means everything to Wales. Despite hopes a year ago for a splendidly inviolable SQUAD SCENARIO it now seems clear that numbers matter – unless you happen to be (back) in New Zealand. Wales don’t have the strength in depth to maintain some idealised period of domination. Not anymore, when the game is so ruthlessly dynamic and physical and unforgiving of weakness. So if some curly haired geezer disappears from the front row – or perhaps two Lions do? – then trouble. If the half-backs do splutter, or reveal some unWelsh one-dimensionality – then trouble. Because there is a train coming. Pretty much every match. And if there is a flicker in that inviolable, Brothers-in-Redness conviction that Gatland undeniably instilled… ouch. Look out.

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Edwards

Edwards… Edwards to Barry John… Edwards the Baabaa, diving over… Edwards again, in his own right (Shaun, I mean!) at the vortex of another monster hit. TOUCH PAUSE CONTRACT -ENGAGE; not with Twickers, as feared and imagined but with and by Wales-in-my-arms. A kind of poetic justice. In the now buffering pantheon of Welsh rugby Edwards will remain a name to conjure memories and expectations – dreams even. Only the current version is, as half the world knows, a bullish English Skinhead with attitude plus.

Certainly The Province (yuk) is dreaming again. Now that the bristlingly brilliant defensive guru has shaken on the deal to keep him in Wales – or at least primarily working here until after the 2015 World Cup – the excitement rumbles on. After a World Cup hugely enriched by Welsh verve and spirit, this medium-sized signature richly supercedes the limitations of mere contract; it is, alleluyah, a sign.

A sign of the following

  • that Edwards has understandably been Touched by the feeling that there’s something exciting (and honest and true?) about how Wales are developing
  • that he understands and feels (surely) the coaching triumvirate of Gatland Edwards Howley are casting something of a spell
  • that a competitive or even gallivanting Welsh side is massively good for the world game
  • that clearly the current crop of players – Warburton/Faletau/Roberts/North/Halfpenny perhaps most obviously – are young men of some considerable talent
  • that maybe he fears England may remain in a constipated Crouch?
  • that of the combination of factors – money/challenge/enjoyment/hwyl? – the most significant point straightforwardly back to Cardiff.

Many of us view this as a near-mushy triumph for Love over Money. (We know it’s not that simple but please allow our indulgence; it’s kindof refreshing.) For here the obvious antagonism between Wales and England has been simply slam-dunked by (it is felt) a kind of big-hearted loyalty to real rugby. Twickers with its pen-pushers, snobs, embarrassment of riches but disgracefully poor and cynical expression of the game has been snubbed righteously by the boy Edwards; who sounds Welsh. Who understands – as did the world – that the sport’s richness derives chiefly from doing brave, comradely stuff quickly and with flair. That’s how it seems from Tredegar/Tywyn/Ty Ddewi.

Welsh rugby has manifestly taken big strides forward of late. If, as now seems likely, the coaching set-up – which we can only imagine is enjoyed, largely, by the players – now looks forward to a stable period of further development, then lookout boys. But there are no guarantees. I even see England as a major threat going forward – if they ever do. For now though, the Brotherhood of Reds is pumping claret; proudly.

Let us know, people

I know it’s something of a minority pastime but I’m gently, distractedly, coolly fixated on the England Manager Thing. And whilst I have – when prompted – plenty to say about S. Capello, I’m not talking footie.

Rugby; that magnificent drunk-with-honour but recently wreckless bundle; the one where real blokes dismember each other then hug. Though the World Cup may have peeled away some of our romantic certainties, it remains clear I hope that top level rugby reaches the places football, for example, dare not pretend to. Extreme physicality without too many grudges; utter selflessness and routine courage; obedience and generally even respect for the ref. These feel important in a world where international footballers routinely dive or fake contact and shockingly berate the call of authority. (I say this in full knowledge of the weakness of the inferred link between two massively different games and the obviousness of these dubious comparisons. And I grew up in a football household.)

So let’s not pretend things are perfect with rugby. Verbals have increased; behaviour is more prima donna-like; sensitivity/decency failure seems to have become an issue, most famously and recently within the England camp in particular. In this context, the reported £25,000 fine for Tindall is a sharpish riposte to creeping naughtiness and one which perhaps we should applaud – if only for the momentary relief it may provide for the RFU hierarchy, who must surely, finally, urgently be working their sweat-tingled socks off to gain control of a) the game b) the England side c) public perception of same.

Though I cannot condone the ‘antics’ of Messrs Tindall/Ashton/Tuilagi etc. – they provided an appropriately depressing ground for the drab watercolours that were English performances at the Rugby World Cup – the sense is of minor distractions snowballing. In terms of performance and image, players presumably let relatively loose let their team down. However – mighty big ‘if’ enter stage left – IF England had performed with flair and imagination and success, how many punters might be smiling at say, Tuilagi’s youthful exuberance? (I did anyway.) In reality crap ‘behaviour’ settled quite nicely against crap performances in the games’ psyche and its profile. I personally am more offended by the nature of the rugby England played than the alleged general malaise in conduct; although it’s close.

England Rugby is in a mess. Despite huge resources every which way and a deepish pool of talent we need look no further than the word embarrassing to describe performance levels – arguably not just at the World Cup. I have been and will remain critical of Martin Johnson – as long as I’m out of earshot. He was a totem, a titan, a tower and a coolly fearsome opponent as a player but as a manager he has, in the modern idiom, sucked. (Am I still out of earshot?) There has been a consistent chronic lack of direction and inspiration on the pitch. Aware, authoritative and yes inspirational managers would have addressed this, either with a hairdryer, or a quiet word, or some Churchillian rhetoric. Instead it’s rumbled on, this infectious lack, this fumble.

Contrast this with the recent Welsh resurgence. When it mattered, Gatland, Edwards and Howley had their posse fizzing happily and with just the right mixture of aggression and liberated zeal. Rarely has the full expression of collective talent seemed so uplifting. It felt like the game itself joined in with the dynamic swell as Warburton’s (should that be The Coaches?) Mob railed unquietly towards the People’s Final. ‘Til something intervened. We can be sure that a good deal of good management played a vital part in the Welsh enterprise – enterprise in every sense. Disappointingly the concomitant paucity and tightness of the English game has to be laid at Johnson’s door, along with Ford/Rowntree etc.

Only those privileged to have been close to the poop-spraying equipment may truly know which of the coaches deserve to remain, finger on fan. Excuse the further malodorous pun but I suspect a major clear-out may be in order. And yet we wait. We speculate. Those of us in Wales (I think) generally fear the announcement that Edwards has deserted, believing passionately that the GEH triumvirate had something special in the offing. (Shaun, I know you’re listening, STAY AND ENJOY THE FUN! They won’t understand you!! They won’t let you be you!!) Those in England presumably wonder what kind of combination will lie ahead.

I’ve wrestled with the Possibles. Without NOTW style surveillance, it’s difficult to know which of the following have been seriously or serially canvassed. Nick Mallett/Jim Mallender/Graham Henry/Shaun Edwards/Clive Woodward/A N Other/ Me? As already covered under A Poisoned Flagon, I’m going for a combination featuring Edwards and I know not who.

But what about the skipper? Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw has hurtled into Possibles-plus type profile, having been touted convincingly by the likes of Phil Vickery. A new management team, culling fearlessly would increase the scope and likelihood for all manner of changes, perhaps even including inviting young Mr Lawes to step forward. But is that as fanciful as imagining Ben Foden as skipper? In other words… it’s still messy. So I’d just like to know now please; just like to feel like something’s been sorted. Know what I mean?

A poisoned flagon?

L

I have heard, in the last few moments that there are now 2 live inquiries into the England Rugby World Cup fiasco and one dead one. (Fran Cotton is presumably grazing his four cabbages this morning with stoic indifference, having feared or expected further administrative chaos). “Cock-up – again” I hear him saying. Thus the last word kindof becomes the first?

                                    

Any time now he will get the nod. Probably initially in airless private but soon mindlessly beaming members of an alleged hierarchy will be chivvying him towards the public, grey but humming hotseat. Thus the All New England Rugby Manager will meet the press; meet us plebs.

There will no doubt follow a platitude-fest of second row proportions. Eventually, once even the journalists are bored of hearing the flawless laundry that is Managerstuff rinse and repeat relentlessly, the hierarchy (yet to be announced) will commit further overfamiliar but nonetheless profoundly inept acts of ushering to get their man out to a waiting bar – I mean car. Safely ensconced in the back of this dark but bland executive vehicle he will breathe deeply – very deeply – and then consider what the fuck he has done… as, no doubt, will the ushers.

In this rare moment of privacy The All New England Manager may reconsider his options whilst leafing through a dossier on the current playing staff, material that is unlikely to energise the soul but may – if the mood were lighter – provide a few laffs. What could be funnier than a royal wedding failure/a humiliated chambermaid/a swallow dive off a ferry? (Okay, I think the latter was mildly amusing and Tuilagi’s undeniable talent insulates him from further unnecessary flak. But the list of positives from – appropriately? – the WC is surely hysterically brief?) Of the 153,276 words featured in the review imagined by my good self, ‘crushing’, ‘boring’ and ‘he constitutes another loose cannon’ are statistically prevalent. Sensing this, the staff driver (I picture a Devonian prop with tractor driver’s sideburns and a whimsical nature) at this point knowingly produces a hip-flask and a wink. “Wait ’til you get to page 3 boss”.

On page 3 there is a discussion on the Captaincy Issue which may or may not suggest that Mad Dog Wilkinson is still considered a suitable force for er… English crypto-buddhist wholesomeness. Oh, and the captaincy. Only slightly more surprising is the revelation that the hierarchy are also looking at the following as live candidates for the role;

Andy Ripley; Fay Weldon; Julian Barnes; Mahatma Ghandi.

The driver’s eyebrows have arched.

But we, in our frothy excitement, get ahead of ourselves. Who will be choosing the captain? Woodward? Mallender? Henry? Or can talk of Johnson’s survival be right? Given that pretty immediately prior to this All New Captain thing the over-riding impulse of the (yet to be announced) hierarchy would certainly have been to find a Manager who will be a safe pair of hands whilst the team is (again) ‘in transition’, we might reasonably fear exposure to a worryingly imaginative choice scenario. In other words, a foreigner. Assuming Martin Johnson is jettisoned – on merit – the pool of realistic candidates (my cheap jibes notwithstanding) would need to include those of a Tri-Nation persuasion, surely?

Unless there’s a fait accompli favouring somebody like Clive Woodward? Or is it ludicrous to wonder if Henry has been tapped up with some elder statesman role in mind… with Shaun Edwards as enforcer? Fanciful but interesting? Gadzooks! Could English rugby turn out interesting? Contemplation of that question makes me return to the thought – already expressed in certain papers – that Martin Johnson will stay in post. This is such a laughable proposition that it fits almost perfectly the mould – giant-sized cock-up revisited.