Marker.

Wow. A wonderful and possibly intimidating few anthem minutes, as the mythic ‘whole of Ireland’ stands tall, is followed promptly by a remarkably assured and attacking two minutes from the visitors. Farrell fires one riskily wide but flat; a further sharp exchange and May is in. The skipper caps off a stunning start with a crisp conversion. 7-0.

The try scorer then hurries a clearance kick to enter touch on the full: the subsequent phases end with mark being called by the same player, under some pressure. Play goes back, though, for a penalty and Sexton pots an easy one. Game on, inital nerves shed.

Playing conditions are significantly better than in Paris but it’s already clear that Proper International Rugby has broken out, here. The only notable error in the first 13 minutes is from the England flanker Curry, who misjudges a hit on Earls and is binned. Marginal but nonetheless infuriating for Eddie Jones, after an impressively solid start from his side. Ten demanding minutes to come.

They survive it, manfully throwing a blanket across the park – even breaking out, at times. It’s tense but the players look watchful and engaged.

Ironically, 45 seconds after Curry’s return, Ireland batter a way over in the corner. The combination of forward power and relentless baying from an impassioned crowd enough to make that score inevitable. Sexton drills a beauty through for the extra points. 10-7 after 26.

England respond. Farrell and Daley dink a couple of probing kicks to test out the new fullback’s mettle. Henshaw is quality, for me but the second of these does create some angst – to the point that Daley drops onto the resulting spillage, in Stockdale and Ireland’s ‘Huget moment’. Farrell dismisses the conversion through the sticks, magnificently. 10-14 now, to England.

It may not be exhilirating but this is engrossing – raw competitive in the extreme but disciplined, largely and fluent enough. England look close to their powerful, all-court best, as the half approaches. Best throws a skewed one, close to his own line and England have the scrum five yards out.

The melée delivers nothing conclusive. Neither does the review; Vunipola is denied, reaching and diving for the score. Penalty given, mind, and again Farrell smashes it through nervelessly. 10-17 does not flatter England as the ref blows.

Cat and mouse for ten minutes. Then England surge through the phases, left and right. They seem destined to grab more, possibly decisive points. They don’t.

Instead their attack breaks down and Ireland hoof ahead. Again the ball on the ground proves murderous. From nowhere, Ireland have pressure: ultimately that counts. Sexton penalty, 13-17.

As expected, defence from both teams is both organised and brutal. Everybody appears to be tackling like Tuilagi. England lose Itoge, injured and the changes start. Almost shockingly, the flawless Farrell misses a presentable penalty and the tension ratchetts up yet further, despite the measure of control exercised by the men in white.

Joy for Slade as he combines with May before winning the foot-race to the line. It’s reviewed (for possible offside) but the try counts. In the 67th minute the visitors’ lead has stretched to nine points and their combination of composure and guts looks like it will tell.

When Farrell makes a huge penalty – right at his limit – the lead is 12 points. Given that Ireland have very rarely threatened, this is now a relative cruise. Slade – looking strong and gifted on this most demanding of occasions – somehow intercepts, juggles and scores. Farrell converts.

13-32. Bonus point. We’re looking at an awesome win, a special marker, now.

Fair play, Ireland respond. An opportunistic try, with Sexton drop-kicking the conversion as we enter stoppage time. It ends 20-32.

If Wales’s win yesterday was extraordinary for its deliriously scruffy drama, this was different level. Ireland are a fine side: today they were well, well beaten. Of course it’s merely the start but this was such a complete performance that England will justifiably be favourites for this tournament… and seriously competitive *beyond*.

 

 

 

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Letterkenny loveletter.

Reaction following an Ireland win is fascinatingly different to that which might have prevailed should England have secured this, or any other, #6nations, is it not? People all over the place seem pleased, for starters. I’m sensing a good-natured rolling up of sleeves or a philosophical ‘roly’ under the stars for most neutrals, as folks from Ballymena or Clonakilty march purposefully past into the pub. Most would recognise, however, the scope for either discord or hopefully debate around the concept ‘win’ when (as happened here) another protagonist has bitten at the arse of the victorious by er… beating them.

So did the best team land the trophy? Were champions Ireland sufficiently good at Twickenham to score a moral victory too? Is that the or any kindofa question? And does that question matter? I think it does: it is, after all, the stuff we’ll be talking about.

Half the fun of course is in the denial of (the undeniable truth of) that table, at the head of which now sits Joe Schmidt’s charges. And clearly allegation or conversational hare number one might be that because England beat them, Ireland are not the best team. Knowing we can’t measure any of this stuff I’d still like to do some sizing up; how ’bout you?

Look having no aspiration for journalism, I have neglected to check how often it is that the annual Northern rugby shindig is won by teams who got beat along the way and who are therefore susceptible to this judgement of wider values. Maybe that doesn’t matter either. The argument we are about to have is absolutely about the sweaty/swervacious/intuitive/finger-in-the-wind sense of it all – because that’s a) fun and b) human nature. So were Ireland or England better? And/or who deserved it more, this 2014 Six Nations Trophy?

As the road and the evening rises, I suspect my friends Danny, Sean and Brian in County Donegal, may, in the purity of their ecstasy, be breaking out treasured hooch of the Very Special Occasions Only variety, and I in no way want to subvert that glorious ritual. (Oh and by the way – no driving Brian!) However, they too will be distantly aware (probably) of issues of legitimacy/quality and kindof… honour. Because fans love to win with style, with class – yes and deservedly. Which legitimises my line of enquiry, I think; I’m in the metaphorical round and buying my share, I promise.

The coincidence of St Patrick’s weekend, O’Driscoll’s retirement and a #6nations trophy pretty much compels all of Ireland towards a big night out and I wish to god I was in Letterkenny to share in that. But instead I will ask of that European pool of generosity the following question… again. At Twickenham, was the confidence and control (even) that Ireland showed for periods of that match sufficiently impressive to cancel out the win (with home advantage) for Lancaster’s hugely improving side. Or does the view that England have blossomed to such an extent that even Welshmen might now confess to finding them good to watch hold sway on this?

Tough call. There were times in the England-Ireland fixture when I thought the Irish might cruise to a quietly magnificent away win. They recycled and blocked with such confidence that I was purring ’bout the brilliance of Schmidt – guesswork of a sort, inevitably – but I’m still happy enough to throw in the idea here that the Ireland gaffer may have been star of the tournament. Good sides – well coached sides, sides inspired by their coaches have purpose about what they do. And Ireland epitomised that, certainly for periods of the first half. But the fact is… then they lost.

There was something of that about Ireland again today, I thought. Once they got a hold of the ball, they went effortlessly through the phases and two tries came critically early; they looked like a team that believed. If Sexton had slotted two relatively simple kicks, they may have sustained a lead and utterly snuffed out any French response – after twenty-something minutes, that’s the way it looked.

France, perhaps inevitably, given the pasting they have taken from most of us, rose to their full height – or in Basteraud’s case bulk – and responded. The game became scrappy and tense rather than brilliant but this was more because the French aren’t good enough to do brilliant than anything else, I thought. Ireland struck again early in the second period and held on.

England smashed Italy with some style and this is the point. If you were an alien with some mysterious understanding of ball games but no pro-celtic baggage, you might be raising a green sucker or two in approval at the transformation of Lancaster’s mob from dour to something close to devastating. If nothing else that culture shift towards dynamic and open play deserves universal – or extra-terrestrial? – approval. In Brown and Farrell… and possibly Burrell and Launchbury and Lawes, they had players who might reasonably be nominated Player of the Tournament in some poll or other.

England were often good and sometimes alarmingly watchable, both against Italy and in the Six Nations generally. It may be that only the intensity of the ‘rivalry’ between the warring parties keeps Wales in with a shout against their World Cup 2015 opponents on current form, such is the great leap forward from Lancaster’s men. They surely ran the ball back more freely – more liberally even – than anyone else. The nature of their intent was sharply different to previous England sides, the coaching staff clearly now having committed to an all-court game demanding pace and invention as well as balls-out defending. Good on them for that; they are both right and righteous, methinks.

Whole lot of sentiment here, then. Weighing up in the abstract the feel of a title run-in. Doing that all over, I guess.

Ireland won though and their outside centre will understandably garner what I will foolishly call the Lions share of media coverage subsequent to that victory. O’Driscoll for me has had a flawed championships; he made errors against the French as well as the fairly occasional sharp intervention – chiefly that trademark low-slung burst and absurdly casual switch, eyes fixed everywhere but where the ball’s fizzing or popping. The man’s a genius alright, for his brutal combination of rapidity and control – and for his savvy. But his specialness is surely a cumulative phenomenon? Year after year of explosive burst and soft hands, violent challenge and then god-given, frame-freezing awareness. He, certainly, is a deserving champion.

@Jiffyrugby doesn’t get much wrong, yaknow. And he may have it about right when he says the definitive question of this tournament is the one England will surely be asking themselves – “How did we not win in France?” Well… they didn’t. And Ireland? Ireland did.

Ireland loves Gatland – as Capello!

Dublin. Where Wales were dumbfounded – as indeed were most of us – by the utter control exerted by the Irish. Indeed so shocked were the dragons management in my view that they forgot themselves, much as the gobsmacked-in-a-very-bad-way Capello had done for England in a recent (footie) World Cup. They forgot they had to do something – send on subs. (Hook/Tipuric!) This had nothing whatsoever to do with #BODgate… and everything to do with freezing whilst getting simply battered.

So as I write, all manner of hostelry in the fair city, from the corporate schmoozer-zones to the dodgiest of boozers must surely be taking an almighty hammering, as elated locals and bemused visitors take stock. I imagine Martyn Williams was slumping back disappointed into a comfy chair and reaching for a consoling pint as he tweeted, but the former back-row maestro summed things up neatly enough when he dinked out the following;

Didn’t see that coming. Hats off to the Irish. Totally dominant.

Agreed; in every respect. But how? Yes we’re aware of this suggestion that Wales may have just the one way of playing and are therefore susceptible to being ‘found out’ (though I’ve never really accepted this.) Yes there was a whole lot of emotion, a whole lot riding on this one, with most of it pointing to positive inflammation of Schmidt’s Green Army. And yes Ireland got off to a flying start last week. But surely a tight and tense and fulsomely impassioned affair would ensue? Full of fire and endless demonstrations from all sides of the phenomenon rugbyfolks simply call ‘dog’? But no – well certainly not from the Welsh – only the Irish howled. Wales were numbed, muzzled and blunted in everything they did, from almost the first moment to the desperate last.

Perhaps it’s ungenerous to put it this way – as though denying the Irish some rewarding chunk of their triumph. However I do so because it strikes me that the utter absence of Wales from this match was more remarkable than anything. From the reds there was no penetration, no threat, barely any phases, in truth, despite the gallumping nature of their backs. But worse, perhaps, there was no sense that any of these things were likely. The 26-3 score-line in no way flattered the home side.

Ireland meanwhile were superbly organised and composed. Sexton was close to immaculate with his control, through tactical hoofing and through his mixture; he absolutely built the framework for his side and this, consistently, together with outstanding blanket defence eased – and I do mean eased – his side to a straightforward win.

In the first half Trimble was darting bravely and covering or slamming into contacts, O’Driscoll was steady and safe rather than hugely notable but around the breakdown O’Mahony in particular was a giant. Wales panicked and infringed and hurried things or lost the ball before they could execute their own hurrying. With O’Connell predictably battering and Irish hands on the ball almost obscenely quickly, Welsh possession never felt secured. Ireland’s did. Without blasting open the Welsh lines they emphatically held their own. Typically Sexton put them somewhere that felt good and then they asked those questions of the Welsh attack. Sharpish enquiries that Priestland never looked able to respond to.

Two final things. Gatland’s back row is very very good at snaffling athletically and with purpose around the breakdown. Today, the dominance of the Irish in this area – Warburton’s specialist subject – was both most striking and decisive. With barely believable constancy that much-vaunted back row of Wales was marmalised. Penalties came and were largely gratefully accepted by Sexton.

Secondly, there was the lack of response from Wales. Priestland is not either brilliant or raw gutsy enough to single-handedly gather in a real game. Phillips is looking close to his natural end. Combine this with the failure of Gatland and his backroom staff to act – by (probably) sending Hook and Tipuric on at the 50 minute mark – and well… you might find yourself in the same place as Capello. Somewhere faintly embarrassing.

In Edinburgh England strolled to a win against a Scotland side barely deserving, on this form, of a #6nations berth. Though the pitch and the weather were awful – both conspiring to drastically reduce the odds on a free-flowing display from the visitors – a rout seemed on after about five minutes. Vunipola B again looked ridiculously comfortable as he legged it unopposed through the mud, sharing the egg casually pre-tackle. Burrell again emphasised the power and explosiveness of his running – scoring a fine try in the process. Even the previously disappointing Twelvetrees broke confidently and played with oxygenating freedom. Farrell kicked poorly but still ran the game with something of a smirk.

Lancaster will on the one hand be delighted at a victory without conceding a point and on the other be exasperated his team somehow conspired to avoid the seven or eight tries that were surely available. But England do look like they have a certain invention about them now, what with Brown and May and Burrell all looking un-Englishly, ‘naturally’, expansively brisk.

Scotland though, are gone. Simply not competing at the same level. Their game against Italy seems their only hope of validation, never mind meaningful points on the board. Too early in this Calcutta Cup Laidlaw had missed two kickable penalties and you knew Scotland simply could not afford that waste. The problems seem frighteningly universal, leaving Scott Johnson an unenviable task; it seems the best he can hope for is to sit out the storm and try to keep chins up. Whether he has made this more difficult through the summary dispatch of former skipper Kelly Brown, who knows? If there are egos at work in his camp as well as issues with available talent, the man’s in awful … deep… shite.

On a lighter note Brian Moore’s continuing support of a certain shall-we-say de-spiritualized *religious icon continues apace. I would have bought him a pint – and necked one – if he’d have slotted the phrase ‘Is this a dugout which I see before me’ into commentary. Aah well, time yet.

* For the uninitiated – possibly literally – @WelshDalaiLama has a drinking game via twitter.  The boy Mooro (roped in) has been gratuitously quoting Shakespeare to draw those who indulge into downing their poison.

No fat lady has sung; to my knowledge.

Read something really quite interesting the other day. On the subject of fickleness, I suppose, or at least regarding the alleged facts of fandom – whether or not this notion of the part-time or unreal fan is a fair kop. (That worth a ha ha?) Or whether it’s always been statistically the case that most fans either have more than one true love in their football ether, or actually go to watch more than one club; god forbid. Anthropologists studying that commonly identified sub-group The Bloke will be unsurprised I think that within this revealingly sharp and often vitriolic debate about Prawn Sarnie Munchers being Scum-a-the-earth or the Financial Lifeblood of the Premier League, there is a historical narrative for infidelity. Apparently, for yonks, it has been gently gently secretly the case that supporters have been de-tribalising themselves in order to watch better teams outside the immediate thrall of The Manor, or shouting Ev’ton one week and Liv’pool the next (for example.) Thereby dancing silently upon the grave of their own authenticity in the eyes of all right-minded people – like themselves.

God it’s a twisted world.

In life I make a point of a) being a huge optimist but b) never really believing anybodies facts and figures, so I won’t mention that the above research on home supporters is liberated from an article in Spiel magazine, lest you go accepting/reading it. Besides, I’m dealing in the woozily general again here, and do not intend (even) to write an article about football. I merely throw in this psycho-geographically resonating lifebuoy to provide comfort to those unable to persist with a post that turns out… against the early expectations… to be, in a roundabout way, about rugbystuff.

So what are we like, eh? One minute we’re crowing or guffawing at either George North or the Irish Pack; the next we’ve drifted. Back to the Real Sporting Giants – Drogba/Suarez/Torres and soon enough Rooney. As though they can or rightfully do satiate our needs both for sporting drama and mighty role-models. Providing us with everything a fan – fickle or sanctimoniously beyond those apparently spurious judgements – could ever ask for.

The Six Nations comes to an unseemly deadstop, like some campaign in the Daily Mail undermined because it suddenly seemed Leftie; quietly and terminally, mirroring something of the muffled bitterness articulated by those dubiously rugby-converted purple rinses with their suddenly cultivated obsession for Our Stuart Getting That England Job, ahead of that Mallett man, with his unsettlingly dark features. The natural order of things succeeding, in The Mail and the proper world; properly.

The sudden smotheration of not just The Six Nations but of the existence of rugby in the British(?) consciousness so soon after that final toot at Twickenham last weekend must surely be a metaphor for something. As well as being another one of those alleged facts. Perhaps it means that – shock horror probe – folks are not died-in-the-wool, touch-pause-engaged fans in the real head-to-the-left-now-hit-like-fuck sense. They – like most of the referees at international level – have no genuine feeling for, or understanding of the dark arts or finer points of frontrowdom. They admire something of that knightish physicality; wonder how that game can go on like that with that bloke reeling around under the trainer’s insensitive touch, four foot six away from the ongoing action. Why don’t they stop, like in proper games? And how does that counter-rucking thing work anyway? And how can that thing there be right, when thingumee just pawed oosit with his studs? Like that!?! Deliberately. What ARE the rules exactly, about that?

In Wales and quite possibly Ireland there is some general understanding. The Vinnygeez has waxed lyrical often enough about this. (In Wales) red cloudbursts of communal expression; joy through clumping; tries against the English as symbols of nothing more than reasons to exist as a nation. Proper engagement on a national, visceral and poetic level. Max Boyce as the Pope/Tom Jones as The Singing Pope – or something. Something like a very much friendlier triptych than might be produced (on a post Grand Slam bender?) by Francis Bacon, let’s say, who despite his fringe-celtic toff-centric out-there-ism I suspect didn’t know much about the game of rugby. Like many residents of Soho. Apart from Brian Moore. Who really does know plenty.

But I fear I digress. (Like for a living, almost.) The point I wish to make is that there is some sudden flopping off the continental shelf going on here, as the Fact Of Rugby slips like some unappreciated gloop into the all-consuming depths. And I am interested in the reasons for that. I have a hope that because the general level of sportsmanship, commitment, fitness and honourability amongst top rugby players is so absurdly high that therefore its profile and relevance and capacity to touch the hearts of (ideally) nine year-old boys and girls will deservedly soar. Leading to – amongst other things but as a suggested minimum – a manifest improvement in respect for the planet and all who inhabit it/the necessary election of a series of humanitarian socialist governments. Because rugby really is pretty wonderful, containing as it does a uniquely focused and encapsulated form of selflessness, teamwork and bravery that entitles it fully to snort derisively at (for example) Drogba’s ham-and-pineapple quattro-staggione-in-one-day blousy affectations. Rugby I know not being perfect but rarely being that embarrassing. But I fear I digress.

Look the rugby season for our friendly Six didn’t finish just because those games did. In fact right now the club season approaches its critical phase; Heineken Cup; Premiership Trophy; equivalents and more to the massively more exposed football carnivals. So let there be space for both in your own personal calendar.

And on the international scene this enthralling but actually parochial knockabout recently enjoyed may well feel disappointingly clubby compared to summer tours or autumn internationals against the acknowledged kingly beasts and champions of the game – the Tri-Nations posse. Either way, don’t look away so prematurely, so part-time-supportedly, so uninformedly now. Because quite frankly if you invest a touch more of your time into appreciating what these backs and forwards are up to, you may well find it’s shockingly expressive of the greater sporting instincts. Those that touch pause engage upon support; heart; camaraderie. Remember them?

Look away now… and over here!

Certain things remained unsaid. So here they are- well, some of them

  • France are ordinary. (Okay, I said that but it bears repeating.)
  • Sharples was unfortunate to be Yellowed and Yellows matter. He was also, I thought, guilty of either that Rabbit-in-headlights emotion or lack of focus at two or three moments. Couple of pretty embarrassing ‘tackles’ which will not be acceptable.
  • So Strettle will come immediately back in, if fit.
  • Is it just me or are people generally enjoying Ashton’s current malaise? Despite another relatively low-key performance he made a sensational midfield hit which led directly to Tuilagi’s outstanding try. He’s got something; if he gets his rugby-player-not-football-player head back on… look out. That’s if he’s not dropped for that penalty clanger. Mouth!
  • Morgan had at least two superb breaks, where he looked spookily fleet of foot for a big man… and then showed fabulous hands to offload cutely out the back door – on one occasion putting Foden directly in. A huge find for England.
  • It was commented upon by the indomitable Mr B Moore esq, but worth noting that brotherly backslapping from England backs to packmeisters after great work in the scrum. Almost as though they’re on the same side!! (Moore made a brilliantly astute comment about English moral victories in the scrum (in Paris) opening up a wound in the ‘French psyche’.)
  • Croft, as all have observed was massive; in Lineout and in the loose; everywhere. His pace and the nature of his movement around Rougerie for the try was class.
  • The removal of Beauxis when a drop was almost inevitably going to be key was surely mad. Trinh Duc has barely gotten on the pitch and he has that dumped on him? Nah.
  • Farrell was really very good again- but not perfect. Bad penno miss and mixed kicking from hand. But his tackling was often stunning. Quite possibly in pole position for Lions 10 berth, amazingly.
  • Lastly, England did really very well. Their united white wall for the last ten was impressive. France, however, looked like strangers.

Oh England my lionheart?

I may junk this first sentence because you may not get how treble-edgedly smart it is – how both insinuatingly and philosopho-buntingly alive it is – despite appearances. Let’s try…

It’s a big week for England.

So big it needs exposure; like some craggy castle or monkish retreat now unveiled as home to bulging but youthful talents previously hushed by authoritarian loonies. Like Capello; or Johnson; or Margaret Thatcher – Boadicea! So big because two magisterial rivals come to call, bringing again their frankly superior entourage of exotic skills. Wales and Holland; the passionate and the cool. Welsh brio again soon to be anthemically lit by amply-lunged, prop-proportioned women in red; Dutch ease fanned by a sea of orange madmen in Wember-ley.

A zenith of sports-cultural counter-activity approacheth, or so it feels, as “Gwlad” rehearses itself in the dingle-dell that is the red soul of Wales and the misleadingly understated Nederlandpeeps fold their tangoesque flags. Buildup of a particularly rich, vocal and simmeringly intense quality is building up. In Wales a low appreciative hum has begun to throb as news of the return of Warburton and Wynne-Jones and Lydiate has slid ominously around. You don’t need to know the Welsh for “kop that bach” to sense the tectonically impressive confidence around the confrontation with Lancaster’s undemonstrative charges. No arrogance yet, but a belief amongst the star-hung valleys that Wales rugby – with the stamp of world-wide approval – has a real current supremacy throughout these allegedly United Kingdoms.

And Holland, who despite their comparatively low ebb, are expected to carouse serenely around the very emblem of ‘our patch’ like the special edition Martin Dobsons or Alan Hudsons we know them to be. Sometimes almost cruelly or arrogantly brilliant, Dutch sides have a habit of quietly handing out a lesson or twelve in the art of composure and ball retention. Admittedly this does not always end in victory but typically it does end in the revelation of inadequacy amongst their English oppo’s. Such is the potential for embarrassment against this particularly Dutch capacity to bypass traditional (anglo-saxon?) confrontation (er… by passing) that I am clear Stu Pearce’s selection of tumbling youth is made in full consciousness of the likely outcome of a ‘full-strength side’ competing. They’d get quietly outplayed, probably, as usual.

Cynical? Perhaps. But the selection of a slack handful of worthy young’uns removes fears of more than one variety. In truth I expect the starting line-up for England to look… how can I put it…? Unreckless. In a squad looking frankly short of top talent – remember the Terrys’, the Ferdinands, the Lampards, for all their diverse frailties did have international quality – a 4-4-1-1 of Hart/Richards,Jones,Smalling, Cole/Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Young/Rooney/Sturridge or pretty similar might be our strongest available. Expect run-outs or more from Cleverley and Wellbeck as additional elements of youff-encouragement. The chronic shortage of goal-keeping back-up remains an issue, as do the centre-half slots and arguably the striker(s). Can we swap a right back with somebody, I wonder?

But let’s not kid ourselves. The rugby is infinitely more tantalising a prospect. Stuart (Clive Woodward School of Smart Blandness?) Lancaster has done a decent-plus job of bringing England round from their World Cup hangover. He sits somewhere between articulate Yorkie schoolteacher and Rugby Bore in a way that worries me slightly; like Woodward he might seem inadequate and slightly out of time if England lose anywhere badly. Currently – as they have managed to win bravely but fairly badly in Italy and in Scotland – he remains untested in that respect. (A diversionary footnote here; did anyone else who saw Woodward’s ‘mare of a performance on Hardtalk the other night – dull/reeking of fusty anoraks – question how much of All That Stuff He Achieved was actually down to him, I wonder?)

New model Stuart L’s England have played like a side run along well-propounded dictums; solidly and with conservative purpose rather than inspiration. Hodgson’s absence for this weekend has – in the great tradition of Best Teams Selected By Injury – realigned an especially well balanced English back line; one that may yet prove to be exceptional. Half-backs Dickson and Farrell; centres Barritt and Tuilagi; wings Strettle and Ashton; Foden at full back. This is a good lineup. It has composure in defence and power and the possibility for electrification going forward. What it lacks, relatively, is of course experience (and tries?) placing a huge burden upon young Farrell at pivot.

But Farrell seems very much the unflappable type – possibly even culturally so, given his lineage. Whether a close-quarters encounter with Sam Warburton’s ludicrously enhanced biceps might change this impression is hard to predict… but Owen does seem unflappable. He gathers, he kicks. He plays within himself and almost certainly within the (arguably fairly limited?) game plan. Given that England are not likely to stray too ambitiously from a containing/territorial game against the gifted Welsh the likelihood may be that a tightish affair ensures; unless somewhere a dam breaks.

On the colourifically-aspirational side for the whites, the selection of Tuilagi amplifies hopes for some liberation from repeatedly prompt felling of English attackers at the gainline. This boy can run. And the way he runs suggests a love of that simple pleasure – cradling the ball whilst sinuously, boy-in-the-parkfully rampaging up the pitch. Indeed the battle of the centres in this match (both Roberts and the now fully-emerged Davies surely Lions-in-waiting in every sense?) could be either (oh go on, take those liberties!) swervaciously or, more prosaically crunchingly magnificent. It really could be wonderful – would that England come out and play!

They probably won’t. Certainly not early on. Surely? Even if the quadruple-bluff of an immediate Barbarian-style English onslaught has fabulous appeal, surely they won’t. Coaching thoroughbred that he is, Lancaster will have them ear-twitchingly prepared; nose-bagged up; with a freshly-pressed but learned-by-rote game plan. The skipper will lead his men nobly. Morgan and Dickson will be ready. Foden will have the occasional foray. But the occasion will demand foremost that the dam not be breached. And anything further… becomes a bonus, an opportunity, as Lancaster might say, upon which we must capitalise.

Blandishments aboundeth? I’m personally fed up with the word ‘mentality’ tripping so pretentiously/unpretentiously from the rehearsed mouthings of the England camp. So much that I’m going to use it and leg it past, sharpish – treat it like the stink-bomb it is. The quality of this match will depend far too much I’m afraid on the mentality of the men in white. They have it in their hands to deliver us something sensational but the reality is likely to be ordinary.

Previously I have waxed – and then some – on the profound successes of the Welsh. If they do, as I think they may, go to Twickenham and again demonstrate the kind of fearless yet focused rugby fizzing with the simple joys then they will march on with the support of the morally-enhanced majority. A classic ding-dong confrontation, in which a rejuvenated England play a full part until Welsh brilliance finally denies them, is surely the ideal scenario – even England fans might appreciate that? Eventually.

Talentspotting.

I like to waffle on about the expression of talent; the role of coaches as receptors or guardians of that magical stuff. How it can seem blisteringly obvious that player x or y has simply ‘got it’. How essential this ability to read gifts really is. How often we think we’re right when… you know…

I’m aware of course that this athletically coiled cyclical meta-discourse is kindof sprung from some despicable arrogance on my part – namely the assumption or belief that I know or understand or have the gift myself of identifying and appreciating the level of god-given wotnots parading before me at any given time. If that is inferred by the following, in my defence, might I say – with hands gathered apologetically if not pathetically around my head – I only allow myself this shocking indulgence on the following grounds;

  1. I freely open up this indulgence to everyone, ‘allowing’ and enjoying the multi-faceted banterfest that we might then serve up (scampi and chips-in-a-basket-style?) as the essential craic, as pub-talk, prompted to then flourish as debate rather than monologue
  2. I’m happy enough to be publicly wrong
  3. My contribution to this aforementioned (sporting) debate is reasonably well-informed, because I know and live and love sport- for its daft majesty, its laughable life-or-deathness, its ludicrous capacity to bewitch; I love sport.

And I meander through this NOW because following the beginning of my own new season of coaching yesterday, those perennial markers begin to spring or flicker once more. Boy A (8) times and middles a straight drive in a ‘knockabout game’ to eye-moistening perfection. Girl B (9) takes an absurdly good catch, substantially after the ball’s flown past. OOFF!! That… is brillee-yunt. Beautifully, life-affirmingly brilliant. Speaking personally, these quietly defining moments, that give us such an opportunity to enthuse and support, are both a delight and an inspiration. All the more so because the inspiration – the dripfeed of mini-triumphs – reccurs.

The transferability or contextualisation or rating of these gemlike examples of skills is the business of the coach. Somewhere we need to be weighing them as well as filing them away for reference. In my own, current case this is particularly fascinating and even demanding because this is the first time I have seen most of the wee talents gallivanting before me. Ultimately though – after much entertainment and encouragement – a team has to be picked. At every level, this is both an endpoint and the new beginning for continual reassessment; for when matches begin so does that frisson around pressure; who can live off that adrenalin, who might crumple? At every level pressure exists… and counts, bringing us back into this precious kaleidoscope where skill level and belief and confidence are shifted around. The coach has to predict who is most likely to thrive under the vagaries of the moment, the opposition, the conditions, the various overlapping psychologies. Knowing who to choose for what is a fascinating and a fraught enterprise- and a hugely revealing one. No wonder we’re all doing it… picking our teams.

A brief scan of current sporting scenarios of various sorts throws up a couple of what Sue Barker is probably calling Sporting Conundrums. They both present rich territory for the coach or the fan to sink deep in the quicksand of the Decision-making Process. Enter on the one hand Martin O’Neil – recently appointed Manager of Sunderland AFC – and on the other, more muscled wing Stuart Lancaster, the new Head Coach of England Rugby.

O’Neil is the likeable but rather serious new gaffer at the ambitiously titled Stadium of Light, Sunderland. (No – let’s get off that fence – at the completely ludicrously named Stadium of Light, Sunderland. At the ground that has every chance Brian, of being renamed The Stadium Where The Northern Lights May Possibly Occasionally Be Visible Given Recent And No Doubt Ongoing Meteorological Events. (Sunderland.) But I digress…)

The point about O’Neil is that he is by common appreciation one of the great motivators around and is therefore a focus no doubt for study/gobsmacked hagiography around the matter – the reality – of his ability to coach. In a matter of weeks he has utterly transformed the nature of his club, from that of a (self-?)defensive also-ran with little, brittle or no confidence to one broiling with ambition, fight and the type of lungbursting commitment unthinkable three months ago. But am I right in thinking that even those close to the team itself talk unspecifically of MO’s general gift for enthusing and generating belief rather than any revolutionary tactical nous? So what is it, exactly, that is succeeding so well here?

Clearly O’Neil’s sides do have a particular shape and energy; they also characteristically have a robust team ethic rather than say… a galactico-led swagger. But what seems to be key is simply a faith in the boss and a willingness to give freely to the cause. Players buy in to a refreshing and often inspiring O’Neil picture of how things might be. An infectious mixture of positivity and generous, not to say near unbeatable work-rate appears to be remarkably swiftly engineered in a fashion which seems mysterious, yet is surely ‘only’ the result of great management of individuals (as individuals) and outstandingly peppy pep-talking. Individually and collectively, those Sunderland players will now run through fire for O’Neil and for the club; suddenly, they believe.

We’d have to have the privilege of being absolutely (as Martin might say) on the inside to get further than this fans-eye appreciation of what O’Neil actually does. But it’s clear to all of us, is it not, that he’s got something special working for him? Maybe something particularly attractive because it feels like it’s to do with a kind of honesty?

Stuart Lancaster has certain things in common with Martin O’Neil. He’s a bloke; he’s articulate. But the style of motivation is surely less hands-on in his case, or, my suspicion is, less heart-on-sleeve; making it different in its non-personal or less personal nature. I am currently fascinated by choices Lancaster has to make; choices of the sort we all make whether as coaches at local level or as armchair punters berating our alleged superiors in sport.

The England boss has sounded rather bland to me; now Lancaster the man has to emerge, has to decide for example whether or not to change a winning side now that key(?) talents have become available to him; Courtenay Lawes, Manu Tuilagi and Toby Flood. This is a juicy one, a defining moment in my view, for off the top of my head I can think of the following live issues around selecting these guys and/or dropping their colleagues.

  • Some coaches really don’t change a winning side
  • To accommodate Lawes a lock has to be jettisoned; despite the unconvincing nature of the England lineout there is an argument that they defended manfully in both games and that 4 and 5 played a significant part in this(?)
  • Yes, but Lawes is better/more athletic/more of a dynamic force around the pitch
  • Tuilagi has to play, he is simply the most gifted and terrifying centre England have
  • Barritt is undroppable currently, even if he is less of an attacking threat
  • Farrell is undroppable currently, because of his composure
  • Flood must play if fit – he was underappreciated previously and was nailed on starter at ten before his injury
  • Hodgson has done reasonably well and scored two tries from chargedowns!
  • The England attack, despite its novelty value and its relative youth, has rarely attacked…

Mere starters in the racing jumble of factors the England Coach must rate and then relate to those quivering hearts in the dressing-room. Who goes? On what basis? We know that these days all things are tracked and measured – from tackle counts to yardage gained. But where does intuition kick in, if ever? How do you measure the balance of a team – the way personalities as well as gifts complement or undermine success? What, even, is success? Playing wonderfully at your limits or in some dirge-like state of control? Does Lancaster really want to liberate his team, or does he want to win? Does this coach view those concepts as mutually exclusive?

What’s your hunch?