Killjoy.

The World Cup opener was difficult to enjoy. Disappointing on many levels, from the dreadful slowness of the TMO to the dreadful inability of the England side to protect their ball in contact.

After a genuinely uplifting opening ceremony which audibly thrilled a supremely expectant and supportive crowd, it was difficult to imagine England playing without inspiration – without verve, even. They managed that with something to spare, resorting to (alleged) type in that they were unattractively un-free – not in an entirely Martin Johnson era kindofaway but in a fashion that makes their bottle ultimately… suspect. Play like this against the AB’s, Springboks or Australia and the North-South divide will be swiftly and emphatically re-stated.

Come the final whistle most of the watching world could be forgiven for not giving a toss about the allegedly critical bonus point issue. The quality of things had been so (ahem) ‘mixed’ that only Mike Brown resembled a top international close to his optimum. England – as hosts, favourites on the night and with magnificent positive energy driving them on – should have shown us all something different; something better. They were simply not comfortable enough in the moment to get things done.

Which of course begs the question ‘why?’

Why did the occasionally outstandingly perceptive and always articulate Jonny W – inevitably but rightly gathered in by the ITV RWC2015 machine – observe after halfway that the game plans for both sides were pretty much unobservable? Because they were. Fiji we forgive for their big-hearted amateurishness – England no. We’ll have fun debating whether the essence of this lack was about inadequate strategy or execution or if it was more about dearth of personality on the park. I slightly favour the latter.

The red scrum was unsteady and both Youngs and Ford at halfback floated things rather than zapped them. May and Watson (possibly through no fault of their own) were absent. The skipper only began to make inroads or show that noble bearing of his late, late on. Prior to this Fiji disrupted everything with embarrassing ease and provided the marquee moment of the game when their scrum half engaged warp-factor eighty from the halfway line but spilled the ball during touchdown. (It may prove in fact that the marquee moment followed, as the TMO/ref combo contrived to re-invent the wheel – or rather the rules – in correctly un-awarding an awarded try; in doing so providing the rugby universe with a cosmically fundamental challenge to the refereeing process.)

But back to the game, which bundled towards PR Disasterdom given the painful volume of interruptions and the frankly poor fare on the pitch.

England got a lead and therefore the cushion they needed but smothered themselves with confusion when not being knocked back by determined Islanders. There was little in the way of Bobby Moor(e)-ish calm from the men in the ‘66 shirts. On 70 minutes Lancaster, who doesn’t appear to have a raging gear, must have been outsourcing the necessary expletives to Farrell senior and Rowntree. On 80, he might be forgiven for heaving a huge sigh of relief before assaulting the nearest bottle of something punishingly alcohol-rich.

Like Keegan K, after a memorably dismal Show Pony of-a performance, the England Egg-chaser’s Gaffer may not have wanted to see his charges ‘til the next century’; somebody, surely, however needed to fume with a degree of violence towards the players post-game, despite the ‘achievement’ of a bonus-point win.

Was it really as bad as all that? Nearly. There was a momentary surge of the irresistible as forwards then forward-back Barritt rampaged a driving maul to the line (and a penalty try.) There was Brown. There was, in truth almost nothing else. Somewhere, I felt a Gatland bristle… and smile.

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More than this.

Maybe it’s only through the rear-view window that the fascinations of this third Six Nations weekend reveal themselves. Having driven on, I can see that what last time out felt like the death of Gatlandball may be the start of something yet. Suddenly strange to think of an uninspiring but robustly competent Welsh performance in France as in any way pivotal but Ireland’s rumbustious, Sexton-centric win over England had the feel of pressures – maybe edges? – closing in around it. As we all chug along together towards the Rugby World Cup it’s not just us passengers who are shuffling for that energising ride… those mythical box seats.

Broadly, with Ireland playing for forty-something minutes and losing their mighty fulcrum to injury, there may be an argument that Europe’s finest either are or will simply be no match for New Zealand and South Africa when this admittedly significant preamble is over. Meaning the gulf persists. Meaning the ordinariness of the fayre on Sun afternoon (second half, certainly) points to another domestic scuffle played out beneath, behind the level of the elite. This then to be confirmed, cruelly rubber-stamped by events later in the year.

Negative? Okay. But England were so abject at kicking and catching they lost the right to be considered contenders (unless something pretty remarkable happens). Ireland, whilst having the best team pattern (courtesy the best coach) and that tremendous gnarly will, remain a threat but must pray to gods contemporary and celtic that their number ten stays healthy. Wales emerge again into this because their limitations – Gatlandball itself – simply suit group-stage tournament play. Thus the pack(s) ha-ha, are a-shufflin’.

Saturday had its moments – ‘course it did. But the game at the Stade was relatively ordinary and Scotland bombed disastrously back into that third division; it was – despite the possibility that Wales may yet win this thing – a prelude. Sunday in Ireland was the one; that was what we thought. A win for Gatland against the most extraordinarily and perennially badly organised and under-motivated French was no big deal; France are almost hopeless; Wales are solid and powerful and they have Halfpenny. So what?

Well whilst there remains the possibility that Ireland may find another level and go on to boss this championship (and therefore grasp that momentum we all more-or-less recognise) that feels less likely, does it not, than previously? With Wales if not on the march then certainly re-stating something relatively profound, the drift to dominance of the Irish and arguably the English is stalled. Because Wales really might do Ireland at home… and because England once more marked out the distance yet to travel with a shabby performance in Dublin.

I have to emphasise here, as a critic of the Gatland ethos, that Wales’ one-dimensionality will be obstructive, ultimately, in terms of the World Cup. However as we re-calibrate our appreciation for England downwards, the odds on Wales coming through their mutual ‘group of death’ have risen. Because a spunky and solid Brotherhood of Reds really might do England, or at least the seemingly lost England that lacked discipline, nerve and tactical nous yesterday.

At the Stade de France the natives surely could barely believe that Les Bleus could be so Pollockesque. In their flecked swoops and swooshes they lacked again the majestic prescience – or even science – of the great expressionist. They doodled occasionally and never joined the thing up. Again. It was another trauma, a can-can on marbles for the locals.

As this capacity for Frenchness, for swashbuckling misunderstanding, for the art of duffness, soars yet further into parody so inevitably the Wales win is devalued a notch. Gatland, Howley, McBryde and co may beg to differ. They’ll be quietly congratulating themselves on the long, wise game they’ve been playing. The one that gets them to a World Cup quarter-final – and bollocks to their critics.

The game itself was rarely entertaining. Roberts made a point or two, Halfpenny was metronomic and there may have been just the hint of Davies finding his game. Williams had little opportunity, in truth, but his bow-legged scampering seems to add to the whole. North remains the Giant Who Sleeps – or who is concussed, perhaps, by the system? The try fashioned by Webb and Lydiate and finished by Biggar was the stand-out moment. Searing support runs and a mercurial offload from the back-row man. A killer move that deserved to separate these sides.

Ireland started gloriously against the English, the difference in quality between the respective teams kicking and catching being evident almost from the whistle. Sexton and Murray hoisted well and often, with Bowe and Henshaw racing in to threaten and compete. Ford played well enough, but England’s kicking and kick-chase – or lack of it – were shambolic. It may be that they had made the tactical decision not to compete for their own bombs but this of course meant that the Irish backline could gather unopposed, gain confidence and legspeed and energise the hoolie blowing down the pitch. Everything from England was hoisted ten yards too far.

If this was simply poor execution of a relatively basic skill then 9, 10 and 15 have some serious work to do. If as I suspect Lancaster believed his lads would be big enough, tough and well organised enough to play a containing game and look to break out with devastating effect then the suspicion arises that too much coaching has been going on. All games at all levels are simple. Possession and confidence are key.

Ireland could have been out of sight at half-time. Sexton was dominating the whole pitch, being as powerfully present in the hand-to-hand as he was with that boot. Henshaw and Bowe looked a threat and what the Welsh call the hwyl was visibly up – again, partly because England delivered so much possession into Irish paws. At the break an emphatic win for Schmidt seemed overwhelmingly likely. But things did change.

After about 50 minutes, England stirred and Ireland were finally retreating. (It may not have been a coincidence that around this time Sexton walked gingerly from the park reaching for his hamstring). Weirdly, England’s kicking and catching continued to be disastrous but with Easter and maybe Wrigglesworth, things lifted. The backs freed their legs once or twice. Astonishingly for me, the mundane Twelvetrees came on when the deficit at this point cried out for Ford at 10 and Cipriani at 12.

Predictably, England’s bench made a difference but Lancaster’s use of it was as poor as his side’s execution throughout. There was a fleeting sense of a gallant come-back… but then no. The Irish deservedly held out. In the win, however, there were concerns; that reliance on Sexton being foremost. Here’s hoping that the brilliant Schmidt will not be too satisfied with what he saw. Us Europeans will need more than this, come September.

There must be dash.

Let’s get the confessions over with. I thought a 12-point win was more likely than not, for Wales. I doubted that England would find either the inviolable fight or the flow to counter Wales’s customary booming and pillaging. I thought the multitude of changes would count against the away team and that the alleged shift towards ambition and ball-in-hand creativity would fail, again, to materialise. Despite the accidental discovery of a spookily exciting centre-pairing, (I thought) England would retreat into the safety of their shells… and be duly steamrollered by Roberts and North.

I was wrong. England not only deservedly won, but their confidence, movement and athleticism – even when 10 points down – made Wales look pedestrian; one-dimensional; lost.

In mitigation I swear I was aware of this possibility – that one mildly revelatory day pretty soon Wales would get found out – I just didn’t think Friday, with home advantage and cruel injury conspiring in the reds favour, would be that moment. It was, and this means Gatland has problems.

It’s a while, in truth, since he was broadly loved and the resurgence of any warmth towards the abrasively dour Pack Leader now seems deeply unlikely. Post the event in Wales the phones and columns and consoling bar-fronts remain a-buzz with stinging rebukes. The sense is that Wales have gone cosy in a bad way; dumb and intransigent rather than brotherly and fiery; sleepy, almost and dull in every meaning of the word. (Please note; the Welsh equate ‘dull’ with stupid.) The finger points very much at the coach.

Folks – well, cognoscenti – from Mold to Machynlleth have jabbed accusatively for years. ‘Gatland only knows one way!’ ‘S a team full of bison, mun!’ ‘How can he not pick Williams (L)?!?’

The counter-argument to the Kiwi’s approach may ironically be more old-school than his own. It’s predicated on that innately Welsh view of the game as a marvel, a flicker, a scramble. A field for feints and dummies and yes – intuitions. Even in the days of wall-to-wall giants (the theory goes) there must be dash; there must be timing. How else can the hwyl be expressed?
Great hands and dancing feet are likewise enmeshed into this ideal. They legitimise it.

If this implies some spurious/generous hierarchy then fine. The aspiration is for finer sport, for success through skilled excellence – through versatility, comfort with the ball, awareness. Welsh rugby fans identify with this and believe it works.

In this context, Gatland Time feels gone, or superceded. At fifty minutes, when everything cried out for some uncorking of the spirit and Liam Williams remained surplus… we knew it was gone. Thirty minutes previously, when despite being ten points down England found a gearing beyond Wales’s scope, and the Welsh support began already to drift, an understanding emerged. The cauldron ran out of fire. And it was England fans who roared.

As the game rushed away from Wales, Haskell stumbled or was thrown seemingly blindfold against an upright and Attwood was denied by a contentious intervention from the TMO. (I reckon seven out of ten officials would have judged the crossing/blocking of the Welsh defender to be insufficiently relevant to the score to have wiped it out.) Meaning England might well have scored a further fourteen points. Joseph and Watson did cross – the centre corkscrewing through three defenders and the wing profiting from a deft nudge through from Brown. Lancaster’s ‘B Team’ were not just storming to an emphatic win, they were (shock, horror, probe) doing it in style.

Gatland countered at the end by blaming ‘individual errors’, citing a Rhys Webb kick as key. That felt unnecessary – some would say cheap. Sure mistakes are always important but the systemic differences were plain to see. England, without Launchbury, Lawes, etc etc, re-invented themselves as entertainers and Men Of Action – this time for real. The battalions gathered under the heading of England Coaching Staff, after much pontification on the subjects of culture and ‘execution’, seemed vindicated.

As immaculately conceived theory became practice, young Ford seemed to have donned some protective cloak; without being flawless he was supremely immune to the occasion. Backs play broke out. Brown again located classy and alarmingly confident mode. Joseph and Burrell both stepped and hit; Robshaw owned the place. Whilst not entirely in sustained rampage mode, England had an authentic, collectively charged energy about them, such that the second half became a mild under-achievement at a thirteen nil massacre. It was the kind of victory that really can mark out something new; a landmark or ‘stepping stone’ as Lancaster likes to say, along a more significant journey.

The positives for England are of course negatives for Gatland and for some of his players. Given the comparative shallowness of his squad there may be few opportunities for energising swerves in selection. Cuthbert, Davies and possibly North and Roberts may, however, feel vulnerable. It’s the gaffer, though, for me, who is most exposed.

There’s an important postscript to all this – bigger than this one apparently defining encounter.

My timeline on twitter (@bowlingatvinny) has been broiling with rage and indignation around the hi-jacking of ‘these events’. The Friday Night scheduling, the pre-game, super-bowlesque in-your-faceness, the pricing and the essential often grotesque booziness of the affair is clearly offending a great many genuine fans. They think much of this is anti-rugby – or at least irrelevant to or subversive of the real rugby experience. And they aren’t all miserable sixty-year-olds. Most love and understand the game and get no obvious pleasure from having a moan. They’re protective people. They object, indeed they are hurt by the combination of high ticket prices and faux-carnival ambience, responsible, in their view, for the shrillness, fickleness and increasing presence of the Millenium (or Twickers) dilletantes. There may always be snobbery around such things but there seems no doubt that a percentage of contemporary punters get international tickets without (actually) getting the game.

How fine it would be to somehow sort all that. But the crass crashes and bangs and wallops are surely here to stay? (God forbid they can only get crashier and bangier). They’re locked into or wrapped up in the ‘whole corporate or consumer experience’.

Research, I imagine, has pointed to us punters needing or expecting or remaining unfulfilled when shorn of flame-thrown excitement. We cannot conceive of mystery and magic without dry ice so they give us… dry ice.

How sad, how cynical to be pedaling this joyless garbage. I mean… did these people never catch a ball and run?

Negative Momentum?

Today may offer very different challenges but for Wales and England there is a common dread of real, terminal slippage, of that irreversible lurch against them. Consequently, despite the laughably thin logic of coming over all too prematurely determinist pre- the 6 Nations, never mind the gert big event beyond, the psychological becomes, well… key.

But am I the only one fearing that deep down in a hushed, flip-chart-hung room, some immaculate but track-suited member of that omnipresent crew The Backroom Staff will be hovering over the spelling of the phrase ‘negative momentum?’ Me, I can picture that at both Twickers and the Millenium: both camps are clawing back against the invisible – fascinatingly.

Wales have look drained of both fire and inspiration for best part of two years; England less so but for a side with recently genuine hopes of a meaningful World Cup challenge they are looking muddled. The Autumn Internationals have become a scramble to escape with dignity – never mind hope – intact. For both home nations this means at least one win against a former Tri-nations giant and/or an invincibly fizzing display against game islanders. Gone already is the dream of making a powerful statement.

England were so soundly dismissed by both the Springboks and the AB’s that any talk of injuries affecting their preparation seemed as unconvincing as the performances themselves. (And yet they were and are disproportionately affected.) Wales fluffed their own opening lines when disappointing so acutely against the South’s most beatable monsters – the Wallabies – and the further compounding of red misery a week later was closer to inevitable than predictable after a game where the visitors were, despite the closeness of the score, patently simply playing at a higher level.

If we commit (for now) the cardinal sin of ignoring Irish gambols and Scots gameness, it seemed from the outset that this Autumn International Series was no different to the others, in that The Gap ‘tween North and South persists, flourishes even; depressingly.
This all runs counter to theories about small margins so (in quiet desperation?) let’s indulge in some of that speculative/restorative stuff that yaknow, makes our sporting world go round… and entertains us.

There is a degree of unanimity over Lancaster’s on-field problems. Lack of creativity; poor instincts or hesitation in the backs. Whilst accepting all that I proffer a further, admittedly worryingly tangential theory that a more broadly full-strength England pack might have gone past the relative parity with the AB’s and Springboks into a position of strength, from which The Girls might have found some time and space to express… thereby making even the choice of individuals selected in the backs less critical. (Stay with me for one minute.)

So sure, highlight the lack of fluency at halfback and centre but it may be that (for example) a Launchbury-less England was inevitably diminished because that young man has felt central to the exercise of control.

Control implies confidence as well as enabling measured periods of possession – phases – where ideas are played out. So often these ideas – these possibilities – are butchered through haste or nerves or through lack of belief… which again depends on that platform. What you seek as a coach is that the exercise of control frees up – truly frees up! – the individual player to play instinctively and beyond the ordinary. Blokes like Launchbury – playing with composure, with intelligence, in the heat of the smashathon – enable this wonderful transition by spreading their beautiful contagion around the park, around the team.

Pity then that the crunchingly abrasive nature of the modern game seems to deny the possibility for a prolonged partnership at lock or anywhere else. I am unable to point to a sustained period where Launchbury has been a fixture in some well-oiled machine and maybe this undermines me. Maybe this is just another hunch but I like the fellah’s quiet – quiet but telling – influence.

So my Bloke Wot England Missed is Launchbury. Despite accepting both that picking Farrell was a classic mistake – Lancaster preferring the durable to the dancier – and that the centre-pairings have, predictably failed to gel.

(The fabulous irony here may be that great teams win almost irrespective of individual selection(s) because their control and their confidence. Lancaster understands this, aspires to it and thinks of it as ‘culture.’ However in the absence of some admittedly outstanding players, he has not personally or otherwise found the means to raise his side towards this pinnacle. Both New Zealand and South Africa remain above. And currently, England look to be sliding.)

Wales are different. The ether itself is different here, the people’s link to the national side is more umbilical than casual – as in England. There’s something profound and delicious and invigorating about the importance of rugby to the people – as there is in New Zealand. It may be superfluous to reiterate that both nations identify themselves through the sport; that something in its rawness and valour and crazy honourability validates both. I go there (again) because it feels relevant; rugby really is ‘everything’.

Things differ though; in Wales there is no deep pool of talent, meaning yet again they must look to find or draw on something special to defeat the All Blacks. For that unlikely scenario to unfold, surely the Millennium crowd has to be lifted somewhere joyfully stratospheric. Though the nation will arrive suitably primed and ready to respond – firstly through a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Gwlad’ in response to the haka, later through genuinely wonderfully hearty informal anthems – George North or Jonathan Davies may have to set the place alight.

Man for man the All Blacks are better; nobody doubts it. They are arguably the finest team in world sport. Their skipper is simply remarkable, having hauled himself through 99 tests so far as captain – this in a side where competition for places is extraordinary. McCaw will lead his men with icy brilliance, being as effective without the ball as with it – no-one in rugby has understood or enacted work around the breakdown more successfully than he. He is that rarest of things the magnificent thief. The All Black back row unit have, year after year, unpicked then dismembered their opposite numbers to the extent that they epitomise the AB spirit. They will not be beaten.

So what can Gatland do? He will no doubt be counselling for focus; ‘do your jobs’. He will talk an expansive game in front of the press but surely look to offer nothing for nothing to these illustrious opponents. Somehow – somehow! – he must inspire some real belief in his men that they can not only create openings (and tries) but then remain constant against The Machiniest of Machines. He will have worked heavily, of course, on plays that might lever open the AB defence but he will know that their resilience is second to none. He will have concluded that this is a real test.

Wales will be hoping and dreaming that Davies – whom I fear for in terms of his fitness but rate highly – may find some magic. He is one of relatively few conjurors for Wales. Others, like Roberts and North may burst rather than bewilder. I note in passing that Liam Williams is worthy hugely unfortunate to be on the bench; his guts as well as his agility mark him out as a proper Welsh back and a man worthy of occasions such as these.

Sadly, I cannot see a Wales win. To re-discover that peak 6 Nations form and fire seems too unlikely and too big an ask against the world’s best. But what I love about today is that for all the preparation and the awareness of responsibilities/line-speed/discipline, Wales’ greatest hope may really be… in the crowd, in their belief, in their Welshness.

Postscript.

In brief England were strangely non-lethal once more and Wales were in the game for best part of seventy minutes before an unusually fallible New Zealand cuffed them away, late on.  Robshaw tackled and led outstandingly well, without managing to look like a truly outstanding player and Mike Phillips proved unable to fill Rhys Webb’s relatively diminutive boots.  George North had a mare.

Samoa were never going to provide top top opposition but they were expected to bruise English pride and English bodies.  This they managed without ever losing their shape or discipline in the way of old.  Sure they conceded a yellow for a lateish highish hit but this was arguably harsh.  In an underwhelming but safe victory Ford did well, overall and Mike Brown showed more signs of a return to international form.  Lancaster however will have learned very little from a fixture that was neither light relief nor ultimately competitive; there was no sense of anyone grabbing the opportunity or the game by the proverbial scruff.

At The Millenium the crowd did ‘do their bit’ following Webb’s stirring of the cauldron but the AB’s  rose characteristically supremely to usurp any crescendo, finishing the match in that familiar cruise-crush-control mode.  They had been reined back towards the ordinary for much of the encounter by generally superb line-speed and commitment from the Welsh and by a notably brave and level-headed Biggar.

Roberts and Davies did ask questions but line-outs malfunctioned and scrums were mixed.  In essence, despite the AB’s appearing mortal for the first hour, Wales could not quite find the moment to transcend.  They were goodish and they were in it but they never quite punctured the ordinary: players and crowd remained defiantly hopeful without breaking through into full-on, AB-competitive ecstasy.  McCaw and co contained the thing and then found again that relentless intensity that is their own.

The excellent Webb’s retirement to the bench proved pivotal when his replacement Mike Phillips – dropped for lack of dynamism – telegraphed a box-kick and was nailed.   Brave, brave Wales were then dispatched, like all the rest.

What this means , in terms of the World Cup?  Possibly nothing – the 6 Nations lies between, remember.  But both England and Wales have to find their X-factor before they can expect to challenge… each other in that group. They seem unlikely, right now, to be challenging for the trophy.

The distance yet to travel…

I’m not sure yet whether I’m fascinated or merely cynical about the upbeat responses from the England and Wales camps following today’s fairly routine snuffing out of their previously foamy optimism. Wales I thought were palpably (but okaaay marginally) second best to an Australian side whose backs transferred their theoretical superiority into fact and England – allegedly building, allegedly threatening – were dismissed by the All Blacks machine.

Warburton, pitchside post the game, found himself somewhere between outright apology and defiance

we work our absolute nuts off… it’s getting so very close

but something in his manner was necessarily capitulating to that unhelpful series of facts – of defeats – against the Wallabies, who remain, as he well knows, the most beatable of the Southern Giants. Sam is a classy player and a classy bloke; half of Wales though, is wondering if his niceness is part of the problem.

Stuart Lancaster was likewise politely un-bullish. He spoke well as always and for the most part desisted from the path which surely must have tempted – the list of unfortunate absences. That Courtenay Lawes joined this list fairly early might have further supported any mithering about fate being either cruel, or a cruel Kiwi. Afterwards, the erudite Yorkshireman spoke of his

confidence in the direction we are moving in

but he will surely be a tad disappointed in the event of a further stutter when he had hoped, a month or two back, for an energising charge.

For fear I wander alarmingly close to my specialist subject – psycho-cobblers – let me add that Steve Hansen, when asked if the win for his All Blacks might represent an important ‘psychological advantage’ going into next year’s Rugby World Cup, spat out the following

…(it’s a) load of baloney.

He’s right, (probably) but to castrate the occasion of all of its ‘significance’ is simply to spoil the fun, right? So onward.

From the hearth of the pub for the Millenium game, I first and foremost enjoyed that uniquely welsh baloney-fest, especially during a first half that conga-ed passed us like some junior festival on Dolly Mixtures. (Yes. Those kinds of Dolly Mixtures). After a flurry of ‘great tries’ or ‘appalling bloody great gaps, mun!’ a whole lot of genial banter plus some outstanding and informed appreciation pinged round the room, washed down with early bevvies and some elite-level abuse for the referee. If Wales were ‘too slow’, ‘too unimaginative’ and ‘lacked passion’, Craig Joubert – the Man Who Will be Central – was described erm, more colourfully. It was good sport.

If you don’t happen to have access to either a pub or (ideally) Wales then let me tell you really do learn stuff from all this yaknow – researching. It became immediately clear from within the hostelry’s Brotherhood of Redness – all ages and genders, with most kitted out with either a Wales jersey or a face the colour of a Wales jersey – that the relative quiet of the actual stadium (15,000 seats unsold?) was significant. It reflects the broad understanding in Wales that the national side are a step behind, currently, as well as being a simple marker of the cruel nature of the price of a ticket.

Wales knows where Wales RFC stand; the difficulty and arguably the irony is that the country (or rather the rugby team of the country) might surely stand prouder and taller and higher in those informal rankings should a full-on maximum houseful turn up in Cardiff.

Much is written about the Millenium Stadium, most of it complimentary to the point of delirious. It’s good, no question but only special when switched to Dragon’s Cauldron mode, when bursting with fans and with song. It may be unscientific but it strikes me that a performance from Wales is particularly responsive to, or reliant upon the quality of the crowd. This may be to do with the genuinely central role rugby plays here.

But the baloneymeter just twitched, violently. Cuthbert dropped a simple catch in the first seconds/Wales were beaten by a better team/Australia toss it around tidy, like/Wales were 100% on their own line-out. These are some of the ‘facts’. Did they help? Anyone?

England came into this series after a genuine period of gathering. By that I mean they really are getting closer to the former Tri-Nations masters-of-the-universe. The man Lancaster has established that essential or ball-breakingly dull phenomena a ‘culture’. There is a shared purpose, there is focus and there is talent at his disposal. The potential is there for England to challenge – everybody.

Prior to kick-off I defy anyone to convincingly carry the general truths of the last ten years (that New Zealand would be simply be far too good to get beat) into today; the difference between is now minimal. This is Lancaster’s triumph – not that he would be triumphal about it – because even momentum is baloney when compared to silverware (next year). Just tough then, that England were secretly hurting over the loss of Launchbury, Tuilagi etc etc and that they cursed and grieved the denuding of their strength in depth. No matter now that well, soonish their bench may be fleshed out more powerfully than the AB’S. Today that prospect means nothing.

Why? Because the All Blacks won. Despite England getting ahead; despite a try for a flashing England winger in the first few minutes; despite a semi-drowned out haka. England looked competitive, truly, for what? Forty minutes? Then the men from the south cranked up and on and past. Again.

It’s the job of Lancaster, Farrell, Gatland and Howley to make sense of this stuff. They do know where they stand and the distance yet to be travelled. They have to make choices and pray folks stay fit: it ain’t easy.

One micro-e.g. After today’s confrontations Gatland has to find a pivot from a pool of two. Hook he doesn’t fancy and Priestland the nation at large doesn’t fancy. This is not only a dilemma in the practical sense but it palpitates with meaning in the land of the fly-half factory. Expect some particularly impassioned debate around that baby – some daft bugger might use the world ‘soul’.
Wonder what our mate Mr Hansen would make of all that?

Compare and contrast.

I know it’s daft… but just for the fun of it. Imagine there was some real intellectual weight to those impulses racing round. Imagine you really could make rilly valid points maaan by flicking that switch between footie and rugby realities. Relax; we’re all doing it but only some of us are daft enough to come out.

Hmmm. Hodgson and Lancaster. The one looking last night like a faintly doddering gramps on’t beach, wi’ t bucket an’ spaaaade, ‘n baggie shorts, like. T’other – despite Northern roots – a brightly forward-thinking member (arguably leader) of some new, bold, expansivist tendency, reassuringly or perhaps worryingly word-perfect but plainly succeeding with his revolution towards enlightenment. How the FA could do with er… a swap.

But we know it doesn’t work like that. Stuart’s upward curve, his Smooth Operation is his own – and England rugby’s own. His fondness for setting out both cultural and chronological stepping stones and then (blow me!) stepping neatly over and through them appears not so much justified as brilliantly engineered. His team have gone from dullards to committed dazzlers in no time. Where there was Johnson’s monstrous intransigence there is now hard-earned fizz and buzz – or at least the potential for that. They are dynamic. Rugby England has become a fifteen man game again.

Roy meanwhile appears to be stuck in what feels like the usual quicksand. Players subsumed beneath too much ‘responsibility’ and maybe simply too much fear. Players who can play not playing through… what? Fear that minnows like Honduras might score. Fear of the expectation that goes with being England – even when there is a generational low in that expectation – because England have been so shocking at tournament football for so long?

What IS this thing that so debilitates the whites of Ingerland – the footie whites?
Part of it must surely be lack of inspiration. Roy plainly does not motivate the group; certainly not in the sense of freeing them up. If England do go on to prosper in Brazil, it seems more likely to have been down to an individual moment of brilliance than through general, spring-in-the-stepness. England look dull and often downright wobbly.

Last night’s weirdly storm-affected game was, despite what FA staffers may say, a failure and a waste. The momentum again drifted or went backwards, because England were sloppy and yes, dull. Forwards notably simply often unable to control balls pinged at them; Hart back into that unconfident loop. Wilshere (despite really needing a performance) was infuriatingly close to pitifully wasteful and Rooney unconvincing at best; Sturridge just literally off-target. This week’s golden boy Barkley epitomised something of the oppressed state of things by being almost completely absent, despite playing 10 for half an hour against a poor side, down one man.

As a team England looked short of will, ingenuity, energy. Most of the second period they were what us over-educated scribes term ‘shite’. Rubbish. Against a side who looked largely Sunday League and who lost a bloke after 60-odd minutes. Much of this falls at Hodgson’s door.

In the moment of opportunity, with a team that is known to be limited but which has pace and brightness amongst its cohort, Roy has and will look for steadiness – Wellbeck not Sterling. He will counsel Baines against really ‘bombing on’ – playing his natural role, the one that got him picked – and thereby compound the sense that there’s little chance of breaking out. Just in case they (England) come a cropper. That narrowness, that lack of generosity towards fans, players and the game has been a central flaw in England footie’s approach for years.

I am fascinated by the importance of belief, in sport, as anyone who has read my blogs will have realised. My strong suspicion is that even at the very highest level the role of the coach is massive. This is NOT, I swear, because I happen to be a coach, it’s more about experiences through playing sport at decent (admittedly not elite) level.

The coach needs to be the spark as well as the strategist. It’s not enough to sort team shape. Players need inspiration – license. They need to believe in you the coach and to be liberated not enchained within the system. This is about relations, then, deeply personal stuff. Or rather it perhaps demands an (intuitive?) understanding of personalities – and the ability to touch differing individuals – to get to people. Most of us have been in dressing rooms where nobody listened to the coach, because he/she didn’t have us under that spell. It’s a deeply unsatisfactory experience. But the sharp, communal buzz that comes from maybe just a few words from a coach who is respected (or often loved?) is real sporting magic. Transformative; inspiring; precious.

Stuart Lancaster I have doubted and I still have concerns about his capacity to whole-heartedly inspire. But he is light years ahead of Hodgson in terms of what he has delivered and what he offers. England rugby is/are contenders. They are also entertainers, remarkably transformed when we look at a) their playing style b) selections c) their capacity to gamble.

Lancaster has been bold enough not only to use words like vision with a straight face but to enact change, to step or gambol towards that aspiration. That target is to establish a dynamic and structured and generous (i.e. open, diverse) playing style – that has the guile, power and responsiveness to beat great teams. The England rugby coach doesn’t think conservatism can win him the World Cup but that this new model might. Not only is he right, he deserves to be right.

Defenders of Mr Hodgson might argue that Lancaster has the resources – the players – to go the braver route. And that the footie man doesn’t. In fact I think Hodgson, in the absence of great players has been gifted an extraordinary opportunity. We all know his young fliers are flawed but just how well-equipped are we to play that allegedly mature international cat-and-mouse thing? Far better to say bugger it and let Barkley, Sterling and Sturridge go play. So do it Roy.

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.