… But don’t call this a steppingstone…

After all the talk of key steps towards (you know) 2015 or psychological plusses or markers, England get their win. And Geech puts on record the blandly positivist view – that Lancaster should and would be pleased with how they came through. Fair enough. Except that other than the admittedly reasonably significant fact of the scoreline, very little suggested a further gearing up towards any realistic or legitimate challenge for the World Cup on home soil. In fact much of it felt like a reverse. England were ordinary; disjointed, lacking in dynamism and organisation, unimaginative.

In a relatively poor game in which the opposition’s finest asset – Genia – was barely visible, Australia were still able to coast for the first hour. Only in the final period did England in any sense test the Wallabies defence through fleetness of foot, phases, angles or width. Even then it was hardly fluent and only via a couple of contentious decisions did the critical points come. The whites were lucky and no more than about three of them could feel satisfied with their own contribution. Lancaster would surely be more concerned than pleased.

If that’s a downer then I feel it too. I anticipated the occasion – the series! – in my usual juvenile froth, with the vinnytwinkle on fast-fibre alert. I was, believe me, more than ready to leap off me barstool. I’ve binned most of that in favour of a column on… Match One.

England then – wisely in my view – booked a slot against Australia first up. Certainly it made sense to schedule in at least one All Black warm-up game – and yes, I know that may offend… but surely there is some truth in that wicked suggestion? – Oz being pretty fine but a whole lot more beatable than the AB’S.

Pre-match I expressed concerns about the balance of the pack and the load on youngish/newish partnerships at halfback and centre particularly. I waffled on about Dickson’s lack of presence and that hunch I had that the forwards simply might not achieve – did not feel like a unit. (True I did also admit to worries about Vunipola at eight but he proved a real success – if a semi-detached one.) Some of this I had right.

Dickson was picked a) on form b) to get the ball out and about sharpish. He did that okay but between him and the oddly out of sorts Farrell there was little or no genuine urgency; passes manifestly did not fizz; breaks were rarely engineered, much less inspired. They were ordinary; even Farrell’s goal-kicking was a let-down, as he found a groove three feet west of the posts. To his credit, the stand-off stood and fought his way to more meaningful contributions late in the game – long after he might reasonably have been withdrawn, in fact. Dickson, as previously for England, failed to make a persuasive argument for his retention but he is likely to get a further opportunity, I suspect. Too many changes and all that. The question remains; he can play but can he fire things up at international level?

At centre Tomkins announced himself with a technically ragged but telling early tackle on Folau, before slightly disappearing into the muddle of midfield. Within this zone of disquieting under-achievement we might I imagine still find a forlornly felled Twelvetrees – was it simply nerves? – sucking his thumb beneath a security blanket name of er… Blankey. If both the half-backs and centres are kindof out of sorts, it simply ain’t possible to play, right?

Rarely have I seen so many plop-passes or flop-passes or stationary receivers – all signs that people don’t feel comfortable, don’t want the responsibility of leading or making something happen themselves. Having hoped for some flair and some brightness from form players, we got mainly a bit of A Flap. Meaning that in a game that England won and which Australians will say they stole, few in white lived up to their billing.

Mike Brown was the notable exception. He was almost faultless, projecting forth beyond that typical coolness into an elsewhere rarely-troubled land of creativity, via leggy but balanced surges into space. Only he and possibly Vunipola B looked remotely like disturbing the Wallabies’ calm. Australia may bawl at him all it wants but the full-back can hardly be blamed for his skipper’s dodgy try – scored painfully soon after Brown stood clearly in touch whilst gathering a punt deep in his own territory. And overall, following superb presence and quality under the high ball from the kick-off, England’s guardian was a shoe-in for the home side’s Man of The Match, whilst further cementing his place in the side. That he will justifiably keep the gifted and arguably more elusive Foden out speaks volumes for the incumbent and releases (or confines?) a proper talent to the bench.

A word on the captain. Robshaw apparently has his critics; but once again in a match where his side were underperforming around him, he led. This is not to say he was as outstanding as he often has been… but he was present and he played with intelligence and commitment. I rate him for his consistency and his knack for an important intervention – like that snaffled try, or, more often, the key bridging or protection of the ball come the ruck. Often when something good gets done by an England forward, it’s by him.

Lawes I wonder about. Clearly a tremendous athlete and a force of nature at times, I simply don’t see it happening for England. More a hunch than an observation perhaps but he seems to me too hot/too cold. In this encounter he took about an hour to get going and I sense this may be because he daren’t free himself up for fear of infringement. His natural mode would appear to be rampage rather than cruise control; I may be wrong but this suggests to me that he has both some significant maturing to do to (for example) play a central role in line-out calls and that edginess is essential to his game. Reined in, he loses a lump of his value. (Line-outs, by the way were a shambles.) Courtenay could be a world-beater but can he stay in the team while we wait?

I’ve said the Aussies had every right to be aggrieved at the Brown/Robshaw ‘incident’. Less clear perhaps was the other major beef – Hartley’s blocking of their defender as Farrell darted in to score. Certainly the Saints hooker denied passage to the tackler but some have said he would never have gathered in the England 10 and that therefore it was fairly judged. Personally, in the moment, it seemed a home decision – one swayed by a Twickenham crowd eventually finding some hope out there in the action – but one that will add further to the list of historic grievances between these deliciously, sometimes brutally keen rivals. Oh… and it decided the match.

In short, can I please be both underwhelmed (by England) and remain jig-ready, then? With multifarious and multicoloured flyers and dancers yet to engage, the juices will be flowing yet.

Swing Higher?

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

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

Two – this time it was us wot missed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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