It’s all happenin’ boys…

Is it just me or are there more real rugby stories about than usual; things that properly prickle the attention.  Like how about these, for example?

The Wales thing; i.e. the legacy of a pretty outstanding World Cup, where they corralled most of the goodwill a game can generate through outliving glorious Welsh stereotypes.  In other words they were often crowd-pleasingly brilliant and brought a dynamism that lit up the tournament.  Now they have to follow that.

The Kiwis thing; the laying of the albatross/monkey hybrid-demon thing, whereby the best team in the world finally gets to drink in the glory earned by generations of mighty All Blacks.

The England thing; where a recently utterly disgraced, stodgy but undeniably large and hairy beefcake begins to roll back its sleeves and get ready again.

The North American thing; where we hope shiny, happy and unself-consciously new peeps get seriously into this other oval obsession (man.)

And as babyplots, how about the Ashton Hairpulling Atrocity/McCaw Gouging Inquisition/Harlequins-Scarlets New World Order?

Living in Wales, forgive me for starting there.

Most of us are clear that Wales did bring something more than slightly wonderful to a relatively ordinary World Cup.  It was a particular belief as much as anything – a Brotherhood of Redness – a triumph for their coaching staff, who simply had the players brimful of uncluttered purpose.  They played almost without fear, knowing they were in magnificent condition, believing in the rightness of their boldness, drawing on tradition, emotion and gloriously disproportionate expectation rather than shrinking into easy conservativism.

Speaking as a coach from a laughably lower athletic stratum, it struck me that what Wales achieved was a kind of perfection in terms of expressing the wholeness that is team sport.  As well as propelling them irresistibly forward, this touched the hearts of the watching world.  One less toot from the referee and who knows – they might even have won it.

Now the trick is to sustain that aura and replicate that level of dynamism going into Six Nations.  Even the supreme Gatland/Howley/Edwards triumvirate may find that a stretch.  One argument says an expansive game is contingent largely upon pace on the ball, which needs… ‘a platform’.  Better rugby minds than my own have recently questioned whether Wales’s front five can or have generally delivered that sufficiently convincingly and express doubts about the looming 6 Nations.

Ideally Warburton and Faletau might tear teams to pieces once parity in the lumps is achieved and games are prized open.  However, I do wonder how things might look if say Jones and Jenkins and Wynne-Jones are either absent entirely or merely inconspicuous?  It’s just hard to play without the ball.  And teams – other teams – will chiefly seek to deny Wales the ball.

On the positive side, I genuinely believe that the presence of a truly competitive Wales team is hugely beneficial to the world game – and always has been.  Support for and understanding of the game in Wales is extraordinary.  Importantly and recently, neutrals around the world received a colourful reminder of what rugby means when the Brotherhood of Redness stepped out.

There are parallels between Welsh Fire and All Black Magisterial Pomp.  The nations are united in a profound link to the unique and mostly honourable physicality of the game.  If it is ever appropriate to talk of a nation’s psyche then something meaningful may likely be said of Kiwi or Welsh expression through rugby.  But it is better felt, or heard, in the national thrum that precedes glorious success.  The difference between the 2 mighty-mouse nations is arguably that the All Blacks are almost always the best side in the world; this dominance has not, however been registered at World Cup level.

So this home victory – the agony of it, the joy of it – was understood to be ‘massive’.  Kindof trans-generationally earned, it was not merely a triumph for McCaw and his fierce leonine posse; it was for all All Blacks – all those who deserved but failed in the 20-something lean years when they merely battered everybody out of sight, but failed to find that most significant of trophies lying at their feet.  I think the watching world understood that too – even or most especially the near-heartbroken Welsh.

England, following the kind of tournament that seemed previously to belong solely to their footballing equivalents, are, I suspect, gently gathering.  The new Temporary Coaching Combo (is that what we should call them?) of Lancaster, Rowntree and Farrell – apart from sounding like a trustworthy and long-established Solicitor’s practice from a pleasantly leafy market town – seems a decent mix.  Farrell and Lancaster have worked successfully together at Saxons, where it appears Lancaster’s talk complements the former league god Farrell’s walk.

Rowntree, the bull-like Forwards Coach is virtually the only sentient being to emerge unscathed – in fact, possibly even with reputation enhanced! – from the World Cup debacle. His understanding of the dark arts and his personal likeability make him central to any resurgence. I do fancy England might be reasonably formidable opponents sometime quite soon, as both Lancaster and Farrell have shown they can manage and motivate – something sadly Martin Johnson failed to achieve.

Lastly I was pleased to deal in some depth with the rise of North American rugby in my last blog.  Pleased because there is a sense of some likeable distant cousin arriving and joining in with one of ‘our’ games; and being pretty good.  And then persuading half his mates to give it a crack.  Before we know it we’re taking club tours to each others countries/watching them develop, excitingly quickly/watching them get a Pro game going/stage a flippin’ World Cup!  Crazy and wonderful stuff like that.

Yesterday a US 7’s side competed with some distinction in the ongoing IRB Sevens in South Africa.  A strong England side beat them reasonably comfortably but they ran a highly fancied Samoan side very very close.  ‘T was another stepping stone towards being competitive.

In passing it strikes me that Northampton’s Chris Ashton’s 4 week ban for stupidly re-arranging Alesana Tuilagi’s ample barnet (even allowing for the fact it sparked an unseemly brawl) seems harsh.  The McCaw story accusing the French of gouging and other ‘filth’ is unfortunate and possibly serious.  The resurgence of both Harlequins and Scarlets – my (reasonably) local club, however, I welcome!

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Shooting…

Predictability is a kind of death, is it not, in sport? If your opposition knows what you’re up to; if you ‘telegraph’ things. Practice and conditioning and the set plays or grooved moves of the training pitch are rendered meaningless if they are expressed poorly, robotically. Fans detest and are actually depressed I think, by what they feel to be insultingly obvious routines transferred moronically into the real-deal arena; we hope for some liberation from our sporting heroes rather than mere regurgitation.

Following a clump of disappointments for the English I propose to heroically subvert the prevalence, the dominance of dull order and drudgery by throwing a few wild passes into the mix. Not for me (on this occasion) the considered appreciation hitherto expected of the mature journalist. I’m bullet-pointing you towards my gut. And – even though Capello’s arrogant, undisciplined, unprofessional rabble have again infuriated us – let’s start with the rugby.

  • England went out of the Rugby World Cup at the Quarter-Final stage, in humiliating fashion.
  • Clearly we can blame both the players and the management team; they both failed. Failed to contribute enough.
  • Martin Johnson must surely be sacked. For an age ‘his side’ have been dull, crude, uninspiring, rudderless. It’s his job to facilitate the expression of their talents.
  • Instead he has aimed cynically low – at a kind of “winning rugby” that has won neither admirers nor a particularly high percentage of big games.
  • Against France his players were almost uniformly shockingly poor. They appeared strained rather than energised, wooden rather than dynamic. Being that uncomfortable is a clear failure of preparation, of culture. Johnson takes the blame for that.
  • The central place that Mike Tindall has played in Johnson’s squad is a depressing symbol of their failings. Tindall is surely the most perfectly one-dimensional centre in international rugby. He is allegedly a solid defender but he rarely carries the ball with pace, grace or menace. He rarely passes the ball sharply or with imagination. Contrast his alleged presence and influence with that of Tuilagi, who moves powerfully, sinuously, alarmingly, beautifully even. How obvious does a profound dearth of talent need to be before it is pulled?
  • England have real rugby footballers in different areas. Foden, Ashton, Tuilagi most significantly and perhaps Lawes from amongst the pack – most of whom are legitimate international players but not more than that. Their failure has been largely a thing born of ugliness beyond pragmatism; unambition masquerading as tactical minimalism. This is a central cause for the contempt with which they have understandably been held in the hearts of rugbyfolk worldover. They have largely chosen to deny the beauty and lifeblood of the game by opting for monotones. It is therefore appropriate that the manner of their defeat by an awakening but hardly inspired French side was chastening to the point of embarrassment. People feel that it is just.
  • Aside from this thin tactical meanness now exposed, surely Johnson’s inability to truly motivate his players was also reflected through a lack of leadership on the pitch. Lewis Moody was crippled but was more of a loose cannon by nature. Tindall… ’nuff said. There was a core of very senior players who despite their undoubted honesty lacked belief. If that was because they understood the shallowness of their plans, I look forward to hearing their liberating dissent.

Next up… we sling mud at the footballers.  Or… we revel in the brilliance of the Welsh.