A Brotherhood of Reds?

In my radico-sentimental revolutionary thingy, which commences immediately the stands have all been cleared of flags, corpses and Monster Energy cans (yeh, right!), Manu Tuilagi will either be Minister for Transport or Court Jester. But the significant posts in government – such as it is – will be held by Welshmen. Like Gatland, Edwards and Howley. For quite simply they have earned it, having shown leadership, guts and a flair for the inspiring word that nobody in the world (I mean this tournament) could match. They have, to paraphrase the great Confucian scholar bowlingatvinny, utterly and invincibly demonstrated how true encouragement of the truly gifted is both the essential function and the highest aspiration of coaching. That this infers an exchange of an essential trust is (only) a reflection of the need for generous hearts in the pursuit of achievement. So much of life, it seems, is about opening up.

My surreal meritocracy – administrated with libertarian aplomb from Machynlleth and let’s say… Grimsby – would certainly feature billboard poster-size recognition for a whole list of flag-bearers for natural expression through sport. Tuilagi’s easy but devastating bursts might have him on the metaphorical bench – in the same way that after this morning’s semi Barnes and O’Connor from the Australian backs warrant squad places – but the bloc itself is surely justifiably red; as in dragons; as in blood; as in heart. This is my elegy to all that redstuff flooding often majestically this last month across the consciousness of the Nations – not Six, not Tri, but many, many nations.

The Rugby World Cup is drawing to a close, an appropriately worldly close, in the sense that the ferocious and surely unbeatable South (NZ) play the strangely unloved North (France) this weekend. Circumstances have to some extent conspired for the French – a hugely contentious decision effectively gifting them their semi-final against the adored Welsh – but they have both comically and cynically fallen on their own onions too, to befuddle or bore a way through. It’s a final with only one winner and a fall guy already being slated in confident anticipation of a hopelessly inept appearance.  Ali versus Bugner, perhaps?

In fact to slalom at least a tad nearer to the point, it’s a tournament already over; the main stuff already learned; the inevitable slight anti-climax of the third place play-off played out. Whilst we now hope for a stunningly climactic exhibition of 15-man rugby from the mighty All Blacks we are not so naive as to expect it. No, we expect a relatively nervy, relatively tight final, in which further proof lumbers out of the ability of ballistically charged ‘modern’ defence to deny attacking patterns (and, incidentally, the crowd) the oxygen of excitement. France will hold out for long periods and maybe even break out. In their exasperation the AB’s will knock-on passes previously clasped whilst juggling four other passes, whilst asleep. The crowd will get restless until the dam finally bursts, in about the third minute. (If only). It could be either a close(ish) non-event or the most one-sided sporting event since Davide and Goliath. Please god deny Davide his sling.

The rugby world – the political world, the realworld! – wanted a Wales New Zealand final. As soon as the Welsh began to rise (which may have been pretty early in the South Africa game) the thing perked up. In contrast to the dour and disgraced English and the shambolic and disloyal French, Warburton’s posse planted a flag of brilliance and heart. Their spirit and their youth drove them irresistibly past a resurgent Ireland to their fateful date with the moment most of us will remember most keenly from this event; that tackle. A million words have been spent on the subject so I will find three more only; it felt wrong.

On his punishing warm-down jog (three times round the southern hemi) to the SOUNDBITE training ground, Sam Warburton will have no doubt have seen posters from the old regime saying “Warburton – the new McCaw”. In truth, the Wales skipper is such an outstanding athlete that McCaw may yet look one-dimensional in comparison. Over the natural span of a match, he is so often the difference at key phases – whether offloading, at the shoulder, or in the bone-crunching meat and drink of the breakdown – that many of us feel he would have not merely thrown a blanket over any (presumably accidental) French attacking notions, but quite feasibly effected the critical break himself. When they lost him at the 17 minute mark Wales were closer to being down to 13 than 14 and despite the gladiatorial brilliance of Phillips and Roberts amongst others, the reds were trussed up by the Lilliputian French.

But the tournament had already been graced by stellar performances from Halfpenny, North, Faletau. The world applauded as the current for allegedly “winning rugby” was stemmed, turned and embarrassed by (let’s hear it, let’s applaud it!) Welsh belief in skill over stats. Sure Gatland, Murphy, Howley did the preparation – better than everyone – but then, critically, their liberated posse played better than everyone. Until that moment. That ideal final may have served only to undermine the quality of ecstasy served up by Phillips and co. but hands up those who would’ve bellowed their support for a Welsh final opportunity. Certainly there is a consensus that a Brotherhood of Redness might have at least offered a real challenge to the wonderful and mighty bastards in the black. (No offence – imperfect gag).

Instead the hamstrung realist – poor sod – is left with the relative disappointments of a comfortable Australian win, in a bronze-rated, atmospherically flattish game which finished with a brilliantly irrelevant try for My Little But Magnificent Pony. Maybe that’s a disservice to the excellence of Barnes and O’Connor in particular, who may consider themselves honorary Lions in the new Red Occupation. Stonking tackling was not, in truth, the only thing these game Aussies brought to the party. But let’s be clear; it was a match that didn’t matter that much in a tournament illuminated by the positivity and generosity of the Welsh.

The definitive word… possibly.

They lost and there is no dispute; either of that fact, or that but for the quietly shocking dismissal of the Welsh skipper Sam Warburton, they would surely have won.

It may be no surprise to hear that the post-match atmosphere in Wales is heavily loaded with a disappointment close to grief. I can, however assure you that even allowing for the wonderful absurdities of the form/ability/results relationship and yes, the keener than usual levels of malingering celtic defiance, the game would have been won by Wales had Warburton stayed on the pitch. Fact or no fact – everybody knows that, feels that.

For Wales had started comfortably and were beginning to create. Hook – who sadly went on to have a relatively poor game, in truth – had absolutely nailed a testing penalty early on and although Phillips started quietly it seemed clear that Les Bleus as a unit could not match the threat and the verve of the Welsh. It was admittedly a blow when Adam Jones retired early injured, but by the quarter hour mark Wales has settled and the critical mass of their confidence was building, ominously.

Then at around 18 minutes, Warburton was the centre of what initially seemed a simply stunning hit. But the immediate reaction of the French lock Pascal Pape, who took near-violent exception to Warburton’s challenge, suggested something had happened. TV replays showed that indeed it had. Warburton lifted the oncoming French player and drove him up and back – all of which was legal. What happened next was critically, as they say, open to interpretation.

The man whose view counted most –referee Alain Rolland – understood that the felling of Vincent Clerc was dangerous because Warburton (he judged) after having lifted him drove him down towards the ground head and neck first. Thus it constituted a spear tackle and was a red card offence. Simply and pretty swiftly and without hesitation it seemed, Rolland proffered the card. The enormity of what had happened took a few moments to settle over the watching world. The game continued, whilst we tried to counter both our alarmingly sinking feeling(s) – muscle-memory played a significant part in this -and those more intellectually articulated emotions. In other words we shouted at the telly.

For this was major. In terms of judgement and impact: major.

The referee was in my view right that it was a spear tackle. (And there is no case against Rolland for having a general ‘shocker’). But critically Warburton actively released Vincent Clerc’s legs at the conclusion of the lift in the tackle – probably because he was aware of the danger to his opponent and to himself, in terms of facing a card. There was and to my knowledge never has been any substantial malice in a tackle from the Welsh skipper, a player who is now respected as one of the finest and most athletic and skilled exponents of the art of flankerhood in the world game. (In all seriousness… he is revered as a complete and honourable and genuine modern player.)

Some of this stuff is irrelevant to that tackle, I accept that. But the absence of malice is relevant, as is the release of Vincent Clerc’s legs, as is the completely untroubling context of the match at that point from the referee’s point of view. In a world-important game (and I know, only a game) it is surely worth a moment’s reflection to put such an incident into context – perhaps via a brief conversation with co-officials – in order to avoid the spoiling of the spectacle? A yellow card would have been fair and prudent; there was no need to make an example of anybody when there was no threat or suggestion of poor sportsmanship or deliberate foul play from any quarter. That moment meant that Wales could not play; it denied all of us a fabulous contest and delivered us a stunted, unsatisfactory affair. For these reasons (too), it’s hard not to be bitter.

Inevitably, Mike Phillips had something to say. As well as enjoying colourful and no doubt fluently expletive conversations with half the French pack, he darted through for the games only score. Ludicrously Wales dominated the second half – making a mockery of the notion that they might ‘hang on’. France – reasonably cutely – hung on; and waited. Wales missed three eminently kickable kicks and My Little But Magnificent Pony (Halfpenny) narrowly undercooked an effort from practically half-way. But Wales could not either quite raise brilliance or afford to raise it, being one superman short. At the death they went into overtime seeking a drop-goal or to force a penalty for Stephen Jones. The words tense, mighty and cruel do not, believe me, do it justice. After endless phases defended competently by the French… it fizzled out.

If I was a nobler man I would refrain from asking when – if ever – a team has done as little to get to a World Cup Final as France. They were okay against a diabolical England and okay against Wales. No better. Wales in contrast have been a revelation and more importantly, they have been good for the game. Had Warburton persisted, France would not have lived with his team’s energy, or pace, or passion, or confidence. In his innocence, Alain Rolland has denied the team of the tournament the right to play on.

Anticipation is so much better?

Phworr the frisson, the low-heat pervy distractedness of it; clock-glimpses and trouser-hitches and coughs. Waiting rooms; except no… more like changing rooms… because surely we’re in there, waiting… to play.

You can be one of the French if you like, you miserable English bastard, but I’m Roberts… or maybe Hook. And maybe when I’m Hook I’ll be the Magic Man that Hook really can be, with a wonderful throwback moment to when I/he was just that bit less muscled; when I gambolled just that touch more freely; before they got me in the gym. And I won’t break that line, I’ll glide and dance there and no-one will lay a finger.

But tough call this. When Roberts is blasting holes in the side of French Buildings tomorrow morn that might have to be me. With my head down, like a hulk-cum-baby-carrier, the ball nestling; in all that magnificent poetic violence; that bicep-fest. But I do blast through, into the mintiest, airiest low-alcohol but most intoxicating space, filled with Welsh Voices roaring and a me-like Hook in support. And we exchange passes twice and then I feint, draw half the crowd – never mind the full back – and switch to slow-mo for the moment we put them to the sword. A blind reverse pass and he dives over under the sticks. And he’s me and I’m him and we’re Wales; and there’s no answer from the French.

Wales win, the Game wins.

It would be unfortunate if my recent critique of Martin Johnson’s England – full of dispiriting observations as it was – drew attention away from the gathering triumph of the Welsh. Because Gatland/Howley and their fiery English right-hand man have led their team to the brink of something remarkable. They are now favourites to beat France next weekend and go on to face Australia or hosts New Zealand in the World Cup Final. Let me repeat that; Wales… in the World Cup Final… unarguably on merit. (Okay, okay – they’re not there yet, but please…)

What is special, particularly against the backdrop of England’s humiliating exit, is the manner of Welsh progress through the tournament. They began, way back when, with one of those poisonously rosy Almost
Days when they nearly-deservedly beat the South Africans. At the time I may have danced rather close to a kind of bitterness in my description of what felt pretty close to a Welsh Choke. Suffice to say that it was a game they should have won; again.

Many teams may have been demoralised by such a massively expensive, failed effort. Wales, no doubt led by their management posse, have responded with perverse magnificence, by visibly cranking up belief in their singularly positive vision. They have re-launched with a fierce and often brilliant combination of brave defence and shimmering attack; playing a brand of rugby that antidotes and puts into perspective the dull cynicism of Johnson era England. Surely the world has been smiling as Roberts, Phillips and North have burst through the allegedly inviolable defensive walls of the modern game? After all this talk of flair and expansiveness and pace on the ball, to actually see it so thrillingly and winningly enacted has been the highlight of the World Cup.

I would go further even than this. Whatever happens from here forward – and please god let us have a Wales / New Zealand Final* – I am clear that the abiding memory of the tournament will be that Wales showed us again that success can come from a liberal dollop of faith in talent. Fearless confidence facilitates brilliance – it may even be a pre-requisite for it. So yes, prepare your team in terms of tactical awareness, attack and defence; but mostly inspire them, unleash them, invite them to stretch not merely appear. My personal view is that the two most complete performances of the World Cup have both come from Wales – against Fiji (66- 0) and now against Ireland over the weekend. However disproportionate or naive this may sound, that feels like a triumph for joy over pragmatism.

So much for the general waffle. In the matrix of faithful and often heroic team effort, individual performances call out for further celebration. This is something I wish to address, after an admittedly tortuous diversion.

I am one who has long felt that James Hook has been unfortunate to say the least to remain on the fringe.  It seems odd, frankly and contradictory, that Wales’ most obvious talent at fly-half has not, it seems, been encouraged or supported enough to make the Magic Man berth his own. (I am reminded of what has I’m sure in the past been called Glenn Hoddle syndrome).  And 18 months ago Lee Byrne was close to being the best number 15 in the world. Neither Hook nor Byrne started; instead Half-Penny, more generally used on the wing was piloted in to full back. He proceeded to give an almost faultless display of courage and focus and relentless busy-ness, pausing only to slot a kick from halfway. It compels those of us who aim to describe these matters to wheel out phrases like “in a masterstroke from the coach”…

Warburton has been rightly lauded and applauded for his energetic contribution as skipper and breakdown maestro. He was outstanding again against a strong Irish back row. Priestland – though possessing substantially fewer of the lustrous gifts genetically programmed into the average Welsh 10 than Hook – gave another remarkably mature performance. But as a soppily passionate supporter of The Lions, I confess to being most substantially hoiked towards the edge of my seat by the sight of Jamie Roberts back to his barnstorming best. Perhaps only occasionally, but that surely is merely the nature of the game, which will always put some frustrating limit on a centre’s influence.

When he got it, however, Roberts had that look of old about him. Unstoppable; unplayable; at the limit of control; blowing holes selflessly; still holding the dynamite. His spirit – so perfectly expressed in the tight kaleidoscope of Lions Tests and now coupled to that of an effervescent backline – is rising. It is a spirit which denies the practice of the ordinary and the over-rehearsed. It is a particularly traditional craft of the inspired Welsh and it reminds us and them I think, of a kind of freedom. So come next weekend, with this righteous notion flaring in all of our nostrils, could it be, is it too much to hope that sport – beautiful and ludicrous as it is – might coincide with justice?

*Actually, and for the record, both my hunch and my preference is for Wales / Australia.