Going in…

Going in, who are/were favourites? Surely England, after a staggering-in-a-good-way performance against Ireland and an efficient one against France. (Wales have been okaaay, yes?)

But don’t we all love how history churns up the facts and the feelings about This One in Particular? How the stats befuddle, contradict, re-inforce, tease or spear-tackle what actually happened or will happen?

I just read something about England’s strong record in Cardiff. Then waded through my twitter feeds – apparently sponsored by Scott Gibbs Multinational. Then heard the following through some dreamily duplicitous channel or other; ‘it’s 14 degrees and no wind; the roof will be open; Barry John’s a late change, for Wales – Brian Moore, for England’. What, my friends, to believe in? It’s joyously-slanted carnage, before we start.

Carnage but fab-yoo-lussly so. Opinion, wise and otherwise, flooding the senses (and nonsenses?) like marauding hordes lusting for glory or a pint.

My hunch is England have found an extra, critical gear that may prove too much. But Wales have their strongest squad for years – a squad that has manifestly underachieved, performance-wise, so far, in the tournament – and it would therefore be plain daft not to accept that at home, vee Ingerland, they might *find something*. Wonderful questions remain.

The roles of Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies have received particular attention: the former because of both his electrifyingly brave attacking game and the recent English penchant for probing kicks ‘in behind’. Williams has been somehow less dynamic, for Wales, of late but clearly might win them the match, either in attack or defence. He is Proper Welsh in the fearless, lungbursting, ball-carrying tradition. My other Hunch of the Day is that he may find something bloody irresistible at some stage, this afternoon.

Davies is a player. If he had not suffered significant injury, he may already be being described as one if the game’s greatest ever centres. He has that silky-mercurial thing, the capacity to see things invisible to the mere mortals around him, plus a solid and sometimes inspired kicking game. Add in the elite-level non-negotiables (engine, courage, goodish pace, consistency) and you have a serial Lion. My Hope of the Day is that ‘Foxy’ relentlessly oozes class… then scores.

England have been so good, alround, that singling out either their stars or weaknesses feels weirdly inapplicable. Jonny May’s rightly been grabbing those headlines but it’s surely been the powerful performance-levels from 1-15 that have told.  Ireland were smashed and ransacked – Ireland! – France were largely dismissed. The despised Red Rose has to be respected, in rugby terms at least, for epitomising something so impregnably, communally awesome.

This latter phenomenon of course will merely serve to heighten desire amongst the Welsh. The arrival on their patch of a brilliant, ‘all-powerful’ England is tailor-made for the next instalment of this most tribal of fables. Going in…

Poor decision from the ref offers first chance to England. A kick from 40-odd metres. Suits left-footer more than right (despite being within Farrell’s range) but Daley pushes it slightly nervously wide.

Wales have good field position but their lineout again proves vulnerable – to a fine leap from Kruis. Noisy, frenetic, as expected, early-doors. Quite a number of England fans in the stadium: “Swing Low” gets whistled down.

Kick tennis. England in the Wales 22. Important defensive lineout for Wales. Again England make trouble – winning a free-kick. Wasted, by Farrell, with an obvious forward pass. “Ferocious start”, says Jiffy on the telly. He’s right. No score after 15.

Finally some points. Penalty almost in front of the posts – contentiously given, usual issue, scrum failure – Farrell accepts the gift. 0-3.

Couple of flashes, from Liam Williams but no significant line-breaks from either side. Wales penalty; again kickable but Anscombe aims for the corner. Wales secure the lineout then gain a penalty; should be a formality – is. Anscombe from 18 metres. 3-3.

From nowhere – well, almost – Curry runs through unopposed from ten yards out. All of us thinking “how the hell?” Farrell converts, to make it 3-10.

Immediately afterwards, Curry robs possession again, as England gather control. Wales must raise it – the crowd sense that and try to lift them. It is Wales who are under more pressure.

Finally, Wales find touch deep in the England half. But…

Lineout is clean but knocked forward from the tip-down. Frustrating for the home side – and crowd.

Feels like a big moment as May breaks out, chasing his own kick, deep. Parkes gathers but May, visibly pumped, hoiks him easily, bodily into touch, before bawling into the crowd. Wales hold out – just – and the half finishes with the visitors deservingly ahead. 3-10.

Consensus among pro pundits is that Wales must be more expansive – but clearly there are dangers around this. Slade, May and co can be pret-ty tasty in an open game.

Second half. Pacy, lively start. Eng, to their credit, look at least as likely as Wales to throw it wide. Nowell and Slade both prominent. They force another Wales lineout inside the 22.

England look to have pinched it again but they’re penalised for using the arm. So Wales escape but England better – dominating. *Bit of feeling* between the players, now.

Messy period follows; happily for Wales this results in May being penalised for holding on, after gathering just outside his 22. Anscombe nails the penalty.

It felt vital that  Wales troubled the scoreboard next: England seem simply a tad better, thus far and therefore unlikely to concede many points. Now the deficit for Wales is back to 4 points, at 6-10. Can the crowd change the mood? They’re certainly trying, now.

England may be a tad rattled. A high tackle by Sinckler (whom Gatland had baited, remember?) offers Anscombe another straightforward pen: accepted. 9-10 and game on. Wales have barely threatened but they are absolutely in this.

England, through Tuilagi and Vinipola, respond. Biggar enters, to a roar. Who has the nerve for this, now?

Earlyish Man-of-the-Match contender Curry strips Parkes again, to offer Farrell a 35 metre kick, in front. Slotted. 9-13.

Possibly the first sustained onslaught from Wales. Through at least one penalty advantage, via seemingly endless crash-bangs from the forwards, they finally score, through Hill! Predictably, Biggar succeeds with a truly testing conversion. The crowd is now a real factor. Wales lead 16-13.

72 minutes. England must produce… but suddenly Wales are bossing it, with Biggar already influential. Williams follows the stand-off with an inspirational kick-and-chase. Both players catching balls they had little right to claim. The crowd love it: the players are visibly lifted. Fabulous turnaround – England look done, Wales irresistible.

Hymns and arias.

The Finale. Biggar, with a ‘free play’, hoists one laser-like crossfield. Again, the Welsh player is second-favourite. Again – this time through Adams – it’s the Welsh that come out on top. Adams scores in the corner!

Huge, huge win. Wales were second best, by a distance for 50 minutes. They turned it round. At the end, they were undeniable – wonderfully so. They ran all over Jones’s men, who looked shell-shocked and muddled when they had to be focused, ambitious and bold.

The England camp will be furious and distraught. If it was The Plan to stay with a kick-based game and out-biff Wales, that plan was deservedly (and some would say righteously) exposed. Gatland’s lot were too tough, too organised and ultimately too hearty to capitulate to that. Wales endured… and then they roared.

*Mild cough*. Man of the Match? Liam Williams.

 

That’s so-o welsh, that is!

  • After today’s ‘sport’ I could do one of many things, including;
    • buy a pint for Pete from Merthyr, who had that nervy but jovial but mainly Welsh thing going on, live on Radio Wales’s (footie) post-match phone-in. Garrulous and neck-deep in val-leees singsongaciousness, Pete started by saying
    I’m on top a the moon boys! – clars-sic, mun, surely? – before reeling off more homespun but genuinely heart-warming clichés than your favourite uncle. (Actually, I think Pete is my favourite uncle.)
    • or… I could buy a few tinnies for the Aussie rugby boys, who out-Walesed Wales, by turning adversity – two men down – into some bloody, black-eyed, backs-to-the-wall Alamo/exemplar.
    • or go off on one about how even though I’m as fed up as you lot with hearing the word ‘execution’, Wales surely really did need to execute one of the forty-three chances to get points on the board whilst Genia and some other bloke were unemployed for ten minutes each. Because that would have been the difference and mostly there had been no difference in the levels at which the two sides were playing – unusually, for a contest between northern and southern hemispheres.

I may do all three – or I would like to. Or one of many other things which reek of or speak of the cultish-crazy, leeky, drunken, stolid, donkey-derby wonderwallness of the day.

Wonderwall because hope is somehow scorching dizzily through. Rightly and deservedly if not entirely predictably for Biggar and Roberts and Davies; amaaaazingly and deservedly for Ramsey and Hennessey and Bale.

But donkey derby? Dare I be ‘avvin’ a pop at the lack of quality somewhere here? In (let’s say) that team of Coleman’s? How could I? Why would I? ‘Fraid I must. Though I’m the daydreamiest of believers in hwyl and teaminess, I do have guilty concerns about Wales’ football achievements; or rather about what happens next.

On the one hand it’s clearly and unarguably marvellous that a side with only three international players – Ramsey/Bale/Williams – has shown such a durable mixture of organisation, work-rate and (crucially) togetherness that they’ve fair scooted through the qualification process. That Coleman fella – who many of us were labelling simply out of his depth in elite level togger – has engineered an inviolably significant and maybe particularly personal achievement here. But the thing is that despite remaining unbeaten against Belgium and that stand-out 3-0 away win in Israel, Wales have shown little quality other than those qualities that have seen them through. They’re gonna need more.

Many hackles will rise at this point and I understand why, when – DOH! OBVIOUSLY – those qualities are all part of the spirited package that is sport. I get that. In fact I spend much of my working life and most of my scribbling time BIGGING UP the notion that soulbrother or sisterhood is both an essential and a hugely rewarding facet of these daft games of ours. And yet.

And yet there must be skill; we should aspire to the beautiful and the profoundly pleasing as well as to brothers-in-arms resolution, a) because it’s philosophically right and b) because that’s how the success builds. So though I absolutely applaud what is an undoubted success for Coleman’s crew, I exercise my right as a fan to want more/advise for more. Please.

For much of today’s game Bosnia struck me as a team playing close to the lowest acceptable standards for international football. Consequently, early in the second half, without ever looking fluent or (actually) entertaining, Wales were coasting. But they lacked the quality to pick off their poor opponents.

Even with Bale on the park, Wales lacked a real threat, a focus, as they fluffed the opportunity to dismiss the Bosnians. (Incidentally, despite his goal-scoring record, I think Bale has been decidedly average, or certainly disappointingly inconsistent, too often in this campaign. Am I alone in that?) Robson-Kanu meanwhile, epitomises the Willing But Limited category that the bulk of the side (regrettably) fall into.

Some of this sounds spiteful and/or simply illogical. Let me swiftly express again my suspiciously amorphous disquiet at the relative absence of refined talent in the group… and then we’ll move on. What I suspect we can all share and enjoy is the delicious Welshness of the moment of qualification; via a crap result against a crap side. And that not mattering.

Plugged in as usual to the twittersphere, I loved that so much of the day’s #bantz seemed to belong to The Principality – and no, don’t be daft, I don’t mean the mob who’ve just bought the rights to the Millenium – I mean Wales. Before dropping back into events at Twickers, mind, we should really be noting the further hike in #RWC2015’s dander during and following the boshtastic Scotland Samoa game.

The evident passion, commitment and commitment to drama in this encounter re-lit the tournament for the umpteenth time and was again a proper fillip for rugby globally. This was a match where onslaught followed onslaught and the world again shared Samoan grief as though it was our own. The pride and the bonkers levels of what we may have to call bonding or devotion were sensational… and the boy Laidlaw dun well again.

But on The International Day… for Welshnesses we need to conclude with a flash through other worthy daiversions. I’ll remember
• timelines full of jokes about how appropriately (i.e. welshly) Gatland’s and Coleman’s teams achieved their notable successes; firstly by both getting roundly defeated and secondly by acquiescing in the universal conspiracy to give them what they deserved, anyway.
• And I note the kind of start – in fact the kind of first half from Wales rugby – that said something rather profound about being comfortable in the challenge. Perhaps this then was the Welsh Haka? An expression of confidence… and a welcoming for the trial? It did feel like a validation – like Wales were being clear that they knew they were worthy – and ready. And that may yet project forward (who knows?) to powerful advantage.

However, turns out Wales rugby too wasn’t quite skilled enough to execute/penetrate/skewer the enemy. When those endless yellow moments came the Roberts-centricity of the Gatland era was maybe exposed? Phase after phase was rebuffed by the inspired bison in gold ‘n green. Whether this was an opportunity criminally and terminally missed (I suspect it was), or whether this Hen wlad will resurrect yet again in all its perversely gog or cardi or starless and bibleblack glory, who can tell? But in defeat, in squeaky-arsed glory, the day belonged to Wales.

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?

Delivery.

Friday nights at the Millenium. Ethically dodgy – what with all that post-match faffing for the fans – but kinda glitzy and undeniably charged with extra, anticipatory energy. Once folks are in there they forget the duff train services issue, that general low-burning contempt for the fans thing and even (maybe) the suspicion that Cardiff Chamber of Trade have conspired with somebody hefty on the rugby side to bundle thousands of visitors into a wallet-sapping overnighter. ‘ Midst these very 2014 challenges only a proper occasion can see us through. The quality of the ether and then the game – the night – has to be good.

Cardiff delivers again, on this. A packed house (72,000) gathering late under a closed roof, followed by an emphatic home win. Plus the ungraspable stuff – the bonhomie, the boozy camaraderie, the gentility even between fans – charming and occasionally cockle-warmingly fabulous. (At the end of this one, we walked out into the cool dank of that riverside terrace past a single Frenchman nodding genially and with what seemed affectionate rather than affected grace whilst applauding the Welsh fans out. Ca c’est vraiment formidable, n’est-ce pas?)

If there is such a thing as an ambience matrix it was sweetened early in the game – which helps. France gifted a slack handful of points to Halfpenny and North in a fashion that felt faintly under-earned. The big wing/centre arguably pressured the error leading to his try but it was still an error; Halfpenny (mostly) capitalised on offers arising from ill-discipline, nerves or bad luck on the French side. Suddenly, Wales were flying – and yet not quite.

In truth there was real spirit but mixed execution from both sides first half… and in fact, throughout. De bonnes heures there was that familiar exchange of penalties and of midfield moves – most more lateral than penetrative – and therefore competently smothered. It was less ding-dong than kicktennis/squish/wallop/clunk as errors intervened. Broadly, as imagined, Halfpenny’s superior kicking game told.

On times that much-vaunted clash of beefy but more-or-less spring-heeled line-breakers – the centres North/Roberts Bastareud/Fofana – threatened to entrall us but much ended in minor disappointment. Full-on Gatland-Plus Wales rugby threatened to break out but (was it just me, and/or was this Priestland, particularly?) passes were floated too often when crispness or elite sleight-of-hand was required. In fact France were denied a try when the Wales pivot was nearly exposed mid-pass. In row 14, we tutted almost as much as we shouted.

So an improvement yes but Wales were flawed, even when in control of the scoreboard and naturally some of this underachievement was traceable to Priestland. Given that the game was presented to him early, he fell a tad short again on the commanding/inspiring front. I say this in the knowledge that he is very much in the modern mould of undemonstrative Game Managers rather than some idealised wizard and that these guys tend to play within themselves and expend all available energies on focus, not heart-stopping glory.

Fair enough. I appreciate that stuff but in my judgement Priestland has to manage things really well to justify his place. And I’m not sure he did… and I’m not sure he instills confidence in those around him.

If angst then turned to excitement early amongst the home support, this proved something of a deception. True that before any real pattern had emerged, Les Bleus were up against it. Webb had started brightly and with palpably greater fizz than that pre-loved and perhaps more predictable warrior Phillips; faux or fancy-dressed leeks amongst the crowd shuffled or at least arced expectantly forward in the breeze of expectation. Early points, high hopes for Wales. I swear folks were wondering if Gorgeous George, high himself on adrenaline and undreamt of quantities of ball, might carve out a rout? That seemed possible ten minutes in.

How mightily might the natural order be reaffirmed? If Wales went joyfully berserk, how might the French respond?

Answer – they did okay. In the sense that for me, the final score flattered Wales – France having competed but failed to prevent Warburton’s blaze and Halfpenny’s punitive hoofing. At no stage did the home side reach or sustain that feverish pitch of brilliance longed for by the crowd and the French were beaten not annihilated. Les Bleus had passages of play but still a) only fitfully resembled a working unit and b) missed crucial and relatively simple kicks.

At the half I thought France were only a tad worse than a decent Wales but later continual dissent and disbelief over refereeing decisions undermined both their performance and the level of sympathy any neutrals may have felt. They disintegrated into some ignominy, with Picamoles sarcastically applauding Allain Rolland, and a cluster of Bleus bawling at nearly every call the man made late in the game. It was unseemly – no matter what provoked it – and it wasn’t rugby.

I’m guessing many of us came into this one relatively sure that Gatland would have significantly stirred, if not wound up, his men, and that there would be a response. Ireland was for Wales, a shocker. The forwards were battered extraordinarily, via mauls that rolled embarrassingly on and by those rips and gathers by O’Mahony in particular. The pack of Friday night – featuring a late change of Ball for the unavailable AWJ – needed to turn up, front up and palpably restore some pride.

Job done on that; Gethin Jenkins, loved by most of Wales for his redoubtable core, his was singled out as man of the match. Warburton similarly gave notice that he was back and not to be underestimated. His extraordinary dominance in the line-out was one of the most striking features of the contest. How much of this was tactical tweaking from Gatland and how much a response to the late change at lock, who knows? In the set-piece, predictably, the one blight was the age lost in re-setting scrums; Rolland appeared to have little grip on this and his dismissal of the two props in the second half may have either been dead right and a significant step forward … or total guesswork.

Pre-match I had indulged the unwise thought that France- this France – ain’t up to much. Yes Nyanga and Fofana are always likely to be rather tasty and rather spookily elusive respectably, but otherwise… not special. So Wales – a bottoms slightly smarting Wales – would put 20 points on them. (Witnesses are available – the wife, anyway.) The fact that Les Rouges, whose squad strength looked markedly down again in the absence of just one or two major players, did win by that margin can be moulded around a range of arguments for and against an encouraging rebound into form. My feeling on that? Don’t read too much into this one performance – or more accurately, this one result. Wales are strongish but confidence may not be inviolable.

Reflecting now on some hours with The Millennium rammed and colourful to the point of cartoonish and an occasion genuinely enriched by the presence of our friends – yes! our friends! – from Lille or La Rochelle, I am (as they say) conflicted. The spirit is hugely restored in terms of the feel of an international. I am not so pleased to be judgemental of the French either as a side or on their discipline. And the balance of the result felt wrong. France were mixed, Wales a bit better. The scoreboard and maybe, arguably, the ref(?) conspired to be inhospitable to the visitors. But the night, the night was great.

Why so cruel for Foxy, eh?

Let’s start with the obvious. Whether we attribute it to epic ‘modern’ levels of attrition, bursts of off-the-scale intensity, act of god or a poor surface simply may not matter. The fact is many supporters – not just those wiping away a tear post ‘Wlad’ – felt the premature exit from the fray of Williams, Davies and Adam Jones was both pivotal… and a crying shame. The fact that Jonathan Davies will now apparently miss the entire Autumn Series is so bleakly dispiriting I myself may need to either go into hibernation or drink myself into a November stupor. (Or a four- monther if prospects for the Six Nations are no better for the lad. Too cruel! Just too cruel!!) In short, rightly or wrongly, there was a sense that we were all denied a contest of equals.

‘Foxy’ – very much This Year’s Model for the rugby cognoscenti, following some sublime work for club, country and The Lions – departed on 13 minutes, after Williams. If something in my own heart felt that with his departure went Wales’s principal hopes those were words best not spoken – not then – in that crowded bar, full of red-scarfed womenfolk and red-faced husbands. Come the slow march of Adam Jones, however, seditious grumblings, counter to the general pre-match upfullness, openly spread. Before thirty minutes were up the flying wing, the pretty close to incomparable centre and the much-loved and respected prop had all departed with their various pains. Davies, for one, reflecting the cruel enormity of that period, welling up as he left the pitch. What could the nation do but stoically drink?

That the Williams/Davies trauma came immediately after a Springbok try is of course noteworthy – as is the slightly reckless nature of William’s attempted tackle – but Davies had already shown something of the quality which may yet have unpicked the massive and massively indomitable Springbok rearguard. The Scarlets man is surely now into the world-class category and I for one was looking forward to a fabulous midfield contest including Whitland’s finest and the fella De Villiers – a man with similar gifts and an even finer pedigree. Sadly, ’twas not to be.

The re-shuffle for the Welsh backline was particularly significant in that the best full-back in the world (discuss, with reference to Dagg and Folau?) was shifted out to the wing and the gifted but possibly not so aerially well-equipped Hook slotted in behind, with Beck coming into centre. (So three changes rather than the strictly necessary two.) Now Jimmy bach is a fine player still, one arguably better-suited to the 10-berth than the one-dimensional Priestland but alarm bells rang when he and Faletau made a nervy, communication-deficient balls-up of a fairly straightforward catch. Whilst Hook was by no means to prove a weak link, the ‘boks certainly profited by hoisting high and often into the heart of the home defence – a point Gatland returned to in his post-match reactions. No surprise that the South Africans were awesomely physical but mildly shocking for the Kiwi coach to see his home side exposed as mediocre under or indeed hoisting the high ball.

The first half, however, despite the stoppages and enforced changes, was nearly a classic; a typically wonderful pre-match atmosphere – hwyl set to its sanguine maximum – insinuating its way into the fibre of the game. Hibbard was at full throttle, visibly feeding off the energy in the ether… but he was matched rather magnificently by the beefsteak in green. The focus and level of ferocity amongst the visitors was every bit as impressive as expected but this should not deflect us from offering credit to a South African unit showing barely a glimmer of either physical or psychological frailty in the Taff-side cauldron.

Before the break the Springboks both danced towards the line – a try then, for De Villiers – and they smashed a way in for Du Plessis. Meaning they brought their A Game alright – their powerful, all-court, relentless Bigness and Strongness and Run Like Bloody Rhinos-ness. Wales responded with spirit; fire, even at times, notably from Phillips, who trod that familiar line between rage and control to good effect – especially in that testing period when Welsh bodies were being winched from the pitch. In such a batterfest, discipline would clearly be key.

Through the match there were few significant lapses… but plenty of penalties. Rolland contrived to be centre of attention by binning two props for persistent failure of the scrum, though the suspicion lurked that he had no idea which of the props (if either) was actually responsible for the difficulty. To great cheers a certain giant ‘bok flanker was dispatched for ten for swinging too Luow over Hibbard (oops – sor-ree!) but given the elite levels of violence involved the game was contested in remarkably good order. Set-pieces offered neither side a huge or decisive advantage; tackling was brutal as was ‘clearing out’ around the rucks but a sort of parity of legitimate rampage existed – again to the credit of all concerned. Gatland may have been right when he said the kicking game was most influential and this may imply some criticism of Priestland – whom many in the province think fortunate to occupy pivot.

The most delicious moment of irresistibly flowing rugby came via a kick-chase from the Springboks, extending the visitors lead to 22-15 (at that point.) Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie contrived a stunning try featuring a superb and mildly outrageous flip inside from the centre. Du Preez merely had to be there then leg it – but he was there, having sprinted fifty metres. The conversion was a gimme, and no further points were gained by either side ’til Rolland’s terminal toot some thirteen minutes later. Watching ‘live’ it was not immediately clear that Fourie had been clearly offside when the ball was first hoofed into the danger zone – and thus the try should never have stood. In ‘moral’ terms though, the score was about right.

A depleted Wales then, got beat. If that has a familiar ring – and I fear it does – this might undermine any defiant talk of a meaningful Welsh threat at World Cup 2015. Comparisons or extrapolations around relative consequences from the loss of allegedly key individuals are so spurious you’d think I just wouldn’t go there. But imagine we’re all in the pub, post-match – let’s deal in those hunches, eh?

For me Davies is a beautiful (now brawny) wunderkind-of-a-player. One who had (even by the thirteenth minute) shown he was already on it, bigtime. One who through his fabulous mixture of running and composure and deftness might be expected to make some real impact. Why? Because he’s done all that, on a stage of similar if not greater stature – the Lions tour – when the Aussies could barely live with him. So Foxy would have won the game for Wales.

Jones is an altogether different kind of icon; a man who manages to be somehow quietly, implacably, almost invisibly gargantuan and carry off a worryingly retro barnet. Feeling reassuringly like one of us – a monosyllabic but good-natured plumber, perhaps? – he is simply adored for his unchangingly sacrificial shoulder-work. Despite the absurd continental bulk that is the Springbok front row, Jones would have won the game for Wales.

I kindof jest. Perhaps wiser and fairer to say that if there are indeed, equivalents to these two in England, France, Ireland – are there, I wonder? – they too might well be thought of as irreplaceable on the big occasions, even allowing for righteous talk of the squad being everything. Hence any speculation re the summiting of that Southern Hemisphere mountain Wales keep neglecting to climb will come back to minutes 13 and 30-odd of that first half.