Six Dimensions.

Through that haze of beer and banter the single most memorable thing about Wales’ outstanding defeat of England is simply that it was a fabulous sporting occasion. Whether you were there, in the pub (like me), or at home flying miserable solo. I have little no doubt that even you residents of Billy-No-Matesville found the telly-throbbing energy of the thing compensating pretty entirely for your (on reflection) shocking absence from Cardiff itself. Meanwhile in the er… Six Dimensions of the pub I can tell you it was fierce and joyous and fun.

This is a unique fixture anyway – we all know that. Ludicrous or not, the hairy-arsed oval-ball diehards and the clean-cut and the metro-sexually svelte amongst the Welsh would pretty uniformly trade failure elsewhere in order to win this one. Because it’s England. The argument that this seepage of energy in a single direction may effectively undermine more serious campaigns against (for example) the Tri-nations elite barely penetrates the national consciousness here. Blame Owain Glyndwr or Dylan Thomas or Ivor The Engine if you will. Or watch Alun Wynne-Jones (that’s Al-leeen, by the way) sing ‘Mae hen wlad fy’n hadau’ then just go with the irresistible flow of it – the Taffness of it – because the scope of this one is not, in fact, to be described. Only to be felt. It felt extraordinary yesterday.

What you don’t see outside the principality is that huge numbers of ordinary Welsh people – old/young/sporty/non-sporty – get their red kit on and join in. There is a kind of post-Boyceian National Grid running off the generally good-natured but admittedly fast-twitch-fibrous boozy nationalism centred around the capital. On days like yesterday, with England in town, with the roof closed, with Everything To Play For, the Millenium Stadium itself does generate something special. The word ‘atmosphere’ falls short; this being something simultaneously cathartic and communally-shared, inspiringly epic and piercingly, soul-searchingly intimate – for players and crowd. So deal with that, England.

Pre-match there was speculation around the relative inexperience amongst Lancaster’s side, specifically the lack of Millenium experience. It was one of many sub-plots to the contest that alcohol-fuelled or fuelling cod-psychologists such as myself raised with our glasses. Who might be brave enough to be calm in such a maelstrom? Farrell? Possibly. Young/Launchbury/Marler/Goode? Who knows? Clearly there was an advantage for the homesters – might this really tell? Within about six minutes, it had.

Wales absolutely de-stroyed the English pack at an early scrum… and then again… and the pattern was effectively set. A retreating England reverting to conservative type (understandably) but crucially feeding the glowering opposition possession, via more or less aimless kicks from Goode, Youngs and Farrell. Kicks which fell either deliberately or accidentally several yards beyond any follow-up chase. If the policy was to hoist and sit back and defend resulting charges with composed resolution, both the law of averages and the intimidating scenario mitigated against success. Wales (or anybody else half-decent) will hurt you if you give them 70% of the ball. Most likely, kicks were nervously over-hoofed.

Wales dominated every area and as the game grew, so did that domination. Robshaw started well but was ultimately swamped under the outstanding Welsh back row – where Tipuric matched at least the excellence and ferocity of Warburton. Wood and Croft seemed near-irrelevant. Likewise Tuilagi, the one possible source of loose canonry from the whites. The most natural of the English runners took his eye off a perfectly catchable pass half-way through the first half and was never seen again as an attacking force. Ashton – who quite frankly had no right to have set foot on the park, given his desperate contribution to the tournament – made only a further decisive grab for the individual wooden spoon, as worst player in the #6nations. This the most obvious error by the England management.

Beyond that, Lancaster and co sat back and went through their full, eighty minute grimace routine. The irresistibility of the Welsh was to most a thing of some wonder… but not, I suspect, for the watching Rowntree, Farrell Senior and Lancaster himself. Rowntree will know he has to take a long hard look at himself and his forwards, post the mangling they received in every facet of play. The fly-half’s dad will not either have enjoyed much of what he saw. His son stood up to be counted with a huge second half hit in midfield that momentarily stemmed the flow but even that defiant clump counted for little. Remarkably, Wales were not just winning the championship, they were absolutely rampant, with Cuthbert scorching in for two tries as the scoreboard went into Cymro-dreamland.

The tempo of the Welsh game, upped from the outset by a re-energised Phillips enabled an unthinkable demolition of a previously doughty English defence. Momentum is maybe the word of the sporting decade; here Wales had it in spades, in lorry-loads; they were mining it. After maybe five minutes of parity, at no time in the game did England threaten. But think on that. Even when looking an effective side, they have looked somewhat toothless, have they not? Goode and Brown seeming competent or composed often enough but rarely menacing. As chirper-in-chief Austin Healey has said, they still lack magic.

At the Millenium, with Barritt looking a solid defender but little else and Tuilagi as absent as any white from the line-breaking stats, Wales indulged. Roberts finally found some form, making headway for the first time for aeons. Davies ran with belief and both Cuthbert and North cut through. Wales – the team and the nation – could barely believe its luck; full-on and wonderful indulgence followed. It looked, sounded and felt spectacular; like top, top international rugby football does.

It’s unwise I know to use words like ‘massacre’ in the sporting context. But that was what we were saying, in the pub, when the screen said 30-3. You wondered, looking at good English players being repeatedly over-run or out-flanked or out-fought by this Brotherhood of Redness, whether the occasion had swallowed them, or had their limitations been simply found out? Or more exactly I wondered that – the rest of Wales was bouncing now, in (and I don’t mean this critically!) dumb euphoria at a win against the English.

Afterwards and later – yes – the ifs. Principally, ‘If Wales had turned up in the first forty against Ireland… blahdiblah’. They didn’t. As England were here, Wales were simply blown away that day – that one half – by the passion and the belief and the pace of the opposition. Otherwise, obviously, a Welsh Slam. That both the Irish and the French should have such crushingly disappointing tournaments – such bad ones – maybe does reflect the ordinariness of some of the fare. Perhaps this #6nations did need a carnival farewell ? Thank you for that to Wales and the Welsh.

 

Polite reminder; my e-book of posts and exclusive material now out here – amzn.to/SSc9To – great recommendations/intro by Paul Mason.  Snip at under £3!

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Bute Park Divers.

I walked that millennium way

My hurry a commonplace in the eye of the border

And the riverbank

My breath in unison with the joggers and the students,

The bud-killing cold some amber glory

But the stands as silent as the fish.

The whistle of that city bustle no doubt stilled

After the game that swallowed him

For no man in its dream of Jonah or of Jaws

Drunk well on its remembering.

I bounced on,

Drawn to the bridges.

The flush of youth is here

Craning for trout, or bikes, or signs

The students in their lycra shoals

Miked up to saccharoidal bliss,

Found within their luminous buzz.

Who is lost amongst the cityfolks?

Distracted, scarfless in the permafrost.

Is it cold, cold in there

Where the tiddlers dream who won?

Not traipsing off to Ely or to Eden

By foot or boozy mini-cab

I flank the water.

I wasn’t close – and yet I was.

Triumph by degree.

Triumph. Glory. Worryingly loaded terms, both, as though there’s no escaping the association with imperial excess or sultry machismo – both of which I oppose with every laddish ounce. ‘Tis a challenge, this all-consuming contemporary imperative towards proportion – one I typically moon at, as you know. Is there really no way to write innocently in the post post-modern age? Shame, eh? If it’s too rash to affix words like them there onto mere sport, even on the understanding – you do understand, right? – that nothing’s rilly that serious and… my eyes they are a twinkling. The cunning plan then will revert to a crypto-psychological airing of notions around degrees of triumph. In sport, this weekend; rugby football in fact.

(You know) I love the talk around this stuff. The banter, sure, but maybe more so that slightly higher grade proffering of views about the shape of sides, the intent, the possibilities. An example? The leaking out from this cloud of (often though not always) nationalistic passiogubbins of the contention that the Scottish back three may be the best in the 6nations. This is not an assertion that could have been made with any degree of seriousness in donkeys years. Hold with that thought then combine with the impressive and surely contagious positivism practically washing out of Scott Johnson and key elements seemed in place ahead of the Italy game for either a triumphant expression of 15-man rugby or …yet another Murrayfield trauma. It was pretty much the former, something approaching a try-fest and a crucial breaking out from those dispiriting Scottish failures. A triumph of the Thank Christ For That variety as well as a champers-popping treat.

Caveats will need to be included re the relative weakness of their opponents. Italy, whilst playing again with occasional verve were suicidally open at times but Scotland the nation has every right to bristle and glow over the arrival of a competitive-plus back divison. Despite being clad in a kit they apparently modelled on motorway signage, the home side hustled with an altogether more convincing energy than for some appreciable time. They flipped and flashed in and out of the overtaking lane; not uncontrollably or recklessly but with the clear purpose of getting someplace quickly. The threat was there – a real threat, you felt – as opposed to the bound-to-end-in-fumbling-failure version that had become the depressing norm.

In a compelling and genuinely exciting game freed up rather than stifled by expectation, tries surely loomed. Sure enough Vister darted and stepped (far too easily in fact) off his wing to score. Then in one of those moments when action and symbol clang together, Matt Scott juggled one off his chest before bursting free. (Insert that particular instant into almost any midfield scenario for Scotland over the last five years and surely the chance would have gone to ground; this time the centre scurried clear to score unopposed.) Even Sean Lamont – who had scored but a single try in 42 matches – found himself likewise in freedom’s honeyed pastures as he gathered up from the deck and bolted… with surely some quiet ecstasy?

The electrifying interception by the fullback Hogg that caterpaulted him almost the full length of the pitch was the game’s stand-out moment. As exhaustion closed in around his utter joy he drifted somewhat from the posts but this naivety was not chief amongst the concerns of the baying crowd, who expunged a decade’s frustration at butchered opportunities with a tremendous hollering. Would that a certain Bill McClaren had been there to describe the moment. Hogg, certainly, is a Lions contender – though quite possibly behind both Wales’s Halfpenny and Ireland’s Kearney. And maybe England’s Goode!

It’s true then, Scotland can attack, can even cross the whitewash; how fabulous. This ritual unshackling – so sweet, so thrilling in its nature – we can justifiably, with an affirmative slug of fine malt, file under the ‘t’ word. For the Italians, destined to make incremental progress contradicted by days such as these, it must have hurt. Going to Murrayfield believing they were in the best shape for aeons, having duffed up the French? Facing the side most obviously and most frequently vying with them for that wooden spoon? And getting mullered? They will need to gather yet more steel into the matrix of what they are building and go, again, in search of that second win in the 2013 tournament.

In Paris, Wales beat France in the first duff game of the 6nations. Or so the general perception will go. Led by Ryan Jones, they dug out a win whilst the French crowd broiled. The game was clunky, with few passages of quality handling. Halfpenny got man-of-the-match but it could easily have gone to his skipper, the eloquent Jones, who is one of those blokes you really want to do well for his utter but intelligent commitment. In the context of where the two sides are at – in the 6nations, in terms of their ahem development – there was a quasi-spiritual aspect to the game, with the French flailing about for something to believe in (a way of playing?) and the Welsh needing ideally to reassert their own pattern but more prosaically, to win. In reality, this was not the rugby of or for the gods.

The French were almost unbelievably poor; shambolically led from half-back, almost comically unimaginative with ball in hand. Apart from the occasional mega-hit from Bastereaud, they seemed either dilatory or glazed-eyed, unable to see or burst through the slough of nerves. Michalak was not the only one to play what felt like a career-ending role in the game.

Wales must of course take real credit for much of the host’s embarrassment. In team meetings they will surely have spoken about denying the French rather than levering the game open. But it wasn’t pretty – in particular that first half, where Phillips was again in contained and containing mode. Slowly going through phases until an error inevitably came; monitoring rather than playing. Fortunately for Wales, the longer the game went on the worse the hosts seemed to get; it hardly mattered that the Welsh back line seemed pedestrian by their standards and that the word ‘urgency’ appeared to have disappeared from the Franco-Welsh lexicon. Wales, solidly marshalled by Biggar, abided. And yet…

Sure, us Welsh-sympathetic types naturally hoped for a searing run from Davies or Cuthbert but the reality shelved most of that indulgence in exchange for the blanket thrown over the pitch. Bravely and with great discipline the forwards smothered and the backs kept the seal intact. There seemed not the remotest possibility that the French would score but in the absence of guarantees, things remain tense, yes? Even from the depths of their paucity some blur of French brilliance might spark? Pas de chance, as it ‘appens. They were – unpredictably – relentlessly, predictably crap.

As the thing rumbled in almost classically turgid style towards deserved victory for Wales, so the restlessness in the crowd grew. With every concession of possession by Les Bleus a chorus of the gallic equivalent of harrumphing gathered. The Welsh were ahead, without a meaningful cushion in terms of points but ahead. Following George North’s powerful burst for the line humiliating whistles and prolonged booing broke out around the stadium. Music to Welsh ears. French supporters left – disgracefully, in my view – in disgust. This was the kind of low-diff, plough through-the-sodden-meadow victory that practically erects a conveyor belt of foaming pints of beer on the players bar. Exhausting but rich in terms of its bond. There was at least a whiff of the Brotherhood of Redness about it; the redeeming, the reclamation of something, through powerful, powerful unified work. I would have let Ryan lead his men in a pint or two last night. A triumphant one.

Finally came England. With a win we’d be calling truly impressive if the game hadn’t been so decimated and reduced by conditions. My guess is England would have despatched Ireland with something to spare had the ball been less appallingly soapy. As it was, even the initially imperious Farrell was largely flummoxed by the pitiless rain.

England started superbly, with that kind of away team composure coaches dream about. Even early on there was no real width but Farrell prompted then penalised the Irish for any transgression. When the homesters awoke it was with that intemperate flame that might either overwhelm or threaten self-immolation; they were fierce but unfocussed. Sexton was ordinary – then hurt – and the Irish fumbled. The intensity was right off the scale but ambitions were promptly scaled right back as allegedly straightforward catches were dropped and the ball was lost in contact. The mid-section of the match was relatively poor, with periods when Irish forward dominance seemed likely to be critical cancelled out by further error. England were always more efficient but the midfield never had, nor were ever likely to have quick ball or space to create. The English back line was admirably watchful and assured in defence whilst being anonymous going forwards.

Tuilagi, having come on early in the second period had the two sole try-scoring opportunities of the game but in each case his spatial awareness and footballing skills let him down. Was I the only one waiting for him to get a run at O’Gara? That run never came. England eased to victory, to a strangulating, appreciative-slap-on-the-back-engendering win rather than anything too… too triumphant. Lancaster will live with that. And – cue the unwisely charged denouement – England march on.

 

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Rugby, mainly.

Following a weekend where the relentlessly uplifting drama of the 6 Nations (rugby) yet again provided a wonderful if boomtastic example of the value and maybe the purpose of sport, I am entitled, I think, to go off on one. As you may know, this a mode I favour – hollering wildly, excitedly but hopefully not entirely unsoundly about the daft-punk glories of chasing balls around in some childlike, pore-cleansing flush.

This time I’m surely entitled; my Waltonian disproportion being compleatly proportionate to the primeval stirring (for example) when Ireland exploded over Saturday lunch. When England, finally, after best part of twenty years in a stultifying, fearful or cynical brace, broke out emphatically into some refreshingly fizzing new era, featuring a notably more Go Full Pelt and subsequently (gor blimey) successful instinct. When Italy, through a combination of mature, legitimising tactical weave and sheer and selfless fronting-up, put one over on the French.  When rugby, god bless its ample ass, showed the way. Join me then, in a post-euphoric smiling-jog warm-down (if this is possible?) through those games.

Wales were first up. Here, following a series of bruise-black blows to the dingle-dongle soul of the cherub-child’s pre-Christmas ritual – that would be the Autumn Series, then – the annual provincial rugby-lust yardstick was laced with concern. About Zebo, for one. And about the possibility that Declan Kidney (hitherto a most conservative choirmaster to the baying Irish) might come over all musically fruity and dashing and fearless – which, it soon transpired, he had. Or so it seemed when his charges unleashed an unimaginably dynamic 15 man Blackbush-anschluss/chorus upon the home side, leaving them quite quite bollocksed, before the first 40 was out. Only the irresistible quality of that surreally pogoistic Irish dance deflected that feeling of utter humiliation for Warburton’s distraught posse; when the score ticked to 20 odd points for the visitors and none for the reds.

The second, irrelevant period came over all wonderfully Welsh. Firstly – and you did feel rather typically – because Wales instead of reducing the ludicrous deficit allowed a further Irish score… but then… then something stirred. In a blur of Duw Duw aavitmun counters and scampers and painfully pointless but point-scoring ripostes, Howley’s men finally stood and fought, heroically.

Heroically because they were done, from the outset; because the late drama never had a cat in hell’s of actually making a difference; not, at least to the result.

Ireland deservedly won. The match was though, for the neutral, spectacular and for the Irish around 50% dreamlike in a very very good way indeed. Wales mind you, find themselves in maybe the most painful kind of crisis – on merit. More broadly and touchy-feely-smilingly, the lesson in life here was very much to do with how electrifying and rewarding the whole-hearted rage can be; Ireland’s early energy and commitment and unity being a thing of some beauty as well as unanswerable power.

The Calcutta Cup game between England and Scotland was the 43rd watershed moment on the bounce for England, who have been either threatening or promising to join the Actually We Really Do Believe in Expansiveness Pardee since Richard III parked up in Leicester wearing his Tiger’s scarf. Scotland meanwhile turned up with an appropriately Wallace-like leadership; the duo of Craig Johnston and Dean Ryan being preternaturally worrying and convincing in the role of arse-flashing, violence-hinting subverters of all things cosy. (Like maybe… England?)  The previous incumbent, incidentally – Andy Robinson – had possessed many of the defiant qualities necessary to commit to that particularly Scotch effort but despite manifest improvements his side basically still mostly got beat. There is a sense that under Johnston and his English enforcer that may change.

At Twickers, however, despite a brilliant start, Scotland were beaten in some style by a now properly resurgent England. In another fabulous game of rugby, in which the Farrell the Younger operated in exhibition mode almost throughout, such was his general excellence, the story was all about fulfilment (by the whites) of those oft-aired aspirations towards ‘really playing’. Again forgive the dodgy extrapolation towards quasi-cultural concept; but how else are we to describe the shift from veteran and weirdly lily-livered bore(s) to young-buck dynamos. England have crossed now – have executed – the transition into something exbloodyciting; something real and open and filled with generous possibility rather than dullness. After all the right noises, they are finding the right game; which is rugby, in fact.

On Sunday, the onus was on the Italians to further hitch up the quality of our glee by blasting further through the barriers of reasonable expectation. Sure they had beaten the French before but the Azurri had not, as yet, evidenced their assembly of Proper International Rugby Players in sufficient volume to be fully 6nation worthy. Or so the subtext continued to read. They were, in fact – even when making outstanding progress year on year – frustratingly short of the mark. Sunday, this changed.

Italy played better and they won. Their success rarely seemed in any doubt. What may be most encouraging for the Italians is the fact that this victory was not entirely built upon their small quota of hyper-talent – Parisse, certainly, Castrogiovanni, arguably – but through a revelatory level of general competence and comfort at the playing of bona fide international rugby. They kicked and passed and tackled throughout – and throughout the team – to an all-new and belief-hoiking height; somewhere right up there – somewhere legitimate. Neutrals like me celebrated with extravagant Mediterranean gestures (well, we pumped our fist and took a deep slug of some Chianti-substitute) because this was feeling like a further rich episode in some tectonic shifting; towards hearty goodness and brotherhood and – who knows? – Europe-wide meritocracy.

Okay. I may be over-egging the pasta here. There may, in ‘reality’ be no link between great sport and things round and about getting better. And therefore I may again be indulging. I remain, however relatively unapologetic at expressing these myopic or delusional pleasures. Feelings may indeed be total cobblers. But there was a great dollop of joy around this rugbystuff this weekend; there was magnificent excitement and achievement and yes, a kind of sacrifice in that sheer, exhilarating teaminess. Overall and unquestionably, the Generous View of Things trumped the ordinary or the constricting. And – let’s keep this simple? – that’s surely good.

The political angle that I should be keeping out of all of this stuff is, of course, a function of zillions of things that collectively make up our individual standpoint. Mine, after this weekend, is more than ever fired up by sport; coloured with the inspiration and the instinct and the poetry that fuels or arises from knockabouts like these. To me it figures absolutely that (to pull a not insignificant name out of the political matrix) Michael Gove doesn’t get this sport thing, poor sod. Not only was he no sportsman – not that this matters, necessarily – he is unreceptive to the essentials of team games; essentials that include deep comradeship, courageous generosity, the capacity to work like hell in order to give. Really… that’s such a shame.

I’ve written an ebook. Which I’d like you to see/buy. It’s here, it’s £2.83!! amzn.to/SSc9To

Could it really be gone?

Welsh rugby. How could it be such a pale shadow so alarmingly quickly? After that wonderful World Cup; after that seemingly world-wide groundswell of lurv was drawn to it, by the nature of what they did, in New Zealand. (If you didn’t see, or can’t remember, they lifted the whole tournament, breathing a genuinely friendly fire into its pallid rounds.) They charged and offloaded our expectations, our understandings of what ‘winning rugby’ might be. They – in their fanatically/fascistically brutal/beautiful condition – recaptured something preciously liberated… and hearty… and filled with Gareth Edward’s dive-passes. And in offering it to us, they denied cynicism; they attacked; they welcomed something back. And my god how quickly it’s gone.

The nation is in quiet mourning these dewy mornings. Since Argentina; since Samoa. Since those doubts ate up that freedom. In a land where rugby IS king, there is bound to be ‘discussion’.

I am mildly fascinated in the as yet relatively unaired suspicion that the awesome Polish beastings may yet be packaged up within some argument for the Great Welsh Distraction. As though all that hardcore physical inevitably contributed to a retreat into Gym Bunny Blinkerhood – and failure. Certainly the unfeasible intensity of all that preparation grates with some, who fear some link between cryotherapy (for extending the level of punishment a man might take?) and the inability to naturally play what’s in front of you. Expressivity or power? Is it insightful or just plain daft to imagine the men from the Land of My Fathers make better poets than cyborgs?

Conversations tend not to be as sci-fi marginal as that, but conversations aboundeth. Everywhere I go they talk of team selection (the copper, in the playground)… and Gatland’s absence… and half-backs gone missing. It’s a much talked about unspoken clammed up dagger-to-the-heart secret everyone knows. The team’s gone backwards or sideways, the team’s not the same – the world’s Just Not The Same. It’s dead, or at least the hwyl is – our most precious bit is. And we who feel it, in this screeching valley of quiet, we are suddenly hopeless. We can’t run straight; any of us! We can’t get momentum or we can’t manage the game. All cruelly felt, in the post office or the pub. We who could jink and dance and juggle coal or sheep or yards of Felinfoel, or sing the starlings out the dingletrees cannot, apparently run. Our poetry is lost. This is the blackest, blackest thing.

Injuries. Wales lose two or three (Joneses? Byrne? Lydiate? Davies?) and the pool is exposed. Priestland dips and the relative ordinariness of Priestlandhood, the non-PhilBennetflyhalfness of Priestland becomes vulnerable. And with it, the whole of Wales. Phillips struts too much and darts too little and the principality shrinks before us. Or worse – before everyone. That whole punching-above-our-weight-thing deflates itself. It’s a fine line. Ryan Jones in and out. Warburton leader or no? Fine.

After the sound beating by the Pumas, the National Mood booked in for a once-over at the trusty local surgery. After Samoa it flung itself wheezing onto the slab. Can Dr Gatland restore? With a full complement of Edwards/Howley vaccine drawn down again from the shelf? Hard to say. Certainly when the patient is this crippled by unbelief the prognosis really may not be good. It really may not be good. And the particular pressure means that experiments – the necessary blooding of A or B – become a real danger to the integrity of the project. Or so it is felt.

If there is a consensus it may be around this notion that a Full Team Out – or something very close – means everything to Wales. Despite hopes a year ago for a splendidly inviolable SQUAD SCENARIO it now seems clear that numbers matter – unless you happen to be (back) in New Zealand. Wales don’t have the strength in depth to maintain some idealised period of domination. Not anymore, when the game is so ruthlessly dynamic and physical and unforgiving of weakness. So if some curly haired geezer disappears from the front row – or perhaps two Lions do? – then trouble. If the half-backs do splutter, or reveal some unWelsh one-dimensionality – then trouble. Because there is a train coming. Pretty much every match. And if there is a flicker in that inviolable, Brothers-in-Redness conviction that Gatland undeniably instilled… ouch. Look out.

Henson.

Some people you feel need to be in the spotlight. Whether they deserve it/whether it’s for reasons good bad or indifferent/whether there’s cultivation of the scene or some actually rather innocent flame and moth thing going on (often with a predictably brief lifespan and grisly result) some folks do finish up famous.

In the case of sportsmen and to a lesser extent sportswomen, increased quality brings increased exposure; not in a meritocratic way but more likely through the twisted prism of the media, contingent as it is on perceptions of celebrity and interest factored or moulded around the personality.

Apparently (and quite possibly truly) in the wider mix of Talent, there are people we really want to know about; and there are also people who really want us to know about them. Many of the more blatantly aspiring I personally want to crush slowly under my relentless heel but this may be more of a reflection of my Mark E Smith-affected contempt for shallow fame than some damning indictment of the star as an alleged individual.

Now parallel to or maybe increasingly morphing into these sporting or non-sporting Celebrity Lives is that steroid-abusingly modern phenomena, the TV Reality/Wannabe Thing, where shows typically presidentially and judgementally directed by an over-groomed media-ape spool endlessly into our living rooms. ‘Tis a feature of modern living unattractive to some of us – the consumptive force of this stuff being completely predicated on the notion that we must, surely(?) want to either eat cockroaches or sing and dance more or less compellingly to a screamingly juvenile audience in order to er… win. The implication being that life will get better if we do clamber up that Pyramid of the Disappointed on the way to this peak; this peak of fame, where we feel surely that wonders – untold wonders – await in the shape of… the shape of… what, exactly?

Money certainly. Possibly a boy or girlfriend to cherish and parade. Something… you know… better.

There once was a boy with gifts rising appropriately in step with these all-new, fascistically-materially-focused times. He had a good look; powerful thighs and that essential Action Man torso required of the Sports Celebrity Hunk. He seemed independently(?) to decide that shaving his legs and acquiring a suspiciously orange tan might be central to a successful image in this excitingly fickle era. What controlled or impelled this urge may be beyond discovery, it being characteristic of this particular athlete that things were instinctively or apparently casually and often unwisely done. His name was Gavin.

Gavin captured the hearts of many on both sides of the gender divide; the Sauvage Sweetie of South Wales, once exposed, ticking all manner of differently oriented boxes. In time the increasingly lovely and recently memorably articulate Charlotte Church fell in with him, no doubt finding comfort both in his residence (like her, with her) in this bewitchingly unreal cloud and in his stolid proto-manliness. It seemed to last; and then it didn’t. Is it now cruel to suggest she’s far too good for him, she in her Leveson-enhanced maturity?

Whatever. Gavin’s profile meanwhile back then – in rugby/for Wales/in the papers – had soared, justifiably, in the sense that now he was a real presence on the rugby pitch. He seemed at ease within the Big Match Spotlight in a way that very often indicates bonafide sporting class. For a while the most theoretically testing moments provided the place where his already slightly worrying mix of gifts and poses could actually be; where this awkward pup might most fully, apparently, be himself – or project some ‘best of himself’ onto the public consciousness.

He gave us properly fully grown-upped sporting memories; by welcoming the genuinely mercurial Matthew Tait of England (crucially) to international rugby with the kind of province-lifting tackle that altered the physical geography of both countries. By hoofing the oval ball intercontinentally distant but still with smart-weaponlike accuracy – especially, my memory suggests, when most eyes were upon him. Afficianados – often begrudgingly due to the continuing flirtations with unrugbylike arrogances or extra-curricular indulgences – conceded amidst their head-shaking appreciations that he had ‘great hands’, that he was a proper player; there was a sense that Henson was legitimate and deserving of a place within the much-admired Welsh pomp. At times he undeniably drove this pomp, such was his powerful running and subtly timed, natural offloading to colleagues in space. He played centre outstandingly now and he was a pretty complete package. But there were distractions.

Gavin was handsome and strong and already famous. He seems always to have enjoyed – either in isolation or in tandem – that fatal combination of attention and booze. When TV stuff suggested itself into his life some years ago the worry that rugby would simply not be enough began to take hold; to eat away at us (those of us who feared for a special but vulnerable talent) as well as him. He started to do more telly than sport.

He did Strictly Come Dancing, in which he showed admirable stickability in fact, for he had begun as a plodder and then hauled himself into contention. His physique proudly and arguably crassly unleashed, he ‘gave it everything’ to earn the ‘respect’ of judges and public alike; and he succeeded, actually, I think. Housewives loved him, families voted ‘Gav’, blokes – again begrudgingly I suspect – nodded quiet approval. ‘Cos Gavin had really poured himself into it. The thought now arises that it might have been good had he managed to apply the same degree of commitment and determination to the later stages of his rugby career. It seems clear that these powers existed in him, were available to him but… we all make choices.

This boy Henson, this man-cub has always been flawed. Many scoffed at the early image-consciousness; haircuts and tans and ‘inevitable’ column-friendly relationships. The apparent dumbness – if that’s what it was – the life as sensitivity by-pass. He was hard to take seriously and the unfolding ‘stories’ tended to do him no favours. The sense, on reflection, that he never actually had a grip, or that the thing wasn’t rooted. Ironically, that this magnificently powerful specimen had little power, little control. And all too quickly there was precious little sport and when there was it felt somehow fraudulent; Henson as flitting mercenary – latterly.

Sure, injury has played a role in this disappointing spiral. (I wonder, incidentally if the presumably advised but surely unnecessary bulking up of his frame contributed negatively to his later susceptibility to absences?) But it feels, does it not, like we’ve been here before, depressingly, with unnamed but familiar sporting heroes. Guys or gals who abused and then burned out their shining star. Didn’t we, in this latest episode, to be blunt, ‘all see it coming?’

That inevitability does fascinate. Is the quantative scale of our collective disappointment actually warping the percentages here? Does the fact of Gav’s exposure make it all the more thuddingly sad/infuriating/relevant to Our Times? (Delete where applicable or phone whichever extension.) Opinion itself bulges; swells; because either we’ve always viewed the man as some spoilt arse, or, more sympathetically maybe, as some attention junkie; implying the poor boy can’t help himself. I’ve seen obituaries, effectively already and I’ve seen the word ‘Shakespearian’ tagged to this latest slither of the Henson soap. After a series of more or less disgraceful exits from pretty mighty rugby clubs in the last year or so, rugby sages might feel entitled to summarily dismiss the sideshow that Henson had become; but typically they don’t. Not without a hint of a “What if…?”

Because – those of you who may not really know – Gav really was a talent; at his peak, close to the best Centre in European rugby. When he was actually there, doing it, on the pitch.

No fat lady has sung; to my knowledge.

Read something really quite interesting the other day. On the subject of fickleness, I suppose, or at least regarding the alleged facts of fandom – whether or not this notion of the part-time or unreal fan is a fair kop. (That worth a ha ha?) Or whether it’s always been statistically the case that most fans either have more than one true love in their football ether, or actually go to watch more than one club; god forbid. Anthropologists studying that commonly identified sub-group The Bloke will be unsurprised I think that within this revealingly sharp and often vitriolic debate about Prawn Sarnie Munchers being Scum-a-the-earth or the Financial Lifeblood of the Premier League, there is a historical narrative for infidelity. Apparently, for yonks, it has been gently gently secretly the case that supporters have been de-tribalising themselves in order to watch better teams outside the immediate thrall of The Manor, or shouting Ev’ton one week and Liv’pool the next (for example.) Thereby dancing silently upon the grave of their own authenticity in the eyes of all right-minded people – like themselves.

God it’s a twisted world.

In life I make a point of a) being a huge optimist but b) never really believing anybodies facts and figures, so I won’t mention that the above research on home supporters is liberated from an article in Spiel magazine, lest you go accepting/reading it. Besides, I’m dealing in the woozily general again here, and do not intend (even) to write an article about football. I merely throw in this psycho-geographically resonating lifebuoy to provide comfort to those unable to persist with a post that turns out… against the early expectations… to be, in a roundabout way, about rugbystuff.

So what are we like, eh? One minute we’re crowing or guffawing at either George North or the Irish Pack; the next we’ve drifted. Back to the Real Sporting Giants – Drogba/Suarez/Torres and soon enough Rooney. As though they can or rightfully do satiate our needs both for sporting drama and mighty role-models. Providing us with everything a fan – fickle or sanctimoniously beyond those apparently spurious judgements – could ever ask for.

The Six Nations comes to an unseemly deadstop, like some campaign in the Daily Mail undermined because it suddenly seemed Leftie; quietly and terminally, mirroring something of the muffled bitterness articulated by those dubiously rugby-converted purple rinses with their suddenly cultivated obsession for Our Stuart Getting That England Job, ahead of that Mallett man, with his unsettlingly dark features. The natural order of things succeeding, in The Mail and the proper world; properly.

The sudden smotheration of not just The Six Nations but of the existence of rugby in the British(?) consciousness so soon after that final toot at Twickenham last weekend must surely be a metaphor for something. As well as being another one of those alleged facts. Perhaps it means that – shock horror probe – folks are not died-in-the-wool, touch-pause-engaged fans in the real head-to-the-left-now-hit-like-fuck sense. They – like most of the referees at international level – have no genuine feeling for, or understanding of the dark arts or finer points of frontrowdom. They admire something of that knightish physicality; wonder how that game can go on like that with that bloke reeling around under the trainer’s insensitive touch, four foot six away from the ongoing action. Why don’t they stop, like in proper games? And how does that counter-rucking thing work anyway? And how can that thing there be right, when thingumee just pawed oosit with his studs? Like that!?! Deliberately. What ARE the rules exactly, about that?

In Wales and quite possibly Ireland there is some general understanding. The Vinnygeez has waxed lyrical often enough about this. (In Wales) red cloudbursts of communal expression; joy through clumping; tries against the English as symbols of nothing more than reasons to exist as a nation. Proper engagement on a national, visceral and poetic level. Max Boyce as the Pope/Tom Jones as The Singing Pope – or something. Something like a very much friendlier triptych than might be produced (on a post Grand Slam bender?) by Francis Bacon, let’s say, who despite his fringe-celtic toff-centric out-there-ism I suspect didn’t know much about the game of rugby. Like many residents of Soho. Apart from Brian Moore. Who really does know plenty.

But I fear I digress. (Like for a living, almost.) The point I wish to make is that there is some sudden flopping off the continental shelf going on here, as the Fact Of Rugby slips like some unappreciated gloop into the all-consuming depths. And I am interested in the reasons for that. I have a hope that because the general level of sportsmanship, commitment, fitness and honourability amongst top rugby players is so absurdly high that therefore its profile and relevance and capacity to touch the hearts of (ideally) nine year-old boys and girls will deservedly soar. Leading to – amongst other things but as a suggested minimum – a manifest improvement in respect for the planet and all who inhabit it/the necessary election of a series of humanitarian socialist governments. Because rugby really is pretty wonderful, containing as it does a uniquely focused and encapsulated form of selflessness, teamwork and bravery that entitles it fully to snort derisively at (for example) Drogba’s ham-and-pineapple quattro-staggione-in-one-day blousy affectations. Rugby I know not being perfect but rarely being that embarrassing. But I fear I digress.

Look the rugby season for our friendly Six didn’t finish just because those games did. In fact right now the club season approaches its critical phase; Heineken Cup; Premiership Trophy; equivalents and more to the massively more exposed football carnivals. So let there be space for both in your own personal calendar.

And on the international scene this enthralling but actually parochial knockabout recently enjoyed may well feel disappointingly clubby compared to summer tours or autumn internationals against the acknowledged kingly beasts and champions of the game – the Tri-Nations posse. Either way, don’t look away so prematurely, so part-time-supportedly, so uninformedly now. Because quite frankly if you invest a touch more of your time into appreciating what these backs and forwards are up to, you may well find it’s shockingly expressive of the greater sporting instincts. Those that touch pause engage upon support; heart; camaraderie. Remember them?