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!!

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.


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?

So that’s it then… he said, coolly.

Wales have rightly claimed their Grand Slam. Good teams do stuff like that; express their superiority; by winning things. Following on from a World Cup where they were indisputably the darlings of the watching globe, it is surely particularly appropriate that we can actually treasure – all of us – a time when that most thrilling combination of liberated running and invincible belief have overcome more prosaic cultures. Because that’s what’s happened.

Wales have carried that flame for flair and expression thereof more convincingly and more closely to their hearts than anyone else. Because the essence of what they are doing is notably purer than all the remaining Six Nations sides. Because the Welsh nation wills it. Because the coaches – Gatland, Howley and Edwards – believe they have the personnel to make it work in a cynical age.

So what we get is a fascinating mixture of olde-worlde philosophical generosity (does that sound faintly laughable?) and modern drive. Gatland is clearly a gritty but inspiring sort; Howley a past master of many of the graces perpetrated by ‘girls’ and Edwards a challenger, an enforcer, a furious, steely bundle of aggressive stepforwardnowism. What is Cardiff Central here is the ability to engender real trust and belief. Not the flip-chart version; the mild-mannered or over-coiffured version. The real deal. This the Welsh leadership have managed – along with virtually everything else – modestly, with supreme confidence and not a little style.

The combination – that word again – of contrasting personalities all apparently gathering, picking and going in the same direction is one of the more discussed and imagined notions in successful team sport; it is however, rarely observed in the flesh. It’s here in Wales. In a land uniquely (probably) close to and well informed upon its national sport, people proudly identify with Warburton’s previously described Brotherhood of Redness. They might do that as a matter of course. But things take flight, passions and glorious expectations rise when there is an understanding of some value-adding extra dimension in play. It’s here in Wales. This icing-on-the-cake goodness thing. What’s not to love about your own team being both mighty successful and magnificently entertaining?

This, of course, is mere context. Welsh Windbaggery. And what pleasure it gives me to wave this flag for sporting poetry and – yes maybe – pomp, pretty secure in the knowledge that the Six Nations Table concurs with my view of this emblematically Welsh triumph; goals (or equivalents) paying that rent. Lest this ode deteriorate further into hagiography however, I would like to say a few things about what these victories were grounded upon; actually.

Start at the front. There has been an argument that Wales were in some sense not big or brutal enough to compete at the Very Top Level Up Front for some years. This argument may have had some merit to it in days when there was evidentially a shortage of cover for Adam Jones or Gethin Jenkins (say.) (This could and was also said about the second row, mind you.) In other words there was an informed view that Wales did not have a sufficiently strong or deep pool of front five assets. Fair cop. It may even be an issue now against the Tri-Nations heavies -possibly. But Wales front three against France today contained at least 2 world class performers for me – and the third, Matthew Rees – is no mug.

The second row has likewise more than held its own in this tournament but Alun Wynne Jones and Ian Evans lack the obvious class of the fellows immediately to (and up and against) their rear(s.) This hardly makes them weak links, mind. They are merely decent internationals – Wynne Jones being almost worth his place for the brio with which he sings “Mae hen wlad “etc etc.

That back row for Wales is, in the current jargon, immense. The full complement of Lydiate/Warburton/Faletau at 6/7/8 compares favourably with anything anywhere on current form. Lydiate was justifiably Man-of-the-Match today for his fierce commitment and industry, his ability to deny the opposition. Warburton is rightly already famed for his sensational athleticism and power and Faletau has the uncoachable knack of always and often crucially beating that first tackle. They have, as a unit, taken up the challenge and indeed the mantle of whirlwind All Black back rowers who have achieved almost unplayable heights in terms of their dynamism and ability to unzip the breakdown. The opposition now fears an open game against Wales for many reasons – one of them being the dangers posed when the likes of Faletau and Warburton flash from phase to phase.

But let’s face it, the fabulous truth is things get exciting when the ball goes wide. Jonathon Davies has had a superb Six Nations; Jamie Roberts a good one. But the new beasts, the cherubic outhouses on either flank have probably garnered most coverage, most glory and most points. (Haven’t checked – but you know what I mean.) George North has arrived, often with a mass of Englishmen/Italians etc attached or being swatted contemptuously aside – that’s if they had the fortune (good or otherwise) to actually lay fingers upon him. He looked like some choirboy-alien in red; some babe born immediately before the match, at 19 stones, then hurriedly unbuilt or transported to nothingness for the following week. So that the fluently superlative but somehow other-wordly charging through normally – hah! – proportioned defences could begin again. He’s er… beyond stardom already.

And then this bloke called Cuthbert turns up. Weighing in at a similarly absurd tonnage, with similar gifts for elephant-trampling or – apparently – tap dancing. Massive.

Again let me dig out one of my pseudo-anecdotal wotnots here; about this linkage between Welsh back play and culture. The fans, the people of Wales really know they have something extraordinary going for them. They know this both intuitively – in their Red Souls – and in the detail. A young woman (Sales Rep, as it ‘appens) waxed authoritatively to me recently about the weight and power advantage Wales had in the backs for their trip to Twickenham. (Meaning obviously the likes of North against say Strettle). I was fascinated by her appreciation and her relish for this new turbo-injected Dragonstuff. Glee was certainly present at the gateway to this new, physically enhanced dominion. But the nature of our conversation remained almost spiritual; does that sound laughable?

She understood, she knew, it was implicit in what she said that the game in Wales has not departed from its upliftingly sunlit dingle. Moved on, yes, but not departed. Gatland has led a revolution for mad, old, daft ideas. Both icily as well fervently – he has chafed as well as smiled no doubt. He has prepared his Brotherhood quite possibly better than any rugby team ever before. They have a remarkable team ethic because they believe in him, in something. And as that something is clearly and obviously to do with the expression of gifts as well as the exercise of power and planning, I am unable to refrain again from using this word poetry. Meaning a kind of inherently beautiful expression. In this case, on a pitch.

The difference

The mood in Wales is different this time. There is a quieter surety about the thing. People – and in Wales this means nearly all the people – are bustling along with purpose, reflecting the emergence of a different language of being. Rather than being predicated upon that naturally occurring defiance – that celtic fire – this all-new, cooler mothertongue is born of some elite cryo-therapeutic confidence, it seems. As though the whole nation has been queueing up to march into those portable cubicles now favoured by the Brotherhood of Redness itself – the national rugby side.

Can it really be the case that in car parks from Haverfordwest to Harlech, butchers and bakers and candlestick- makers have been topping up their god-given verve by chilling to the Amazonian Max? Is Dai the Taps really freshly emerged from a minus 120 hit of re-energising bliss? Can he really stow away those spanners and tighten up with miraculous finger-power alone? And is Dafydd the Doors really shaving them down with his daily-renewable but diamond-edged bristles? Too right. For this is the era of the supermen.

Wales knows rugby and it knows something has changed. They have gone from being merely the best Northern Hemisphere side to watch into being the real powerhouses of European rugby. They have enormous talent and enormous backs. They look unstoppable. Right now, as Merv the mighty Swerve is rightly remembered, a new breed of animal is snorting in the background, ready – unbelievably ready – to step out and make their own statement. These fellahs are equally as proud and passionate as the former number 8 was. But they are utterly different in terms of their levels of conditioning – one reason amongst many that Warburton’s team will surely roll through any legitimate nerves to extinguish French hopes of spoiling the national party.

And yes, there will be a party.

Oh England my lionheart?

I may junk this first sentence because you may not get how treble-edgedly smart it is – how both insinuatingly and philosopho-buntingly alive it is – despite appearances. Let’s try…

It’s a big week for England.

So big it needs exposure; like some craggy castle or monkish retreat now unveiled as home to bulging but youthful talents previously hushed by authoritarian loonies. Like Capello; or Johnson; or Margaret Thatcher – Boadicea! So big because two magisterial rivals come to call, bringing again their frankly superior entourage of exotic skills. Wales and Holland; the passionate and the cool. Welsh brio again soon to be anthemically lit by amply-lunged, prop-proportioned women in red; Dutch ease fanned by a sea of orange madmen in Wember-ley.

A zenith of sports-cultural counter-activity approacheth, or so it feels, as “Gwlad” rehearses itself in the dingle-dell that is the red soul of Wales and the misleadingly understated Nederlandpeeps fold their tangoesque flags. Buildup of a particularly rich, vocal and simmeringly intense quality is building up. In Wales a low appreciative hum has begun to throb as news of the return of Warburton and Wynne-Jones and Lydiate has slid ominously around. You don’t need to know the Welsh for “kop that bach” to sense the tectonically impressive confidence around the confrontation with Lancaster’s undemonstrative charges. No arrogance yet, but a belief amongst the star-hung valleys that Wales rugby – with the stamp of world-wide approval – has a real current supremacy throughout these allegedly United Kingdoms.

And Holland, who despite their comparatively low ebb, are expected to carouse serenely around the very emblem of ‘our patch’ like the special edition Martin Dobsons or Alan Hudsons we know them to be. Sometimes almost cruelly or arrogantly brilliant, Dutch sides have a habit of quietly handing out a lesson or twelve in the art of composure and ball retention. Admittedly this does not always end in victory but typically it does end in the revelation of inadequacy amongst their English oppo’s. Such is the potential for embarrassment against this particularly Dutch capacity to bypass traditional (anglo-saxon?) confrontation (er… by passing) that I am clear Stu Pearce’s selection of tumbling youth is made in full consciousness of the likely outcome of a ‘full-strength side’ competing. They’d get quietly outplayed, probably, as usual.

Cynical? Perhaps. But the selection of a slack handful of worthy young’uns removes fears of more than one variety. In truth I expect the starting line-up for England to look… how can I put it…? Unreckless. In a squad looking frankly short of top talent – remember the Terrys’, the Ferdinands, the Lampards, for all their diverse frailties did have international quality – a 4-4-1-1 of Hart/Richards,Jones,Smalling, Cole/Milner, Parker, Gerrard, Young/Rooney/Sturridge or pretty similar might be our strongest available. Expect run-outs or more from Cleverley and Wellbeck as additional elements of youff-encouragement. The chronic shortage of goal-keeping back-up remains an issue, as do the centre-half slots and arguably the striker(s). Can we swap a right back with somebody, I wonder?

But let’s not kid ourselves. The rugby is infinitely more tantalising a prospect. Stuart (Clive Woodward School of Smart Blandness?) Lancaster has done a decent-plus job of bringing England round from their World Cup hangover. He sits somewhere between articulate Yorkie schoolteacher and Rugby Bore in a way that worries me slightly; like Woodward he might seem inadequate and slightly out of time if England lose anywhere badly. Currently – as they have managed to win bravely but fairly badly in Italy and in Scotland – he remains untested in that respect. (A diversionary footnote here; did anyone else who saw Woodward’s ‘mare of a performance on Hardtalk the other night – dull/reeking of fusty anoraks – question how much of All That Stuff He Achieved was actually down to him, I wonder?)

New model Stuart L’s England have played like a side run along well-propounded dictums; solidly and with conservative purpose rather than inspiration. Hodgson’s absence for this weekend has – in the great tradition of Best Teams Selected By Injury – realigned an especially well balanced English back line; one that may yet prove to be exceptional. Half-backs Dickson and Farrell; centres Barritt and Tuilagi; wings Strettle and Ashton; Foden at full back. This is a good lineup. It has composure in defence and power and the possibility for electrification going forward. What it lacks, relatively, is of course experience (and tries?) placing a huge burden upon young Farrell at pivot.

But Farrell seems very much the unflappable type – possibly even culturally so, given his lineage. Whether a close-quarters encounter with Sam Warburton’s ludicrously enhanced biceps might change this impression is hard to predict… but Owen does seem unflappable. He gathers, he kicks. He plays within himself and almost certainly within the (arguably fairly limited?) game plan. Given that England are not likely to stray too ambitiously from a containing/territorial game against the gifted Welsh the likelihood may be that a tightish affair ensures; unless somewhere a dam breaks.

On the colourifically-aspirational side for the whites, the selection of Tuilagi amplifies hopes for some liberation from repeatedly prompt felling of English attackers at the gainline. This boy can run. And the way he runs suggests a love of that simple pleasure – cradling the ball whilst sinuously, boy-in-the-parkfully rampaging up the pitch. Indeed the battle of the centres in this match (both Roberts and the now fully-emerged Davies surely Lions-in-waiting in every sense?) could be either (oh go on, take those liberties!) swervaciously or, more prosaically crunchingly magnificent. It really could be wonderful – would that England come out and play!

They probably won’t. Certainly not early on. Surely? Even if the quadruple-bluff of an immediate Barbarian-style English onslaught has fabulous appeal, surely they won’t. Coaching thoroughbred that he is, Lancaster will have them ear-twitchingly prepared; nose-bagged up; with a freshly-pressed but learned-by-rote game plan. The skipper will lead his men nobly. Morgan and Dickson will be ready. Foden will have the occasional foray. But the occasion will demand foremost that the dam not be breached. And anything further… becomes a bonus, an opportunity, as Lancaster might say, upon which we must capitalise.

Blandishments aboundeth? I’m personally fed up with the word ‘mentality’ tripping so pretentiously/unpretentiously from the rehearsed mouthings of the England camp. So much that I’m going to use it and leg it past, sharpish – treat it like the stink-bomb it is. The quality of this match will depend far too much I’m afraid on the mentality of the men in white. They have it in their hands to deliver us something sensational but the reality is likely to be ordinary.

Previously I have waxed – and then some – on the profound successes of the Welsh. If they do, as I think they may, go to Twickenham and again demonstrate the kind of fearless yet focused rugby fizzing with the simple joys then they will march on with the support of the morally-enhanced majority. A classic ding-dong confrontation, in which a rejuvenated England play a full part until Welsh brilliance finally denies them, is surely the ideal scenario – even England fans might appreciate that? Eventually.

Wales New Breed – same old.

David Lacey once wrote brilliantly of the journo’s need, on occasion, to invent a spectacular new breed of cliché with which to describe sporting drama. Following the er… apocalyptically wonderful contest between Ireland and Wales yesterday, I am shamelessly either jumping on or over the moon that is Mr Lacey’s bandwagon; I think. Because words provide suddenly insufficient ammunition to fight the necessary war with the need to reasonably but excitedly represent the alleged actuality of this extraordinary fixture; (Brian.) The truths of this particular occasion being heightened almost beyond belief.

Coming into this their first 2012 Six Nations fixture, the Welsh squad were entitled to feel somewhat buffeted by worries aired (by commentators like me) regarding perceived weaknesses in their group. In particular, injuries to players as diverse but central as Roberts, Priestland, Jenkins, Wynne-Jones, Rees – whether they be niggles or more long-term knocks – threatened, some of us imagined, to seriously undermine the Welsh challenge. Certainly it may have appeared that Wales pool of brilliance was in some danger of dilution; this, the argument went, would be a great shame for the tournament, as Gatland’s crew have already done enough to suggest themselves as the purist’s and neutral’s favourites.

The size of the strapping on Priestland’s thigh as he jogged rather carefully out did little to assuage the concerns of those doubters and worriers. However, the day after an encounter with Ireland that if anything confirmed Welsh Power not frailty, all of us need to shake away some of our cynicism and enjoy ; this Wales appearing now more deeply brilliant as well as more resilient than feared.

In the first twenty minutes in particular, the combination (again) of all-court skills executed with utter confidence even under conditions of pretty extreme physical stress (step forward Messrs O’Connell/O’Callaghan/Heaslip et al) and passionate bias from a characteristically boisterous Dublin crowd were mightily impressive. All things considered – or perhaps all superfluous things forgotten – the Brotherhood of Redness continued in emphatically the same style as at the recent World Cup, to the extent that in the opening quarter they threatened to simply bewilder the home side through what I am tempted to call – during a period of proportion amnesty – an understated tour de force of dynamic movement and expansive glee.

One of the toughest things in sport is to maintain elevated standards contingent upon real ambition; that is, in this case, on the belief that generosity, pace and control works. Wales executed this fabulous/ludicrous plan with a now customary flourish, bursting through phases and fearlessly throwing the ball about with irresistible energy. It was simply pretty close to magnificent as an alround team performance and I make no apology for labouring this point about how important the Welsh positive worldview is; fans know what good and exciting looks like and for the dragons to be modelling a winning (in every sense of the word) version of the game is especially heartwarming. If it seems either glib or pompous to talk of a wonderful example being set, then blame Lacey for licensing such sloppy talk.

I suspect the Irish fans may not entirely see it that way, the greens themselves making a wholehearted if slightly more prosaic contribution to the game that nearly bundled them through. With O’Connell and O’Callaghan disrupting the line-out to good effect – in O’Callaghan’s case by waiving and bawling at Huw Bennett to pressurise the throw – this was on the face of it always a contest rather than a procession. Amongst the vaunted beasts of the Irish back-row Heaslip grew into the game and mid-match and beyond things felt poised. And yet, somewhere mysteriously beneath, until the binning for the errant Bradley Davies, quiet supremacy in favour of the Welsh existed.

To be more specific, throughout this outstanding game of rugby, Wales characteristically put pace and width on the ball, meaning that the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North in particular rampaged widely and to great effect because they were trusted to do exactly that.
With a leanish, meanish and engaged Mike Phillips pulling the strings in the manner of old, that (sorry, here come those clichés) mercurial Welsh Whirligig-thing was fully operational. Despite the fact that a) Warburton did not emerge for the second half and b) Priestland’s goal-kicking was poor, Ireland – indeed all of us – were periodically breathlessly overwhelmed. Almost.

In point of fact the greens were still in it, then ahead, then pegged, then the full technicolour tensionfest kicked in as the game seesawed to that gut-churning climax. Ireland may have been robbed by two controversial decisions – Davies surely should have gone/Ferris (less surely) innocent when pinged as guilty – but
few neutrals would have argued which was the classier, more ‘deserving’ side. It was Wales, who were both inventive and focused.

For any side to construct phases in the last moments of a game, away from home, against a seriously committed opponent, in the knowledge that any error would be terminal
is impressive. For those phases to lead seamlessly from within a dozen metres of your own goal-line to a central position within kicking range is a statement, I would argue of class. And the manner in which this fraught enterprise was achieved spoke of a maturity that the likes of the aforementioned North and Davies have no right yet to own. The crucial penalty awarded, it seemed entirely appropriate that the generally excellent Halfpenny should smash it emphatically between the uprights.

Ultimately, when Mr Barnes of Somewhere Now in Hiding, England finally tooted that final toot, the elation and relief on the faces of this new breed of Welsh Hero was there for all to see and surely enjoy. Again The Story centred upon their liberation of oft-shackled ideals; for it bears repeating that winning is nearly everything but winning like this… is winning.

There’s no action at all

The colours are beginning to gather and swirl.  Or at least in my head they are.  And this year, there is a freshening up of if not the hues or emblems then certainly some of the imagery.  Ireland swap perennial likeable erratic celtic scurrying for stolid consistency. England go skinny-dipping into a brave new brick-pond.  Wales – dashing and smashing Wales – seek quietly desperately to do what they just did once more.  France try fundamentally to get a grip, Italy to get a win (again) and Scotland… Scotland gathers once more into a determined huddle with a rare degree of authentic belief.  This much at least suggests itself from the recent announcements of 6 Nations personnel.

On balance it seems great; a feistily competitive tournament awaits; an even one perhaps, where England may have been transformed from the Great Boring Shadow over the affair into The Real White Fluffy Bunny of Hope.  Ideally.

Or where Wales accept the challenge of doing that thing all over again and do, whilst breaking down the walls of tradition through being majestically/counterintuitively pragmatic in order to win.  Or where Scotland really really actually actually do beat people they threaten to beat on paper, following their allegedlyinfact real progress.   And these are just the obvious shifting gems in my own particular admittedly Brit-centric kaleidoscope.

I’m actually guessing England’s necessary evolution will stereotypically not feature some flamboyant casting off of the recent dull iron.  The talk of youth and the manifest rejection of Tindall/Banahan and arguably Easter points to a healthy injection of pace and flexibility, with the newboys Farrell and Barritt for example looking suitably geared up to facilitate that requirement.

Yet talk really is cheap when it comes to the international level; particularly in reference to ‘playing a more expansive game’.   Getting notably duffed up in the first ten by a politically motivated Scots back-row might throttle back rose-tinted English  ambition pretty sharply I sense.  And more specifically, if Lancaster does go for Hodgson Farrell Barritt(?) as 10-12-13, half of England as well as all of Scotland will be initially concerned with how they cope, never mind how they play.

Hodgson has been widely admired as a top and consistent performer in the Premiership but am I alone in wondering whether he has the temperament or (go on, say it) The Bottle to boss things on an international stage?  Particularly one that specifies Murrayfield first-up.  His nature and my memory of said nature suggests otherwise.

But such is the lot of the 10.  Current expectation, history and some large hairy geezer all bearing down…

Unquestionably though, the ability or otherwise of the English to reinvent themselves into a modern/competitive/fit for purpose top level international side is clearly going to impact on the destination of the 6 Nations trophy.  Not particularly because any of us expect them to win it but because they have, as they say, players.

But do they have a team?

Wales have different pressures.  A near-magnificent Word Cup adventure; a coaching triumvirate in Gatland/Edwards/Howley that gathered them then to a collective peak of confidence and execution, now needing to do that most challenging of things – rinse and repeat.  Dangers of expectation and of maintenance; maintaining that spirit; maintaining intensity without shackling that glorious expression; maintaining composure when suddenly Faletau/Warburton are getting knocked back.  Defending without distraction when every fibre screams out for release.  And maybe most pointedly, plastering over cracks where key players should be.

I have a hunch that Priestland, perversely, may find life in the 6 more testing than it appeared at the World Cup.  His chief attribute seemed then his general coolness – the boy making no claim to threaten the exclusivity of King John and his mercurial followers in the national out-half slot.  He succeeded in being effective without sparkling and I wonder how that key balance – territory versus terrorism? – will play out this time.

Hook is surely a bigger talent, but one flawed or compromised or perceived to be, following the occasional interception of a killer pass.  Given that much of the gut-churning tension generated by test matches inveigles its way into the heads/hearts/feet/hands of the number 10’s, the pulse of the Welsh side will calm or quicken according to the quality of will and the steel shown by Priestland or by Hook.   Because – in one of their bigger calls? – the coaches have dispensed with the doughty Stephen Jones.  May youth and imagination prosper.

The Irish fascinate me.  Not just through their capacity to produce the world’s finest and most rewardingly sustaining drink – although many a thesis could be written to conjoin Guinness and creative genius – and then link that dubiously to numbers 4 to 7/possibly 8 on a rugby pitch.  (I’m not going there, quite.)  But Ireland have been and do remain a threat mostly(?) when the O’Connells to the Heaslips seem possessed of an electrically charged, patriotically driven fury.  Then low-centred centres have relentlessly exploited newly-exposed soft-centres.  That is still likely to be the Irish Way.

To be more specific, there are times when the Irish carry irresistibly – when the pick and go is developed into a carousel of green violence few can resist.  O’Connell will be selflessly but in every sense leading this charge; as skipper and as totem for that special kind of focussed but physical examination.  Ireland do have quality in the backs – witness the omission of Luke Fitzgerald – but a certain BOD has often been the baton-carrier into the lethal phases, has he not?

It strikes me that Bowe in flight is a classy but a pretty rare sight in recent times because of this sniping midfield obsession; one which works fiercely but historically only intermittently, often off the back of a roaring home crowd. Is this, I wonder a reflection of the lack of ubertalent as well as a mark of the propensity for world-class defiance?

So I am fascinated by the onward roll of a part-green part-gold generation; which despite its relative consistency has spikes of over and underachievement.  Which of these Irelands, these Wales’s, these Englands will actually turn up?

My opening gambits.  As such they are hardly exhaustive – and I do intend to take on the Scots and the rest more forensically later.   But with kick-offs so invitingly, so deliciously approaching, it does feel good as well as appropriate to be all mouth and no action for now.

Enter the dragons?

So, this weekend lots of sporty stuff gets going; England/Wales at Twickers; The Championship; The Charity Shield. Already the distant gleam of silverware. Papers are foaming with the Fabregas thing, the Mancini thing(s), the Road to Glory thing. The usual wunnerful daft disproportionate bollocks many of us lap up – no, too unfortunate an analogy – many of us get caught up in every pre-season.

But is it a sign of something meaningful I wonder that the footie stuff in particular finds me less compelled towards engagement? For although I speak as one proud of family connections to the pro game, with a decent pedigree in turning defenders inside out, I am currently experiencing difficulties of association with the typical Top Footie Player. And I drift more towards the relative sporting class – dignity even – of the rugby boys.

Spells coaching rugby at junior level recently renewed my familiarity with the utter contempt in which footballers generally are held by the rugby community. This goes beyond the guffawing at laughably poncy reactions to the kind of ‘injuries’ we as skinny 9 year-olds would have wiped away in a moment. It goes beyond the envy at decent but not extraordinary athletes being paid obscene amounts of moolah. What offends more deeply, I suspect, is the pervasive arrogance and disrespect for the sport itself. Players diving or faking to get fellow players booked or sent off; players endlessly whining at officials; players frankly pissing on notions of fairness and honest competition between respected adversaries. The thin, arguably cowardly cynicism.

I know there are examples of cheating/faking etc etc. in rugby. However I am clear that the general level of sporting integrity displayed by elite rugby players – under massively more physically demanding circumstances than footballing equivalents – is still a treasure. Rugby players get battered; taking punishment that would reduce the likes of Nani/Drogba/you name your own pussy to a tearfully exasperated heap. Given the testosterone-worship inevitably present, rugby folks like being tough; but this tendency is expressed typically alongside a more sophisticated appreciation for… say it again… sporting behaviour. From junior level upwards, players are discouraged from celebrating in a fashion that insults the opposition; contrast this with Balotelli/Adebayor. There is a healthy understanding of commandments within the game.

Fortunately, there are certain sparkly-things in the footie firmament, Barcelona being the obvious one. Let us hope the magnificent generosity of their carousel persists, post their revered manager’s (likely) desertion to Chelsea. Their elevation of the purist, short-passing practise to a position of such command is heart-warmingly important, surely? But even here, though we absolutely revel in the unlikely domination of sublime skill over all-coming cloggers, we have to note the Barca boys propensity for an Oscar-nominated fall. Likewise the near-saintly Mr Ryan Giggs has certain ahem… imperfections. As do individual stars from premier class rugby, of course.

So I confess to again regurgitating dangerously general feelings on issues which may only absurdly be compared. Feelings that may not withstand laser-like or anorak-backed counter-theory. May I – should I? – then withdraw with the following, meekly? That though footie is absolutely in my (English-in-Wales) blood, ’tis to the giants of the oval ball game that I shall most eagerly be turning. For confirmation of the red-blooded, fire-breathing but relatively untainted truths.