#Preseli #Pembrokeshire.

I was a Labour Party member, moons ago. Think I drifted because of the New Labour thing (Mandelson, the cynical centrism) but it may actually have been before that.

I reckon I’ve stayed loyal to something but would I call that Corbynism? No, not instinctively, certainly not entirely. And yet I very much wanted to go to my local town centre – Haverfordwest – and stand with those exuding comradely love, or just ‘wanting to see’.

Once there, it felt good to see the old Solva & St David’s Labour Party banner spread un-stylishly but proudly at the rear of the makeshift stage. I came away both glad that I went and with any reservations about The Campaign swept away: we must a) get the tories out and b) begin to claw back some social justice, some dignity. People, it’s just right.

 

It’s been a dank, grey old day. There’s a storm a-comin’ again, tomorrow, too. The will, therefore, was medium-tested.

Daughter failed the test – stayed, to continue a teenage kip. It was left to us, the Older Generation to join with the carnival.

I say carnival but this overstates the level of upfulness. Sure it was comradely and good-natured in Castle Square but things were pitched more towards what we might call like-minded solidarity than street-dancing euphoria. There is work to be done and Jeremy Corbyn is doing it.

From Swansea to Carmarthen to Haverfordwest; the last stop of another exhausting day, or so you might think. Another crowd to raise, another marginal to cover, spirits to be stirred and maybe inspired. Unforgiving; relentless; necessary.

At about 4.45 pm we hear that ‘Jeremy will be late. Because of the crowds and the travelling’. Nobody really minds but a few of us nip to the local caffeine emporium.

We return to be entertained, more or less, by several hugely worthy speakers (who speak like Ordinary-but-committed People) and by an endearingly average local musician. There are flashes of good stuff but nobody’s pretending this is anything other than the warm-up.

It’s fine that these big-hearted people are filling the gap; it’s fine that they lack the brilliance of a great, public orator. We get that they have thrust themselves forward in the knowledge that they are Orn’ary Folks, out of belief, because they want to put their shoulder to the cart, to shove, forwards. Whilst they own the stage, there is almost no sense that ego is in play; more that solidarity is being imperfectly expressed.

Inevitably local activists featured strongly in this – forgive me if I don’t namecheck them all. Inevitably, too, there were union representatives and a young bloke from Momentum who has obviously been a force even when no-one was listening. (He spoke without sufficient fluency or authority to bear his message, as did others. I don’t mean to criticise any of them; they are not career politicians or public intellectuals. They are just people who want to change things – genuine respect to them for that).

Intermittently, we hear Jezza updates. He is forty minutes a way, then nine. We must listen out for the Big Red Bus. The Withybush Event (indoors, up the road) has been cancelled because timings are out due to big crowds and long-distance travel. Those booked into the later gig will be joining us in the square: cue tribal roar.

Grace Blakeley is welcomed to the stage. My wife – being typically more informed than my good self – breaks out her ‘this will be really top’ look and we recalibrate our attention.

Ka-pow. If we needed oratory and brilliance, we got it. If we needed someone to truly articulate both the economic and moral arguments, we got it. In an outstanding, flawlessly eloquent speech lasting about twenty minutes, Grace proper-delivered.

She was spiky and clear, without being cheaply adversarial. She was intellectually plausible, whilst making an invigoratingly radical case for system change. Blakeley absolutely smashed it, in terms of communicating Ideas We Might All Recognise, whilst raising the level of discourse to edifying (and again one suspects necessary) heights. Put her in against anybody; Grace will joust superbly well for us all. She lifted us.

Back to local activists and the MC, briefly, before the bus nudges into view.

A welcome that speaks of real warmth, flecked with a smidge of adoration. The “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” bass-line sparks up, along with most of the 1500 or so voices, gathered for the visit. This isn’t, it seems, all-out love – there’s too much plain, unsexy, hard-won respect – but there is excitement and palpable warmth.

Philippa Thompson, the Labour candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire speaks briefly first. The sound is imperfect but she does well enough and is wise enough not to ‘rattle on’ and undermine the moment. She defers to Jeremy pretty promptly – quite rightly.

(Minor but maybe important note, which I will preface by saying that with every fibre of my being I hope she can unseat the incumbent Tory, Stephen Crabb; yes-man, former careerist now shamed into bland irrelevance.

Philppa, you spoke about four words of Welsh. Take it from me, as somebody with little Welsh but with a family now full of Welsh-speakers, that your pronunciation was beyond poor. It was insulting, or would be to anyone blessed with the language – and therefore you are strongly advised to either avoid, or get immediate help with this. It really matters… & it’s such an obvious own goal for a public figure – particularly an ‘incomer’).

But now Jezza, plus more activists and more locals, joining us from the battle bus and/or that cancelled event. We have a crowd, we have The Attraction and we have goodwill.

Corbyn is good. Fluent without being schmaltzy, prepared, without being in automatic mode. If Grace Blakeley was 9.5 out of 10, Jezza is 8 plus. Because he’s not a fabulous public speaker (and this is fine!) – he’s goodish.

Corbyn, flawed like all of us, inspires quietly, more by his common decency (remember that?) than any sparkling wit, or weighty or ‘Churchillian’ intervention. By and through the epic contribution he’s made to thoroughly commendable, often unfashionable causes.

Of course many either hate him or are deeply suspicious but I’m simply not lingering there. Let’s dismiss them as either conned by the billionaire press or prejudiced by dumb acquiescence to their betters – the toffs, the tories, the Natural Leaders. Back to Jezza.

It might even be that he isn’t an elite-level intellectual, he’s merely competent-plus. And this is fine. Jezza feels cut from our cloth: he’s believable and now projected forth into believe-in-able, by circumstance. The man may need to scheme behind closed doors, but he is publicly apparently without side or ego. He could be a teacher, postie, or the bloke who shuffles papers in the council office.

He speaks well, covering ground now familiar to all of us. Social Services, Education, plans to transform towards a green economy. To his credit, despite knowing surely that the crowd might lap it up, Corbyn remains notably averse to the kind of personal attack to which he is relentlessly subjected: Johnson is barely mentioned. Instead we get sketches of the vision, the hope.

There are ‘highlights’ but this is not highly-coloured fayre: the rabble in us is not roused, is not meant to be. That wouldn’t be Jezza. Our communal sense of what is right and fair and proportionate is rather gently appealed to, or stimulated. There could be barely be a greater contrast between this man and his showy, brainy, brazenly mendacious opposite number.

I’m dealing in generalities but trying to reflect how this felt. Seeing Jeremy Corbyn address a biggish bundle of people in Haverfordwest. On the eve of an extraordinarily important election. Being no longer a Labour Party member (and I promise you, not entirely doe-eyed, when it comes to Jezza) but supportive, nevertheless – and being daft enough to remain attached to ideas around virtue, around moral imperatives.

Wow, the pull towards optimism is strong. I want the guy to go well and will be punching the bloody air if Philippa Thompson wins. And the arguments feel won after a night like this. And there were lots of people. And Corbyn was good and Blakeley was wonderful.

Too much, to be optimistic? Maybe. But whatever. This was a restorative night – a valuable night.

Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.

‘On Bear Ridge’: Sherman Theatre. A view.

Did that thing again where you try not to learn or know anything about the event, beforehand; with some success. Wanting to look – really look – and listen without too much intelligence or baggage, or prejudice.

Wasn’t sure, for example if the ‘Bear Ridge’ of the title was in Wyoming or the Black Mountains or Beacons of Wales. Wasn’t sure  if this might be a one-man jobber, in fact, having just heard, yaknow,  ‘Rhys Ifans’.

Have been absent from the Sherman for too long, so interested in the vibe, the thrum around the foyer and the feel of the place. In truth both the foyer/bar/lounge-upon-laptop space and the auditorium are pret-ty ordinary, eh? (No offence). They function, rather than lift the soul. But hey – deep breath, glass of water, focus… and in.

Into an atmospheric world. Snowy, non-specific somehow, despite the occasional name and the constant flow of memory. Bleak uplands; rocks that shadow and maybe fore-shadow; a homestead almost abandoned.

Ifans is lying in the snow, stirring then into something stirring. Words. Sure there is some drama here and a brooding, evocative set but this (we soon learn) is utterly about words performed.

John Daniels and his wife Non and their home, farm, shop: their source. Rich with their own history but poverty-stricken, isolated or struck down by unspecified change. A murderous, bi-polar world, with wintry-but-noble John and Non beset by a creeping, catastrophic now.

We hear planes, we hear tell of the City by the Sea. We learn that old ways and the Old Language are being throttled by something new and hostile.

Indeed there ‘really is’ a war going on: witness the arrival of a Captain, complete with great-coat and gun and his own, enervating torment. A Captain who nearly wastes the Slaughterman, emerging from the cellar.

All sounding bit ‘stagey’, bit ‘symbolic?’ Fear not. The cast of four are strong – Ifans and Rakie Ayola particularly so – and the lyricism and wit and and angularity of the piece places it substantially beyond the ordinary, the predictably-familiar. This is absolutely about the spirit of something but Ed Thomas conjures plenty of real life: convincingly so via his *Kollwitzian (and therefore universal?) couple.

John Daniels is that daft Welsh butcher from up on the hill, with the lived-in beard and shoulders bearing against tragedy and loss – of son, of memory, of tongue. He is that… but he is more. Nonnie, his steadfast wife is with him, always (and therefore always against the grain of the times); stoic on the one-hand, strong-willed and hearty on the other.

In truth I found the Captain a tad less convincing: not sure if this was through less crystalline writing or by dint of the performance on the night. (Something about the mix of threat, near-affability, body-language, direction, maybe, that didn’t ring entirely true? Maybe I need to see again.)

Ironically but hardly accidentally, the apprentice/slaughterman (listening to “White Riot, if I am not mistaken, when emerging from the butcher’s cellar?) was a full participant in the weaving of stories rather than the cleaving of meat or ‘action’. He pours tea and/but he too, has poetry. Local, individual-but-communal richnesses are suggested: the central ‘act’ (the brutal overwhelming of Twm) is described.

‘On Bear Ridge’ felt like a significant piece of theatre – some stood to applaud.

It is poignant love song and it is protest song. The piece bears witness to the betrayals, insidious and unseen and to the malevolent ‘othering’ all around us. These humble, magnificent characters are invested in The Biggest of Things – seeking out poetry and meaning both in their language and in material life. Tragically, change, history, progress and/or cruel inertia is burying them.

Thomas’s first play for fifteen years reiterates his conviction that a) our words must be sung, from the ridge-top to the City by the Sea and b) that traditional theatre – that is theatre predicated on words not tricks, pyrotechnics or that which would be original – defies and endures.

(I say this having been conflicted about whether drama this word-centric conciliates too much, is too dry, too easy, too necrophiliac, even?)

But no – and this may be another of the play’s triumphs – Ifans and Ayola make dynamic once more the notion that in live performance phrases carved with care, well-acted, can transport, can question, can impact upon us. The writer’s contribution is made.

 

 

*As in Käthe Kollwitz, the great socialist artist. (Do not John and Non have something of the Beautiful Beleaguered Peasant about them? In a wonderful way?!?

Going in…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymns and arias.

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

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

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

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

 

Great win but move on sharpish.

Six Nations, or Division 12 West? An extraordinary bar-of-soap fest in Paris somehow fell, exhausted and drunk, through icy showers, into the arms of the grateful Welsh.

They had been willing but mostly awful but the locals had been mercifully, embarrassingly über-French.

The inglorious hat-trick of amateur passes that gifted George North the game served yet again as a reminder that Les Bleus have been merely shifting their degree of residence within la Mode Shambolique for a decade; that this laughable refrain about ‘not knowing which France will turn up’ is the very hollowest of clichés. We know, alright.

But in the first half, as the rain lashed and the were kicks missed and the passes were dropped, the home side accumulated.

Picamoles was ushered towards the line by defenders either distracted by conditions or the man’s physical bulk. Either way it felt a tad feeble. Parra set the tone for some similarly forgettable kicking, by missing the conversion.

The home pivot was very much joined in this by Anscombe, who may only retain his place because it’s Italy next, for Wales, and his skills in open play may bloom in that context. Last night he was profoundly ordinary with boot and in terms of his dictation, or otherwise, of proceedings. I repeat the mitigation that conditions were tough but this offers less of an excuse to those charged with executing the kicking game(s), eh?

Likewise re- defending. North can’t blame conditions for the clanger that let in Huget out wide of him. Predictably (but mistakenly, surely?) North’s two tries marked him out as Man of the Match but in truth he seemed somewhat marooned again, between Child-Monster Prodigy and Growed-up International Star. Yes, he won the bloody game but does he look, consistently like a talent, a threat, an influencer? Weirdly, no.

Liam Williams had either been unlucky or greedy when breaching the line, mid-half but the referee, who spent much of the evening asking politely for calm – ‘lentement, lentement’ – got this one right promptly enough.

(Not sure if the drama or dynamism of the second period was particlarly enhanced by Mr Barnes’s steadying hand: in fact once more there was the sense that he may have luxuriating quietly in the knowledge that the cameras were upon him. However overall, he took us through competently enough).

A penalty then a satisfying drop, late on, from Lopez sent Wales in 16 points down but it had been a mess: you wouldn’t rule-out anything here, including an error-strewn or error-prompted comeback. It’s kindof what we got.

Josh Adams, in a rare moment of slinkiness, eased into space and put scrum-half Williams in. Anscombe converted. Then Parkes hoofed hopelessly forward, only for Huget to spill catastrophically at the line. North accepted.

Moriarty was rightly denied a try, following a block by AWJ. France got some possession but this remained – despite the spirited fightback – a non-classic muddle. Moriarty and Tipuric were good but you’d be hard-pressed to locate anyone else into the 7/10 zone. Except Davidi, maybe – increasingly, as the game went on. The introduction of Biggar was inevitable, in the name of structure.

70-odd minutes and Wales are down again, after a scrum penalty and a straightforward nudge over from Lopez. 19-17. Lashing rain. Cold. Then France – the real France? – really do throw it all away. North anticipates the most telegraphed pass in Six Nations history (almost) and gallops clear.

For Wales, the kind of win that might spark something. Certainly some challenging verbals, I would think, from Gatland and co. They were poor and yet magnificent… and that happened. What an opportunity, now, given their fixtures!

The consensus is that Wales have grown and deepened as a squad, in recent times. Impossible to tell, from this. Next up, some quality, please: then, who knows?

 

 

 

 

 

Twickenham.

Wales is foaming. The seas are stormy and the pubs, too. Faces are redder.

There’s expectation – because. There’s most of the Scarlets. There’s a dangerous surge.

I can tell you almost nobody in Wales has done that thing where you set aside the fervour of the moment and calmly assess where you’re at. The relative brilliance of last week’s canter past the woeful Scots has barely been picked over – or at least the perspective view has remained obscured, in the excitement.

Instead, there’s that red, misty, arms-wide-open longing. Because it’s Twickenham.

Wales apparently believes – again. Based around a new, Scarlets-inspired attacking game (plus Gatland’s rather more grounded philosophical buttressing), the historically oppressed are roaring. The ether here is flooded with that extraordinary mixture of faith, hope and bitterness that accompanies The England Game… and no other. Kindof hilariously and kindof rightly, given the surreally weighty meanings around the fixture, Wales believes a validatory win is within their grasp.

After the Scotland game, guess what? I didn’t. I admired a fine performance, in a rather second tier contest. It felt like about the eighth best team in the world playing – and comprehensively beating – the twelfth: or something. (I know this is innaccurate but that’s how it felt).

Coming into today, I expect a stronger England team – a team legitimately in the top 2 or 3 in the world – to beat a relatively unproven Welsh side. Quite likely, to beat them with something to spare.

Let’s see.

England score, early, following a superb but rather simple counter via the boot of Farrell. Then Launchbury, after a barrage from England’s Beefy Boys, finds a magnificent, soft offload to put May in again. After 20, England are 12-0 up.

Before the sense takes hold that this may be drifting early towards a disappointingly routine home win, Wales strike back.

They are denied a try – somewhat contentiously – as bodies dive in, hands stretching for the ball. Minutes later, Patchell strokes over a pen to get Wales on the board. Importantly now, the game *as it were*, is plainly, visibly a contest.

In difficult conditions – because coldish, because saturated – England have pressed the Limited Game Plan button. They know they are more physical; they expect to prevail in an arm-wrestle. But as the half draws to a close (and tempers fray, a little) Wales are looking like a Gatland team of old: in a word, durable. Davies is content to kick into row Z to finish the half, rather than probe (or risk) again. 12-3.

During the half-time analysis, the try-that-never-was doesn’t so much feature, as begin the swell to mythic dimensions. Laws have been changed, we’re told. Not much consolation for the many who will see Anscombe’s hand on that ball before Joseph’s every night for the next thirty, forty, fifty years. In short, in Cardiff, that’s given.

England start the second half with a prolonged encampment around forty yards from the Wales line – which suits them nicely enough. But it’s a frankly dullish match, now.

Shingler – a tremendous alround athlete – wakes the game up with an outrageous charge into space. Sadly, he can’t find a pass when Farrell comes in to smother, fancying instead a rather ambitious spot of footie. It doesn’t work but it’s a rare moment of free-running enterprise.

The weather is playing a part, as is the occasion, but there is no sense that a Mighty England is being brought down to the level of the Plucky Outsiders. Twickenham is quiet because this is a poor spectacle, an even game, yes, between two unremarkable teams in unhelpful weather.

England only rarely recycle with any pace or intent. Care – and he is not alone in this – shovels passes or floats short ones rather than gets things fizzing. It’s too safe.

If anything Wales do look freer. Without, understandably, finding full-on Scarlets mode, they find a little flow. Sure, they have to chase the game but all credit to them. Both sides have periods of possession but line-breaks are few. Anscombe, replacing Patchell at pivot, lifts the level of dynamism and the level of threat. Marginally.

It may be significant that the play of the day was Underhill’s stunning tackle on Williams as the Wales centre slid for the line. Extraordinary that after a lung-bursting sprint back to cover, Underhill conjures a movement that turns the man over to prevent placement of the ball.

As the second period plays out, England do make the obligatory changes, feeling for rather than chasing opportunities. Wigglesworth initially looks to have a brief to sharpen things up, but bodies seek contact rather than look for width.

We can’t know if Eddie Jones counselled aggressively for conservatism… but it looked that way. Denying Wales opportunities, in the wind and rain, was less risky than expansive rugby, so that’s the way it went.

Last fifteen and Wales seem impressively unintimidated by the onus to attack: why would they be, in this new era? However, because England remain watchful and doughty and organised, points are hard to come by. Anscombe slots a penalty in the 76th, after an encouraging attack and you can feel the red sleeves being rolled up around Wales but Gatland’s men cannot add to this total. It finishes 12-6.

A win that England will settle for. Devoid of style points – for which the Welsh will of course curse them – but continuing their march to European dominance. Uncle Eddie’s Boys were merely workmanlike – and he will know that. They did not, as I had expected, look more powerful or more accomplished than the opposition.

Meanwhile in Wales, the sense of a universal conspiracy gathers again. Sleep well, TMO.

 

 

 

Beyond.

Let’s remember Wales’s victory over Belgium for the twenty minute period after Nainngolan smashed in that drive. When rather than capitulating or panicking, Coleman’s side played some of their best football of the tournament. They passed and moved  – and with both wingbacks pressing high up the park wherever possible – they played.

This was beyond. Beyond the reasonable and the likely and quite possibly beyond even the expectations of their myopically magnificent supporters. And yet it was foreseeable.

Wales – the team with arguably only three genuine international players – doing an Italy or a Spain or a Croatia. Playing confident, skilled, rhythmic football in a tournament; going right past doggedness and defiance into mature, composed, attacking tournament football. For the manager and the fans this was a dream, yes – but it was also a culmination, or (as this story is not yet done) a consequence.

This team had (has!) a pattern they understood, not just the much-vaunted and essential togetherness but a pattern. This fella Coleman (that many of us have never rated, hugely, that has shown no real signs of the genius and understanding that we now have to credit him with) has drilled and instilled something authentically kosher into his posse. Wales know what they’re doing – with and without the ball.

This isn’t to say that they don’t have the occasional lapse. There were horrendous moments when defenders both central and wide simply did not know where their oppo’s were: even the towering and inspiring Williams was guilty of this. Similarly the concession of four rank yellows for offences that were criminally unnecessary smacks more than a little of non-elite awarenesses. So there is very much that possibility that they may get found out.

I may divert briefly  here. Because I have a wild theory that often, actually, international football is not played at a hugely high standard.

This is no way to either undermine or demystify the achievement of Wales (or previously Denmark or Greece) or anybody else. Clearly much of the romance of the Euros or the World Cup is about precisely this roaring after opportunities. I love that. But in this tournament, for example, I may argue that only Germany are playing all over at such a patently higher level than (say) Wales that we might expect them to confound even the wonder that is Welsh togetherness and organisation. Consequently – now – Wales are, as Coleman has been at pains to emphasise ‘really here to compete’. Legitimately and with real hope.

That hope re-doubled last night in Lille. With the result, and with the manner in which Coleman’s team applied themselves.

Broadly, the triumph of last night was about Wales’s comfort within their plan. They read the moment, gathered and they flowed forward.

All this is general. The 5-3-2 system morphing into a 3-5-2 in possession, with Bale allowed or expected to roam (and then race forward). The stout narrowness in defence, challenging the Belgians to conjure something extraordinarily laser-like from out wide. The conviction that neither Hazard nor anyone else can score from the wing. The epic numbers of shutouts and blocks in central positions.

Simple but clearly beyond execution for the England’s of this world – and yes that IS relevant to the Welsh psyche, it being powerfully valedictory for Dai and Gareth and Lleuci that England’s weakness contrasts so gloriously sharply with Welsh tightness and brotherhood.

Lukaku R and de Bruyne were marginalised: more importantly perhaps, so was the skipper, Hazard. As the second half wore on, so the overwhelmingly more gifted and favoured Belgians slid from view – or were ushered from the scene, dispirited. That thing where folks *cannot believe* we’re gonna get beat by…. kicked in. Fellaini inevitably had a clear, headed chance but yet again the Manchester United anti-cult doinked it emphatically wide. It felt increasingly fated – whatever that means.

Maybe we should note that the first half was pret-ty close to a great game game of footie. And that both sides must take some credit for an open, entertaining 45. Coleman again must be applauded for clearly instructing his wing-backs to get high up the park from the start; many might have been more cautious against a side heavily loaded with attacking threats.

In truth I rate this recognition from Coleman that a) Belgium might be exposed by both the real and psychological threat of positivity from deep on the Welsh flanks and b) his *actual commitment* to set up that way as his greatest achievement so far. An obvious alternative from Wales might have been to be essentially defensive but allow Bale to raid and Ramsey to gallop in occasional support.

Wales were braver than that. More confident and competent than that.

For all the brilliance and powerfully unifying success of the #togetherstronger campaign, maybe its whiff of minnow-ness, of underdog-ness undervalues the Welsh achievement here. Wales (particularly last night, particularly when under pressure) have come out and played.

We have to talk about the goals. Goals do everything from pay the rent to raise the roof to change everything.

Belgium’s stunning early strike felt like an affirmation of quality and a potentially ‘deadly’ thrust into Welsh hearts. This was bested, however, by subsequent, outrageous interventions.

William’s committed header (and celebration in response) was a magical, sub-Tardellian moment – a gift to us all. The skipper and stopper-supreme (okaay, English-born but come o-on) has epitomised something wonderfully blokey and genuine and Welsh in this Big Red Adventure. If you failed to find his post-nod charge to the gaffer and the support team uplifting you must be reading this from inside a coffin.

For Robson-Kanu (of all people?) to cap even that with a Cruyffian swivel and prompt despatch confirmed, surely that something major was in the offing – like Judgement Day, for example. The out-of-contract striker is something of a cult figure precisely because of his membership of the Endearingly Honest No-Hoper School of Forwards, so this further moment was one further, improbable step beyond.

But not the final one. When Vokes raced on to flick a near-post header across the keeper (and therefore disturb another prejudice about him too, being a non-striking striker) the thing – the universe, the laws of everything – seemed gloriously done in or over or something. Something mad and beautiful. Wales were there and it really was beyond, mun.