Icons as themselves.

The names are icons in themselves. Carter, Nonu, McCaw; plus that icon-let (iconlite?) Beauden Barrett. Try keeping them out of any report or reflection on this superb final.

One name that’s odds-on to be missing though, is that of Matt Giteau, the Australian centre-playmaker, who was cruelly and arguably significantly lost to this showpiece twenty-odd minutes in.

Early doors at a roused but curiously multi-national Twickers belonged to Nonu – Giteau’s opposite number – the specimen centre yet again epitomizing the ideal of a space-seeking, rhythmic, intelligent force of nature as he tore forward into the Wallabies 22. Then, as McCaw led his magnificent monsters to scary levels of dominance, Carter sat back and prompted.

In fact he did more than that. Dan Carter orchestrated; he *intervened*; he wound the entire game round his finger and played yoyo with it – and I don’t mean like you and me would. He pyoinged and pyoinged so beautifully and successfully that it was absurd.

Absurd in particular that he could caress the ball so freely and immaculately and sweetly from the tee, in the World Cup Final, with a universe of expectation allegedly bearing down. Ludicrous.

Ludicrous that he could channel Liam Brady circa the maestro-Italiano Years whilst smoothing the ball through the posts, unfailingly. Every blog or column will be full of clunky linkages to Carter’s collection of superhero costumes; I will stop just short… but still observe that his performance was something pret-ty damn close to a marvel.

He struck the ball from the tee with the kind of grace that made Jonny Wilkinson’s punchier, thuddier, stunnier style seem kinda coarse. Either that or he so seduced me that I am unable to uncouple the peerless All Black from some erm… superhero of my own imagining. In short Carter (whilst all the time playing within himself, playing controlling rather than mesmeric rugby) gave one of the great championship-winning performances. Then he clattered into onrushing Aussie forwards, heaving them back’ards notably on more than one occasion,

Beauden Barrett makes the first paragraph here chiefly on account of his decisive, breakaway try, scored late on. He sniffed out an opening as the desperate Wallabies pressed, played a decent bitta footie and collected a doll of a bounce before diving over.

In a sense that could have been anybody wearing black, such is the breadth of their dynamism. True Mealamu is less likely to sprint clear but the relentless, all-court threat that is the All Black fifteen tends to make these things happen; as a team, they capitalize.

Australia, having manfully stormed back towards parity in the match, were simply punished when they themselves were on the offensive. As so often, the game’s opening out led to a ruthless counter from New Zealand.

I’m guessing these fine and hugely watchable Wallabies, as silver-medalists, will not be comforted by the fact of their emphatically positive showing in this tournament.

Only in their annihilation of France (and arguably their brutally composed victory over the Boks) did the All Blacks suggest they might find a decisively higher level than their tremendous rivals from the southern oceans but ‘getting close’ ain’t gonna be enough for Cheika or his players.

Fardy, Pocock and Hooper have deservedly been right up there as the darlings or running dogs of the competition. Today they had their moments but were ineffectual compared to previous outings. The AB’s simply kept the ball alive so often and shifted the focus of attack so constantly that to some extent the breakdown was less present as a feature (or potential source of issue) in the contest.

When Pocock looked to be threatening ball mid-way into the first half, New Zealand engaged carousel mode and the ball was everywhere but on the deck with a Wallaby back-row all over it. Australia were consequently simply outplayed.

Wonderful miscalculation of family taxi-duties meant that after screeching to an inspired halt, I watched the impressive and (certainly early-on) wholesale subjugation of the Wallabies principal weapon in my favourite hostelry in West Wales. Here things were even-handed, even to the extent that our National Treasure (the ref) was mildly scalded for alleged transgressions against fair-play and rectitude – a forward pass here, a missed pen there.

You may have to take my word for it that I was amongst folks who get rugby; in a deepish, visceral and somehow hearty way as well as being able to decipher its codes. However, as the AB’s streaked clear, points-wise, that ole chestnut Underdog Syndrome seeped into the boozer’s consciousness.

The game ‘definitely need’ an Aus try. Carter had ‘been the difference’ but ‘something needed to turn’. It did with a second or two’s indiscipline…and a yellow for AB’s full-back Smith..

After (no doubt) a few galvanizing words from their profoundly influential coach, Australia had set about recovering the frankly unpromising 16-3 deficit after half-time. The bald truth may be that their recovery was more about the AB’s reduction in staff for ten minutes than their own resurgence – although plainly one was predicated on t’other – but something stronger than mere sympathy invites respect for the Wallaby comeback.

Pocock and Kuridrani’s tries around the hour were maybe moments for sure – they hiked the twitchy fibres of all of us, bringing the scores back to 21-17 – but ultimately and rightly they were a challenge to which Carter and then Barrett responded.

The All Black kingpin/pivot/superhero drove over a longish range drop-goal – beautifully, yet again – to do the appropriate statement-making thing. Then as we entered Absolutely Shit-or-Bustville, Barrett robbed his try. And the headlines went Back To Black.

The pub applauded. A single Kiwi stood up and we unanimously wished him well(cryptically, by jeering ‘good-naturedly’) and turned back to our pints and our analysis. Who knows how much of the following we actually said but it feels like we came out with stuff like this…

You might fear or think or figure that an event as prolonged as a World Cup, with its inevitable and essentially regulated slabbettes of drama might stall at some period, or might fail to build.

A Group Stage then a knockout that simply has to be spread to allow bruises to heal, lungs to recover. People – nations! – leaving, extinguished. A week, between the semi and the final. More shuffling home; home to Buenos Aires or Jo’burg or Matlock. Cruel, debilitating, necessary non-activity. Surely this is going to mean some sense of pause or gather, or that loss of momentum which often undermines the Grand Event will intervene, like some superfluous usherette?

Nope; not here. Or okay hardly – hardly here.

This #RWC2015 has fair bundled along; seamless and typically smiley; pleasingly controversy-lite. Populated by powerful wedges of expressive, engaging sport. Simply a bloody pleasure from first to last, despite the loss of hosts England and later demi-hosts Wales. Despite that possibility for epic-scale (Northern?) stomping off in a huff.

The sport’s been too good for Brian from Barnsley or Geoff from Gloucester to skidaddle. Most of us in the ranks of The Defeated got immediately sucked back into it by the brilliance of some foreign geezer – some bloke from Japan or Argentina, quite possibly. (Incidentally, Cindy, how fabulous is it that plenty of Brits, pre and post the elimination of ‘our teams’, have been cheering on the Pumas in this? Sport transcending? Yes indeedie!)

So without actually being in one of the Fan Zones we’ve still been doing congas or necking cocktails (metaphorically speaking) with folks from all over. Captured. We really should all be thankful for all that; thankful to the players, coaches, organizers, stewards and everybody else who’s yaknow, ever met them.

I’m not thinking it’s dumb patriotism that drives me to say that I think the UK – with the obvious caveats re the rip-off hoteliers etc – has done a top job hosting this pardee – as it did with the 2012 Olympics. It’s entirely ENTIRELY fitting, therefore, that a truly great Rugby World Cup was collected by Mr McCaw… and lifted aloft by Messrs Nonu/Mealamu/Smith etc , etc, etc.

So hey thank you, fellas. Thank you, truly, for showing us how it’s done.

Advertisements

#RugbyWorldCup2015; questions arising.

There are loads of positive things to be said about the Rugby World Cup; so I’m gonna say some of them.

It’s now clear that the two best teams in the tournament will contest the final – and this is good. The All Blacks, without engaging that simultaneously immovable and extra-dimensional (All Black) winning gear until really needing to (against the Boks), have brought the fella Carter to his first World Cup Final. (Absurd but true.) The Aussies meanwhile have slung the ball round the park plus been ferociously competitive – not just at the breakdown but in the scrum and line-out – and deservedly have a tilt at a third title.

Compadres from The South (the Argentinians and the Boks) have both contributed heavily to the drama and entertainment of this hugely successful tournament but the first of these were seen off by a combination of Pocock’s rapacious work at the breakdown and through their own repeated spilling of opportunities. The Pumas have rightly been neutral’s favourites for their gorgeously developing expansiveness and infectious energy, but a cold hard review of their semi-final defeat will savage their levels of execution: they threatened and they built but then they fluffed things, time and again. We might credit the Aussie defence with some of this ‘non-execution’ but the Puma’s coaching staff should not and will not.

Signal moments in t’other semi included Nonu’s 874th surge leading to Beauden Barrett’s critical try and one particular tackle/turn from McCaw that effected a turnover around the hour mark. Both spoke of something near godlike about the AB’s; their capacity to cut through, to re-stamp the AB symbols (principally, to press that We Are Invincible button) in this case amid belting rain, extreme physical confrontation and, theoretically, the most acute pressure. New Zealand denied all that contextual cobblers, without aiming or needing to be the dashing monstermen who annihilated France. They simply brought out the mainly metaphorical hand-off, for twenty minutes, in a World Cup semi, against The Boks.

Other highlights on anybody’s reel of memories would surely include gloriously free-spirited Japanese offloading of our preconceptions about a) Japan b) relatively normal-sized blokes c) What’s Possible. And unreal defending from the instinctively attacking Aussies against the lion-hearted Welsh. Plus the many uplifting bursts of proper international rugby dished up by Namibia/Georgia/Uruguay and other Second or Lower Tier nations. Plus notably storming and re-validating contributions from Scotland, who may now for the first time for aeons be expecting to compete, kosher-style, in the 6 Nations.

The night the Cherry ’n Whites bewildered the Boks in Gloucester may really never be forgotten. If, in reverting to sepia-tinted appreciation of that night – which was thrilling, dashing, utterly wonderful – I fall into political incorrectness or mere sentiment well what the hell? It was the most perfect and invigorating example of an occasion where the underdog joyously raced… and barked… and wagged its tail in ecstasy. It was unbelievable and yet the websites say Japan 34 South Africa 32. It was a proper, gobsmacking sporting triumph and though time and Laidlaw caught up with them too soon after, we might note perhaps that Japan also beat Samoa 25-6 and made history in their glorious, three-win exit.

The blitzing of Roberts and Cuthbert and co by a catastrophically undermanned Wallabies posse was also so remarkable we may yet look back on it as a defining moment for the tournament – particularly if Australia win the thing. Wales, crocked so heavily that ultimately even the English had a certain sympathy for them, may or may not have lost their opportunity to hoist their defiance into the latter stages by failing to prise open a 13-man Wallabies team but the deep, dramatic heat they provided in this game (and through their widely-admired and supported defeat of the hosts) further ennobled Wales as a force in world rugby.

One of the more fascinating conundrums (because it surely echoes far beyond the Welsh scenario?) remains this question of whether a dancier, fleeter-of-foot, (dare-I-say-it?) Roberts-less, (or less Roberts-centric?) approach from a fit Wales squad might have been a deadlier combination.

Gatland’s cruelly depleted side clearly had spirit, spadefuls of courage and a back row to die for. If it is widely accepted that the great (Southern) sides have also wit and subtlety – or what has simply been referred to as ‘skills’ – could a darting Rhys Webb, fit Liam Williams and a wily Jonathan Davies have sharpened the arguably monolithic approach cartoonised as Gatlandball? And does it not seem that this option towards skills – in the game, not just in Wales – is not only necessary to compete with New Zealand but kinda spiritually good for international rugby? England remember, are viewed as a failure because they seem dully outdated in this regard.

Given that Lesson One as received by most pundits and coaches and fans around the world does seem to be around upskilling/heads-up rugby/expressing awareness as opposed to the allegedly predictable contact/crunch/recycle style of England, France, Wales, whoever, it will be fascinating and indeed enlightening to see the level of commitment from nations in The North towards the kind of transformation made so obviously by The Pumas. Dare they/we actually get backs to seek space as often as contact? Might they even ‘step’ – as the more than slightly magnificent Gerald Davies has suggested? Will it be expected that even here in the heathen North the Great Big Lumps have great, soft, intelligent hands?

Who knows? But these are questions arising, are they not?

We re-gather now and look forward to the final. After a minor scare it seems that the non-cited McCaw and the hugely deserving Carter will grace the event. But will they simply whip out the cloak of invincibility all over again and ‘ease’ to victory in that slightly suffocatingly brilliant mode, or will the Aussies force more out of their stonily humongous rivals? Could we see (some of) the All Blacks who massacred the French, please?

If Cheika once more insists his side play without fear then we may hope for a spectacle as well as a contest. Pocock, Hooper, Genia and co seem to understand the game as a gambol as well as a trial of strengths – indeed this is their lesson to us. Will that be the message booming out as the coach psyches them up in the hour before kick-off? What will be offered, then?

I’ll share a tinnie with the bloke who says

‘Fellas, it’s a dash; a test of your ambition; how much do you wanna believe in yourselves? Go show us – go on.’

The distance yet to travel…

I’m not sure yet whether I’m fascinated or merely cynical about the upbeat responses from the England and Wales camps following today’s fairly routine snuffing out of their previously foamy optimism. Wales I thought were palpably (but okaaay marginally) second best to an Australian side whose backs transferred their theoretical superiority into fact and England – allegedly building, allegedly threatening – were dismissed by the All Blacks machine.

Warburton, pitchside post the game, found himself somewhere between outright apology and defiance

we work our absolute nuts off… it’s getting so very close

but something in his manner was necessarily capitulating to that unhelpful series of facts – of defeats – against the Wallabies, who remain, as he well knows, the most beatable of the Southern Giants. Sam is a classy player and a classy bloke; half of Wales though, is wondering if his niceness is part of the problem.

Stuart Lancaster was likewise politely un-bullish. He spoke well as always and for the most part desisted from the path which surely must have tempted – the list of unfortunate absences. That Courtenay Lawes joined this list fairly early might have further supported any mithering about fate being either cruel, or a cruel Kiwi. Afterwards, the erudite Yorkshireman spoke of his

confidence in the direction we are moving in

but he will surely be a tad disappointed in the event of a further stutter when he had hoped, a month or two back, for an energising charge.

For fear I wander alarmingly close to my specialist subject – psycho-cobblers – let me add that Steve Hansen, when asked if the win for his All Blacks might represent an important ‘psychological advantage’ going into next year’s Rugby World Cup, spat out the following

…(it’s a) load of baloney.

He’s right, (probably) but to castrate the occasion of all of its ‘significance’ is simply to spoil the fun, right? So onward.

From the hearth of the pub for the Millenium game, I first and foremost enjoyed that uniquely welsh baloney-fest, especially during a first half that conga-ed passed us like some junior festival on Dolly Mixtures. (Yes. Those kinds of Dolly Mixtures). After a flurry of ‘great tries’ or ‘appalling bloody great gaps, mun!’ a whole lot of genial banter plus some outstanding and informed appreciation pinged round the room, washed down with early bevvies and some elite-level abuse for the referee. If Wales were ‘too slow’, ‘too unimaginative’ and ‘lacked passion’, Craig Joubert – the Man Who Will be Central – was described erm, more colourfully. It was good sport.

If you don’t happen to have access to either a pub or (ideally) Wales then let me tell you really do learn stuff from all this yaknow – researching. It became immediately clear from within the hostelry’s Brotherhood of Redness – all ages and genders, with most kitted out with either a Wales jersey or a face the colour of a Wales jersey – that the relative quiet of the actual stadium (15,000 seats unsold?) was significant. It reflects the broad understanding in Wales that the national side are a step behind, currently, as well as being a simple marker of the cruel nature of the price of a ticket.

Wales knows where Wales RFC stand; the difficulty and arguably the irony is that the country (or rather the rugby team of the country) might surely stand prouder and taller and higher in those informal rankings should a full-on maximum houseful turn up in Cardiff.

Much is written about the Millenium Stadium, most of it complimentary to the point of delirious. It’s good, no question but only special when switched to Dragon’s Cauldron mode, when bursting with fans and with song. It may be unscientific but it strikes me that a performance from Wales is particularly responsive to, or reliant upon the quality of the crowd. This may be to do with the genuinely central role rugby plays here.

But the baloneymeter just twitched, violently. Cuthbert dropped a simple catch in the first seconds/Wales were beaten by a better team/Australia toss it around tidy, like/Wales were 100% on their own line-out. These are some of the ‘facts’. Did they help? Anyone?

England came into this series after a genuine period of gathering. By that I mean they really are getting closer to the former Tri-Nations masters-of-the-universe. The man Lancaster has established that essential or ball-breakingly dull phenomena a ‘culture’. There is a shared purpose, there is focus and there is talent at his disposal. The potential is there for England to challenge – everybody.

Prior to kick-off I defy anyone to convincingly carry the general truths of the last ten years (that New Zealand would be simply be far too good to get beat) into today; the difference between is now minimal. This is Lancaster’s triumph – not that he would be triumphal about it – because even momentum is baloney when compared to silverware (next year). Just tough then, that England were secretly hurting over the loss of Launchbury, Tuilagi etc etc and that they cursed and grieved the denuding of their strength in depth. No matter now that well, soonish their bench may be fleshed out more powerfully than the AB’S. Today that prospect means nothing.

Why? Because the All Blacks won. Despite England getting ahead; despite a try for a flashing England winger in the first few minutes; despite a semi-drowned out haka. England looked competitive, truly, for what? Forty minutes? Then the men from the south cranked up and on and past. Again.

It’s the job of Lancaster, Farrell, Gatland and Howley to make sense of this stuff. They do know where they stand and the distance yet to be travelled. They have to make choices and pray folks stay fit: it ain’t easy.

One micro-e.g. After today’s confrontations Gatland has to find a pivot from a pool of two. Hook he doesn’t fancy and Priestland the nation at large doesn’t fancy. This is not only a dilemma in the practical sense but it palpitates with meaning in the land of the fly-half factory. Expect some particularly impassioned debate around that baby – some daft bugger might use the world ‘soul’.
Wonder what our mate Mr Hansen would make of all that?

Something exquisite in the execution.

Be honest, you’ve forgotten about #BOD. Or most of you have, or at least forgiven Gatland, bless’im. No Alternative (as I’m sure some vitriolic nutter might have said) following the emphatic victory by his overpoweringly big-hearted posse and given the obvious, visible, communal(?) pride and unity that made that possible. Even Keith Wood, who spoke so eloquently against his fellow member of the Hooker’s Union decision to turn away from the ‘clarion call’, must surely have recognised that within the essence of the Gatland Lions was indeed a recognition of that soul-brotherly specialness he thought had gone walkabout. Ultimately, the series victory genuinely felt like both a fabulous result and a vindication of the Lions Project; consequently Gatland emerges with enormous credit. On reflection it may have been okay to criticise his selection but not his integrity or understanding of what this marvellous touring phenomenon is all about. So Keith was probably wrong.

Probably with buts. Certainly he was right to defend – from an informed perspective – this Lions Brotherhood thing, the handshakes across the border being at the philosophical core of what makes these four year solidarity-binges remarkable. But some of us never doubted Gatland’s commitment to those finer points of Lionhood. We rated the Kiwi at the helm somewhat higher than that. We thought the de-selection of a relatively colourless (but magnificent) Irishman made absolute sense both in terms of the accommodation of the exquisite hands of Davies and of the Doctor of Wallop – Roberts. There would be no tawdry or terminal devaluing of the Lions associated with this; BOD – simply – had looked relatively ineffectual and though Davies had also been peripheral in the previous test he has looked pretty damn delicious often enough on this tour.

These decisions are even now, in the age of warm-up coaches for the warm-up coaches, built on a right dodgy cocktail of imprecise and maybe slightly more precise science. Stats and hunches. It would have been fascinating to hear what was said at the final selection meeting – not just on the BOD call but maybe particularly on the back row unit issue. Facile to immediately plump for the ‘Twas all right ‘cos it worked‘ view of this after the event, even though plainly there was a general gelling of previously disparate herculean effort(s) which meant the Lions simply would not lose. And perhaps one of the great joys of this and indeed many other sporting triumphs is that midst the passion and the punditry and the all-consuming hooha we simply cannot measure the degree to which the contest was decided by will alone. We can, however, recognise and maybe identify with something in that undeniability our lot brought to the arena. Whatever – returning to Davies-BOD – that ‘crunch call’ cannot possibly be called out as a clanger; not now.

And so to the match, in which the Lions did produce something close to a complete performance; not flawless, of course, but thrillingly, heart-liftingly complete. Adam Jones shunted himself ever closer to the top of the Knighthood shortlist, while Corbisiero thundered and generally stole the limelight. Crucially, Sexton flowered in the moment – contradicting my own most personal fear – and Halfpenny hoofed the alleged existence of pressure itself into Row 26, whilst cruising at a level of sturdy brilliance that somehow both underpinned and did that icing thing simultaneously over the entire, historically-significant cake. But what felt most remarkable was the full-court bigness and fullness of the Lions effort – something that simply could not have been expressed without a belief, a togetherness driven by the coaching staff.

A coach is in dreamland if everybody turns up and really plays. Though the match – particularly either side of the half – shifted and shimmied in terms of ascendancy, the nub of it was simply that Team Lions really worked. All of it.

From the outset there was forward domination of a sort that had (I can tell you) full-bellied fifty year-old men of a squat, squarish dimension roaring their approval. Rarely has my (cricket) club been filled with so many blokes conversant with the leeches-for-lugs branch of sports medicine. Scrums broiled, breakdowns biffed and hoiked and everywhere there was a Lion rising to the challenge. O’Brien, predictably, was troubling both the Blanketoverthepitch and the Manpossesed-ometers. Faletau rumbled and cut in his own, marginally less abrasive way… and then The Girls… The Girls cut loose, finally, emphatically. Looking back on it now, the running away with it thing towards the end was surely the inevitable result of every manjack pouring themselves so completely into the game earlier. And why did they do this? Because they knew (and Gatland, their leader and chief source of inspiration knew) what it means to be a Lion. That much was clear – and that alone is an effective validation of what Gatland did.

I have favourite moments; Davies drawing and passing with such composure and timing to release the outside backs; oozing, just ooooozzing class. Halfpenny breaking… and covering… and being everywhere and being, beyond question a somehow Roman Soldier-like Man of the Series. (Quietly proud and unflinching and oh yeah – that helmet maybe?) Corbisiero roaring – that word again! – having rolled and plonked that pill down in the first fookin’ minute, whilst we swore passionately, almost violently tribally-ecstatically at the telly. Adam Jones beasting most of Australia.

Perhaps most wonderful sight was the sharing and the celebration – all that hugging and slapping – that began so ludicrously early, like almost TEN MINUTES before the end of the game! The Series Decider might really have wafted into anti-climax had the Lions not gone into auto-execute on the Go Wide, Get Happy and Generally Blossom front. Tiredness admittedly by now offered some space and this combined with that precious flush of confidence meant tries came. Murray enjoyed his cameo, Sexton and Roberts cashed in. And The Lions, The Lions really did win.

A final thought; they won without Warburton and without O’Connell.

Breakdown.

In a lookawaynow kind of fashion, the first Test between the Shackle-dragging Crimino-brotherhood and The Lions crashed, swung its irons, walloped and all-round prime-timed our dislocated, mid-morning senses. Principally, Blokes were magnificently knocked out every few minutes – characteristically… Australians! Transformer-like Other Blokes sprinted and jinked gargantuan jinks (as opposed to JJWilliams jinks) from one state to the next before palming the ball down triumphantly. It was mega; it was neanderthal and modern and glossy and balletic in a free-form staccato-eruptive flood. And The Lions won; 21-23.

Maybe that’s all you need to know. Maybe – as, let’s be honest, I may well be preaching to the converted here – you knew all that. Allow me then to throw in some free and colo(u)rific insight, some twinklacious observo-punts re the signage as well as the ‘actual events’. Or you could piss off back to the telly.

The  pre-match tension, from the scene of my watchingment, appeared to fix upon whether or not to slurp a beer or several during the game – most of us gathered being more or less committed to playing cricket (sub-the-judice of the effing weather) immediately post the ludicrous mid-morn kick-off. (CUM ON, PEOPLE! Like how’s a man supposed to watch a Test AND slurp beer at 11 am. With a cricket match after? OK. I know. We generally do that cum Lions-time.) So there was that inane banter thing going on around Jamie Roberts and stuff whilst we exorcised the ghostly whiff of hops or worse – the need to slurp. Then boot, hussarr… it started. And so did the drinking, actually.

Within a few minutes the sustaining hunch that Sexton would do okay if he didn’t have to kick pressure kicks and that our lot would actually be more together than their lot of outofpositionflungtogetheradmittedlyflair-enabled southerners seemed a stable concept, amid the inevitable hurly. This is not to say that the homesters looked nervously dysfunctional but more that The Lions, equipped more than adequately in the Experienced and Proper Lion stakes (BOD, POC, AWJ, you cuddle up to your own, bullocking ledge) seemed pidgeon-chestedly at home in this environment. Youngs did the Youngs things, POC the POC, etc. The lads – our stupendously leonine (if birdlike) and capable and whole-hearted red-shirted heroes – did their thing with enough assurance to convince all of us and the watching world that Lions can (oof)… and will… (yowch!) lay it down… (hoiyahh!) in committed style… (aaaah) for The Lions.

Slightly more specifically, Jonathon Davies absolutely laid out Lealiifano, without resorting to malice, in 50 seconds. To his credit, the Welshman – who gave surely one of the great non-Test performances in Lions history in the game against Waratahs last week (yup, I really think it was that good) – immediately called for aid to his stricken opponent, knowing he was haway with the (presumably Aboriginal) faeries. This was merely the warm-up gig in the stretcher-fest that was to wheel its Pete Townsendesque way through the game. Kerrang!! Lealiifano. Kerrang!! Barnes. ‘Allo San Fransisco! McCabe. Power-chord after migraine-inducing power-chord, the physical intensity of the thing was taking its toll; on the Australians.  We drank to that, funnily enough.

There was much to admire and enjoy in the first period. Two tries by the Australian George North – bloke called Folau, who apparently picked up a rugby ball for the first time last week – plus a similarly dashing-bison moment from Gorgeous George himself.

Personally I was convinced the first Folau try followed a scandalously obvious in-at-the-side intervention from an Aussie prop but this was not the only moment of controversy around the breakdown. The man O’Driscoll, whom followers of the game may have heard of, quite plainly decided he needed to absent himself from these challenges following two bewildering pings; this will be a matter for ahem… discussion between Mr Gatland and the authorities, I feel, before the Second Test. In all seriousness, the ‘interpretation’ of rulings on what is permissible – or how bodyweight is judged to be perched – as players try to gather in legitimately contestable ball should not be excluding great and honourable and experienced professionals from plying their trade entirely. BOD could subsequently make only intermittent contributions for his side, something of a travesty for the contest, IMO. This issue will remain central to the series no doubt but if the other, healthier, more roaaarringly uplifting facet of the game – namely the propensity for giant blokes to leg-it like fuck through pathetically flailing defenders – persists, then clearly we are in for some wonderful entertainment.

Folau and Cuthbert and North delivered something special which drew crucially upon the moment… and that was fabulously proper sport. Tries of course can win matches but if the hapless hoofers from the SD colony had even remotely approached Halfpennyesque levels of proficiency with the boot then The Lions would have got beat. As it was, Leigh was again close to exemplary in virtually everything he did, whilst a series of probably under-prepared and possibly unwilling Aussie novices blinked up at the posts before hoiking right, left, or cruelly fell on their understandably quivering ample arse. Beale – the one with alcohol issues – cruelly exposed, kicked drunkenly wide or short or both, when the moment OF WINNING THE FIRST TEST beckoned. My Magnificent Little Pony (Halfpenny – earlier), did not.

In a finale that was supremely tense rather than classic, failures of composure and technique told – failures we might link to selection issues, for Australia really had gambled more than their gallantly stolid opponents. The Wallabies had the Wrong Bloke doing really important stuff too often. So they lost.

However, they did have the finest player on the park by some distance – Genia, who played as though pressure does not and never did exist – but even his brilliance fell short. When the shackles were flung off rather than dragged, the Aussie back line did look a threat, even in midfield, in a way that BOD and Davies rarely did. Much of this was to do with Genia’s comfort and expressivity. Phillips by contrast looked upright and sometimes laboured; his place now more closely under threat from t’other Youngs, perhaps? The Lions came through thanks to bursts of invincible running amid general good (but conservative) stewardship of the line-out and acceptably tidy work from Sexton. They will want more and they may need it.

With the result undecided ’til virtually the last kick and the intensity relentlessly freakish, this First One was damn competitive. Hence, I suppose the attrition on Australians. (Did I mention that?) The Lions are strong but not decisively so – not yet. Two tries conceded. If the Wallabies can truly and effectively re-group they have already shown that they have real firepower – likely the equal of the boy North, even. What we need as lovers of the game is both for the big guns to be unleashed and for the less spectacular contests to be fully played out rather than watch players tiptoe around the referee’s interpretation of the rules. Players/viewers don’t want to obsess about the flippin’ breakdown; they/we want to see it happen – Warburton or BOD v their lot, in action!

It’s simply not possible to play through the breakdown when your movements, your instincts are compromised by those fears. BOD’s withdrawal from this key part of the game was maybe, on reflection, notable as opposed to central to the result – fortunately. But when things get tight… phew, you wanna grab that ball, right? And that might cost. In the fury and the shades-of-grey it became heart-stoppingly close. But as O’Driscoll said after – we’ll take an ugly win. Cheers.