Today may offer very different challenges but for Wales and England there is a common dread of real, terminal slippage, of that irreversible lurch against them. Consequently, despite the laughably thin logic of coming over all too prematurely determinist pre- the 6 Nations, never mind the gert big event beyond, the psychological becomes, well… key.
But am I the only one fearing that deep down in a hushed, flip-chart-hung room, some immaculate but track-suited member of that omnipresent crew The Backroom Staff will be hovering over the spelling of the phrase ‘negative momentum?’ Me, I can picture that at both Twickers and the Millenium: both camps are clawing back against the invisible – fascinatingly.
Wales have look drained of both fire and inspiration for best part of two years; England less so but for a side with recently genuine hopes of a meaningful World Cup challenge they are looking muddled. The Autumn Internationals have become a scramble to escape with dignity – never mind hope – intact. For both home nations this means at least one win against a former Tri-nations giant and/or an invincibly fizzing display against game islanders. Gone already is the dream of making a powerful statement.
England were so soundly dismissed by both the Springboks and the AB’s that any talk of injuries affecting their preparation seemed as unconvincing as the performances themselves. (And yet they were and are disproportionately affected.) Wales fluffed their own opening lines when disappointing so acutely against the South’s most beatable monsters – the Wallabies – and the further compounding of red misery a week later was closer to inevitable than predictable after a game where the visitors were, despite the closeness of the score, patently simply playing at a higher level.
If we commit (for now) the cardinal sin of ignoring Irish gambols and Scots gameness, it seemed from the outset that this Autumn International Series was no different to the others, in that The Gap ‘tween North and South persists, flourishes even; depressingly.
This all runs counter to theories about small margins so (in quiet desperation?) let’s indulge in some of that speculative/restorative stuff that yaknow, makes our sporting world go round… and entertains us.
There is a degree of unanimity over Lancaster’s on-field problems. Lack of creativity; poor instincts or hesitation in the backs. Whilst accepting all that I proffer a further, admittedly worryingly tangential theory that a more broadly full-strength England pack might have gone past the relative parity with the AB’s and Springboks into a position of strength, from which The Girls might have found some time and space to express… thereby making even the choice of individuals selected in the backs less critical. (Stay with me for one minute.)
So sure, highlight the lack of fluency at halfback and centre but it may be that (for example) a Launchbury-less England was inevitably diminished because that young man has felt central to the exercise of control.
Control implies confidence as well as enabling measured periods of possession – phases – where ideas are played out. So often these ideas – these possibilities – are butchered through haste or nerves or through lack of belief… which again depends on that platform. What you seek as a coach is that the exercise of control frees up – truly frees up! – the individual player to play instinctively and beyond the ordinary. Blokes like Launchbury – playing with composure, with intelligence, in the heat of the smashathon – enable this wonderful transition by spreading their beautiful contagion around the park, around the team.
Pity then that the crunchingly abrasive nature of the modern game seems to deny the possibility for a prolonged partnership at lock or anywhere else. I am unable to point to a sustained period where Launchbury has been a fixture in some well-oiled machine and maybe this undermines me. Maybe this is just another hunch but I like the fellah’s quiet – quiet but telling – influence.
So my Bloke Wot England Missed is Launchbury. Despite accepting both that picking Farrell was a classic mistake – Lancaster preferring the durable to the dancier – and that the centre-pairings have, predictably failed to gel.
(The fabulous irony here may be that great teams win almost irrespective of individual selection(s) because their control and their confidence. Lancaster understands this, aspires to it and thinks of it as ‘culture.’ However in the absence of some admittedly outstanding players, he has not personally or otherwise found the means to raise his side towards this pinnacle. Both New Zealand and South Africa remain above. And currently, England look to be sliding.)
Wales are different. The ether itself is different here, the people’s link to the national side is more umbilical than casual – as in England. There’s something profound and delicious and invigorating about the importance of rugby to the people – as there is in New Zealand. It may be superfluous to reiterate that both nations identify themselves through the sport; that something in its rawness and valour and crazy honourability validates both. I go there (again) because it feels relevant; rugby really is ‘everything’.
Things differ though; in Wales there is no deep pool of talent, meaning yet again they must look to find or draw on something special to defeat the All Blacks. For that unlikely scenario to unfold, surely the Millennium crowd has to be lifted somewhere joyfully stratospheric. Though the nation will arrive suitably primed and ready to respond – firstly through a spine-tingling rendition of ‘Gwlad’ in response to the haka, later through genuinely wonderfully hearty informal anthems – George North or Jonathan Davies may have to set the place alight.
Man for man the All Blacks are better; nobody doubts it. They are arguably the finest team in world sport. Their skipper is simply remarkable, having hauled himself through 99 tests so far as captain – this in a side where competition for places is extraordinary. McCaw will lead his men with icy brilliance, being as effective without the ball as with it – no-one in rugby has understood or enacted work around the breakdown more successfully than he. He is that rarest of things the magnificent thief. The All Black back row unit have, year after year, unpicked then dismembered their opposite numbers to the extent that they epitomise the AB spirit. They will not be beaten.
So what can Gatland do? He will no doubt be counselling for focus; ‘do your jobs’. He will talk an expansive game in front of the press but surely look to offer nothing for nothing to these illustrious opponents. Somehow – somehow! – he must inspire some real belief in his men that they can not only create openings (and tries) but then remain constant against The Machiniest of Machines. He will have worked heavily, of course, on plays that might lever open the AB defence but he will know that their resilience is second to none. He will have concluded that this is a real test.
Wales will be hoping and dreaming that Davies – whom I fear for in terms of his fitness but rate highly – may find some magic. He is one of relatively few conjurors for Wales. Others, like Roberts and North may burst rather than bewilder. I note in passing that Liam Williams is worthy hugely unfortunate to be on the bench; his guts as well as his agility mark him out as a proper Welsh back and a man worthy of occasions such as these.
Sadly, I cannot see a Wales win. To re-discover that peak 6 Nations form and fire seems too unlikely and too big an ask against the world’s best. But what I love about today is that for all the preparation and the awareness of responsibilities/line-speed/discipline, Wales’ greatest hope may really be… in the crowd, in their belief, in their Welshness.
In brief England were strangely non-lethal once more and Wales were in the game for best part of seventy minutes before an unusually fallible New Zealand cuffed them away, late on. Robshaw tackled and led outstandingly well, without managing to look like a truly outstanding player and Mike Phillips proved unable to fill Rhys Webb’s relatively diminutive boots. George North had a mare.
Samoa were never going to provide top top opposition but they were expected to bruise English pride and English bodies. This they managed without ever losing their shape or discipline in the way of old. Sure they conceded a yellow for a lateish highish hit but this was arguably harsh. In an underwhelming but safe victory Ford did well, overall and Mike Brown showed more signs of a return to international form. Lancaster however will have learned very little from a fixture that was neither light relief nor ultimately competitive; there was no sense of anyone grabbing the opportunity or the game by the proverbial scruff.
At The Millenium the crowd did ‘do their bit’ following Webb’s stirring of the cauldron but the AB’s rose characteristically supremely to usurp any crescendo, finishing the match in that familiar cruise-crush-control mode. They had been reined back towards the ordinary for much of the encounter by generally superb line-speed and commitment from the Welsh and by a notably brave and level-headed Biggar.
Roberts and Davies did ask questions but line-outs malfunctioned and scrums were mixed. In essence, despite the AB’s appearing mortal for the first hour, Wales could not quite find the moment to transcend. They were goodish and they were in it but they never quite punctured the ordinary: players and crowd remained defiantly hopeful without breaking through into full-on, AB-competitive ecstasy. McCaw and co contained the thing and then found again that relentless intensity that is their own.
The excellent Webb’s retirement to the bench proved pivotal when his replacement Mike Phillips – dropped for lack of dynamism – telegraphed a box-kick and was nailed. Brave, brave Wales were then dispatched, like all the rest.
What this means , in terms of the World Cup? Possibly nothing – the 6 Nations lies between, remember. But both England and Wales have to find their X-factor before they can expect to challenge… each other in that group. They seem unlikely, right now, to be challenging for the trophy.