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.

 

 

 

#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.’

That’s so-o welsh, that is!

  • After today’s ‘sport’ I could do one of many things, including;
    • buy a pint for Pete from Merthyr, who had that nervy but jovial but mainly Welsh thing going on, live on Radio Wales’s (footie) post-match phone-in. Garrulous and neck-deep in val-leees singsongaciousness, Pete started by saying
    I’m on top a the moon boys! – clars-sic, mun, surely? – before reeling off more homespun but genuinely heart-warming clichés than your favourite uncle. (Actually, I think Pete is my favourite uncle.)
    • or… I could buy a few tinnies for the Aussie rugby boys, who out-Walesed Wales, by turning adversity – two men down – into some bloody, black-eyed, backs-to-the-wall Alamo/exemplar.
    • or go off on one about how even though I’m as fed up as you lot with hearing the word ‘execution’, Wales surely really did need to execute one of the forty-three chances to get points on the board whilst Genia and some other bloke were unemployed for ten minutes each. Because that would have been the difference and mostly there had been no difference in the levels at which the two sides were playing – unusually, for a contest between northern and southern hemispheres.

I may do all three – or I would like to. Or one of many other things which reek of or speak of the cultish-crazy, leeky, drunken, stolid, donkey-derby wonderwallness of the day.

Wonderwall because hope is somehow scorching dizzily through. Rightly and deservedly if not entirely predictably for Biggar and Roberts and Davies; amaaaazingly and deservedly for Ramsey and Hennessey and Bale.

But donkey derby? Dare I be ‘avvin’ a pop at the lack of quality somewhere here? In (let’s say) that team of Coleman’s? How could I? Why would I? ‘Fraid I must. Though I’m the daydreamiest of believers in hwyl and teaminess, I do have guilty concerns about Wales’ football achievements; or rather about what happens next.

On the one hand it’s clearly and unarguably marvellous that a side with only three international players – Ramsey/Bale/Williams – has shown such a durable mixture of organisation, work-rate and (crucially) togetherness that they’ve fair scooted through the qualification process. That Coleman fella – who many of us were labelling simply out of his depth in elite level togger – has engineered an inviolably significant and maybe particularly personal achievement here. But the thing is that despite remaining unbeaten against Belgium and that stand-out 3-0 away win in Israel, Wales have shown little quality other than those qualities that have seen them through. They’re gonna need more.

Many hackles will rise at this point and I understand why, when – DOH! OBVIOUSLY – those qualities are all part of the spirited package that is sport. I get that. In fact I spend much of my working life and most of my scribbling time BIGGING UP the notion that soulbrother or sisterhood is both an essential and a hugely rewarding facet of these daft games of ours. And yet.

And yet there must be skill; we should aspire to the beautiful and the profoundly pleasing as well as to brothers-in-arms resolution, a) because it’s philosophically right and b) because that’s how the success builds. So though I absolutely applaud what is an undoubted success for Coleman’s crew, I exercise my right as a fan to want more/advise for more. Please.

For much of today’s game Bosnia struck me as a team playing close to the lowest acceptable standards for international football. Consequently, early in the second half, without ever looking fluent or (actually) entertaining, Wales were coasting. But they lacked the quality to pick off their poor opponents.

Even with Bale on the park, Wales lacked a real threat, a focus, as they fluffed the opportunity to dismiss the Bosnians. (Incidentally, despite his goal-scoring record, I think Bale has been decidedly average, or certainly disappointingly inconsistent, too often in this campaign. Am I alone in that?) Robson-Kanu meanwhile, epitomises the Willing But Limited category that the bulk of the side (regrettably) fall into.

Some of this sounds spiteful and/or simply illogical. Let me swiftly express again my suspiciously amorphous disquiet at the relative absence of refined talent in the group… and then we’ll move on. What I suspect we can all share and enjoy is the delicious Welshness of the moment of qualification; via a crap result against a crap side. And that not mattering.

Plugged in as usual to the twittersphere, I loved that so much of the day’s #bantz seemed to belong to The Principality – and no, don’t be daft, I don’t mean the mob who’ve just bought the rights to the Millenium – I mean Wales. Before dropping back into events at Twickers, mind, we should really be noting the further hike in #RWC2015’s dander during and following the boshtastic Scotland Samoa game.

The evident passion, commitment and commitment to drama in this encounter re-lit the tournament for the umpteenth time and was again a proper fillip for rugby globally. This was a match where onslaught followed onslaught and the world again shared Samoan grief as though it was our own. The pride and the bonkers levels of what we may have to call bonding or devotion were sensational… and the boy Laidlaw dun well again.

But on The International Day… for Welshnesses we need to conclude with a flash through other worthy daiversions. I’ll remember
• timelines full of jokes about how appropriately (i.e. welshly) Gatland’s and Coleman’s teams achieved their notable successes; firstly by both getting roundly defeated and secondly by acquiescing in the universal conspiracy to give them what they deserved, anyway.
• And I note the kind of start – in fact the kind of first half from Wales rugby – that said something rather profound about being comfortable in the challenge. Perhaps this then was the Welsh Haka? An expression of confidence… and a welcoming for the trial? It did feel like a validation – like Wales were being clear that they knew they were worthy – and ready. And that may yet project forward (who knows?) to powerful advantage.

However, turns out Wales rugby too wasn’t quite skilled enough to execute/penetrate/skewer the enemy. When those endless yellow moments came the Roberts-centricity of the Gatland era was maybe exposed? Phase after phase was rebuffed by the inspired bison in gold ‘n green. Whether this was an opportunity criminally and terminally missed (I suspect it was), or whether this Hen wlad will resurrect yet again in all its perversely gog or cardi or starless and bibleblack glory, who can tell? But in defeat, in squeaky-arsed glory, the day belonged to Wales.

Staggering.

Impressions. Of a gallivanting, glorious final day, sweeping away fears of a ‘ludicrous advantage for England’, or a ‘recipe for corruption’. Staggered kick-offs and staggering entertainment. Wave upon wave of wondrous, anarchic sport – emphatically combative but almost perfectly fair in both complexion and in spirit. Liberated and liberating in a toss-your-hair-from-the-sports-car-of-your-dreams kindofaway.

Six Nations Rugby is entitled to feel a wee bit smug; maaan, has it delivered. Under the raging bull-charge and the murderous tick tock of receding or encroaching targets, the players showed remarkable – and surely marketable? – and generously honest endeavour. So generous that a) the games were ecstatically expressive of that kind of running rugby we feared we may have lost b) gert big holes were left around the park for the opposition to gleefully run into. C) We never knew what the hell or who the hell might win the thing.

First Wales had to do it all, then Ireland then England. And make no mistake, on a day when 221 points were scored in the three matches, they all did it all. It was magnificently slapstick – only real – with nails bitten and nerves frayed and hearts broken and mended and palpitating and soaring and WAAOORRRRRA. It was too much christmas puddin’ wi’ that brandy butter, it was.

To even start to record the detail …we all may need a sit down and a drink. As we do so, let’s consider this; that given the import of the games and the utterly bone-crunching level of collisions, maybe we really should pause to appreciate the quality of labour undertaken. By the players. For there to be almost no cynicism or cheating or abuse of officials in these precious hours was remarkable. (I recall a sly trip from Haskell and a contentious launch from Lawes leading to proverbial handbags. Tellingly, when Haskell was rightly yellowed he jogged obediently off without a word. Other than that – nothing. Nothing other than sportsmanship during extreme combat of an impeccable standing. Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger – were you watching?)

Italy-Wales started it. By going from superbly competitive (yes, honest!) to absurdly but surely exhilaratingly one-sided within twenty minutes either side of the half. George North went from Disappointment Revisited to Giant Sex-bomb. Biggar and Webb went from Championship winning half-backs (with ten minutes to go) to peeking through their fingers from the bench as things just dipped away.

Why Gatland and co gave them the hoik when they had (over time) so brilliantly dismantled the opposition may be debated in the proverbial Valleys for generations to come. (It struck me as one of the finer examples of ‘overthinking’ from a management mob in recent memory. Given how fluent and commanding they were – and considering there was no requirement to save them for subsequent challenges – why not let them see it out and rack up the inevitable 70 points?) Instead, changes are made, Davies drops a pass when clear, and they concede a try.

Yes I know the maths may not point to a Wales championship win anyway… but the sums may have been significantly different should the Welsh A-team half-backs have remained. That Gatland is vindicated may seem unarguable; however I do at least point out that Wales were better and more successful here with two Williams’s on the field and an instinct for free-form rugby unleashed. Gatlandball – specifically the Roberts and up-the-jumper caricature – will not be enough for the later stages of the Rugby World Cup. Wales may be back (again) but there must be more again.

Italy are meanwhile marooned; or treading water unconvincingly. Their disappearance from this contest was maybe the most predictable thing to happen all day.

Apart from the Irish win in Edinburgh. What’s to say there, except that Scotland need a slap? They were simply dismissed… too comfortably. Even accepting their poor all-round level, this felt close to unacceptable and must have hurt their backroom staff and their long-suffering fans. At home, having shown some attacking form – or threatened to – they simply should have done more.

I had Ireland down as comfortable winners – meaning 12 -15 points – but as a neutral who really rates them and genuinely enjoyed O’Connell’s deserved triumphant moment early on, I felt the drama overall had been served inadequately via the Scots capitulation. 30 points is too much. I accept that the void where a competitive player pool might be is unanswerably relevant here but hoped for more – more dog – from those assembled under the thistle.

The Irish have been great, mind. They have the best coach and they are, for me, in every way marginally ahead of the English and the Welsh. More fiery and consistent than England, more deadly and angular and pacier, actually, than Wales. They throw a mighty green blanket across the park in defence and kick-chase relentlessly. And on that Sexton-centricity I wrote about previously I concede that the fear or the ‘fact’ that Sexton may be irreplaceable to them could have been said of almost any side in history with a stand-out stand-off. (Think England/Wilkinson, perhaps?) You can’t clone the feller, so crack on! If he’s out then look to Bowe and Henshaw and Kearney on the charge, after somebody else’s Garry Owen. The pattern is there. The players are there.

In fact there’s much more to Ireland than that roaring up the pitch and leaping to catch. They have a real efficiency and experience. They will keep the ball for an age and wear you down. They will stand toe-to-toe or they will scorch round your flanks. Or break you down just where you think you’re inviolable. The world knows about O’Brien and Heaslip and O’Connell and now O’Mahony but do they know about Henshaw and Payne? This a strong, well-rounded unit and one that really may challenge for the yet more substantive trophy later in the year.

England were weirdly patchy. They were almost embarrassingly porous – conceding five tries(!) – but also devastatingly ambitious. It was, as so many have noted, like sevens. Ben Youngs was an utter menace throughout and Joseph and Nowell enjoyed a rare opportunity to go wild in the jungle (absolutely free-style.) Twickers sounded like it knew something extraordinary was happening. There were so many simultaneous heady possibilities that it was unclear whether Eddie Butler, Brian Moore and Sonia Wotsit were actually playing. Certainly I think Sexton and O’Connell and Bowe still were. And North and Halfpenny and Barry John and Slattery and Walter Spanghero.

After all the psychotic flux of it, the rampage and the flood of emotion, the fact is Ireland rightly won this tournament, closely followed by England, then by Wales. The table, remarkably makes absolute sense, despite the marvellous nonsense in Rome, at Murrayfield, at Twickers. The table says there wasn’t much in it but man oh man, there was.
Foolishly, at the end, I congratulated EVERYONE on twitter – because it felt like we’d all won – or they all had. It was magic… and it was rugby… and something was shared.

There must be dash.

Let’s get the confessions over with. I thought a 12-point win was more likely than not, for Wales. I doubted that England would find either the inviolable fight or the flow to counter Wales’s customary booming and pillaging. I thought the multitude of changes would count against the away team and that the alleged shift towards ambition and ball-in-hand creativity would fail, again, to materialise. Despite the accidental discovery of a spookily exciting centre-pairing, (I thought) England would retreat into the safety of their shells… and be duly steamrollered by Roberts and North.

I was wrong. England not only deservedly won, but their confidence, movement and athleticism – even when 10 points down – made Wales look pedestrian; one-dimensional; lost.

In mitigation I swear I was aware of this possibility – that one mildly revelatory day pretty soon Wales would get found out – I just didn’t think Friday, with home advantage and cruel injury conspiring in the reds favour, would be that moment. It was, and this means Gatland has problems.

It’s a while, in truth, since he was broadly loved and the resurgence of any warmth towards the abrasively dour Pack Leader now seems deeply unlikely. Post the event in Wales the phones and columns and consoling bar-fronts remain a-buzz with stinging rebukes. The sense is that Wales have gone cosy in a bad way; dumb and intransigent rather than brotherly and fiery; sleepy, almost and dull in every meaning of the word. (Please note; the Welsh equate ‘dull’ with stupid.) The finger points very much at the coach.

Folks – well, cognoscenti – from Mold to Machynlleth have jabbed accusatively for years. ‘Gatland only knows one way!’ ‘S a team full of bison, mun!’ ‘How can he not pick Williams (L)?!?’

The counter-argument to the Kiwi’s approach may ironically be more old-school than his own. It’s predicated on that innately Welsh view of the game as a marvel, a flicker, a scramble. A field for feints and dummies and yes – intuitions. Even in the days of wall-to-wall giants (the theory goes) there must be dash; there must be timing. How else can the hwyl be expressed?
Great hands and dancing feet are likewise enmeshed into this ideal. They legitimise it.

If this implies some spurious/generous hierarchy then fine. The aspiration is for finer sport, for success through skilled excellence – through versatility, comfort with the ball, awareness. Welsh rugby fans identify with this and believe it works.

In this context, Gatland Time feels gone, or superceded. At fifty minutes, when everything cried out for some uncorking of the spirit and Liam Williams remained surplus… we knew it was gone. Thirty minutes previously, when despite being ten points down England found a gearing beyond Wales’s scope, and the Welsh support began already to drift, an understanding emerged. The cauldron ran out of fire. And it was England fans who roared.

As the game rushed away from Wales, Haskell stumbled or was thrown seemingly blindfold against an upright and Attwood was denied by a contentious intervention from the TMO. (I reckon seven out of ten officials would have judged the crossing/blocking of the Welsh defender to be insufficiently relevant to the score to have wiped it out.) Meaning England might well have scored a further fourteen points. Joseph and Watson did cross – the centre corkscrewing through three defenders and the wing profiting from a deft nudge through from Brown. Lancaster’s ‘B Team’ were not just storming to an emphatic win, they were (shock, horror, probe) doing it in style.

Gatland countered at the end by blaming ‘individual errors’, citing a Rhys Webb kick as key. That felt unnecessary – some would say cheap. Sure mistakes are always important but the systemic differences were plain to see. England, without Launchbury, Lawes, etc etc, re-invented themselves as entertainers and Men Of Action – this time for real. The battalions gathered under the heading of England Coaching Staff, after much pontification on the subjects of culture and ‘execution’, seemed vindicated.

As immaculately conceived theory became practice, young Ford seemed to have donned some protective cloak; without being flawless he was supremely immune to the occasion. Backs play broke out. Brown again located classy and alarmingly confident mode. Joseph and Burrell both stepped and hit; Robshaw owned the place. Whilst not entirely in sustained rampage mode, England had an authentic, collectively charged energy about them, such that the second half became a mild under-achievement at a thirteen nil massacre. It was the kind of victory that really can mark out something new; a landmark or ‘stepping stone’ as Lancaster likes to say, along a more significant journey.

The positives for England are of course negatives for Gatland and for some of his players. Given the comparative shallowness of his squad there may be few opportunities for energising swerves in selection. Cuthbert, Davies and possibly North and Roberts may, however, feel vulnerable. It’s the gaffer, though, for me, who is most exposed.

There’s an important postscript to all this – bigger than this one apparently defining encounter.

My timeline on twitter (@bowlingatvinny) has been broiling with rage and indignation around the hi-jacking of ‘these events’. The Friday Night scheduling, the pre-game, super-bowlesque in-your-faceness, the pricing and the essential often grotesque booziness of the affair is clearly offending a great many genuine fans. They think much of this is anti-rugby – or at least irrelevant to or subversive of the real rugby experience. And they aren’t all miserable sixty-year-olds. Most love and understand the game and get no obvious pleasure from having a moan. They’re protective people. They object, indeed they are hurt by the combination of high ticket prices and faux-carnival ambience, responsible, in their view, for the shrillness, fickleness and increasing presence of the Millenium (or Twickers) dilletantes. There may always be snobbery around such things but there seems no doubt that a percentage of contemporary punters get international tickets without (actually) getting the game.

How fine it would be to somehow sort all that. But the crass crashes and bangs and wallops are surely here to stay? (God forbid they can only get crashier and bangier). They’re locked into or wrapped up in the ‘whole corporate or consumer experience’.

Research, I imagine, has pointed to us punters needing or expecting or remaining unfulfilled when shorn of flame-thrown excitement. We cannot conceive of mystery and magic without dry ice so they give us… dry ice.

How sad, how cynical to be pedaling this joyless garbage. I mean… did these people never catch a ball and run?

Negative Momentum?

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.

Postscript.

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.

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?

Who does?

Wow. Just look at the adverts. The magisterial but beery brilliance of Dylan Thomas and that hobbit bloke; Eddie Butler amidst plumes of language and of smoke. The whiff of proper grandness.

England Wales is always major but this one is already feeling all-consuming. Despite the pre-eminence of the Irish – their lead and stonking advantage on points scored, their crushing win against Wales and cruel, narrow defeat at Twickenham, their winnable remaining match – it’s England Wales that dominates.

This is partly (of course) due to the pervasive London-centric view of the universe. But the vitriol and the heat around this fixture, predicated around abstracted Welsh furies and alleged English pomp, is special. The man-cub Healey has noted the ‘hatred’ from the Province, possibly without pausing to reflect on how much he himself epitomises much of that which is hated. The press in Wales has been loaded with cheap shots at some caricature of The English. In short, much about the ‘rivalry’ may in truth reflect badly on both parties but to hell with all that, there’s a game to be played, a game that could be a monster… in a good way.

Both teams are announced, both predictable and strong. Then a late change as Ball comes in for Wales, for whom the return of one of the classiest players in world rugby (Jonathan Davies) is a boon only slightly undermined by the customary frisson around any return from serious injury. Can it really be that a muscle near-ripped from its former home could be entirely re-bedded? Is the lad really okay? And Burrell-proof? God knows if he is, he simply must play – bring that instinct, that something extra to the Welsh back-line. As a sucker for the mercurial, the gifted, I am happy to confess something of an infatuation with Davies, believing him to be a rare and generous talent.

For England the former Welshman Ben Morgan comes in for Billy Vunipola. Given the latter’s gallivanting form this might in other circumstances be a concern for Lancaster’s posse but Morgan is also a man made for a break and a gallop as well as for the more structured stuff. Plus the politenesses exchanged across the scrum and line-out may well motivate the England no. 8. I see no weakness there.

I’m reasonably optimistic that the bitterness which does exist will dribble away like spilled beer come the match itself. In the moment of release comes liberation from all that prejudicial nonsense and I have some faith the game will release us. England – to their immense credit – seem to be closer to finding a spirited, open, dynamic game than they have been for aeons. Remarkably, they feature individuals (and I do mean that) patently intent on legging it joyfully every which way. May (the player) now brings to mind May the month, gambolling as he does like a lamb in discover-the-options-around-this-field mode. Brown from full-back oozes calm, class and line-breaking intent; Nowell too, looks un-Englishly game.

So can New England’s new expansiveness succeed? It feels as though Lancaster has gone too far and spoken too volubly on the subject of higher goals to retreat into a conservative, ‘territorial’ approach. Will he, when the time comes, press green for go on the attack button?

Hmm. I’m less inclined than he might be to answer that one in the bullish affirmative. The Measured One knows the dangers as well as the benefits or responsibilities to play heads up, open, intuitive rugby. He will want it, he will encourage it but there will be caveats. Don’t get nailed and isolated; run at that hairy bloke rather than Warburton or Tipuric; or yaknow, any of the backs. Execute with confidence but with awareness is what he’ll say – something like that. He knows supporters cry out for that. He knows, over and above any local historical disputation, this is a game England must win and that the onus is on the whites.

Those wearing the red rose should have beaten a poor French side but they didn’t. Not that they wilted… they simply made costly errors. Meaning the table puts them hypothetically in touch but 60 points down on the Irish, who have the French to come. Scope you might think, for O’Driscoll and co. to pull away and clear.

This is crunch time for the tournament alright and crunch time for Lancaster’s Master Plan. World Cup hosts and holders is the seductive target for next year. He seems to have wedded the notion of success to the notion of dynamism, epitomised by so long by the All Black Machine – in truth an alarmingly responsive if not organic contraption. England are currently simply not that good but, for now, the big question is do they stay true, really, in the moment of epic exposure and conflict and challenge, to this belief… in belief itself?

Gatland I suspect is altogether thicker-skinned than his English counterpart. He speaks of culture and nature less freely. Some might say this is because he has only the one view of how to play – Warrenball. Others might say he is shrewd and tough and clearer on what he wants.

In the last day or two he has quietly reminded the watching world of the powerful level of experience his side will bring to Twickenham. The suggestion being that Nowell, for example, might feel the weight of things descending upon him – psychologically and otherwise. He is right to infer that his lot are pound for pound more likely than England to be comfortable and thereby to inject pressure into the home side’s willingness (or conviction) to run. Wales can and likely will square up and be patient and hold.

Despite a shocking start to this tournament the red dragons (a fascinatingly aspirational emblem yes? – cue the anthropolical dissertation) look a strong side at close to full strength. They were okay rather than inspired against France but will feel justifiably that their own machine – that rumble, that smash in midfield – is with them again. The role of Priestland may be key and in this situation, where limited gains and patient probing suit his side, the Scarlets man may steer the thing… unremarkably. (I say this as a recent and regular critic of Priestland’s lack of zest. I also fully accept that in a game that relies unusually heavily on the quality and indeed authority of the home attack, Priestland’s role may actually be relatively insignificant.)

There are potentially fabulous contests all over this fixture – not all of them on the pitch. Apart from the nourishing psycho-cobblers going on in the hours before the game, the coaches clearly have a role in preparing minds and bodies. Gatland, I fancy, has the edge there. Twickenham itself could have a huge part to play – hence the encouragement from Lancaster to re-find some energising national pride on both sides of the lime-wash. He knows how big a convincing win against Wales right now could be in terms of delivering the momentum he dreams of – that would be twitter made real.

For Sunday I make no predictions; this one’s un-callable. However I do consider Wales well-equipped to contain, unless the likes of May, Brown or possibly Burrell break out with such devastating brilliance that new English freedoms ascend to undeniable heights.

In the packs, the Launchbury/Lawes combo is a fearsome combination but Ball proved last time out that he is no mug and AWJ… well, he is so iconically, gwladishly Welsh that you imagine the dam will not burst at lock. The front row will be tasty – think Hibbard and Hartley in particular – but a kindof feverish parity seems likely to prevail. Then there are some very good footballers in opposition at 6, 7and 8. Frankly it’s hard to separate them. You would guess the Welsh back-line to be more durable than the home side’s but yeh – un-callable.

Broadly, this one is about coping with massive, massive pressures. Not about who dares but who does. In these lurid, lacerating, transcending moments, who can actually do it? Oh the ironies if Wales, suddenly, are both thought of as more predictable than dour ole Ingerland and the hosts execute with glorious abandon. I hope it’s that kind of game. I hope there are tries. I hope rugby – not cheap hostility – breaks out.

Delivery.

Friday nights at the Millenium. Ethically dodgy – what with all that post-match faffing for the fans – but kinda glitzy and undeniably charged with extra, anticipatory energy. Once folks are in there they forget the duff train services issue, that general low-burning contempt for the fans thing and even (maybe) the suspicion that Cardiff Chamber of Trade have conspired with somebody hefty on the rugby side to bundle thousands of visitors into a wallet-sapping overnighter. ‘ Midst these very 2014 challenges only a proper occasion can see us through. The quality of the ether and then the game – the night – has to be good.

Cardiff delivers again, on this. A packed house (72,000) gathering late under a closed roof, followed by an emphatic home win. Plus the ungraspable stuff – the bonhomie, the boozy camaraderie, the gentility even between fans – charming and occasionally cockle-warmingly fabulous. (At the end of this one, we walked out into the cool dank of that riverside terrace past a single Frenchman nodding genially and with what seemed affectionate rather than affected grace whilst applauding the Welsh fans out. Ca c’est vraiment formidable, n’est-ce pas?)

If there is such a thing as an ambience matrix it was sweetened early in the game – which helps. France gifted a slack handful of points to Halfpenny and North in a fashion that felt faintly under-earned. The big wing/centre arguably pressured the error leading to his try but it was still an error; Halfpenny (mostly) capitalised on offers arising from ill-discipline, nerves or bad luck on the French side. Suddenly, Wales were flying – and yet not quite.

In truth there was real spirit but mixed execution from both sides first half… and in fact, throughout. De bonnes heures there was that familiar exchange of penalties and of midfield moves – most more lateral than penetrative – and therefore competently smothered. It was less ding-dong than kicktennis/squish/wallop/clunk as errors intervened. Broadly, as imagined, Halfpenny’s superior kicking game told.

On times that much-vaunted clash of beefy but more-or-less spring-heeled line-breakers – the centres North/Roberts Bastareud/Fofana – threatened to entrall us but much ended in minor disappointment. Full-on Gatland-Plus Wales rugby threatened to break out but (was it just me, and/or was this Priestland, particularly?) passes were floated too often when crispness or elite sleight-of-hand was required. In fact France were denied a try when the Wales pivot was nearly exposed mid-pass. In row 14, we tutted almost as much as we shouted.

So an improvement yes but Wales were flawed, even when in control of the scoreboard and naturally some of this underachievement was traceable to Priestland. Given that the game was presented to him early, he fell a tad short again on the commanding/inspiring front. I say this in the knowledge that he is very much in the modern mould of undemonstrative Game Managers rather than some idealised wizard and that these guys tend to play within themselves and expend all available energies on focus, not heart-stopping glory.

Fair enough. I appreciate that stuff but in my judgement Priestland has to manage things really well to justify his place. And I’m not sure he did… and I’m not sure he instills confidence in those around him.

If angst then turned to excitement early amongst the home support, this proved something of a deception. True that before any real pattern had emerged, Les Bleus were up against it. Webb had started brightly and with palpably greater fizz than that pre-loved and perhaps more predictable warrior Phillips; faux or fancy-dressed leeks amongst the crowd shuffled or at least arced expectantly forward in the breeze of expectation. Early points, high hopes for Wales. I swear folks were wondering if Gorgeous George, high himself on adrenaline and undreamt of quantities of ball, might carve out a rout? That seemed possible ten minutes in.

How mightily might the natural order be reaffirmed? If Wales went joyfully berserk, how might the French respond?

Answer – they did okay. In the sense that for me, the final score flattered Wales – France having competed but failed to prevent Warburton’s blaze and Halfpenny’s punitive hoofing. At no stage did the home side reach or sustain that feverish pitch of brilliance longed for by the crowd and the French were beaten not annihilated. Les Bleus had passages of play but still a) only fitfully resembled a working unit and b) missed crucial and relatively simple kicks.

At the half I thought France were only a tad worse than a decent Wales but later continual dissent and disbelief over refereeing decisions undermined both their performance and the level of sympathy any neutrals may have felt. They disintegrated into some ignominy, with Picamoles sarcastically applauding Allain Rolland, and a cluster of Bleus bawling at nearly every call the man made late in the game. It was unseemly – no matter what provoked it – and it wasn’t rugby.

I’m guessing many of us came into this one relatively sure that Gatland would have significantly stirred, if not wound up, his men, and that there would be a response. Ireland was for Wales, a shocker. The forwards were battered extraordinarily, via mauls that rolled embarrassingly on and by those rips and gathers by O’Mahony in particular. The pack of Friday night – featuring a late change of Ball for the unavailable AWJ – needed to turn up, front up and palpably restore some pride.

Job done on that; Gethin Jenkins, loved by most of Wales for his redoubtable core, his was singled out as man of the match. Warburton similarly gave notice that he was back and not to be underestimated. His extraordinary dominance in the line-out was one of the most striking features of the contest. How much of this was tactical tweaking from Gatland and how much a response to the late change at lock, who knows? In the set-piece, predictably, the one blight was the age lost in re-setting scrums; Rolland appeared to have little grip on this and his dismissal of the two props in the second half may have either been dead right and a significant step forward … or total guesswork.

Pre-match I had indulged the unwise thought that France- this France – ain’t up to much. Yes Nyanga and Fofana are always likely to be rather tasty and rather spookily elusive respectably, but otherwise… not special. So Wales – a bottoms slightly smarting Wales – would put 20 points on them. (Witnesses are available – the wife, anyway.) The fact that Les Rouges, whose squad strength looked markedly down again in the absence of just one or two major players, did win by that margin can be moulded around a range of arguments for and against an encouraging rebound into form. My feeling on that? Don’t read too much into this one performance – or more accurately, this one result. Wales are strongish but confidence may not be inviolable.

Reflecting now on some hours with The Millennium rammed and colourful to the point of cartoonish and an occasion genuinely enriched by the presence of our friends – yes! our friends! – from Lille or La Rochelle, I am (as they say) conflicted. The spirit is hugely restored in terms of the feel of an international. I am not so pleased to be judgemental of the French either as a side or on their discipline. And the balance of the result felt wrong. France were mixed, Wales a bit better. The scoreboard and maybe, arguably, the ref(?) conspired to be inhospitable to the visitors. But the night, the night was great.

Great but not that good.

Fascinating start. Fascinating but not carry-me-high triumphantly- not even for the French, I suspect. Fascinating with some real drama (Italian tries/Parisian palpitations) but I wonder if the Irish may be most encouraged by events in the opening two games of #6nations 2014. Because Wales were in a game, a match, rather than in processing to victory mode and because the other fancied side, England, were utterly mixed.

So a flurry of emotions as Wales threaten, then are held in check by a surprisingly durable Italian effort and England stretch from the shocking to the fluent.  A beginning loaded heavy with that full spectrum of error and mischance and with as many flukes as joys –  which may be standard, on reflection.

Perhaps this ‘great stuff’ works in terms of the best-value build towards maximum, arse-quaking tension. It certainly helps out re the option for recourse to @WelshDaliLama’s now annual bingerama – relief being offered via our enlightened friend in the form of… well, alcohol.

Wales got their win and Gatland will be okay, you suspect, with the fact that Italy come out of the opening game with most credit. He might believe, with some justification, that the visitors were always likely to expend a disproportionately huge amount of their budget of #6Nations energy on this fixture. They probably did but this should not in any way deflect from another step up from the Azurri. They brought their usual passion but have built something more concrete now – a game that has a certain purpose and shape to it all round the pitch. Sure they still lack both the consistent killer instinct and the all-round kicking game of a top level side but let’s hope their achievements include more regular wins against those sides currently nearest to them – Scotland and.. whoever. Good for the tournament, methinks if the Italian effort can be sustained?

Positives for Wales included signs that Jamie Roberts may be influential again, following a longish period where injury plainly undermined him. He made a simple try for his centre partner through composed, direct running and was persistently, reliably available, engineering or maybe bulldozing into space in the manner of old. However despite the various weapons available to Priestland, there was never the sense that a rout was likely to be orchestrated by him or anyone else. The Wales pivot again neither emphatically confirmed himself nor gifted the job to Biggar. Perhaps this was why the Welsh performance proved acceptable rather than exceptional.

But look, pundits having gone over the Gatland-as-one-trick-pony thing endlessly, let me offer a view on this. It strikes me that Wales have such broad skills as individuals, such quality when at full strength, that this notion that they are essentially bish-bosh is a tad cheap. Yes you might argue that (for example) Halfpenny rarely comes into the line (and that smacks of caution) but hang on there. With two genuinely deadly wingers combining power, pace and dodge-ability, plus Roberts and ideally a certain J Davies at centre, it’s surely ludicrous to consider Wales one-dimensional. It might be true that the former tri-nations outfits may smother – may have smothered – Welsh aspirations in recent years but their pattern of play tends to be more of a springboard than a straight-jacket. It’s simply harder to get things to work against the very best.

Gatland has more guile and wit than many give him credit for. And Wales deserve to be favourites in this tournament despite the uniqueness of the burden – or hat-trick challenge – ahead of them.

But back to the booze. Stuart Lancaster and his extensive backroom staff may have needed a tipple after their cruel defeat. Midway through the second half, with the opposition looking both jaded and a tad downhearted, a ten point plus win seemed likely for England. France had the better of the first half, without ever seeming fully joined up, but around 50 minutes it appeared the relentless work of Lawes and Launchbury in particular had sucked the life of the home side.

I don’t often write that England were cruising with some style but that was almost where we were at. Again this was predicated on top-drawer stuff from the forwards – more in the loose than at the set-piece, arguably – as Vunipola B roared around the park and Robshaw C got quietly on with his usual, intelligent patrolling, covering, presenting. The machine was purring with only the occasional turnover to disturb the serenity of its progress.

It didn’t matter. Or rather at least it was unsuccessful. Or at least – they lost. Meaning that however you dress it up, England’s purplish patch was (yes) encouraging but insufficiently decisive; they (in their own terminology) failed to execute… enough.

Why was that?

Throughout the game, France lived off scraps. Even in a first 40 that they conspired to dominate, Les Bleus still had the look of a side thrown together – again. The halfbacks continued in the historic, less than convincing vein, their interventions neither demonstrably positive nor particularly polished. In midfield, the match was a mess, for both sides. Only at the breakdown, where Nyanga scrambled ravenously, or through English error, did the game come back to France. In other words, this game was so-o there for the taking. At half-time, despite a small deficit, Lancaster would have been rightly optimistic that the precious away win to start was entirely achievable and this likelihood turned to a racing certainty as England utterly outplayed France for much of the second period.

It may be churlish to mention that the cataclysmically inept opening thirty seconds were in fact critical but inevitably they impacted – on the board and in the mind. A bog-standard claim was so misjudged by a quaking coterie of Englishmen that a French try resulted only a handful of seconds later. Do the math. Five points were conceded and more. Nowell – Lancaster’s most significant gamble, perhaps? – was, unfortunately right in the midst of this horror show and despite frankly bewildering figures later issued by England Rugby suggesting the young winger carried well, he went on to have the marest of all mares, poor love. Caught in possession, at fault for or culpable for more than one try… my god it was painful to watch. He might have been removed, with a carefully issued consoling word, at the half.

So England were nearly good but sometimes dreadfully error-prone. And Wales were… okay. Short of an incredible injection of wit, discipline and consistency, Lancaster’s aspirations for World Cup Leading Contendership seem a long, long way off to me. Despite that famous England win over the All Blacks and their own alleged obviousness, Wales remain closest to the main men.  In this World Cup of the North, only the Irishmen can get to them.