February 2012 Archives
What a game. What a try. What a feeling. Cymru am byth!
*More to follow tomorrow after the celebrations..*
An old lecturer of mine once said (with the resigned sigh and 100-yard stare of a man who's marked one too many poorly written essays) that the one phrase he couldn't abide his students using was 'only time will tell'. He's right, of course: it's lazy, and it stands in complete contrast to what the reader sets out to achieve by reading, which is to be enlightened. And yet it's an expression that has been frequently applied to this year's Six Nations.
That France got to the World Cup final doesn't guarantee their overcoming the Italians, especially in light of their loss to the Azzurri and Tonga last year. England to beat Scotland? Don't count on it. The Ireland v Wales match is one of the harder games to call, though you wouldn't think so from the coverage it's been getting in the build-up.
All the talk is of Ireland wanting "revenge" for their World Cup loss to Wales; not of the fact that Wales deserved to win that encounter, as well as the following semi-final with perennial Six Nations favourites France. Where is all the talk of Wales' angst at being dumped -it's a metaphor, but it actually happened (hello, Vincent Clerc!)- out of the World Cup in such controversial circumstances?
To watch former Irish hooker Shane Byrne's droll little segment on Scrum V last week was to see a belittlement of everything Sam Warburton's team has achieved in a short space of time. Everyone from former Wales coach Mike Ruddock to British Lion Eric Miller predicted an Irish win. Oh, they agreed it would be close, but in the patronising tone of men who have already seen the future. How sweet it would be to rewrite that future.
Ireland's provinces are deservedly making great strides in the Heineken Cup, but European form won't be the deciding factor in the Aviva Stadium on Sunday. It is worth remembering that the Welsh regions have barely made a splash in the Heineken since their inception, yet the national side has two Grand Slams to its name in this period. I too have been mightily impressed by Ulster, but their side has been built around some influential foreign signings in Springboks Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg, not to mention All Black John Afoa.
It is fair to say that the stance the national media takes on rugby often becomes the general consensus among the public. No sooner had one newspaper got wind that Chris Robshaw might be in the running for the England captaincy than every Barbour-wearing man and his dog named Fenton believed the once-capped Harlequins flanker was the only option. But taking a step back from the Matrix-like world of the sports media's hyperbole can be a comforting experience, simply because what is going on within the Welsh camp is very different to what is going on outside. Wales believe they can beat the Irish, having done so on the past two occasions. They certainly won't be fretting about "revenge".
Which brings me to last year's Six Nations 'wrong ball' debacle. While we as a nation would no doubt be much aggrieved to concede a try to Ireland on an overlooked technicality many never knew existed, in the grand scheme of things it would take arriving at the lowest ebb of desperation to use that as an excuse for losing.
Similarly, with the benefit of hindsight, and as much as it hurt at the time, we can also look at the Italy game in 2007 when James Hook was told he had time to kick for touch - only for the whistle to blow for full-time after he'd done so. Referee Chris White deserved to be struck off for his lack of cojones and pure ineptitude, but we can only blame ourselves for having gotten into the situation whereby we desperately needed a try in the last minute to win the game. We simply weren't good enough.
If you leave no room for error -in Ireland's case, if their defence had been on the ball when Phillips ran in for that try- you won't lose because of an officiating mistake.
Stephen Jones's call-up to the Welsh squad in the event of Rhys Priestland's injury has garnered a mixed reception. Jones has been one of the poster boys of rugby in this country since time immemorial, and many are glad he has the opportunity to come out of the exile imposed on him by Gatland. Others are scratching their heads as to why the Cardiff Blues-bound Jason Tovey (to name just one up-and-coming Welsh fly-half) has not been called up as cover.
I myself am firmly in the latter camp. Who, after all, is going to be hungrier: the lion on top of the hill, or the wolf climbing up it? Tovey could benefit and take comfort from the knowledge that he is in the frame for the national team. Yet we live in a world where the statistician is king, which means they see things the average rugby fan doesn't. I've been told this is the reason there has been a reluctance in the Wales management to play James Hook at fly-half, a role he played with success in the 2008 Grand Slam.
Injuries have reared their ugly head on Wales. We shouldn't be surprised, because it happens before any tournament of note. The sign of a great team is how they cope without their leading players. The All Blacks lost Dan Carter in the 2011 World Cup, but their ability to produce a fistful of able back-ups underscores the value of having competition for places.
If Jamie 'the Juggernaut' Roberts isn't passed fit, a more than adequate replacement in Ashley Beck will take his 12 jersey against Ireland. Who is in the pecking order behind Beck? The truth of matter is that beyond Jonathan Davies' ability to play 12 also, Wales can't boast much by way of international standard inside centres (or, for that matter, fly-halves). These are fundamental positions, and one need only look at the musical chairs that is the England midfield to see how crucial they are to a team's success.
So we've come to a juncture in British rugby history where England are now using 'humble' as their catchword. They need to be humble, says Stuart Lancaster; they need to be responsible for their actions, which means not getting caught up in sticky situations in nightclubs in the notorious party hotspot of... Torquay. Yes, Torquay, the home of Fawlty Towers. (If this whole fiasco rings any bells, it was in Newquay that another England player, Olly Barkley, allegedly got pepper-sprayed by police after a street brawl.)
Humble England? I doubt that it was on a good slice of humble pie that Clive Woodward's England marched to Grand Slam and World Cup glory in 2003. Humility will no doubt make you a more likeable side -see the religious Pacific Islander teams- but whether it wins you games is an altogether different matter.
While it's easy to play the nice guy in victory, some members of England teams of old didn't always choose the high ground. There is a story about Wales playing England in the 90s that has stayed with me. Having been on the receiving end of a particularly fierce English onslaught, the Welsh players sought respite in their changing rooms after the match - only to be barracked by a banging on the door, accompanied by an unmistakeable growl. "YOU JUST GOT D***ED!" roared a certain L.B.N. Dallaglio. The ensuing silence spoke volumes.
Confidence can be interpreted as arrogance, and Wales isn't a nation renowned for being arrogant. Nevertheless, it is with great misfortune that this desire to appear modest has translated to the rugby field in the past. Certainly, one accusation we can accept is a willingness to accept noble defeats too readily.
Well, last I checked, the England management, perhaps inspired by Facebook, are floating Arrogance on the market like some existential commodity. Wales could do worse than to buy a few shares of the stuff. The last we saw of them, in the Millennium Stadium against Australia (a nation where sport and arrogance are one and the same thing - something they would take as a compliment), they never looked like winning.
These days, everybody wants to be the underdog: when you've been written off by all and sundry, you having nothing to lose. It's hardly the mentality of a winner, though, and should only be viewed as a stopgap. It would be refreshing to hear someone such as Scotland captain Ross Ford come out and say, "We expect to beat England on Saturday. It's at Murrayfield, they are a new-look team, and they haven't won here since 2004." Coach Andy Robinson has suggested as much. To be successful, one must present an image of success, but sadly it is a widely-held belief that to appear confident is to give the other side a head start.
But I see glimpses of this much-needed super-confidence in some of the Welsh players. Fearless second rower Bradley Davies is one such man, in my eyes. Critics would say Gavin Henson has too much confidence, to which I would ask, when it comes to international rugby, can you ever have too much? Mike Phillips too has a never-say-die attitude that every team would welcome. Such individuals are essential in a successful side. "I want a man with grit," said Mattie Ross, the teenage protagonist in True Grit. Fifteen of them would do nicely.
It would be quite something if this Welsh team could conjure the spirit of Sir Harry Flashman, the fictional Old Rugbeian antihero who first appeared as the bully in Tom Brown's Schooldays and later became a high-ranking member of the British Army. Yes, Flashman has been described in the novels as being "a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward", but he always ended up the victor. Mike Phillips galloping away for that try against Ireland with the 'wrong ball' was a Flashman moment. How we loved him for it.
So, who will fall and who will triumph in the 2012 Six Nations? In the interests of self-preservation, I won't say 'time will tell'. But it will.