March 2012 Archives
To use a variation of the famous slogan: just done it. While pundits and the public alike were busy writing Wales off ahead of their opening Six Nations match against Ireland, the wheels were already in motion for their third Grand Slam in seven years. We just didn't know it yet.
If this were American football, the Welsh national rugby team would be called a 'dynasty'. Yet unlike the NFL, where franchises such as the New England Patriots operate on budgets of tens of millions of dollars, and players are evenly distributed to ensure a level playing field, Wales as a nation is at a distinct disadvantage. Statistics released during last year's World Cup showed our number of registered rugby players (50,557) is dwarfed by England (2,549,196), France (313,877), Ireland (153,080) and even Italy (66,176).
Our Under-20 national side often gets beasted by the superior experience and physicality of their English counterparts and, overall, our regions have made little impact in their quest for domestic league glory (Ospreys aside), much less the coveted Heineken Cup. By the same token, we have only four teams compared to England's 12 and France's 14.
The time to analyse how such peculiarities can culminate in the stellar explosion of Saturday afternoon can be saved for another day. Wales have won the Grand Slam. These are words I've desperately wished to write since March 20, 2011.
Wales, very much to the fore after their cliff-edge win over Ireland, made the tournament theirs to lose thereafter. Those unconvinced by their claims of superior fitness were soon left in no doubt that the Welsh team had the engine of a sports car in the body of a Humvee. They got stronger as games went on. France promised the world in their first game against Italy, and who among us wasn't convinced they would be the biggest challengers to the title along with Wales? They saved their best game till last, but it still wasn't enough. England made the underdog tag their own, playing with the sort of hard-done-by courage that Ireland used to play with not so long ago. For Wales, it was tense. For France, it was scary. For Ireland, terrifying. Ireland couldn't have imagined a worse result than fourth in the table, but against England, and in a game I imagined they would stroll through, they came up seriously short. Where now for a team with so many stars, and yet so little to show for it? Despite patches of strength from their forwards (namely against England), Italy were predictably short of firepower in their backline, but must be grateful that their one win came against the only other team equally incapable of winning having an off day. Scotland have three quality scrum-halves, but that means nothing when they have no outstanding fly-half to pass to. I can't help but feel sorry for them. Same old, same old for the bottom two teams.
A FLANKING PHENOMENON
The nature of the game these days is such that most forwards play through injuries. As such, we must hope that these Welsh warriors can keep their bodies intact long enough to challenge for the 2015 World Cup in England and, for many of them, the 2019 competition in Japan.
Dan Lydiate, recently named Six Nations Player of the Tournament, is testament to the human body's levels of endurance. The worst of his injuries once left him temporarily paralysed after a neck injury, and in light of his recent performances we should be giving him the nickname 'Lazarus'.
It is telling that captain Sam Warburton, always ready with a compliment for his teammates, said of Lydiate: "I've never seen anybody in so much pain after a game. Afterwards his body is a mess. He doesn't feel pain during a game - he has the heart of a lion."
Wales now have a squad of lions. In more ways than one.
Strength in depth has forever been an issue in Welsh rugby since the game went professional. Having said that, some bolters emerged during the Six Nations when some of Wales's frontline players were injured. It made me wonder what the squad would look like if we had to replace all the starting players from that final match on Saturday. (It should be pointed out that I'm thinking more if there was a flu outbreak in the camp; not in any morbid We Are Marshall (never saw it), plane crash sort of scenario.)
While some selections might seem obvious -picked as they are from the wider Wales squad- you decide if you think I've been sat next to the dodgy heating system for too long. Should Gavin Henson be in there? Do you trust James Hook to start at ten, unlike Warren Gatland? Are the backs too lightweight compared to the starting backline? Is Harry Robinson anywhere near ready to play international rugby? I would also love to see any of your wildcard choices in the Comments section.
Alternative Wales XV
15. Liam Williams (Scarlets) 14. Harry Robinson (Blues) 13. Scott Williams (Scarlets) 12. Ashley Beck (Ospreys) 11. Aled Brew (Dragons) 10. James Hook (Perpignan) 9. Lloyd Williams (Blues) 8. Andy Powell (Sharks) 7. Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) 6. Aaron Shingler (Scarlets) 5. Bradley Davies (Blues) 4. Luke Charteris (Dragons) 3. Craig Mitchell (Chiefs) 2. Ken Owens (Scarlets) 1. Rhys Gill (Saracens)
THE GUTTER PRESS
The Daily Mail chose to report Wales's Grand Slam success in a rather different manner to that which we might have expected, and the players deserved. (If you are a regular visitor the Mail Online, you'll perhaps know why it's already the most visited newspaper site in the world, recently overtaking the New York Times.) In what appeared to be a photographer's effort to go deliberately out of their way to find some unglamorous, drink-fuelled money shots, they published a gallery of post-Slam revelling drunkards in the St Mary and Caroline Street areas of Cardiff. Reportage of such renowned locations is beloved of the Mail, ever the touchstone of morality. So it was that we were given glimpses of skimpily dressed girls and guys lying in a bed of chips. (Didn't the Wall Street Journal cover all this two years ago?)
What many Mail readers -mostly middle-aged women- aren't to know is that this is a standard Saturday night in Cardiff. Caroline Street (aka 'Chippy Lane') is a thoroughfare for inebriants seeking nourishment: if you go down there of a Saturday night, you know what you're in for. To say the article was unimaginative is the understatement of the century. Cardiffians don't need their treasured Welsh team to win a Grand Slam to party like twas 1999 - but it helps.
Following the outcome of the Six Nations on Saturday, some of the headlines in the following day's broadsheets might as well have read: 'Wales win Grand Slam - but look how well England did!'
Sadly, given the sorry state of journalism in the current economic climate, and the country's geography, Wales can't boast a plethora of broadsheets. The Western Mail is very much our rugby soapbox, so thankfully its coverage of the sport is thorough, which fans appreciate, and its famous matchday front pages were brilliant.
Interestingly, I was recently shown details which estimate that, out of 28,000 students in Cardiff, 22,000 of them read the University's weekly newspaper gair rhydd, making it one of the highest read newspapers in Wales. If you're ever around the Cardiff University campus area, I suggest you pick up a copy of gair rhydd - a great student newspaper, even if I do say so myself as a former contributor.
Back to my initial point, though. Am I experiencing sour grapes about Wales's rugby team not getting enough attention on the other side of the bridge? Maybe. Then again, Wales don't need any outsiders to give affirmation of just how special their achievement is. Their adoring fans, who flocked to Cardiff in their hundreds of thousands, have already made themselves heard.
A friend of mine, watching the match in the unglamorous confines of an oilrig off the coast of Scotland, predicted scenes in Cardiff akin to those witnessed recently in Vancouver after the home side's Stanley Cup loss. You may recall the images of June 2011, when the Boston Bruins beat the Canucks: burning vehicles, lootings, a famously incongruous shot of a couple lying in the street, kissing (below). Those of us whose knowledge of Canada is limited to the episodes of Due South we used to watch after school were shocked that mild-mannered Canadians could cause such damage.
How the tabloids would have loved to have seen Cardiff city centre on fire on Saturday night. Alas, most Welshmen and women celebrate admirably in victory and defeat - mainly with enough drink to kill Seabiscuit.
The reason sports fans worldwide love the Millennium Stadium is its central location. Unlike many other stadia in world rugby, upon leaving the Millennium you are less than two minutes' walk to umpteen pubs and bars. If this was the case in Twickenham, for example, which is slap bang in the middle of a sleepy residential area of Middlesex, the Mail might be able to splash pictures of England fans enjoying orgiastic levels of fun like those pictured in Cardiff. They would have to win the Grand Slam first, of course...
BROMANCING THE STONE
To continue a theme I quite arbitrarily started over the last couple of blogs, here's another exquisite moment of brotherly love from -who else?- the French rugby team. This time it's Clement 'Vaseline Heels' Poitrenaud giving the departing Vincent Clerc a kiss on the head. From what I've experienced on childhood trips to France, the French greet each other with handshakes and double-kisses from the age of about four, so this image should probably come as no surprise.
When you grow up in an age of trophy cabinet austerity for Welsh rugby, as my contemporaries and I did, you appreciate the good times all the more. So to have experienced three Grand Slams in eight seasons is like waiting hours for one bus to arrive... then being handed the keys to a new Ferrari.
And yet it doesn't just feel like the closing of a door on our painful World Cup exit. While you could never say the sensation in the days following our defeat of a spirited French team was one of anticlimax, neither did it entail the same hysteria as, say, 2005. We all know why: this is the seminal stage of what should be a new era of Welsh rugby. That England have also now turned a corner for the better (while the rest of the Six Nations sides are, for want of a better word, stagnant) means we could be in for an Anglo-Welsh rivalry more balanced than the one we have witnessed over the last couple of decades. Maybe a strong Wales needs a strong England to keep itself moving forwards.
Moving forwards means winning at least one Test match against the Wallabies on the Australian tour in three months' time. It would be a great coup for the WRU if they could convince the regions to give the Six Nations players ample recovery time before then, but you can see why they wouldn't. (The regions pay their established Welsh players a lot of money, yet see so little of them during the season.)
Given the Welsh connection with the British and Irish Lions coaching side of things, the conspiracy theorist in me wonders how much of a hand Warren Gatland had in organising Wales's upcoming tour, with the knowledge that the Lions will be headed Down Under almost exactly one year later. Did Gatland presuppose Six Nations success for Wales in anticipation of a Lions head coach position? He was always a strong contender as it was.
One of the greatest rugby sides in history, England's 2002-03 vintage won the World Cup on Australian soil having already defeated Eddie Jones's Wallabies at the then Colonial Stadium in Melbourne five months earlier. Assuming Wales will be well represented in the Lions squad, if they can sample success against Robbie Deans' men in June -and there's no reason why they can't, if they maintain the core of this Six Nations squad- it could set the Lions up for a potential first series win since 1997.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Between now and next year's Six Nations (I've started to count down the days already), British rugby could unearth another Richie Gray, Owen Farrell or Alex Cuthbert. The game just got even more exciting.
The other day, I happened upon a rugby match on the Blackweir playing field, which turned out to be Cardiff University's School of Biosciences versus a Combined Armed Forces student team. It was a heavenly sunny day, and I doubt there was anything riding on the game's result other than bragging rights.
Not only did most of the players look the same size and shape as rugby players of the 1970s, but they played in the same spirit too. Hence, what I assumed would be worth watching for only five minutes ended up with me staying for the whole match. Granted, one or two players looked like they would have been better served staying back in the laboratory, but their love of playing the game was evident and uplifting. And besides, both teams also boasted some very good players.
It made me wonder: with international match tickets now costing in excess of £80, it's worth remembering that you can often get just as much enjoyment from watching an amateur game in your local park. In many ways, there wouldn't have been a Wales v France at the Millennium Stadium without the sort of game going on at the Blackweir playing field just down the road.
We can say it: "Grand Slam". The gilded Wales team of the 1970s won a trifecta of Grand Slams, but victory tomorrow for the class of 2012 would go some way to putting the spirit of that era to rest. While not quite being the albatross around modern Welsh players' necks, the achievements of Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams et al has often been referred in clubhouses across the land with a suggestive air of 'how could it all have gone so wrong?'
In light of recent Welsh performances in the Six Nations -sometimes in the gutter, sometimes in the stars- come Saturday afternoon, we might be asking ourselves where it all went so right. Ryan Jones, a resurrected force for his country, indicated that a Grand Slam this year would be a different beast to those he helped achieve in 2005 and 2008, mainly because it would be more a calculated accomplishment. Wales went into this competition as one of two frontrunners. The other side, whom they face at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow, are now out of the running.
But first there is the small matter of overturning those anomalous French. Yes, Wales' recent record against France isn't good (one from the past eight), but the last time we played them in this situation we won. With a new dawn of players from all countries, these cycle of results inevitably come to an end. In the knowledge that to say you nearly beat someone actually means that you lost, it is probably best to say that Wales should have beat France at the World Cup. I certainly won't be mentioning red cards any more (this sentence excluded).
It will be a shocker for the French if they fail to win a third match in a row in the Six Nations. I like to think I'm not beholden to statistics, but here's a good one for those sports trivia buffs out there: France have only prevented an opponent from winning the Grand Slam on four occasions, back in 1954, 1965, 1982 and 1988. Let's hope they don't bring their party-pooping hats to a raucous Cardiff city centre.
Six changes to the French team smells like a desperate, last-ditch manoeuvre by Philippe Saint-Andre (apart from the enforced replacement of the injured Vincent Clerc, who was probably worried he might actually get hurt this time). Bringing in new players could theoretically inject some hunger and fresh impetus into the side. Alternately, it could be that they are throwing in some undercooked players to face a sizzling Welsh team.
Far be it from me to comment on who should be allowed to play international rugby, but am I the only one surprised to see that prop David Attoub is back in the side? This is the man who is returning from a 70-week ban after gouging Stephen Ferris' eyes in a Heineken Cup match in December 2010. (His form in the Top 14 is neither here nor there, in my opinion.) In an unhappy coincidence, his Stade Francais teammate Julien Dupuy also made a return to the French squad during this Six Nations. Former Leicester Tigers scrum-half Dupuy gouged Ferris during a separate incident in the same match (the footage is there for all to see) and received a 23-week ban. Maybe it's part and parcel of French rugby to play with people's eyes, but as the old argument goes: if that occurred on the street, somebody would get arrested.
Wales can take inspiration from the fighting talk of our nation's 400m world champion runner Dai Greene. Greene, from Carmarthenshire, was astonishingly macho when commenting on US drug cheat and potential London Olympic rival LaShawn Merritt: "I'll tell you now, I'll happily go and find him at the start and tell him to his face: 'You're a cheat and you shouldn't be here.' I'll be so motivated, so pumped up by his very presence in the race that I'd do anything I could to find myself up against him in the same leg of the relay, no matter what leg it would be."
What fighting spirit. A Welsh rugby player would never dream of saying anything so confrontational, but that's exactly how I imagine they will be feeling as they take to the field. The last time they faced the French, Vincent Clerc rolled on the ground like a worm to exacerbate a nothing situation, while I was astounded to see Sergio Parisse do something similar that resulted in Leigh Halfpenny's yellow card last week. I hope France play the game in the correct spirit tomorrow, because rugby is rugby - not football.
Midi Olympique, the French rugby journal, has taken a pragmatic approach to Saturday's game. I've spared you the shocking online translation (example: 'the Red Devils seem to fly straight to the eleventh Grand Slam in their history. But are they untouchable so far? Not sure, because defects remain in their impenetrable armor alleged'), but the paper concedes that France will struggle to compete with the physicality of the Welsh backs, and should therefore seek other means to compete. However, they then quote Saint-Andre as saying that he is out to "beef up" his midfield, which would explain the return of Florian Fritz, who partners Aurelien Rougerie in the centre.
France fullback Clement Poitrenaud (who, if you saw the 2004 Heineken Cup final between Wasps and Toulouse, you will know is Wales assistant coach Rob Howley's favourite player) has already proclaimed that his side are "not going to slaughter" against Wales. It should be pointed out here that it's not really his choice, because the French backline showed moments of sheepishness in letting Manu Tuilagi and Tom Croft score two tries in their loss to England.
The French, according to the pokey-fingered Attoub, have nothing to save but their honour. Meanwhile, Wales are playing for outright glory and the right to be hailed Kings of Europe. In this instance, honour and nobility are two different things.
Those who still believe England are in with a mathematical shout of winning the tournament have got enough optimism to fill a self-help bookshelf. They need results to go their way, but with Ireland's penchant for raising merry hell when playing the Red Rose, and Wales' desire to get the Slam, they are out of touch and out of time (Hall and Oates, 1984).
More stats for you (I've started, so I'll finish): Ireland have won the last eight of nine games with England, and have won at Twickenham in three of their last four visits. While stats aren't crystal balls, Ireland relish these games with England like no other.
Even without the brilliant duo of Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll (of whom Donncha O'Callaghan, ever the wordsmith, said: "Sometimes you get a bit frustrated when Brian and Paul are out of the squad because some people seem to think you can't tie your shoelaces without them"), Ireland can seriously derail any ephemeral English notions of truly being the fourth best side in the world.
I get the feeling that Declan Kidney has formulated a masterplan so groundbreaking that it poses a threat to the very fabric of the society of prawn sandwich-eating, Barbour-wearing, Land Rover-driving Twickenham enthusiasts.
Well, we can all dare to dream.
LOOKALIKES OF THE WEEK
When I first saw Clermont Auvergne winger Julien Malzieu warming up for a Heineken Cup match versus Leinster a few years ago, I really wanted it to be an infiltration by Bruno (alter ego of Sacha Baron Cohen), such was their similarity. I assume you know Bruno, the skimpily dressed muse of Austrian fashion designer Chrysler. He's also the self-proclaimed "biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler", but the less said about that the better.
As I've said before, I don't blame the English for getting carried away with their victory over France: they needed a boost to their morale after recent results. What I do find irksome are comments such as those from Tom Croft to the Daily Mirror: "[Wales had] been talked about massively and we took them apart for most of the 80 minutes, but let it slip."
To give you just a little taste of how Wales had the upper hand in that match at Twickenham: they were stronger at scrum time, they made three line breaks to England's one, had a better tackle completion rate and -here's the kicker- tore England apart with that scintillating Scott Williams try. Croft, one of the best blindside flankers in Europe, was actually playing in the game and so his opinion is compelling, but it's probably one that should have been kept to himself as opposed to the Mirror, not a paper renowned for its love of rugby.
In all likelihood, England are going to be a quality team very soon, but lest we forget, France aren't the best barometer of where they currently stand. This isn't to take away from their jubilation at having beaten them in Paris (a remarkable achievement), but it was only six months ago that France lost to Tonga in the World Cup, falling off tackles in a similar capitulatory manner to that which was witnessed on Sunday.
Another player to rewrite history last weekend was Mirco Bergamasco, the Italian winger who seems to prefer starting fights than playing attacking rugby. In his post-match comments, he believed that Italy had kept in touch with Wales throughout his side's 24-3 loss. Perhaps I should stress that last part: 24-3 LOSS. Such revisionism is slightly insulting to Wales, especially when you consider how little Italy set out to do in attack. Their defence was outstanding, of course, but to the detriment of actually scoring tries. All together now: boooring...
Tomorrow's match is a significant stepping stone to bigger things for Wales. Having had the spoon of World Cup final ambrosia cruelly snatched from our mouths last year, this side is now creating its own nostalgia. They might also be saving their biggest performance for last in this year's Six Nations. Win tomorrow and we can look forward to the possibility of taking an Australian scalp in the Suncorp Stadium in June. Do that and we will truly have gone where no Welsh rugby team has gone before.
Follow me on Twitter: @bazzbarrett
I know what you're thinking: what? No clichés in the headline for this week's blog? Fourty-year-old Michael Caine films seem to get referenced by unimaginative copy editors every time either All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter ('Get Carter') or Italy ('The Italian Job') are playing. This ends now.
If Wales were playing away tomorrow, we'd be reading that 'All roads lead to Rome', so thankfully you've been spared that too. The Welsh public couldn't have asked for a kinder penultimate game than Italy at home, before taking on the French next weekend. While the result against England was a little too close for comfort (we wouldn't have it any other way), and tighter than I'd anticipated, the same should not be said for tomorrow.
You can't talk about the Azzurri without paying homage to their captain Sergio Parisse: the only man, to my knowledge, who can get away with a hairline that's receding quicker than the British economy. That Parisse is ever the talking point when it comes to Italian rugby is a sign of their reliance on him as everything from battering ram to playmaker. While that's quite a derogatory statement to the rest of the team, it serves a point.
Parisse is every fantasy leaguer's dream: he scores a lot of tries for a forward, and wins an embarrassment of Man of the Match awards. He accepts the latter mostly in defeat, and while more often than not they are deserved, you occasionally feel it's a sympathy vote because the rest of his side have struggled to keep up to his high standards.
The signs of his frustration, or even disillusionment, at the lack of Italian progress were evident when he said in the run-up to tomorrow's game: "Going to Cardiff to the Millennium Stadium against this team is probably something impossible for us."
These aren't just the banal words of a captain who's playing down his team's chances of winning in the hope of springing a surprise, because the facts are there for all to see: in 20 years, they've lost 54 of their 63 matches, with one draw. Tellingly, their away win success rate is an abysmal 3%. If they were a division six club, you'd probably tell them not to bother turning up on a Saturday morning.
Then you remember the upsets they've caused -beating France (2011), Wales (2003, 2007) and Scotland (three tries in the first six minutes in 2007!)- and how that feeling of joy would have been made all the more special because of all the hardship they've endured. Italy should be treated with caution, like a Labrador that once bit your elderly grandmother, but didn't get put down because she probably smelled a bit funny and it frightened the dog. Yet there's always that nagging feeling that it could bite again...
The hirsute tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni, the only other icon of modern Italian rugby, is out of tomorrow's game with a broken rib. Parisse's fellow back-rower Alessandro Zanni is quietly impressive, but it's hard to deny that, overall, Italy are a team of plucky Terry Try-Hards. Before I face accusations of being overly patronising, I must that I don't discount the possibility that the Italians could put up a good fight tomorrow - as shown in patches in their last three games.
(Aside: I once heard a story about an Italian who was being held hostage in Iraq. Hands bound and on the floor, he was about to be executed when suddenly he jumped up, shouting 'An Italian doesn't die on his knees!' With that he bit one of his captors' faces and jumped from a nearby window to his death. I'm not sure how true the story is, but the Italian team capture that spirit.)
Their lack of consistency is down to their weak player base. I say this because if Nick Mallett -one of the greatest international coaches in world rugby- couldn't turn them into contenders, it is certainly not just a case of a bad game plan. More specifically, they are struggling to find a potent backline containing at least one world-class player, whereas Wales will arguably have five on the field on Saturday.
While Italy will be unable to replace the brilliant Castrogiovanni, Wales can afford to add another four stars to their matchday squad.
Hooker Matthew Rees, second row Luke Charteris, scrum-half Rhys Webb and openside Justin Tipuric all get the opportunity to hop on board HMS Resurgence (destination: Grand Slam?).
Rees makes his first start since agonisingly missing out on captaining Wales at the World Cup to undergo neck surgery. His regional understudy, Ken Owens, returns to the bench having played a part in defeating England at Twickenham. The switch could be seen as quite harsh, but Gatland clearly feels the need to get his Lions front row back together with immediate effect.
Luke Charteris, once known only for being close to seven foot tall, is now what Tony Soprano would call a 'made man' - his World Cup performances boosting his stocks and shares dramatically. What should have been Lloyd Williams' big opportunity to shine at nine has been robbed due to a thigh strain, and in comes Osprey Rhys Webb, between whom I predict the jersey will be fought for years to come.
I've been singing Justin Tipuric's praises for a long time. When I first saw him, I thought he reminded me slightly of Alice the Goon from Popeye (especially with those long levers of his), but he's worked such similarities to his advantage. His style of play at openside is exciting, and he is one of the players to keep an eye out for this weekend. James Hook also returns to the bench, having recovered from chickenpox (an old-fashioned sort of sickness that made a friend of mine wonder if polio was making a comeback too).
When you couple the strength of Wales' pack with the absence of Castrogiovanni, the foundations are already there for a convincing conquest; possibly even a thrashing, which Wales have rarely achieved in the Six Nations.
If England prevail in Paris on Sunday -not an unlikelihood, given their propensity for beating the French, having won five in the last six- it could be that France arrive at the Millennium Stadium having drawn and lost their last two games. But I'm not sure which is more dangerous: a French side that's been humbled, or a French side still scenting a tournament victory.
You can only feel sorry for England scrum-half Danny Care: another run-in with police, this time for being caught urinating on the steps of a hotel. The average British twentysomething male (and sometimes, shockingly, female) on a night on the town has invariably peed in public at one point or another. That's not to say that it's right to do so, but it's an inevitable aspect of life, like refugee sob stories on The X Factor or Adam Sandler making a rubbish family film. Care was unfortunate that he was caught by police in the act of relieving himself.
Some might chastise him for drinking at all after his previous indiscretions -if that's indeed what he had been doing, in light of his protestations that he just had 'a small bladder'- but in Care's line of work, it's long been accepted that going 'out out' is the best way to switch off.
It's much to these young rugby players' chagrin that they're expected to be role models at an age when they're also meant to be having the most fun. It's less acceptable to be falling out of nightclubs in your late thirties, so we can't blame young rugby stars for wanting to live the high life while they can.
I've already mentioned in a previous blog how poorly behaved some Australian rugby league players have been portrayed but, surprisingly, the American "national sport" of baseball boasts some seriously naughty boys. As depicted in the brilliant book The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing with [...] the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform - and Maybe the Best (it lives up to its title, don't worry) by Jeff Pearlman, the New York Mets took misbehaviour to another level.
These men (including Daryl Strawberry, whom many of us know from one of the greatest ever episodes of The Simpsons) now seem like evil prototypes for modern day nutters such as Mario Balotelli. One memorable scene depicts the team flying back to New York on a chartered jet. Where before such travel arrangements had seen two players (including Strawberry) exposing themselves to fellow passengers, this one turned into a riot:
"Sisk, Orosco and Heep. They were the Three Musketeers of the Mets, only this trio was as dashing as a scrum of street rats. Their collective nickname was the 'Scum Bunch,' and it fit perfectly. By day they were mild-mannered baseball players. But by night, watch out. The Scum Bunch ran the back of the plane on team flights, holding drink-a-thons and sometimes, as a result, puke-a-thons. And now the wives were here, equally indulgent but unfamiliar with the effects of getting wasted thirty-five thousand feet above ground."
What follows involves a mass food fight, cocaine being snorted in the toilet, and the players' wives throwing up in the seat pockets. All in all, the jet was a write-off ("the innards of the craft being layered in food, three rows of broken seats had to be completely removed.")
"Half the team exited wearing T-shirts and ties. Sisk wore one shoe. Fans who had waited for hours at Kennedy Airport to greet the team were shocked by what they saw. 'To have the wives in their snazzy North Beach Leather outfits, covered in vomit, it didn't make for a pretty picture,' says Mets pitcher Ron Darling. 'We were gross.'" (I wonder if the Glyn Williams bus company has ever experienced such merry shenanigans?)
I had the good fortune of interviewing Pearlman, a New York Times bestselling author, a couple of years ago. This was around the time that Tiger Woods had begun his fall from grace, and I asked him if he felt sports fans had a right to know about their idols' misdemeanours. "Just because someone's famous doesn't mean everything he does has to be public," Pearlman replied. "That's ludicrous. We've become way too voyeuristic, probably because we're bored with our own lives. Tiger Woods cheating on his wife is sad and pathetic and he should be ashamed, but it impacts me not one iota."
Danny Care peeing on some hotel steps is put into perspective by such actions as those allegedly committed by another of the New York Mets' rogues' gallery, left fielder Kevin Mitchell. His teammate Dwight Gooden wrote in his autobiography that Mitchell once decapitated his girlfriend's cat during an argument.
All is forgiven, Danny.
LIFE IMITATING ART
Photographs can be misleading, and none more so than the one depicting Wales centres Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams in a seemingly amorous clinch after beating England two weeks ago.
Pseudo-psychologist, Germaine Greer-types have called rugby 'homoerotic'. They probably assume this on the basis of seeing the odd pat on the bum, but is there a more heartening sight than two men who've been through physical hell giving each other a hug at the end of it all?
Rugby, unlike football, doesn't merit 24-hour news coverage. There are no mid-season transfers and (thankfully) no surfeit of unsavoury characters making tabloid journos happy. So checking the latest rugby news is a bit like reading a local village paper: i.e. it's full of non-stories. That's what sprang to mind upon hearing the news that Wales won't be able to play any of the top tier nations at the Millennium Stadium in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The big dogs are rumoured to be upset that a much-improved Wales might end up playing them with home advantage, where before they had no such qualms. Whether the apparent friction is down to financial benefits or just the edge it gives to Wales on the field, it looks like they'll be playing their big games in the host nation, England. And why not? We'd be annoyed if the World Cup was held in Italy, but we then had to play France in Paris.
We might also do well to remember the nightmare World Cup in 2007 when, in his first start, Berrick Barnes inspired the Wallabies to victory over Wales at -you guessed it- the Millennium Stadium.
I haven't been actively seeking the words 'Grand Slam' lately, but while flipping through a copy of The Viz (the classic British comic of toilet humour), that very phrase jumped out at me. In their dictionary of 'degenerate definitions', Grand Slam takes on a whole new meaning:
"grand slam. n. In the world of salad dodging, the fabled achievement of enjoying the holy quartet of takeaway meals in one day: McDonald's for breakfast, Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch, Burger King for tea and a dodgy kebab on the way home from the pub."
Which leads me to wonder: why didn't Mike Phillips tell those bouncers at McDonald's that he was going for the Grand Slam? (This also leads me to wonder not only about the hierarchy of bouncing -"You'll see, Ma, one day I'll be working the doors at Halfords!"- but how drunk and unruly must you be to get turned away from a fast food restaurant which is open at 3am to cater exclusively to drunk and unruly customers?)
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So here we are again, the penultimate round of the Six Nations.
I keep hearing whispered mentions of it, notes passed secretly, even a few smoke signals... The Welsh public are talking about Grand Slams. But it's important not to forget that in order to get to the mythical status of 'Grand Slam Winners 2012' Wales have first to overcome Italy and France.
The Italian team are often billed as the underdogs, the also-rans and occasionally 'an easy game'. This, as many teams have found out in recent years, is categorically not the case. The Azzurri are a formidable unit and will no doubt hurl a few challenges Wales's way this Saturday at the Millennium Stadium.
The Millennium Stadium factor is undoubtedly a massive boost for Wales, and makes home- advantage a bigger advantage for Wales than any other nation. The mark of truly great sides has to be the ability to win home and away (something the Welsh team have done with aplomb of late) and while Italy are maybe not all the way there currently, they are certainly on the cusp of making it. In other fixtures home-advantage can sometimes count for nothing and be turned on its head; games between Italy and Wales show how important that home crowd's support can be. In the first Six Nations meeting between the two sides in Cardiff, Wales triumphed 47-16. The following year the Italians lost by only 10 points. In 2002 Wales beat the Azzurri with a 24 point margin; in 2003 Italy were the victors by 30-22. Wales are rightly favourites to beat Italy this year: given their current form and stock of players they arguably should be favourites for every game in this tournament. But it's not in the Welsh psyche to get complacent... is it?
I'm particularly excited to see the magnificent Sergio Parisse do battle with Toby Faletau, the Welsh rising star. Two of the best No 8s in world rugby at the moment, these two should promise some eye-catching breaks and strong drives to name just 2 of their seemingly infinite skills. On paper Parisse's experience and undisputed classiness would look to give him the edge over Faletau, although with the Welsh pack as dominant and on-form as it is I wouldn't be willing to put any money on it.
The Italians are known for their brutal forward-pack and this has been virtually their main weapon thus far in the tournament. The Italian backs haven't been able to match the front 8, whereas the Welsh backs have, without exception, been excellent. Yes, perhaps Jamie Roberts had a quiet game against Scotland. Okay, Leigh Halfpenny wasn't as potent in the third game as he was in the second. The important thing about Wales is they have an unbelievable amount of quality strength in depth. It's impossible to displace either of the incumbent centres, but Scott Williams certainly did a hell of a job trying. Lloyd Williams and Rhys Webb are two top quality scrum halves, kept out of the first XV and off the bench respectively by some barn-storming form from Mike Phillips that has stayed strong since the World Cup. When Matthew Rees found himself injured prior to the start of the tournament Welsh hearts sank. That was nothing however, compared to how much they sank when his more than capable replacement Huw Bennett also did himself a mischief. But lo and behold, Rees's understudy at the Scarlets Ken Owens stepped up and had a great performance in the most difficult of games - England v Wales. It's difficult to find a position where Wales are lacking cover; selection headaches of this nature must be a wonderful problem for Gatland et al.
Despite all this, I still think it's much too early to be uttering those 2 words. To my mind, for the next day and a half at least, they're swear words. Don't get me wrong, I'm not superstitious. But I'll be crossing every finger, clutching my rabbit's foot and praying to anything I can think of come game day.
I don't know what will age the human body quicker: smoking ten packs of fags a day, or watching Wales play England at Twickenham. As predicted, Wales came out of the blocks as if they'd been slurping on rocket fuel during the warm-up. They dominated every facet of the game for a short period. When Mike Phillips cleverly popped the ball inside to George North on the English 22-metre line, a try looked certain. For a moment, it was England fullback Ben Foden's worst nightmare realised as he watched the genetic behemoth from the north come thundering at him. Somebody up there was smiling at Foden, because David Strettle came roaring across the field to give North's ankle 'a little tappy' (as Happy Gilmore would have it) which put a halt to the attack. Foden's shorts remained white, for the time being.
Strettle was in great form for England, with and without the ball, which only served to highlight the metaphorically absent Chris Ashton. What has happened to Ashton in the time between scoring twice against Wales in 2011's reverse fixture, and now? Statistics show he had his hands on the ball more than most, but you'd be hard pressed to remember when (besides passing it desperately to Sam Warburton). Early last year, his former Wigan teammate Kris Radlinski claimed that Ashton was "rewriting" the role of the rugby union winger. Maybe he is, but going by Saturday's performance, he seems to be doing so using crayons on a toilet wall. Peaks and troughs, I suppose.
Wales certainly didn't appear to be peaking on Saturday, but their errors don't constitute a trough either. They won at Twickenham for only the second time in 24 years with their fly-half in the sin bin at one vital stage of the game. That they outplayed an inspired England during this period (as we knew they could, following that red card against France not so long ago) is a tribute to the higher ground they have reached through the guidance of their coaches.
Before I forget to mention it, England were very good. At one point, a draw seemed the best-case scenario for Wales, 12-6 down and with Rhys Priestland yellow-carded. The cool showing of Owen Farrell means he is now drawing comparisons (perhaps prematurely) to Jonny Wilkinson, which is probably making Toby Flood nervously readjust his collar. We all know Brad Barritt's defence is immaculate, although he has yet to show the attacking instinct of Jonathan Davies, who is at the beating heart of Wales.
They gave Welsh fans real moments of panic when Wales were on the back foot. The architect of England's fast-paced attack was scrum-half Lee Dickson's tap penalties; the irony being that he could also have been the architect of his side's downfall, taking an eternity at the back of the rucks instead of delivering quick ball. Initially, it appeared to be a tactical ruse to allow the English to realign, but upon re-watching the match, there is one passage where Chris Robshaw is evidently screaming for the ball, dangerously close to his own try line. By the time the ball had reached him, not only had our clothes gone out of fashion, but it was Wales who had realigned and swarmed the English captain for a penalty. This may have been why coach Stuart Lancaster replaced Dickson for Ben Youngs just past the hour mark. Another replacement, second row Courtney Lawes, was to experience an even worse 20 minutes than Youngs.
Scott Williams, on for the injured inside centre Jamie Roberts, is still something of an unknown quantity to the wider rugby world. All they need knows is: this boy can play. Williams was instrumental in stopping another England charge-down try, this time by Mouritz Botha. Realistically, if Wales had lost the match, we would be dwelling on the moment he chose to ignore two support men outside him for an easy run-in as a factor in the loss (instead running into the deceptively strong Ben Foden). But Wales didn't lose, and when Williams chose to grab the bull by the horns -probably not just a metaphor, because he's from farming country- and stripped Lawes of the ball for a chip-and-chase try on 76 minutes, one nation leapt, while another wept.
At 19-12 to Wales, it wasn't quite over. In the last play of the game, Strettle received a sharp pass from replacement fly-half Toby Flood with what looked like enough space and time to touch down for a tough conversion for the returning (not to mention nervous-looking) Flood. But here came the heroic Leigh Halfpenny, rattling his brain throwing himself at Strettle; Jonathan Davies showed judo strength to turn the winger over; and George North was clever in burrowing his hands under the ball at the right moment.
If I was English, I would doubtless say it was a try. But I'm not, and it wasn't. Referee Steve Walsh blew the whistle for full-time: Wales had won.
It takes one hell of a forward effort to win at Twickenham, which is why it will rate as one of the finest wins of these players' careers thus far. Rarely does an England scrum go backwards, but that happened more than once on Saturday. It wasn't all one-way traffic, and Wales fought for every inch of the field with England's Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw and Geoff Parling defending as if their lives depended on it. England props Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole won't find many tougher opponents than Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins. Wales are truly lucky to have them.
Wales hooker Ken Owens showed the passionate performance that typifies the embarrassment of riches Warren Gatland has at hooker. To be a supposed fourth choice in your position and to win at Twickenham on your first start is something else. It was a day he probably never wanted to end.
Remember when Wales' second row was going to be Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans for years to come? We had a glimpse of what that would be like on Saturday as the Ospreys teammates went some way to fulfilling their potential as partners in the engine room. Injuries and other factors had deprived them both of the opportunity to do so until now, but Evans is back on track, ready to make up for lost time.
Finally, the back row of Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate. They might just have learnt more in this game at 'HQ' than during any other match in their fledgling careers. While England quite rightly deserved plaudits for stopping Wales getting over the gainline, the Welsh trio were vital in containing the threat of Tuilagi (hats off to Warburton's try-saver here) and co, while their scramble defence was exemplary - especially when Dickson's tap-and-go's threatened to carve Wales up. Any way you look at this Welsh pack, it is special.
Victory for England might have been just as much a victory for the English press. I can't remember a time when an English rugby team has been so widely written off during the Six Nations. But in heaping praise on Wales -grudgingly, by some notable former England players- they had given themselves room into which a new view on English rugby could be manoeuvred, because England were never going to play as badly as they had in Italy or Scotland.
The coverage following the match was centred on England's improvement rather than Wales' win. (Wales, lest we forget, had just won the first ever Triple Crown at Twickenham.) The reasons are obvious, given that all the major publications are based in London, and their readership is predominantly English, but the newspapers have done well to keep the English populace in line with their views. Very clever indeed.
Wales face Italy on March 10th, which allows extra recovery time for those players nursing injuries. The question still remains as to how many changes, if any, Warren Gatland will make. Some might see sense in giving players such as openside Justin Tipuric and scrum-half Lloyd Williams a run-out against the Azzurri.
Warburton might be given a spot on the bench, while Mike Phillips could be one of the many Welsh players who has earned a rest. The likes of Tipuric and Williams are hungry for game time and the chance to impress, which could prove advantageous in what should be the easiest match of the tournament, but where the win will still have to be worked for.
I had anticipated centre Ashley Beck getting his first cap at some point in this Six Nations, especially with Jamie Roberts in desperate need of some respite after the brutal nature of his game. After Scott Williams' match-winning display at Twickenham, however, I imagine Beck will have to wait. That is, unless Gatland makes a wholesale midfield change, but there seems little chance or need to disrupt Wales' formations.
This isn't to play down Italy's chances, but it would take a Welsh nosedive out of the Unlucky Tree and hitting every branch on the way down for the Italians to emerge victorious against a Welsh side that has already won in Dublin and Twickenham.
Best Failed Drug Test Story of the Week:
Stories about rugby players getting banned are rarely humorous (unless it's the one about John Hopoate and his thumb, which you can Google at your own discretion), but one such tale I heard recently made me chuckle.
An international rugby team in Europe had one of its players called up to take a random drugs test. Fully aware that he had been smoking marijuana 'on the reg' in the past couple of weeks, he decided to hatch a scheme that might just have been crazy enough to work - if this was an episode of Scooby Doo.
Instead of attending the drugs test, he decided to send his brother (not a twin, but still uncannily similar, and also a player) in his place.
The magnificent/devastating part of the story is, they would have gotten away with it if some pesky member of their team's management hadn't caught wind of the situation and shopped both of them in. Needless to say, both have now received lengthy bans. Does this mean they're weeding out the drug cheats?
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