Italy blue themselves for Wales
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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