Sunday, 18 October 2015

Home for Tea and Medals

Saturday's result may have been infinitely tiresome in its oh-so-predictable cruelty, but after watching the second quarter-final, it's hard not to conclude that Wales have dodged a bullet. They'll go home with praise ringing in their ears, and the usual "still didn't win though" caveats will seem pretty hollow, given the ridiculous handicaps they were under. Would it really be worth staying around another week in their besieged field hospital, just for the dubious honour of playing tackle-bags to that imperious All Blacks side? The damage to morale - not to mention personnel - could have been huge.

As it stands - and provided they can get at least a majority of the casualties back in place in time - Wales will be looking forward to the 2016 Six Nations with some relish. Ultimately futile heroics at the 2011 World Cup lent Wales a momentum that brought a 6N Grand Slam in 2012. The growth that has been evident in this beleaguered Welsh squad over the last few weeks may reasonably be expected to translate to the "home front" in similar fashion.

No-one would deny that problems remain for Gatland's Wales to solve. But team spirit is demonstrably not among them.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Group Of Death, Be Not Proud...

The RWC2015 "Group of Death" has done what it said on the tin.

It should never have been allowed to happen, of course. Basing the seedings on world rankings three years out was daft, and unnecessary. Wales' artificially low ranking in late 2012, based almost entirely on a ruinous run of close defeats to Australia, may have been a folly of Wales' own making (the final defeat, in an unnecessary "extra" autumn fixture, confirmed the low ranking) but the situation it created was not. Of course, most observers confidently expected Wales themselves to be the victims of the consequence, so objections in the wider rugby world were muted. One suspects they will grow in the aftermath.

What of Wales? Well, even with the enormous increase in faith that this team have certainly earned, it feels like giddy fancy to imagine them winning another match. Australia look in dazzling form, and beyond them wait a resurgent South Africa after the mother of all wake-up calls. For the immediate future, however, Welsh fans shouldn't give a damn, To get out of that group, in the condition Wales were in going into it, let alone that which developed, is a major achievement. A couple of heavy defeats now would take the gloss off, but we'd still look back at a modest but creditable success in hugely testing circumstances.

On the world stage, they've earned new respect. On the local circuit, there's the added bonus of the bragging rights associated with getting further than England for the second RWC running, fulsomely avenging the punishing 6N defeat earlier this year. The next few 6N games between the teams will be played in that context, which should boost Welsh confidence as it did before. The injury crisis, damaging as it is, is already yielding compensations as ways are found to cope. Several fringe players have come through a grueling experience in a manner that suggests that Welsh strength-in-depth is, if not at the dizzy heights of adequacy, at least extant.

England are in pieces; the revival that seemed to be building has stuttered and now stalled, and major upheaval seems likely. It's a tough time for their fans; so tough that even the inevitable Welsh schadenfreude has been tinged with some genuine empathy. But that will only last until they start winning again, and no-one imagines that's too far away.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Counterweight Of History

Fiji beat Wales in the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Did you know that? Presuming that you like rugby and can read English, you probably did. It's fairly common knowledge. In fact, it's absolutely ubiquitous knowledge. It's knowledge you couldn't really avoid, even if you'd never heard of rugby, and only spoke Inuktitut1.

So here we are at the RWC2015 . A Wales team that was already held together by the sheer willpower of a phalanx of medical superheroes, before they withstood everything a desperate host nation could smash them with for 80 minutes, now has to face the Fijians again, just five days of muscle-rubs later.

Defeat to this decent-looking Fiji side is a very real possibility. Victory of any sort would be a notable achievement for Wales, in the circumstances. The bonus-point win that will in all likelihood be required to progress, is a pretty fanciful goal. Wales at the moment are like fine bone china, and Fiji are no mugs.

But so often has that RWC2007 result been raised in the media build-up to Thursday's game, you'd be forgiven for forgetting that Fiji's record against Wales is one win and one draw from ten attempts. Granted, those two positive results are at the recent end of the ledger. But few - very few - of the articles gleefully referencing Fiji's 38-34 victory, bother to include the caveat that when the teams met again, at RWC2011, Wales won 66-0.

That kind of scoreline is not going to happen this time, of course. It's history. More recent history than that famous Fiji win, though. And it probably carries equal relevance to Thursday, i.e. zero. Wales' backline is denuded but Fiji are also without arguably their two most dangerous backs; The mighty Nadolo, and maverick time-bomb Matawalu. Some stabilization of the set-piece, and a repeat of the composure and spirit shown at Twickenham should see Wales to a comfortable win.

Should they do it, regardless of the irritation of bonus points, P3 W3 will be a highly creditable position in the Group of Death. Then, whenever these two teams next meet, we'll have to read all about 2007 again. That'll be fine by us.

1. Oh, look it up!

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Night Of The Living Dead

80000 went to Twickenham to watch a ritual sacrifice. They ended up witnessing a zombie apocalypse.

Forget the walking wounded. Wales were the walking dead. Eviscerated before kick-off; buried at half-time; exhumed and desecrated on the hour; Wales' shambling, undead corpse was still - somehow - three points better than the Rugby World Cup hosts on their own lawn.

Wales' preparations already had a funereal air after the final warm-up against Italy. Welsh fans have long understood and wearily accepted that they simply can't afford a front-line injuries; however unavoidable they are, they nonetheless must be avoided. To lose Jonathan Davies was a disaster. To be without Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny - probably the best players in their position in Europe - was so universally regarded as being amply terminal, that England hadn't even bothered with the usual charade of denying the "favourites" tag.

With 15 minutes to go in this match, Wales had lost Halfpenny's replacement Liam Williams, Davies' deputy Scott Williams, and Hallam Amos. Of the first-choice backline, only Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts and George North remained standing, two of them out of position in a desperate stretch to paper the chasms. Oh, and by the way, England were seven points ahead.

There was nothing left for Wales but to throw the dice. London-based Welsh fans in particular could have been forgiven for wondering who these guys were who were dashing around England's blitz defence, placing an inch-perfect cross-kick under the posts and collecting the ball with fingertips to score. It was Wales' third-choice scrum-half and their second-choice scrum-half, respectively.

Even then, surely clinging on desperately for a famous draw should have been the height of ambition? Not a bit of it. Wales gambled again, the usually reliable Mike Brown blinked, and Dan Biggar had a 50m kick for the lead. Whether there has been a greater pressure place-kick in the history of the game is irrelevant; no-one can remember one at the moment.

There was time for one more dramatic twist. A chance for devastated England to grasp for the dubious consolation of having been architects of their own downfall. A tricky penalty it may have been, but like Biggar, Owen Farrell had been kicking beautifully all night and would surely have rescued a draw - disappointing, but probably survivable - for his team. But to be entirely fair, if that seemed a safe bet, so did the notion that exhausted, battered, punch-drunk Wales would surely crack defending a 5m lineout, with the whole colosseum baying for their blood?


Whether it was a planned defensive move or poor execution by England may be debated for years, but Wales shoved England into touch almost contemptuously, and that was that.

It's not really over, of course. Wales have two more games in the group, and simply no-one left to play them. The cupboard is not just bare; it's lying on the floor, in pieces, with instructions in Swedish and no Allen keys. People are even using the G-Word - we are through the looking-glass here. Should Fiji finally put Wales out of their supernatural misery, and England recover to beat Australia, the final pool standings may yet match pre-tournament predictions.

For now, though, life is sweet over the bridge. Six Nations bragging rights are one thing, but a home defeat in a World Cup is a result that England may not get the chance to avenge for decades. It may have cost Wales their last breath of life. But then again, we thought they'd spent that already, and we were all wrong.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Band-Aid Like Beckham

David Beckham and his son Cruz are the latest shock call-ups to Warren Gatland's British & Irish Lions touring squad, ahead of the opening test against the Wallabies next week.

The Beckhams were understood to be touring Australasia on a lepidoptery safari holiday when David (38) received the telephone call from the beleaguered New Zealander, thus minimizing travel distance to the Lions' tour headquarters for the photocall. It is understood that Beckham Snr will act as cover for Jamie Roberts (hamstring), Billy Twelvetrees (jet-lag) and possibly Alex Cuthbert (dislocated mojo), while uncapped Cruz (8) covers across the back row.

Critics have reacted skeptically to the Beckhams' inclusion at this late stage. David scored many great goals for England, and Cruz was awarded this year's Most Promising Young Player in his school Polo team. However, many argue that a retired player from a different sport can't be expected to grasp the requirements of rugby union, while his son is more likely to behave like a undisciplined tearaway running around all over the place and throwing tantrums, than a British Lion.

Andy Farrell was unavailable for comment.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Impossible Things, Before Breakfast.

What on Earth happened?

Welsh rugby fans have become used to dizzying peaks and troughs, but even we now seem to have a case of national vertigo. Partly by accident of scheduling - it must be conceded - but mostly by unprecedentedly good play and management, Wales find themselves in their first RWC semi-final since The One That Doesn't Really Count, the only obstacle between them and ridiculous glory being a French side who have "done an England", by getting this far almost despite themselves.

Ay, there's the fly in the muscle-rub; France. Even worse, BAD France. It's a challenge to recall the last must-win game that France lost having started as underdogs. Dismissing their chances is like giving them a 15-point start. If the consensus holds that the French have one great game in them, then Wales are in trouble, as Les Bleus only spent about a quarter of that credit in seeing off England. There's still 60 minutes of invincibility left in the tank, then.

In a microcosm of the La-La-Land in which this Welsh squad find themselves, the replacement of last month's third-choice fly-half with the man most observers regard as the most creative player in the squad, is widely seen as weakening the Welsh team. Rhys Priestland has been the revelation in a tournament of revelations for Wales, and the success so far has given the lie to the traditional notion that Wales must play with an out-and-out playmaker at either #10 or #12. James Hook is now regarded with suspicion; his defensive imperfections highlighted, his oft-quoted difficulties with game-management pored over. The resurgence of Jamie Roberts as a midfield line-breaker - undeniably central to Wales' success -  is widely accredited to Priestland's presence. Hook's inclusion, forced by circumstance, looks likely to radically alter a system that was working just fine without him.

The French loose forward wolfpack will be looking to gorge themselves on Hook; but if they tire and leave gaps, as they did against England, there's no better card in the Welsh deck. Wales' bigger fear is a creative French kicking game, as their scramble defence is not yet up to the standard of their "first-up" tackling. If M├ędard and Mermoz can get up to speed against a back-pedaling Welsh three-quarter line, they'll back themselves.

So far, arguably Wales' greatest strength has been their refusal to panic when they concede. France will mix it up early on, and will certainly lead at some point in the match.  But if any Welsh side of the past generation is equipped to roll with the French punches, it's this one. Too close to call? Not really. If neither side raises their game significantly, Wales will win. It's France who have something to prove - and that should scare Wales silly.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Fantasy Fan Tussle

Regular readers - yes, both of you - are welcome to join the Web-Ellion RWC2011 fantasy tournament "private league" on ESPN Scrum.

The PIN code is 2410.