Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Look Back & A Look Forward

I was absolutely incandescent. I was irately dancing up and down in my dressing gown and slippers, shrieking hell and damnation at the tv - as unedifying an image as you are likely to have seen at that time on a Saturday morning.

My one consolation was that the entire collective of ITV experts - plus Steve Rider - seemed to be even more flummoxed than I was. At that moment, during the 18th minute of the World Cup semi-final between Wales and France, there appeared to be only one person on the face of the planet who thought Sam Warburton's tackle on Vincent Clerc was deserving of a red card, and he was the man on the pitch with the red card in his hand, and his name was Alain (I say 'was' - I imagine it still is, unless subsequent accusations of favouritism have induced him to drop the 'i').

And yet. With the benefit of hindsight, a lengthy period of cooling down, and much conversation on Twitter, I can confirm that I was wrong. Note this down, because it never, ever happens - ask Mr Grimes. HOWEVER. I believe that the tackle was no better or worse than other examples which have been highlighted during the tournament, and which garnered no worse than a yellow, but I believe the referees were given a directive after the pool stages to clamp down on these types of tackles. Do I think there was any malice in the tackle? Emphatically not; would I rather see an over-zealous referee and no players with broken necks? Emphatically yes, semi-final or not.

I see now that Sam Warburton was a player bursting with enthusiasm, power, and zeal, combined with the youth and relative inexperience of a 23 year old at his first World Cup, and captaining his country in the semi-final; keen to lead by example, he committed to a thumping tackle which garnered admiration from such a player as Francois Pienaar ("Textbook!" I think Francois said. Better throw out that textbook, Francois - it's out of date). It also, unfortunately, gave Rolland the opportunity to interprete it as being dangerous. Ultimately, the fault lies with Warburton.

With hindsight, I don't believe Warburton's sending-off lost Wales the game. Their inability, unimaginable as it would have sounded a couple of weeks ago, to field a single one of four potential kickers who could actually kick the ball between the posts lost Wales the match, and that's all there is to it. With Priestland injured, many teams would have given the right arm of their physio and a large amount of chocolate biscuits to have James Hook, Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny as stand-ins. Even Sally Morgan would have struggled to predict that that one wouldn't work out. She probably could have predicted, however, that with Priestland gone before the match, and then Warburton, Adam Jones and Alun Wyn-Jones gone during it, the gods were not looking favourably on a Wales/New Zealand final.

With the sending-off, and 60-minutes of the most impressive display of fitness and determination by a 14-man team I think I've ever witnessed, if Hook, Jones or Halfpenny had managed to get any of the penalty or drop goal attempts between the posts, that match would've been one of the greatest comebacks ever witnessed on a field of international play. It was one point away from being Wales' finest hour this century. Instead, we have a New Zealand v France final, and a Wales v Australia third place play-off.

I don't believe this guff about no-one wanting to play in the play-off match. Wales will be desperate to end on a good note, and third place is still a great result for them. Hopefully it will be a fittingly impressive way to bid goodbye to their mercurial and talismanic wing, Shane Williams, who looked close to tears after the final whistle on Saturday. Without wishing to belittle Australia's efforts, they crumbled with little resistance  in their semi-final against the raging All Blacks, and I would question their motivation for wanting to come third in a tournament they will feel they could've won. Alright, I'm lying - I think it's hilarious. The Aussies have always been a bit susceptible to rolling over under the onslaught of a decent mind game - happy to dish it out, they can implode as easily as they can seize the upper hand during a match.

And so to Sunday, and the World Cup final. Many people, myself included, will watch merely out of curiosity, to see which French team turns up. They are undeniably 15 highly talented and able players. But I hesitated to call them a team, which tells you all you need to know. Will the fractured and uncomfortable French play? Or the mesmeric, brave French, who can start an attack move from their own tryline? If anyone won't underestimate them, despite their unimpressive and fractured World Cup campaign, it is the All Blacks. They will have no need of being reminded of the 2007 World Cup semi-final, or that bitter memory of 2009, when France had the temerity to beat the All Blacks at Carisbrook, of all places.

But hand on heart, and as much I want the Final to be a close match, I cannot see anyone standing between New Zealand and the William Webb Ellis trophy. I thought they would win from the start, and now, within spitting distance of the final whistle, I don't see anything to change my mind. In truth, if the World Cup is to be awarded to the team which has shown global dominance for not only the duration of the tournament, but for the past four years, there can only be one winner.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Life of Grimes: England Expects

Life of Grimes: England Expects: So, probably I am the last person qualified to offer an opinion on this topic. I'm a girl. The only time I've ever actually touched a rugby ...

England Expects

So, probably I am the last person qualified to offer an opinion on this topic. I'm a girl. The only time I've ever actually touched a rugby ball was one ill-advised winter's evening while at college, when I gate-crashed the ladies' rugby training and broke a nail. I was on the wing, for god's sake - I wasn't envisaging actually having to do anything. I thought it was the rugby equivalent of playing 'deep fielder' in rounders.

Anyway, it's my blog, I can say what I like. And, as it happens, I have been a fan of rugby since 1990 (ok, since I saw Rob Andrew on Question Of Sport, and fell in love *crosses self*). I've been on 3 British Lions' tours, the so-called 'Tour of Death' to NZ in '98, and many a home international. I was a hardened Sale fan for all the years they languished at the bottom of the Premiership, up until the point they stopped actually playing in Sale. Then they started to get good, damn their eyes.

And I started to think about this whole England world cup debacle. I can cope with England playing badly on the pitch - takes me right back to the bad old days at Sale. But playing badly AND behaving like the Manchester United youth team in Ayia Napa? That takes some doing. And then I read David Flatman's article in the Guardian on the subject, and it made me quite sad. Sad because I didn't totally agree with him, and I ALWAYS agree with him. He's erudite, funny, and sensible (not bad going for someone who's spent most of their adult life face down in the mud). He didn't particularly lay the finger of blame anywhere, but rather lamented the media-driven obsession with celebrity, and the way it has started to seep into the previously-fluffy world of rugby since the advent of professionalism.

Now, I don't really buy that. It has, ofcourse, but one inevitably goes hand-in-hand with the other, as football has found to its cost. You can't welcome the money flooding into the game with one hand, while trying to maintain the ethos of the good old days with the other. And where does the money come from, ultimately? The loyal rugby fan. Now, far from the loyal rugby fan being too bothered about what the Daily Mail says about Tindall's/Tuilagi's/Haskell's/Ashton's/Hartley's, etc. behaviour (small fry considering what once happened to the Calcutta Cup, or that taxi that Scott Gibbs nicked perhaps), under the microscope at the biggest, most media-savvy World Cup ever is not the place or time for it. If there ever was a time for it, I suspect it was circa 1989, and it is long gone.

I could over-look it if the team were running rings round the opposition in their matches. But they didn't. They looked like 14 strangers, plus St Jonny of Wilkinson, who I love dearly but praise the lord, there isn't a team from here to Timbuctoo that hasn't worked him out by now. Osama Bin Laden has more spring in his step.

I look at the dedication of someone like Sir Steve Redgrave, who I doubt had a drink for about 15 years, such was his determination to continuously be the best in the World, getting up at 5am a year before the Olympics to train at altitude on the freezing waters of some desolate mountain lake. And I read that Sam Warburton hasn't touched a drop since the end of the Six Nations, and I think, you know what? It's not that hard. It's surely not too much to ask that the players devote themselves body and soul to be the best in the World, at the very least, for the 8 weeks that they're away. I managed to stay away from alchohol for 9 whole months, it's really not that difficult (drink like a fish now, ofcourse, but that's neither here nor there). Scotland, of course, could live like Trappist monks from now till Lewis Hamilton gets Sports Personality of the Year, and they'd still be crap.

Arrows are inevitably being drawn in the direction of Martin Johnson, and not without provocation. From the man you expect to lay discipline down like Hannibal, to rule the players with a wrath to equal Sir Alex Ferguson's infamous 'hairdryer', comments like "Rugby player drinks beer: shock" do not really wash. It might not be a shock, but it also might not be advisable in a country where rugby is the national obsession, and players' every actions are studied, analysed and splashed across the front pages. Where the biggest event in the country's history is the 2011 World Cup final. Not the country's sporting history, note: it's actual history. Because rugby IS New Zealand, like no other country on earth.

Throughout the tournament, I began to see that Johnson isn't the demi-god I'd appointed him as. I'd been willing to overlook his dogged support of Steve Borthwick as captain, even though Borthwick is as much use in that role as a nylon tank. Capable player on his day, but a charismatic, inspiring captain he was not. And yet Johnson gave him way beyond the usual 'try-out' period, as if he was stubbornly trying to prove his point by sheer perseverance.

He seems to struggle to lose his playing loyalties in a way a less successful and conscientious man would not. Defending players from media accusations is one thing, but doggedly excusing their unacceptable behaviour is entirely another. Additionally, his continual advocacy of "a win's a win" above all else started alarm bells - surely at least aim to produce some entertaining, inventive play? Otherwise, really, what is the point? Aspiration to be the best should be tattooed on their souls, not aspiration to be ok. As Malcolm X once said, "If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything" - mediocrity, as it turns out.

Not good enough. England - at least the hard-working, loyal rugby fan - expects the entertainment to be on the pitch, not off it. I'm not sure we can lay the blame for the implosion at the door of professionalism any more. I don't particularly remember an instanteous shift in the atmosphere of the English game the minute the gilded gates opened. It's more a culmination of many factors - previous successes at World Cups raising expectations, this being probably the first generation of rugby players who have never known the game as being amateur, and the accessibility of worldwide media within seconds from anywhere in the world, about things we really don't need to know but are bombarded with nonetheless.

I think there is a general feeling that your average rugby fan is slogging his or her guts out all week, working ridiculously long hours in a job that they probably don't like very much to earn a wage that just about keeps the wolf from the door for the next month, assuming they are lucky enough to have a job. Many of them have saved some of this hard-earned dough in order to travel a year and a half on an aeroplane to a country which looks like Wales, to watch '03 all over again. They hoped. And you watch these players, who are given the opportunity to represent their country on the world's stage, playing a sport that they presumably love otherwise they wouldn't be doing it, and getting paid very handsomely, thank you very much. You watch them amble round the pitch, and give penalties away left right and centre as though no-one has ever explained Southern Hemisphere refereeing to them, and you start to wonder. Then you read in every tabloid in the country about the dwarf-tossing, blonde-fondling, maid-harassing, ferry-jumping antics, and the continuous and repetitive excuses given by the manager who once you idolised as a human Hadrian's Wall, and you lose any respect that may have been dwindling in the bottom of your pint pot.

The killer-blow for me came when I read that Manu Tuilagi's 'ill-advised' (for want of anything that isn't a swear word) early swim off the Auckland ferry came on the return journey of a lovely jolly out to the island of Waiheke where they reportedly visited a vineyard. Well, I don't know about you, but I want my mildly-disgraced, rudderless-ship of a national side to be catching the next flight home after losing the quarter final to France, trudging through Heathrow looking bloody miserable, getting their heads down and getting back to work, not engaging in day-trips at my expense and having a 'bit of banter' (think again, Mr Youngs) in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Ahhhh! Lordy, that feels better. Nothing like a bit of a rant to clear the air. Now then, where's my Welsh phrase book? Diolch yn fawr, as we *ahem* say in Wales......