Sport Rugby

Sunday 25 February 2018

Epic Cardiff finale boosts Lions hopes for Welsh

Wales's triumph may have a ripple effect on Gatland's line-up, writes Eddie Butler

The remains of the Cardiff showdown are still being forensically examined, to the very last drop of bodily fluid left at the scene of the crime or on the field of glory, depending on the colour of your shirt. This was a game that touched rare heights, not of visual quality but of sound and fury. The clamour that goes with all fixtures between Wales and England was amplified on the day by the acoustics of the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium.

The spectacle came second to the concert, and the sound was so deafening that there were bound to be reverberations.

In a way, it may help that initial tests in the lab of the losers identified Steve Walsh, the referee, as a witness whose decisions must remain suspect, pending clarification. Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree, head and forwards coach of England rugby respectively, have sounded more like a DI and DS from West Cumbria CID, seeking clarification before Mr Walsh can be eliminated from all inquiries.

Better the ref to cop some stick than, say, Adam Jones to be singled out as England's public enemy No 1 by Dan Cole. That would be awkward, a spat between tighthead props that may soon be asked to share their every secret as best buddies on the Lions tour.

Anyway, the question mouthed by Cole during the game – "What was that for?" – said everything about his confusion and dismay, and it does put Walsh in the frame, especially since he has a bit of previous when it comes to England.

It is said that South African referee Craig Joubert had a bit of a ticking off – a caution from the ref police at the International Rugby Board – after his handling of England-France in the third round of the Six Nations.

Since his response was to go all fussy and ruin Scotland-Wales in round four, the business of accusing referees remains as sensitive as any in the game, and the chances of Walsh being damned in public as the whistle-blower that cost England the Grand Slam are nil.

Can a ref ever to be to blame at this level? When England see this particular one assigned to them their hearts may sink, but there is no doubt that games controlled by him are fluid. And in a championship that went from light and breezy at the start to asphyxiated, Walsh, just to be clear in the quest for clarification, should be applauded as much as he is investigated.

It was an epic weekend. By way of nothing, except to prove that the match may have served a greater purpose than exposing the recondite difficulties of the scrum, my favourite story is of the event rider from England who arrived in Cardiff without a ticket, in the company of three Germans, all similarly in equestrian sport, but all somehow drawn to rugby.

They chose a bar in the centre of town and settled down in the company of enthusiastic locals, drinking furiously. The Germans took the banter in their stride until one of them, picking up his pint of lager, said: "Call that a beer?" He downed it in one, ordered steins all round, proceeded to cheer for Wales and drink every Taff under the table.

Wales's retention of the title, with nine wins from 10 games over two years, confirms that they are very good at playing international rugby at this time of the year. Does their success in grim weather and in the familiar surrounds of the European theatre mean they will monopolise places on the Lions tour?

Wales, fortified by the odd player from elsewhere – the odd BOD, as it were – will crack Australia at last. Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Roberts did get on famously well in the centre in South Africa in 2009. The cranky old Irish maestro, especially now that he is taking a rest for his tread on the chest of Simone Favaro, will presumably be of a mind to make Australia a final fling to remember.

As we enter the final phase of the Lions process – the chance for the long-term injured to make a return and an impression – there is still time for minds to change before the announcement of the squad at the end of April.

Observer

Irish Independent

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