Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
NZ NZ

FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'Come on, Warren, send those boys out to Twickenham with a sense of Barry John in their souls'

Mick Cleary: 'Come on, Warren, send those boys out to Twickenham with a sense of Barry John in their souls'
4 months ago

Would Barry John have sent Wales out into the first half at the Principality Stadium last Saturday to kick the leather off the ball? I’m only asking as it seemed as if Wales had a John-like conversion at half-time, transforming themselves from brain-frozen zombies into a passing imitation of The King himself, all thought and speed and boldness, seekers of opportunity rather than robotic readers of a pre-ordained script. Of course, Warren Gatland made a few changes during the interval although it was notable that he didn’t ‘fess up himself to having instructed his players to aim for the roof in the hope of the ball landing somewhere in the vicinity of Welsh hands. Suffice to say it didn’t. Perish the thought. Wot? Rugby a handling game. Nah. Belt it high. The data is never wrong.

And what might we expect this weekend as Wales head to Twickenham where they have nothing but a dismal record of late, their last win coming on that stupendous afternoon for the Dragon faithful nine years ago when Wales dared to believe and seek possible exultation when the bookies had given them naff-all chance of success. And lo and behold, the believers were rewarded, an almighty dent was put in England’s World Cup prospects and Max Boyce reached for his pencil.

Rio Dyer
Wales grew in the second-half when they threw off the shackles of an unambitious gameplan (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

At times of great loss it is always tempting to clutch the nostalgia comfort blanket close to the bosom and imagine that the past was always a better place. Certainly, and sadly, there has been too much cause to do just that with the passing of two of the once-seeming immortals in JPR and Barry John. But even allowing for the distortion of excessive emotional recall, there must surely be something that the modern game can learn from those who went before. In this age of analysts and stats and game plans, don’t you just yearn for a coach to say in the pre-match press conference when quizzed as to how his team will approach the match to just say: ‘Dunno. The game hasn’t started yet.’

You wonder if it would be possible for a coach to have the cojones to actually empower his players to go out there and do a King Barry – ‘You chuck it, Gar, and I’ll catch it’. Above all, John used to see the pitch in 3D – enticing and to be exploited. I once asked that visionary, former Bath and England coach, Brian Ashton, if he were ever tempted to just not turn up for training during a test week and see (craftily through the bushes) what might happen. You know, the way it used to be. Ashton, God bless him, too subtle and nuanced for the laptop-nurtured player, used to rail against the obsession with modern platitudes, trotted out as if they were Tablets of Stone and had to be obeyed. ‘Carries? Carries?! What does that even mean? ‘Rugby player carries ball’. That’s what he’s supposed to do. But, tell me, did he carry it in the right direction?’

I guess the death of Barry John has triggered some deep-rooted desire to see a return to the time when intelligence above all else was lauded as the quality most needed on a rugby field, not carries or metres made.

I guess the death of Barry John has triggered some deep-rooted desire to see a return to the time when intelligence above all else was lauded as the quality most needed on a rugby field, not carries or metres made. What if those metres had created a problem rather than created an opening?  Let’s have some new metrics – Cleverness, Street-wisdom, Toughness, Canniness, Daring, Smartness, Selflessness, Taking-One-For-The-Teamness, Not-Being-A Pillockness, that sort of thing.

It’s not, of course,  as if John didn’t put boot to ball. He did. Often. And with thrilling efficiency. All Black full-back, Fergie McCormick, spent years quivering in a darkened room at the thought of the John boot pulling and stretching and tormenting him as it had done on that sepia-tinted Lions tour to New Zealand in 1971. John had no need of a 50:22 ruling. He was at it yonks ago.

England v Wales
England versus Wales will always be a classic encounter but both sides are in transition currently (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

A pox on data-driven coaching would be too much to ask, I guess, but let’s see some balance restored. Certainly the relish with which the Wales players went about their task in the second-half was a joy to behold – for the players as much as it was for the spectators. They pays their money and they have a full right to be entertained although that word does evoke a notion of the ball being chucked about willy-nilly. Let’s go for ‘engaged’ instead, for, as we saw at the Principality, a few tightly-packed driving mauls or a heaving scrum can be just as absorbing. Come on, Wazza, loosen the shackles and send those boys out to Twickenham with a sense of Barry John in their souls. BazzBall. What about WazzBall? Set the players free, unburdened from fear and guilt.

England are progressing, if slowly, and praise be to the heavens for that. There were definite plus signs from their Rome trip. The emergence of two potential Courtney Lawes replacements in Ethan Roots and Chandler Cunningham-South

The same holds true for England. At least in their well-constructed win over Italy – and it needed graft for the Azzurri had shown Lazarus-like powers of recovery from the Hellscape that was their 2023 World Cup campaign, sparky behind the scrum, seeing a la John where space was and exploiting it – England did show signs that they are grinding through the gears to move away from the play-by-numbers rugby that dulled the senses of all concerned last year. And it wasn’t even productive as their pitiful record prior to the World Cup showed. In fact, those numpties who care to cite the percentage playbook as evidence that it is too risky to play from within your own half might care to reflect that a couple of the splendid Italy tries came from Alex Mitchell box kicks.

England are progressing, if slowly, and praise be to the heavens for that. There were definite plus signs from their Rome trip. The emergence of two potential Courtney Lawes replacements in Ethan Roots and Chandler Cunningham-South, bangers but with nous as the best blindsides have always been, the free-roamin’, fast-moving Tommy Freeman, and a few other cameos from the bench.

Tommy Freeman
England, admittedly starting from a low bar, were a little more expansive against Italy (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It’s a sign of Ireland’s pre-eminence – and ain’t that a strange state of affairs after just one weekend of Six Nations rugby that one side should appear to be so far ahead of the chasing pack, shades of Will Carling’s England with their back-to-back Grand Slams of 1991-92 – that this England-Wales fixture has a somewhat muted feel to it, a tussle of the military medium brigade. Who knows, the fact that neither side is fully firing, classy and clinical in equal measure, might yet deliver us an absorbing contest, error-pocked but exciting in its own sort of way? England are favourites, of course, given home advantage and deeper resources but there is a match to be played and Lord knows wouldn’t it be great to be surprised at every turn for whatever reason.

But what we do all want to see is less mindlessness, more magic, less by the book, more by instinct. The King would approve. That’s for sure.

Comments

3 Comments
B
Bob Marler 132 days ago

I wanted Scotland to wipe the floor with Wales. Wales deserves a better coach with fresh ideas. Gatland was clenching in that 1st half. Beads of sweat and awkward eye contact.

S
Sumkunn Tsadmiova 132 days ago

My goodness - can’t you get rid of these dinosaurs who still see the game through their 1970s prism. The game has moved on exponentially. That other buffoon Stephen Jones in The Sunday Times a few days ago gormlessly awarding Ethan Roots and Fraser Dingwall the same mark out of 10 for their respective England performances against Italy. Put him and Cleary out to pasture and let people with at least a basic understanding of the modern game comment.

f
finn 132 days ago

Wales could really exploit the English defence.

Italy were able to break it open a few times, despite not knowing before the match what the defensive structure would be, or where its points of weakness would be.

If Wales put in a few chips and grubbers behind England’s wide defenders they will put a bit of doubt in player’s minds about whether or not to keep rushing up as the system demands, and then the running game will start to be rewarded.

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free
Search