‘We’re a team on a journey’ ...If there is one phrase – and there are many – that currently make my skin crawl due to the blandness of modern day sports clichés, it’s that one.
And if there are two teams who trot it out more than anyone else at present, it is England and Wales who meet in Cardiff on Saturday in the second round of games in this year’s Six Nations.
It is Wednesday as I write this week’s column and I think the bland-o-meter is already off the scale in respect of this phrase. For England, the journey has all been about their voyage for self-discovery that hey have been on since their dismal World Cup failure.
For Wales – and for those of you who don’t know that I am a passionate Welshman – it’s about trying to travel back in time to when wit, invention and entertainment were the hallmarks of the Welsh playing style.
Last weekend’s stodgy performance against France at Twickenham has allowed the English coaches, players and press to reiterate how far this England team has come.
“It’s a game we would have lost three years ago…”
It was a game England should have lost a week ago. A France team very much at ‘le début de son voyage’ were the better team for most of the match and with a little bit more composure would have halted the English travellers like a load of striking lorry drivers at a Calais blockade.
England desperately missed the ball- carrying power of the Vunipola brothers against a heavyweight French team, the industry of Robshaw and Kruis at close quarters, whilst the half-backs had one of those games they are susceptible to.
Granted it is difficult for half-backs when the possession they are provided with is slow or lacking in go-forward but Youngs and Ford seemed unable to switch England to Plan B – if one does exist.
It took a heavyweight England replacements bench to get them out of jail. No doubt there was dancing in the streets of Aldershot, Aylesbury, Apia and Auckland when new signing Te’o raced over for the winning score.
If anyone was in any doubt as to how fortunate England were to “win ugly” then one only had to await Eddie Jones post-match comments. For Eddie was straight into full attack-dog mode as the build-up to Cardiff began.
From daffodils to stadium roofs to why England should never lose when travelling west of Offa’s Dyke, this was typical “Jones the Coach” deflecting likely criticism of his team’s performance by shifting the focus on to...well, anything else.
It appears to have worked as well. If there is one thing we struggle for in the rugby media in this country it is meaningful analysis of the game and proper explanation of its nuances and tactics.
Jones tactics have worked perfectly off the pitch and bought him and his coaches thinking time this week.
If Jones is the newspaper editors’ dream, then I imagine that his Welsh counterpart Rob Howley is less so. With an uncanny resemblance to Stan Laurel, deadpan Howley is very much the polished PR type who says little and gives nothing away.
It could be said that his press conferences bear a striking similarity to his team. Direct, pre-programmed and often lacking in a bit of invention.
Wales were efficient in beating Italy in Rome but will know that not taking a try bonus point leaves plenty of questions about their attacking game. Wales too lacked power ball carriers which is odd for a team that is often labelled as being a power team.
And it is that power balance that could ultimately decide what happens when the two teams meet on Saturday.
Both teams will look at their back-row balances and also the ability of their midfields to get across the gain line.
England will think about starting with Haskell– who was man of the match when England were last in Cardiff – to give them some go-forward grunt whilst it would be a big call for a Farrell-Te’o axis to oust the so far favoured Ford-Farrell midfield.
Wales will wonder if they can bring more ball carriers into their front row but the selection of Jamie Roberts in midfield would be a backward step on their ride to a more fluid game.
It could be that if both teams largely go with last week’s line ups then the battle for gain line with be equal and shift the emphasis on to who can play in the wider channels.
Or it could be that both teams stubbornly cancel each other out until the cavalry from the stands arrives to settle the outcome one way or the other.
If it is the latter approach that wins on the day, then the ride might be like most journeys – boring, uneventful and all about getting to your favoured destination.