It was billed as a battle for the soul of rugby, English pragmatism versus Welsh ‘sexy rugby’ – as their Australian skills coach, Scott Johnson, called it during the week – crude modernism up against those who will never stop dreaming. However, after a proper pasting, romantics might have to agree with Andy Robinson’s rather dry view of rugby life – it doesn’t matter how you do it, you just want the win.
That said, there was more positive movement from England than in the
last Six Nations, signs that improvements in the autumn are solid, not illusory. There was a readiness to keep probing for gaps with the ball in hand rather than turning it back inside. And, as Robinson said in the glow of victory, ‘We tried to get some attacking rhythm today, some interchange between forwards and backs. We said all along this game is about winning. There’s not just one way. You’ve got to be able to play two, three, four different ways. It was a pretty intense game of rugby out there. The ball was in play for a long, long time.’
A statistical breakdown of several facets of the leading nations’ attacking philosophies over the past year by the International Rugby Board revealed a stark gap between Wales and the others in the northern hemisphere. Wales, for instance, were the only team where more forwards than backs scored tries; the forwards made more passes than the England and Ireland forwards combined; they scored more tries from inside their own half than England, Ireland and France combined; and they scored more tries from opponents’ handling errors and kicks than England, France and Ireland put together. In short, they are a team not only unafraid to throw the ball about but positively gagging to do it. England showed no such inclination last winter.
They ran freely and often in the second half, building on the strength of their front five. In nearly every department, they matched or bettered Wales for flair. England competed 132 passes to 127; made nine line breaks to two; made 16 offloads in the tackle to 11 – and consequently 17 errors to 12. But they were rewarded for their enterprise.
As for Wales, they threw it about at the start – and were hanging on for dear life at the finish. Mike Ruddock, who’d spoken beforehand of giving his team ‘a licence to thrill’, conceded: ‘We were in the game at 18-13. The crucial moment for us was when Martyn Williams was sin-binned [in the second half]. They started to really make us work. In the end they put us to the sword.’
Wales could so easily have scored inside three minutes. Steve Borthwick, one of the best players on the pitch all afternoon, did fantastically well to claw the ball away from the ruck after Mark Jones had inveigled his way down the right and was within feet of the line when brought down. By the mere swing of an England arm had Wales endeavour been denied.
The early pressure was arriving in red shirts. But the opening score was England’s and, as is often the way, came from nothing. Mark Cueto was there on the angled run after Jamie Noon (another splendid contributor) had made the break in midfield. It was a killer blow to Wales as they built momentum.
Wales, as last season, took every tapped free-kick, seeking to turn the defence, but Stephen Jones needed no encouragement when an easy three points presented themselves just outside the 22.
Wales, who had been matching their heavier opponents lump for lump at the scrum and in the loose, were caught killing the ball and Hodgson made them pay from a good way out.
Had Charlie put his kicking blues behind him? Not quite. Gareth Thomas had to scramble to stop England scoring from a cross-kick, before Mr Honiss brought play back for off-side. From the resultant line-out and drive the England pack put their beef into a beautifully timed shove, five yards out, and Lewis Moody emerged grinning hugely. Some return for the Leicester scallywag after suspension – but Hodgson’s kick faded wide, as did two others later.
Two tries up now and England were beginning to swagger. Martyn Williams wiped the smiles away soon enough, though, emerging from a choice of about five Wales support players who’d tailed Dwayne Peel’s break from a line-out. The scrum-half had darted inside Moody and swerved his way to within a few yards of the line before slipping the ball to the ever-present flanker.
England deserved their five-point lead at the break, although Ruddock wasn’t too concerned yet. Soon after the resumption, however, Wales paid again for a dumb infringement. Noon did marvellously well to weave his way across the line and set up Danny Grewcock, charging down the flank, but the lobbed pass went astray – and Robert Sidoli grabbed the big man’s jumper as he tried to wriggle free. Somehow Sidoli escaped the sin bin. Hodgson landed the penalty, but England might have had a penalty try.
Wales had to work hard for scraps and, picking up a dropped pass, hammered the England line before settling for a penalty from a killed ruck. The referee might well have let it roll on a bit. But they were immediately rocked by a yellow card for Martyn Williams, who went up for the ball with Moody and was marched for obstruction. It seemed harsh.
Nearly 10 minutes later, Hodgson pushed a penalty wide – and Wales, having cleverly eaten up the clock, were glad to see Martyn Williams back. There was nothing he could do, though, to stop Mike Tindall who barrelled over on the right after Noon’s break. Hodgson again missed.
Lawrence Dallaglio, on early as a blood replacement, was back for real just past the hour, taking over from Martin Corry, although Tindall took the armband. Either way, Dallaglio could hardly have picked a better time to get involved, with England leading by 13 points and 20 minutes left. And what a statement the former captain made almost immediately; he peeled off the back of a scrum to go over in the despairing grasp of Martyn Williams and Stephen Jones, and his glee was palpable.
It all went wrong for Wales at the end, Matt Dawson skipping out of a weak tackle to score. England have depth, too – and Wales did suffer through the absence of so many front-line players through injury. In the seventh minute of time added on, the replacement Tom Voyce strolled over, unchallenged virtually. Meanwhile, Wales’s replacement scrum-half, Gareth Cooper, was disappearing down the tunnel, holding his dislocated right shoulder. He will be out for the rest of the season. Nothing could have illustrated Wales’s misery more starkly.
England Tries Cueto, Moody, Tindall, Dallaglio, Dawson, Voyce Cons Hodgson (2), Goode, Noon Pens Hodgson (3)