With a sense of macabre relish and wonderful theatrics, at a vibrant and hostile Millennium Stadium, Wales destroyed England’s Grand Slam dreams.
They sealed the Six Nations Championship with a win that Welsh interim coach Rob Howley described as “his proudest day in coaching.”
From the very first moments of the game, the noise, passion and pride of the home fans gave their team an advantage that galvanised Wales into a performance of absolutely outstanding 15-man rugby.
Even the normally taciturn Gethin Jenkins eulogised over his team’s performance.
“That was the proudest moment of my life,” said the Toulon prop, with visible emotion.
“I don’t think either side have experienced pressure like that before a Grand Slam game.
“Many had written us off before the game, but after the Irish defeat the squad got their wake up call,” he explained.
“We did a lot of talking behind closed doors, and having 3 games away on the road allowed us to recreate the team spirit and confidence that we’d lacked during the Irish game.”
Howley, another with national pride beaming from his face, whilst ecstatic over his side’s victory had sympathy for his English counterpart Stuart Lancaster.
“The six day turnaround really proved to be a factor in our favour and made things tough for England,” the former Lions scrum-half explained.
“They came here to play and I have huge respect for that. However our team, particularly the outstanding Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, were superb in both intensity and execution.
“With Sam playing on the blindside, and stepping into the huge shoes of Ryan Jones, it enabled him to show a completely different skill set, his carrying and harrying ability and his power, whilst Justin won the battle of virtually every breakdown.”
Indeed, a delighted Warburton believes that their triumph laid down the marker for Wales’ World Cup clash against England in two years time.
“This was a big game for us,” he said.
“Gethin did superbly well in leading the team in his own quiet way.
“We targeted the breakdown area and wanted to commit as many English defenders as possible to allow us to use our wings, an area where we felt we had a strong advantage.”
With a brace of scintillating second half tries in ten minutes, wing Alex Cuthbert was quick to praise the collective forward effort.
“That was incredible,” he revealed.
“Scrum after scrum, ruck after ruck the boys delivered. It was amazing to be a part of it.
“That forward effort, and the way we managed the referee and contact area were telling; it gave the backs space with which to work and made my life a little easier.
“I couldn’t let the guys down after that level of commitment, so I was delighted to be on the end of a couple of great team efforts.”
And what of England? A side that came in on a roll of expectation and anticipation appear to have returned home completely empty handed.
However, closer inspection may suggest that in suffering a record defeat, England may well have earned a huge long-term game.
In the opinion of some observers, scrappy wins against both France and Italy, in games where both visiting teams could have easily emerged as victors, had papered over the cracks of selectorial imbalance, lack of penetration and a paucity of ball carrying.
England defensive coach Andy Farrell while disappointed, was pragmatic.
“Wales were like a physical brick wall,” he said.
“Everything we threw at them just seemed to bounce off it. We need to take a good look at the match, and realize why we were so ineffective at the breakdown and why we were penalised so many times at the scrum.
“It was a caldron out there, and the players were struggling to hear themselves outside, but that is Test rugby as its finest,” suggested the former Rugby League Iron Man.
In truth, England have a lot of watching of tapes to do. During the entire Six
Nations, whilst scraping wins, the attacking ambition and penetration has been sorely lacking.
Lancaster, committed to a pragmatic approach, can no longer keep picking two full-backs without pace; nor can he continue to place faith in a completely out of form Chris Ashton.
Questions too will be asked of the midfield combination, who as defensively heroic as they are, are creatively impotent.
Even for this one off game, Lancaster’s back room handicapped themselves by selecting a line-out of massive presence, and then proceeded to pick a hooker incapable of throwing a rugby ball five metres in a straight line.
To compound matters, the back row selection was hugely unbalanced, bereft of a ball carrier and devoid of any form of real physical threat.
With a line-out of that quality, it amazed onlookers how England consistently took the ball into welcoming Welsh contact time after time rather than kicking for territory.
There seemed to be no exit strategy; no clue of playing rugby in the red zone of the Welsh half. In short, the display was selectorially wayward, physically disastrous and tactically naïve.
Skipper Chris Robshaw found it hard to contain his frustrations.
“That’s hard to take,” he admitted.
“We came here to win a Grand Slam and walked away with nothing. We were beaten in virtually every aspect of the game.
“At half time, 9-3 down, we felt we were still in the game, but the intensity Wales produced in the second half sealed it.
“After an early penalty, they turned us over down the right hand wing and suddenly we were 15 points down and chasing the game.”
Robshaw, although careful with his words, was clearly frustrated with his team’s performance and the interpretations placed on the breakdown areas.
“Yeah that was tough to understand,” added the Harlequins stalwart.
“They were very physical but I don’t think we got much of the rub of the green. Very frustrating but fair play to Wales.
“It’s pretty hard to take considering what was at stake out there, but you cannot deny Wales deserved the win and were the better team out there.
“But don’t write us off just yet. Building a team takes a loss like that to learn from, and we’ll do that and be a better side for it.”
Wise words indeed. People often forget it took Clive Woodward six seasons to deliver a Grand Slam, including three botched attempts along the way.
Wales, whilst ecstatic about their win, will move back to the form they showed two years ago when they came within a whisker of a World Cup Final.
On the other hand, England will return to Pennyhill Park to lick their wounds, but more importantly, to redefine both their ambition, their selection policy and the routemap for a more expansive game.
Whilst Wales may have emerged worthy victors yesterday, if Stuart Lancaster and his troops assimilate the hard lessons dealt out by an epic Welsh display, they may be the greater beneficiaries in the long term.
- Planet Rugby