Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
February 25, 2012
Wales celebrate at the full-time whistle © Getty Images
What a game. The Six Nations restored its reputation as arguably the sport's trump card with a thrilling battle between Wales and England at Twickenham.
This was a true heavyweight clash - not one between two wannabe champions reduced to brawling in public - but a meeting of two teams packed with power, pace, talent and dangerous intent who were both determined to claim the spoils in the latest instalment of a 131-year-old rivalry.
At the end of a thrilling contest it was Wales, some way from their best, who claimed a rare win at English rugby's HQ - only their second since 1988 - and with it their 20th Triple Crown and the first sealed at Twickenham. The last time they swept all of the Home Nations in 2008 they went onto claim the Grand Slam and with their remaining clashes scheduled for the cathedral that is the Millennium Stadium then they can start dreaming of repeating that feat.
Much has been made of Wales' size and strength and it was perhaps fitting that an emphatic reminder of their unrivalled physicality should decide this contest. Wales centre Scott Williams' ability to rip the ball out of the grasp of England lock Courtney Lawes was awe-inspiring and a reflection of how the modern game has evolved. Backs now pack a punch every bit as powerful as their forwards and nowhere is this more evident than in Wales' ranks.
But they are far from mere behemoths. Williams, who looked to have cost his side the win by butchering a chance a few minutes earlier, underlined this fact by then chipping over the England defence before winning the race to the ball and claiming a famous score. Those few seconds illustrated everything that is great about Welsh rugby at the moment - bold and brilliant - and the fact that the try came from one of their lesser lights will only broaden the smile across coach Warren Gatland's face this evening.
This result will have cemented his claim to lead the British & Irish Lions to Australia in 2013 and in this kind of form there will be a fair few Welshmen making the trip with him. The fitness of this squad in particular is set to go down in legend. Tales of such lung-busting endeavour will be passed down for generations and pilgrimages to the cryotherapy treatment centres in Poland are set rival Lourdes.
Midway through the game they looked out on their feet. Frustrated by their hosts' exemplary work-rate, hands on hips, sucking in air. They also appeared short of ideas as a 17-phase raid deep in English territory proved fruitless. But they rallied around skipper Sam Warburton, whose impressive industry included one game-changing tackle on rampant England centre Manu Tuilagi, and with the help of a second, third and fourth wind they wore down an equally determined England before holding off a desperate late rally from the hosts.
England found out to their cost that while Welsh players will go down under the pressure of a swarming defence but they will not stay down. Even when they were reduced to 14-men with the sin-binning of Rhys Priestland, whose off-the-ball tackle on England prop Alex Corbisiero may well have prevented a try, there was no clear weakness in their defence - they just raised their game to compensate and notched the only points scored in his absence. The yellow card was a blatant infringement, although not worthy of a penalty try, and a price they were willing to pay which also showed that they boast some crafty brains to go with all that braun.
For all the established names and rising stars in their squad, their trump card remains their unity, their desire to play for each other, run themselves into the ground and willingness to defend for their lives.
If ever a side can take heart from a defeat then it is England. They will be dejected but while they ice their bruises this evening they can reflect on an outstanding display - by far their best in this Championship and one that offers hope of a very bright future. Whether that includes current interim boss Stuart Lancaster remains to be seen as his side saw their own Grand Slam hopes fade but there was a refreshing adventure and enthusiasm about England that can only reflect well on him and his side.
Wales celebrate with the Triple Crown silverware © Getty Images
We knew before this encounter that the Welsh could play and would want to do just that but question marks remained about a new-look England side short on experience. But any doubts over the temperament of Owen Farrell can be cast aside after the 20-year-old fly-half - making his first start in the No.10 shirt in only his third Test - produced a commanding display cruelly cut short by cramp. Aided significantly by a tireless pack with lock Geoff Parling at the heart of proceedings, super quick ball from the equally fresh-faced Lee Dickson and a barn-storming display from returning Tuilagi, Farrell rose to the challenge and then some.
Assured with the boot, one chip and chase sparked memories of a certain Jonny Wilkinson while the thumping tackle from Wales wing George North that brought stamped out one of many sparks of creativity just served to underline the pattern of this game and enrich what was an epic battle.
But it was a superb team effort and relentless defensive showing that shackled Wales and threatened to derail their quest for the Triple Crown. Signs were ominous when North scythed through in the opening moments only to be brought down by a desperate tap-tackle from England wing David Strettle and that level of commitment was evident throughout. Wales enjoyed plenty of possession but were not given the time or space to make it count.
The result clearly shows it was not a complete performance from England and while they remain on an upward curve in terms of their development, the errors - most notably from Lawes and replacement prop Matt Stevens whose hands in the ruck allowed Wales' Leigh Halfpenny to level the scores late on - show there is more than a little room for improvement. But it is perhaps their lack of tries that will be of greatest concern.
Creating chances is one thing, taking them is another and two tries from three outings is not the form of a side with credible title claims. Strettle's failure to get the ball down following England's final roll of the device both denied replacement fly-half Toby Flood the chance to snatch a dramatic draw and reminded the home side's fans that they are some way from being the best side in Europe - that mantle seemingly resting with Wales.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
"Some people have it from day one and Brian did." Tom Hamilton talks to the two players who made their Ireland debuts alongside Brian O'Driscoll back in June 1999
Despite having lost all four of their 2014 Six Nations games, the future of Italian rugby is bright with the team showing a new youthful core, argues Enrico Borra
"The loudest cheer at a rugby game, away from social media gimmicks, pumping music and pyrotechnics will always be for a try." Tom Hamilton on the Twickenham atmosphere
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column