England fight past spirited Wales
February 22, 2003
Will Greenwood breaches the Welsh defence to score
© Getty Images
England maintained their push for the elusive Grand Slam with a 26-9 RBS SIx Nations victory over Wales at the Millennium Stadium but they were given a first half scare from the home side.
Fired by talk of an England romp the homeside were more than match for their visitors for much of the half and should have crossed for the first try of the game had centre Mark Taylor passed to one of his two team-mates instead of going striving for th eline himself.
Tries from Will Greenwood and Joe Worsley were the highlights of a scrappy, fragmented match which must have made the travelling fans wonder whether it was worth braving the train problems and traffic jams.
That goal-kicking metronome Jonny Wilkinson also weighed in with another 16 points, including two precision drop goals, before limping off towards the end of the match.
But on this form England can forget winning the World Cup later this year.
They were too timid and uncertain, uninspiring in attack and at times suspect in defence even though they did not concede a try.
The Welsh fans, however, even in defeat had much to cheer.
They had made eight changes from the side which lost so abjectly to Italy last weekend. They had been written off by the bookies as nothing more than cannon-fodder for the mighty English.
If last week had been the death throe of Welsh rugby then this match, many experts decreed, was little more than its funeral.
It didn't turn out that way - and much of that was due to the passion of the home fans and the determination of the Welsh brilliantly led by Jonathan Humphreys and wonderfully inspired by man-of-the-match second-row Robert Sidoli.
Before the match the Welsh sang Delilah and Bread of Heaven with almost demonic fervour. They sure know how to sing in Wales. They used to know how to play rugby.
The big screens, as usual, were alive with the dancing days of Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies and Merve the Swerve. The talk was of legendary fullback JPR Williams, the incomparable Gareth Edwards and rugby's answer to George Best, Barry John.
The fans treasure those halcyon memories. They have to, because these days Welsh rugby supporters have precious little else.
So desperate is their plight that tomorrow at Port Talbot there is an emergency general meeting of the Welsh Rugby Union to try to settle the hopeless political in-fighting, financial turmoil and threats of litigation which engulf the sport.
As it was Wales took a 10th minute lead after a spirited opening when fly-half Ceri Sweeney slotted the first penalty following a late tackle by Steve Thompson on Gareth Thomas.
The prolific Wilkinson inevitably replied with a penalty of his own six minutes later but there was much to admire in the big hits and the ferocious rucking of the Welsh pack.
England's concern at that point was epitomised by the 35-metres drop goal for which Wilkinson settled to extend the lead to ensure that the white shirts at least cashed in on their increasing pressure.
And England's respect for the opposition was again in evidence, following Sweeney's second penalty, when Wilkinson preferred to drop another goal on the half hour mark rather than trust the ball to his threequarters.
There was an uncharacteristic fragility about England and also a pettiness in captain Martin Johnson's verbal battle with referee Steve Walsh and a gratuitous stamp by Thompson on Welsh captain Humphreys.
Such indiscipline should have seen Wales go in with a half-time lead, especially when Mark Taylor thrust through Hodgson's weak tackle to race 50 metres for what should have been a superb touchdown if the Welsh centre had not greedily spurned the support outside him.
A miserable half for the English came to a close even more disappointingly when fullback Jason Robinson was forced to leave the field with a leg injury.
Within a minute his replacement Phil Christophers was following him after receiving the yellow card for a premature tackle on Gareth Thomas when the Welsh wing looked certain to catch Sweeney's high kick and race in for the touchdown.
A 9-6 interval lead was more than England deserved and down to 14 men the atmosphere in the half-time dressing room must have been full of recrimination.
When they came out wing James Simpson-Daniel had also replaced blood-victim flanker Richard Hill but, despite the problems, there was more resolve about the English.
And it finally paid off with their first concerted attacking burst - Will Greenwood receiving the ball in midfield and jinking past two Welsh defenders before crashing over the line with two more hanging on for the 22nd England try of his career.
At last England had found a modicum of rhythm in a fractured game which saw Neil Back limp off in the 57th minute to be replaced by Joe Worsley.
Within 30 seconds Worsley was wearing the widest grin in Wales after becoming one of its fastest try-scorers, scything his way round the back of a scrum for an opportunist try.
Sweeney and Wilkinson swapped further penalties but at the end it was the Welsh finishing stronger - and that will have set a few warning bells ringing for Woodward.
The Slam is still on - but the room for improvement is immense.