Like so many other matches this season, the critical passages of play were spectacular but brief, and crammed into a couple of shining minutes. Wales, seemingly in control on both occasions, enabled first Tim Stimpson, who had a marvellous match, to scramble over and then Tony Underwood to race through a disorganised defence. With Catt converting both tries, England, in the space of two minutes, had changed the entire complexion of the match and moved from ragged uncertainty into the comfort zone where they finished their earlier meetings with Scotland and Ireland.
After that it was all humiliation for the Welsh who conceded further tries to Richard Hill and the England captain Phil de Glanville. Hill's try was the result of the mesmerising footwork of Jeremy Guscott who had come on at half-time as a replacement for Jon Sleightholme and whose international season, most of it sitting on the bench, has been such a waste of his glorious talent.
Apart from the glittering final quarter which is now England's trademark, the emotional charge which shot through the ground was generated more by memories of the past than of the day itself. There was the bitter-sweetness of the parting from Jonathan Davies and, in all probability, Will Carling. In their different ways both have contributed massively to the game's folklore and history. Neither had the match they would have wished for although Davies's tap tackle on the flying Guscott early in the second half which saved a certain try was one of the few imperishable memories of this match.
Farewell, too, to the ground which for 113 years was simultaneously a theatre of rugby and an opera house where the virtuosity off the field inspired soaring deeds on it, and vice versa. The farewells done, there were, of course, those dewy-eyed Englishmen for whom the biennial trip to Cardiff so often ended in defeat. No longer. England have now won here as often in the past six years as they had in the previous 37. The tears of frustration were for the Welsh whose team, depleted before the match, was further weakened by injuries yesterday to their champion points scorer Neil Jenkins, who has a broken arm, and the loose-head prop Christian Loader. Even so, the Welsh forwards competed bravely for an hour and for large parts of the first half reduced the English pack to shadowy irrelevance. Seldom had England's four line-out mastodons looked so ineffective. Whether it was Mark Regan's throwing or the superlative efforts of Gareth Llewellyn, it gave Austin Healey a testing examination in his first international which he passed with resounding success.
If Wales had been as well organised behind the scrum as they were for so much of the game up front, their efforts might have been rewarded. But they were a dishevelled rabble, frittering away their best possession with relentless generosity to grateful opponents. Robert Howley managed once again to rise above the mediocrity and with a couple of dazzling sidesteps he scored the try of the match in the final minute - memorable yet meaningless. But he was a lone figure.
Davies's decision to retire is the right one. He has lost that vital edge of pace and even though he sees the gap as clearly as ever he lacks the wherewithal to go through it. Gareth Thomas had an awful match on the left wing, once slicing a kick straight to Stimpson, England's most dangerous runner, when his back line was primed outside him. He was strangely reticent and, when given a golden opportunity to counterattack by Catt's wayward kick, he muffed it.
The first half, littered though it was with basic errors, had its moments. There was a flashing break by Allan Bateman, a centre of genuine stature, and one, longer if a little more laboured, by de Glanville which, with better support and finishing, would surely have yielded a try. Sleightholme also burst into life close to half-time. He appeared to get over tight to the right touchline but was adjudged to have put a foot in touch. In that attempt he was injured and replaced by Guscott. We therefore had to satisfy ourselves in the first half with three penalties - two to Catt and one to Davies, the replacement kicker for Jenkins who had uncharacteristically been wide of the mark twice earlier in the half. Jenkins' departure seriously affected the Welsh defensive organisation and far too often in the second half did they leave gaping holes behind their first line of defence where Wayne Proctor appeared hopelessly disorientated.
As the game wore on, the gaps appeared with greater frequency for England's ravenous runners and none profited more than Stimpson who for the first time this season was given the time and space by his colleagues to demonstrate his lethal running. Time and again he broke upfield from deep positions and, had the finishing been a little better, the margin of victory would have been even greater.
Time was when a Triple Crown would have been hailed as a magnificent achievement for England, but so high are their standards now that the season has ended in disappointment. Nevertheless, they are in better heart than Wales who, like their stadium, will require massive rebuilding if they are to approach the standards set by England and France this season.
Wales: N Jenkins (Pontypridd); S Hill (Cardiff), A Bateman (Richmond), N Davies (Llanelli), G Thomas (Bridgend); J Davies, R Howley (both Cardiff); C Loader (Swansea), J Humphreys (capt), D Young (both Cardiff), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), M Voyle (Llanelli), S Williams (Neath), S Quinnell (Richmond), K Jones (Ebbw Vale). Replacements: W Proctor (Llanelli) for Jenkins, 15; S John (Llanelli) for Loader, 22; D McIntosh (Pontypridd) for Jones, 65; C Quinnell (Richmond) for Voyle, 69.
England: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), T Underwood (Newcastle); M Catt (Bath), A Healey (Leicester); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), B Clarke (Richmond), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: P Greening (Gloucester) for Regan, 40; J Guscott (Bath) for Sleightholme, 40; C Sheasby (Wasps) for Clarke, 69; R Andrew (Newcastle) for Catt, 72; D Garforth (Leicester) for Rowntree, 78.
Referee: J Dume (France).
P W D L F A Pts
France 4 4 0 0 129 77 8
England 4 3 0 1 141 55 6
Wales 4 1 0 3 94 106 2
Scotland 4 1 0 3 90 132 2
Ireland 4 1 0 3 57 141 2
Results: Scotland 19 Wales 34; Ireland 15 France 32; England 41 Scotland 13; Wales 25 Ireland 26; Ireland 6 England 46; France 27 Wales 22; Scotland 38 Ireland 10; England 20 France 23; France 47 Scotland 20; Wales 13 England 34Reuse content