England's great escape

England 21 Wales 15 Tries: R Underwood, 38 Tries: Taylor 11, Howley, 76 Guscott 48 Con: Grayson 38 Con: A Thomas 76 Pens: Grayson 53, 62, 68 Pen: A Thomas 59
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WALES, ambitious and bold - at times to the point of imbecility - were critically short of firepower and never quite approached the pain threshold of winners at this level of the game. Instead, they can take refuge in the comfort blanket of respectability and hope that the physical impediments which ultimately left them exposed against England can be concealed in their remaining matches. For England, there are fewer places to hide. They were unspeakably dreadful throughout a first half that was a lamentable advertisement for the modern game.

Wales at least could be excused on the grounds of rank inexperience. Their physical shortcomings forced them into all manner of wildly misguided escapades, many of them launched by the frail, pale figure of Arwel Thomas, playing in only his second international at outside half. There were times, in fact, when it seemed that the number on his back denoted his age rather than his position. But he succeeded in providing the most exciting moment of an excruciatingly poor match by creating the first Welsh try after 11 minutes.

England, were, at times, guilty of staggering incompetence. Their kicking to touch, or rather their constant failure to find touch, was so inept that on those rare occasions when either Paul Grayson or Mike Catt reached the sanctuary of the touchline, the crowd roared more in surprise rather in approval. Apart from that, England passed when they should have kicked and kicked when they should have passed, but escaped the punishment such profligacy deserved by the naivety and gaucheness of the opposition.

It was only as the game ground on into the second half that England's physical superiority began to take its toll and the Welsh body count began to pile up. By this time Will Carling had left the field to be replaced by Phil de Glanville to tumultuous applause. This was demonstratively unfair on the England skipper, who had, until that point, been the most penetrative of England's runners. He was followed from the field, albeit with the greatest reluctance, by the Welsh skipper Jon Humphreys.

Wales had clearly taken the view that there was no mileage to be gained by taking England on up front. They therefore kicked deep at every opportunity, rather as England themselves had done against the All Blacks three years ago. This forced England to kick for touch, at which they were extremely poor, or to run from the deep, at which they were even worse.

But no one, least of all England, had been prepared for the Welsh impertinence which led to the game's opening try. With Wales being awarded a penalty to the right of the posts and inside the England 22, the general expectation was that Arwel Thomas would elect to kick for goal. Instead he took a quick penalty, ran round in circles a couple of times, sidestepped the referee and, in mounting panic, threw a pass to Gwyn Jones, his only visible means of support.

Jones, sensing room and bodies outside him, pressed forward. Wayne Proctor and Leigh Davies acted as the middle men to put Hemi Taylor though Catt's despairing tackle for the try. The hash that Thomas made of his conversion attempt made it easier to understand why he had not opted for the penalty.

England at this point were a shambles. Their scrummage could make no impression on the Welsh, and nor could their line-out, so often denied the advantage of the throw, impose itself on what was a threadbare opposition. Derwyn Jones stood alone, but whether it was at the front, in the middle, or occasionally at the tail, he strove in adversity, taking some high quality possession. Unfortunately, too much of it was squandered by Welsh backs whose questionable angles of running could and should have been more harshly punished by the referee.

Had Wales scored again during that opening quarter, England might have cracked. As it was, they came close to losing the plot. Grayson missed with three penalty kicks, two of them straightforward. Even their first try, minutes before half-time, was not so much a chapter of accidents as an entire book. After a series of punitive scrummages on the Welsh line when they had the chance of kicking a penalty, Ben Clarke ran blind from a quick heel. The play then switched to the open; Carling appeared to knock-on and Jon Sleightholme's pass went wildly astray but bounced favourably for Catt, who put Rory Underwood away.

There was an element of farce, too, about England's second try, early in the second half. Grayson was so far wide of the mark with a drop goal attempt that Justin Thomas had all the time he needed to clear his lines. Instead he fatally delayed his kick, Guscott pounced, charged down the kick, and was over for the try.

That effectively ended the Welsh challenge, though to their credit they remained loyal to their promise to keep the game fluid. The penalty count against them, however, wascalamitous, and Grayson, with three penalties, kept the scoreboard - if not his team - ticking over. Thomas kicked a penalty for Wales and in what was perhaps their most lucid passage of the game, Robert Howley scored a try from short range on his debut. Thomas converted, raising the excitement, if not the quality, for the final two minutes.

England: M Catt; J Sleightholme (both Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson, M Dawson (both Northampton); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (both Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps), B Clarke (Bath). Replacement: P de Glanville (Bath) for Carling (56).

Wales: J Thomas; I Evans (both Llanelli), L Davies (Neath), N Davies, W Procter (both Llanelli); A Thomas (Bristol), R Howley (Bridgend); A Lewis, J Humphreys (both Cardiff, capt), J Davies, G Llewellyn (both Neath), D Jones, E Lewis (both Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli), H Taylor (Cardiff). Replacements: S Williams (Neath) for E Lewis (35); G Jenkins (Swansea) for Humphries (58).

Referee: K McCartney (Scotland).

Paul Grayson, page 30