RUGBY UNION: Brutal baptism for young centre turned inside out
Six Nations 2005: Raw rookie Tait must wait for his great England exhibition
Sunday 06 February 2005
A year ago, let's not forget, Mathew Tait was playing for Barnard Castle School, his loftiest ambitions being merely to break into Newcastle's Premiership team. No amount of muscle tone could conceal his callow youth and absence of international experience, for all coach Andy Robinson's faith in him.
From the moment the inside centre, who only turns 19 today, was picked up bodily by his Wales counterpart, Gavin Henson - as though he had wandered innocently into a judo contest - and unceremoniously hurled to the ground a few minutes into this acrimonious, nervy encounter, his international education was brutally under way. It was a harsh experience. Just in case he had not been attending in class, the inspirational Henson, was at it again early in the second half as pummelling the England man into the turf once again as the debutant attempted to utilise his scintillating pace.
The pity, from an England perspective, was that Tait was rarely allowed to display his attacking talents before being replaced on the hour by another young man with potential, Ollie Barkley.
Tait's fate reflected England's first half during which a revived Wales, displaying some of that bravado of old, frequently lived up to the pre- match hyperbole, although they failed to capitalise on some fluid running.
For England, this had been no comfortable preamble to the major fixtures, which continue with France at home and Ireland away. For six years, the Cardiff factor has counted for little within this theatre. It has been a case of three submissions, three falls, by Wales during a period in which England have racked up more tries in the last three visits here than in the previous 40 at the Arms Park put together.
With the roof closed, inducing a curious atmosphere of claustrophobia, the place was awash with optimism once again. Partisanship was no less than one could have anticipated with the Western Mail exhorting their team with a front page which read simply "Just Do It" and a back page which demanded "Believe".
Henson had entered into the spirit of the evening by announcing that this was "our best chance" of beating England for years. This was the impeccably groomed Ospreys inside centre - surely as much a product of a style consultant as a coach? - whom the Wales captain, Gareth Thomas, had opined beforehand "is going to be one of the stars in world rugby". There was not much pressure on Henson or Wales then.
But it was always thus here, where, since Wales move from the Arms Park, the fervent singing has sounded decidedly off-key 80 minutes later.
Yesterday, Wales hoped that this was not so much about three tenors as three tentative England threequarters: Tait, his Newcastle Falcons team- mate Jamie Noon, whose own international career is still in its infancy; and the Sale Shark Charlie Hodgson, who though this was his 15th cap, and his sixth in succession, is still regarded in some quarters as Jonny junior.
From a World Cup-winning team full of leaders, to one in which that commodity is rather less obvious. Which explains why Celebrity Big Brother, Matt Dawson, the World Cup final and Wasps scrum-half, who at 32, returned from exile in televisionland, having linked effectively with Sue Barker and Ally McCoist and expected to do the same with the young guns.
His return was a question of sporting necessity, you could say, considering that England are currently denied the midfield prowess of Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood. This was his 66th cap, more than the combined total of the England back division. Robinson maintained beforehand he remains the best in the world in terms of leadership, management and organisation.
In truth, though, there was a lack of the kind of impetus within the England team that in years past would have been provided by a Martin Johnson.
Tait had been offered words of encouragement from Noon and the captain, Jason Robinson, having thumped himself on opposite shoulders, appeared composed. He would need to be because for 10 minutes Wales were in herculean mood. Noon appeared nervy, and errors crept into his game, including the conceding of a penalty, which was not converted. Tait could only man the barricades, although the assault on England culminated in a Shane Williams try. Hodgson's penalty quelled fears that England would be overwhelmed in those early stages.
In cavalier mood, the fly-half's attempted drop goal struck a post before the interval, before he spurned another penalty. It was that kind of evening for England on a pitch which was in dreadful condition. It has been recently relaid and groundstaff were repairing the torn strips of turf after each scrum. Somehow Wales flowed over it at times in the first half.
It set up a second half which was too edgy to be a classic, but mesmerising for all that. In the end, Stephen Jones kicked the penalty their overall play just merited. England slumped. Young Tait, on the bench, must have wondered just what he had walked into. Still, only France next...
Man for man marking at the Millennium Stadium
Energetic behind livewire back line, especially when pinning Lewsey. Unlucky sin bin for slap on Grewcock.
Once again looked out of his depth. Has a tendency to knock on and not position
himself tightly enough to the touchline.
Saw little of the ball but was a threat whenever the England midfield went on the attack. Brawny and reliable.
The outstanding player on the pitch. Tackled ferociously, ran strongly, timed his passes. Oh, his kick won the game.
Gave a dress rehearsal of his peerless running skills by wrong- footing three English, then helped himself to a try.
Was off target with his first two place kicks and scuffed a drop- goal attempt. Kicking from hand, though, was solid.
Shaded the scrum-half contest with his more experienced adversary. Never frightened to dart over the gain line.
Held his own in the set-pieces and more than once peeled away from contact situations having stolen the ball.
Gloucester's gain from the Valleys was obvious as he hit his men consistently in the line-outs and showed up in the loose.
Struggled in the front-row exchanges but scrapped gamely in the rucks and mauls. Kept coming back for more.
A bruising presence in the heart of the Welsh engine room. Started to lose his way in the line-outs as Kay took control.
Also found himself increasingly out-gunned in the line-outs, but was a match for his opponents on the floor.
Provides physical authority to the Welsh back row, but didn't have his greatest day and looked a bit ponderous.
Only declared fit for duty a few days ago and seemed a little subdued. His usual speed off the mark was missing.
Worked tirelessly to stabilise the back row and line-out. Best uses his talent when going forward with the ball.
Came on for his first, brief taste of Six Nations. A big lad, and a strong runner for a prop.
Came on after 63 minutes for his namesake Dafydd and promptly knocked on.
Late arrival so Peel could rest his weary limbs. Made sure the ball found Jones at the death.
Mr Twinkle Toes has added sliderule touch-kicking to his box of tricks. Was well policed when on the run, though.
Given no chance to stretch his legs. His main role was to feed Robinson after fielding failed touch kicks.
Welcome to Test rugby - a couple of bumps from Henson for today's birthday boy, and then an early bath.
Like his young Newcastle team-mate, nerves clearly got the better of him. Tackled bravely but fumbled too much.
Seems to run too much in a straight line, as befits his military training, but never shirked a tackle or his duties.
Missed only one of four penalties and held his poise while feeding on scraps. Defeat was painful, but he will learn.
The "father" of the team was his usual chipper self in the first half but faded after the break as England revived.
Toiled like a Trojan to keep the city gates intact, but found his efforts undone by a lack of purpose behind.
His place must now be in doubt. Kept over-throwing at line-outs and hit too many culs-de-sac when on the charge.
A rock-solid foundation for the English scrum, paid a huge compliment by being targeted for some special treatment.
Never flinched as the momentum faltered. Had a few line-out blips, and renewed his friendship with the sin bin.
His best game for England since the World Cup. Ended a loser, but Andy Robinson has something to work on.
Helped bring the line-out under control before the interval, and looked for the ball whenever he could. Still a struggle.
10 out of 10 for effort, very little out of 10 for the ingenuity and accuity needed at this level. Alas, no Neil Back.
Rugged, defiant, frustrated. All worthy adjectives for a proud No 8 who found himself constantly on the back foot.
Handed the unfamiliar role of loose-head when he came on, then switched to tight.
Brought on for his irrascible Bath colleague Grewcock as line-out ballast.
Brief second-half blood bin appearance for Rowntree.
Relieved Dawson for the last quarter of an hour, but had little chance to shine.
His arrival for the tiro Tait was overdue, demonstrated with two raking touch-finders.
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