It was only when Olly Barkley, the Bath centre, took the field after 62 minutes - 62 minutes too late, quite frankly - that England looked capable of squeezing the pips from their hosts. Barkley repeatedly sent the Welsh retreating towards their own line with wide-angled diagonal punts from both first and second-receiver positions. His presence allowed Harry Ellis, the aggressive young Leicester scrum-half, to tie up the outstanding opposition back-rowers around the fringes, happy in the knowledge that his courage would be rewarded with yardage. It also gave a hard-working quintet of tight forwards some much-needed support. For the first hour or so, they had been betrayed.
By selecting two non-kicking centres, Jamie Noon of Newcastle and his 18-year-old club-mate Mathew Tait, the England head coach Andy Robinson flew in the face of rugby logic. The shop-soiled world champions were always likely to struggle in the loose once Martyn Williams, a veritable bloodhound of an open-side flanker, declared himself fit, and sure enough, the Cardiff Blues captain left the over-matched Andy Hazell of Gloucester for dead in pursuit of the loose ball, inspiring his two henchmen, Dafydd Jones and Michael Owen, to similarly Himalayan heights in the process. England were also at risk from a Welsh back-line full of dash and daring. If they were to survive this trip across the Severn Bridge, it would be through the efforts of their grunt-and-groaners.
And how to get the best from these particular cauliflower-faced specimens? Put the ball in front of them. This is common sense, not quantum physics. The longer the game went on, with Noon in particular either unwilling or unable to put boot to leather, the more flabbergastingly ludicrous Barkley's absence appeared.
As Stephen Jones, the Wales outside-half, said afterwards: "When Barkley came on, pushed us into the corners and changed the shape of the match, I thought to myself: `Oh no, it's Mike Catt all over again.' I feared the worst, to be honest with you. Fortunately, we finished strongly and came through."
Jones was referring to events in Brisbane 15 months previously, when Catt came off the bench for the second half of a World Cup quarter-final that was going the way of Wales and turned the thing on its head, simply by lamping the ball downfield and giving the England pack some return on their investment at the sharp end. Thus encouraged, Martin Johnson and company ground the Welsh forwards into the Queensland dirt and presented Jonny Wilkinson with enough kickable penalties to quell the uprising. Everyone - yes, even pug-ugly props like Graham Rowntree and Julian White - needs a little tender loving care. On Saturday, the England heavyweights must have felt as cherished as lepers on a health farm.
If the tactical shortcomings of the England midfield were all too predictable, the misfires at line-out time were less easy to spot in advance. Time and again, Steve Thompson threw long - so long that he missed everyone except the predatory Martyn Williams, who had himself a ball with red- rose ball, so to speak. Quite how anyone with half-decent eyesight could miss Grewcock, Ben Kay and Chris Jones, who brought a combined height of very nearly 20ft to the service of their country, will remain one of life's more enduring mysteries, but the Northampton hooker managed it, apparently with considerable ease. Jones, spring-heeled in the extreme, would have needed a pogo-stick to reach some of Thompson's offerings, and had the latter not redeemed himself with a spectacular performance in the loose, he might not have lasted the full 80 minutes.
One of Thompson's aberrations led to the only try of the match on 10 minutes, Williams the flanker launching the attack by hoovering up the loose ball and Williams the wing concluding it by slipping outside Mark Cueto with a millimetre to spare before grounding the ball at the left flag. In between there was some meaningful running from the abrasive Dafydd Jones, the least skilled but most physical member of the Red Dragons' loose trio, and a whole string of precise cut-out passes covering the width of the field. It was a wonderful move, executed at pace and entirely in tune with the sense of adventure that has characterised Welsh rugby since their to-hell-with-it assault on the All Blacks during the World Cup.
The England backs did not threaten to produce anything remotely as good. Cueto and Josh Lewsey threw themselves into the fray with their customary abandon, but Jason Robinson's tap-dancing routines cut no ice with the Welsh tacklers, who hit him in twos and threes and forced the celebrated full-back into a mish-mash of distinctly average passes, some of them of the hospital variety, and aimless kicks downfield. Noon made next to no impact; Tait, on his debut, had few opportunities. The youngster did not look out of place - "Some of his passing was really crisp," said Andy Robinson - but he could have done without the embarrassment of being transported around Cardiff under Gavin Henson's left armpit. Twice he smashed into Henson, and twice he was returned from whence he came.
He is some player, this Henson. His kicking from hand hurt England very nearly as much as the magnificent match-winning penalty he landed at the death from a wicked position near the right touchline, the result of Lewsey's desperate attempt to rescue his captain from the mire after some intelligent work down the short side by Gareth Cooper. Never less than dangerous, Henson would have topped his performance with a first-half try had Tait not dragged him to earth by his shirt-tails as the Swansea-bred centre plotted a route through the midfield congestion.
As a result of all this Welsh dominance, England failed to register a try of their own against Celtic opposition for the first time in almost a decade. (They last drew a blank against the Scots at Murrayfield in 1996, but still won the game). "We struggled for field position, and as the ball we produced was so slow - fair play to the Welsh back row, who performed really well as a unit - there was no rhythm to our play," fumed the coach, whose impersonation of Krakatoa on the brink of eruption was of Dead Ringers quality. Robinson's assistant, Phil Larder, was not in the mood for analysis. "Let's just say this is one of the worst feelings I've experienced," he muttered.
England were so up against it in the first period that neither Robinson nor Larder could have complained had Wales turned round a dozen points to the good, rather than a meagre five. They might have scored a second try late in the half had Grewcock, fast developing into a pantomime villain of Johnsonesque proportions, not planted one of his size 12s on Dwayne Peel's head at a ruck on the red-rose line. "It was an unfortunate incident," the big lock insisted afterwards. Peel would no doubt agree, as would Gareth Thomas, the Welsh captain, who ran 25 metres to land a retaliatory slap on the Englishman and ended up alongside him in the sin-bin. "I've been sent to bed by my mum for worse," he complained.
Grewcock could yet be cited by the disciplinary commissioner, John West, who may also take a dim view of Brent Cockbain's footwork on the head of Joe Worsley at a fierce ruck shortly after the interval. But in truth, there was nothing particularly spiteful about the contest - certainly nothing on the scale of 1980 or 1987, when the clash of rugby cultures generated levels of bitterness above and beyond the acceptable. It was a hard game, brutally hard at times, but a fair game too - a fair game with a fair result.
Wales will go onwards and upwards from here, now that a dozen years of home-town failure against their nearest and dearest has been consigned to the past tense. England, on the other hand, are on a downer, struggling for authority in key positions with unforgiving matches against France and Ireland next on the agenda. They need a specialist inside-centre - Barkley must surely be the man - and there seems precious little point continuing with Hazel
l at flanker or, for that matter, Matt Dawson at half-back. The old certainties have evaporated. Welcome to the age of anxiety.
WALES: G Thomas (Toulouse, capt); H Luscombe (Newport-Gwent Dragons), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Neath-Swansea Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets); G Jenkins (Blues), M Davies (Gloucester),
A Jones (Ospreys), B Cockbain (Ospreys), R Sidoli (Blues), D Jones (Scarlets), M Owen (Dragons), M Williams (Blues).
Replacements: G Cooper (Dragons) for Peel 63; R Jones (Ospreys) for D Jones 66; K Morgan (Dragons) for Luscombe 68; J Yapp (Blues) for A Jones 78; J Thomas (Ospreys) for Cockbain 78.
ENGLAND: J Robinson (Sale, capt); M Cueto (Sale), M Tait (Newcastle), J Noon (Newcastle), J Lewsey (Wasps); C Hodgson (Sale), M Dawson (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), C Jones (Sale), J Worsley (Wasps), A Hazell (Gloucester).
Replacements: J Forrester (Gloucester) for Worsley 42-45; P Vickery (Gloucester) for Rowntree 59; O Barkley (Bath) for Tait 62; H Ellis (Leicester) for Dawson 66; S Borthwick (Bath) for Grewcock 71; Rowntree for White 77.
Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand)
Man of the match Martyn Williams.
Gavin Henson was superb in thought and deed, but Williams was Wales' conscience.
Moment of the match Lewsey's tackle. England lost, but they would have lost by more without Josh Lewsey's 77th-minute hit on Gareth Thomas (right).Reuse content