Rugby Union: Henson's magic touch finishes England

Wales 11 England 9 Try: S Williams Pens: Hodgson 3 Pens: S Jones, Henson Half-time: 8-3 Attendance: 72,500
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The Independent Online
Gareth Thomas, the Wales captain, was the only member of his team who had experienced the deliciously sweet taste of success against England, many white moons ago. Four minutes from the end of a claustrophobic classic yesterday that would have tested the dramatic skills of Alfred Hitchcock, Thomas made one of the most important decisions of his career. It has set Wales on the high road of the Six Nations' Championship.

England had hit the front for the first time when Charlie Hodgson kicked his third penalty in the 69th minute and, finally, a restrained echo of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" rebounded from the roof of the Millennium Stadium.

But if there is one thing this Welsh team have shown under the coach Mike Ruddock it is that they play for 80 minutes. England's lead had lasted all of seven minutes when Jason Robinson, the England captain, was caught in possession on his 10-metre line and conceded a penalty. For once Stephen Jones was not called upon to kick for goal.

Instead Thomas asked Gavin Henson to do the honours and from 43 metres and close to the right touchline the centre thumped the ball between the uprights. Cue a choir of about 72,000 voices, and that was just inside the stadium.

The world champions had no response. Henson's strike was a massive kick in the gumshield which immediately extracted two gold teeth - the prospect of a Grand Slam and a Triple Crown. Wales, on the other hand, are up and running, all the way to Rome where they face Italy next weekend on the second leg of what could prove to be an incredible journey.

In what was an old-fashioned scoreline, a try and two penalties to three penalties, Wales showed the old-fashioned virtues of refusing to accept defeat, similar, in fact, to those that helped them over the line when they won 10-9 at the Cardiff Arms Park in 1993, their last victory over the old enemy in the Principality 12 very long years ago.

In those days Mathew Tait, as a seven-year-old, was just finding his feet, in between the discarded rusks. Yesterday the prodigy, who this time last year was playing schoolboy rugby for Barnard Castle, was taken off in the 59th minute after being subjected to a couple of massive hits by Henson. It shouldn't happen to the son of a vet.

Tait, whose 19th birthday party today will not have quite the fizz it would have had had England prevailed, showed some nice touches but had very little opportunity to show the skills that have made him the talk of the Tyne.

Should Andy Robinson, the England coach, have played Olly Barkley in the first place? Yes. This was a gamble too far for an England team who are such a work-in-progress they could have emerged from a building site.

Only five members of the Red Rose team who lifted the World Cup in Sydney in November 2003 were on duty here and three were in the backs. For all his electric running, Jason Robinson, who prayed for guidance when he took over the captaincy from Jonny Wilkinson, has nowhere near Wilkinson's appreciation of the finer arts of the game.

Andy Robinson's choice of Jamie Noon to ride shotgun with Tait did not work either and England's midfield created next to nothing. But Noon, remember, was making his Six Nations debut, as indeed were the two Robinsons, in last night's roles - Andy as head coach, Jason as captain. Mark Cueto would get more chances in 15 minutes of fame at Sale than he did in the entire evening here.

Wales scored the only try of the match from the back of the match, Shane Williams, who sprinted over in the left-hand corner in the 10th minute, the climax to some excellent play after Steve Thompson had failed to find his jumper at a line-out. By throwing too long (not for the first time), Thompson allowed Martyn Williams to celebrate his 50th cap by having a field day.

Williams, forever inventive and dangerous, could have got another try at the death but for Stephen Jones overdoing a little grub kick to the left-hand corner when the English defence were at panic stations.

In what was an incredibly tense evening, Jones had one of his poorest matches for Wales and when his partner, Dwayne Peel, was replaced midway through the second half, the impression was that Ruddock had taken off the wrong half-back. Jones, who is very much a confidence player, showed very little of it as, for the most part, he kicked badly from the hand and the ground. Wales had more to offer at three-quarter but failed to take what very few chances were on offer.

Jones's penalty in the 23rd minute cancelled out one from Hodgson in the 14th to give Wales an 8-3 lead and that should have been increased after 34 minutes when Danny Grewcock put the boot into Peel's head at a ruck on the England line as the scrum-half was about to receive the ball. In this instance Thomas made one of his worst decisions, diving in to tackle Grewcock and the upshot was a yellow card not only for the England lock but the Wales captain. The penalty was reversed in England's favour.

Although Hodgson made a hash of a penalty attempt three minutes before the break, he was on target from long range in the 47th minute, which cut Wales' lead to 8-6. The second half was looking rosy for England as their forwards began to take control and the Welsh line-out lost its radar.

After Jones had fallen short with a penalty from just inside the England half, Wales were forced into desperate defence after a series of English raids which resulted in Gethin Jenkins conceding a penalty at a ruck. Hodgson's sweet kick made it 9-8 to England and prompted the question: had Wales forgotten how to win? Step forward the Osprey Henson and his soaring kick.

On balance Wales deserved it; it was the turn of the Red Dragonhood to slay St George.

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