It was piercingly poignant that the Welsh, a true rugby nation and the proud hosts of next year's showpiece, should have been discovered floating on top of the water at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon. They are shifting heaven and earth - thousands upon thousands of tons of earth, indeed - to rebuild and reconsecrate their Cardiff Arms Park cathedral in good time for the arrival of the Boks, the Blacks and the Wallabies. And how will those stern, beetle-browed visitors from the south repay their hospitality? By kicking their butts, rubbing their noses in the dirt and laughing in their faces. Only five sides can even dream of a semi-final place and Wales are quite transparently not among the dreamers.
England are very much in contention for a last-four finish, of course; Clive Woodward's new-look, new-age band of brothers finally took flight with an utterly persuasive display of nerve, verve, pride and passion that confirmed them as authentic challengers for any glittering prize you care to name. It was a sweet moment for the coach, who refused to allow the recent Paris aberration to entice him down the cul-de-sac of safety-first rugby, and a sweet one too for Lawrence Dallaglio, who led his country to victory for the first time and, in the process, established his credentials as a great English captain in the making. He may conceivably turn out to be the greatest of them all.
Anyone who still subscribes to the theory that captaincy is an overblown irrelevance could not have witnessed Dallaglio's definitive contribution at Twickenham. On three occasions during England's game-busting second quarter, the lean and hungry Wasp rejected straightforward Paul Grayson penalty shots in favour of attacking first-phase platforms. The result? Three tries, easy as you like. From the heady heights of 12-6 up, Wales suddenly found themselves being dangled over the cliff edge by the short and curlies.
Thus inspired, England proceeded to either break or equal every record in the red rose almanac. From the moment David Rees, the Sale scuttler with a Bunterish appetite for hard work, slipped off his wing to take Will Greenwood's scoring inside pass for his first try on 28 minutes, an astonished audience watched what had been billed as an international match mutate into a slaughter.
In one deeply troubling sense, the tidal wave of points reduced a long- cherished annual rugby occasion to the sporting equivalent of the dodgy triple-X movie: there was an initial fascination, certainly, but it was soon dulled by the grinding repetition of Englishmen crossing the Welsh line unchallenged. And there lies the rub for world rugby. If England, France and the southern superpowers are 40 points better than Wales, how on earth will the remaining 14 nations fare in next year's tournament? We are talking cricket scores here, with only one side wielding the bat.
The possibility, nay probability, that the World Cup will be a non-event until the Big Five start playing each other in the last fortnight of the competition is not something that will deprive Woodward and Dallaglio of their self-satisfied sleep, however. Both men needed a convincing victory to lend substance to their theorising and they achieved it in spades.
"We learned an awful lot about ourselves in France a fortnight ago and while that performance still rankles with me, we got enough of a handle on the reasons behind the defeat to make positive use of the experience," the coach said. "I just knew the team would play against Wales. Big players like Lawrence and Martin Johnson stood up in front of the squad and accepted that the display in Paris was absolute crap from both the individual and collective points of view and they vowed to put it right.
"I also think we were helped to a degree by some of the comments attributed to the Welsh players before the game. I don't have a problem with coaches spouting off about what they expect to happen - that's part of the job description - but I'm not sure it's a particularly bright idea for the players themselves to go around shouting the odds. We closed in on ourselves last week and kept our counsel. I was always confident that Wales would feel the backlash but that was for them to find out, not for me to predict."
Few coaches keep their counsel more determinedly than John Mitchell, but Woodward's highly valued assistant from All Black country made the crucial input as England confirmed their status as a first division nation. The former New Zealand No 8 put his under-performing tight five through more than 50 set scrums in a single 35-minute torture session last Tuesday morning and then, after lunch, followed up with enough full-on contact work to bring strong men to their knees.
How the sweat bore fruit. Johnson was majestic, Garath Archer only marginally less regal and Jason Leonard massively influential as he bent and twisted David Young, his fellow Lion, into a corkscrew at the set-piece. Even though Allan Bateman's acute perception had given Wales two tries and a 12-6 lead inside 24 minutes, their not-so-heavy brigade up front had been waylaid, mugged and relieved of possession so often that the scoreline was nothing more than a blip.
"Some of the England guys are tired, not so much physically as mentally," said Mitchell. "In France, their body language proved that they are being asked to play too much rugby. But it is always possible to get them to react to criticism, to appeal to their professional pride and get a big performance from them. We fed off the pre-match ammunition given us by Wales."
Thanks to England's towering superiority at the coalface, the long-awaited battle of midfield wits between last summer's quartet of Lions centres failed to materialise. Yet there were flashes of inspiration from all four: Jeremy Guscott's panther-like prowls into open space, Will Greenwood's awareness and sleight of hand in contact, Scott Gibbs' truly monumental tackling and Allan Bateman's instinctive understanding of when and where to wield the stiletto.
Perhaps it was the least experienced of them, Greenwood, who most set the pulse racing. Having created the opening English try for Rees, he found Austin Healey with what should have been a scoring reverse flick before claiming the try of the match for himself with 11 minutes left on the clock. Once again, he located Rees with a pass all the more visionary for its execution in heavy traffic and the Leicester man was alert enough to skip away from his tackler and take the return to dive over at the posts.
If Wales see Greenwood again, it will be far too soon. But then, the puffless Dragons will say that about the England side in its entirety. Their long-suffering supporters should make the most of the build-up to the 1999 World Cup, because the fun will stop as soon as the first whistle is blown.
ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), J Guscott (Bath), W Greenwood, A Healey (both Leicester); P Grayson (Northampton), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: D Garforth (Leicester) for Vickery, 55; D Grewcock (Saracens) for Johnson, 56; A Diprose (Saracens) for Hill, 56; M Catt (Bath) for Grayson, 69; M Dawson (Northampton) for Bracken, 70; P de Glanville (Bath) for Greenwood, 70.
WALES: N Jenkins (Pontypridd); G Thomas (Cardiff), A Bateman (Richmond), S Gibbs (Swansea), N Walker (Cardiff); A Thomas (Swansea), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); A Lewis (Cardiff), B Williams (Richmond), D Young (Cardiff), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), M Voyle (Llanelli), C Charvis (Swansea), S Quinnell (Richmond), M Williams (Pontypridd). Replacements: W Procter (Llanelli) for Walker, 3; R Appleyard (Swansea) for Quinnell, 10; J Humphreys (Cardiff) for B Williams, 64; L Davies (Cardiff) for Bateman, 64; C Stephens (Bridgend) for Voyle, 33; L Mustoe (Cardiff) for Lewis, 76.
Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand).
The majority of England's top clubs boycotted a meeting with Fran Cotton and Cliff Brittle at Twickenham yesterday to discuss the RFU's Club England plan. Only six clubs turned up to talk over proposals for a provincial- style game, with franchises being given to various regions.
France quell Scots, page 13