Rugby Union: Welsh give a lesson in self-belief

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The Independent Online
WHEN ALL the Welsh glory and the English grief of Wembley has died down - and it might take a while - we will look back at the last Five Nations game and recognise that two better sides emerged from what was an amazing day.

The build-up, the atmosphere, the weather and the friendly rivalry between the fans was an unforgettable experience even before the great climax to the game. But what impressed me was the way the lessons sank in.

England, of course, had little option but to try to look on the bright side of a match they should have won. Wales, on the other hand, had every reason to float to the moon and back but their coach Graham Henry did not lose sight for one moment of the faults that Wales have.

He was the first to admit that the Welsh did not play well. There were aspects of their game which went well, but there were far too many turnovers. And Henry was also disappointed at the number of times that England attacks cut through. There were three clean breaks in particular that hurt - from Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Catt and Steve Hanley.

This was in addition to the faults that led to England's tries; the first of which involved two missed tackles in broken play from Colin Charvis and Brett Sinkinson which let Matt Perry through; the second came from a Wilkinson half-break under the Welsh posts which allowed Hanley through on a scissors; and the third came from a daft collision between Shane Howarth and Gareth Thomas. Wales must copy the zone defence the English play so well.

On the plus side, Neil Jenkins was phenomenal, and not just his kicking for goal, brilliant as that was. Part of the Welsh hope was to get parity up front which they did. They won their line-outs and did very well in the scrums. But they were determined not to let play dwell in their own 22, which would have have played into the hands of English power. So they kicked the ball long at every opportunity.

The success of these tactics and the quality of the tries they scored helped to create the important realisation in the Welsh team that they can compete with the best if they can control their bit of the game. They now know that they can beat a superior opponent by carving chances out of scraps.

Wales' two second-half tries were masterpieces of making the most of not much and should have been an object lesson to the wasteful English. Howarth's try came from patience and the ability to strike at exactly the right time. Wales drove and drove, re-cycled and recycled until Jenkins saw the opportunity for that superb miss pass that finally slit open the defence.

There have been many English complaints about the penalty awarded against Tim Rodber for his tackle on Charvis but you have to agree that, technically, the referee was right because Rodber didn't use his arms in the tackle. But Wales still had an enormous task to turn a penalty deep in their own half into a match-winning try.

One point about the winning try that most people missed was that when Scott Quinnell failed to catch Rob Howley's pass properly, it caused the English defence to stand-off for a split second. What happened then came straight out of rugby league. Scott Gibbs saw a gap and came at it from a great angle to run on to a flat pass at pace. He had the power to pull out of Perry's tackle and step away from Hanley at the line.

The knowledge that you can score tries like that is a tremendous asset. England's problem is that they don't cash in on far easier opportunities. Even after Wales scored, England could still have won. They had a scrum well into the Welsh half with a couple of minutes left but they panicked. Catt snatched at a drop-goal attempt that was never on and that was that.

Had Lawrence Dallaglio driven forward from that scrum, two or three rucks would have given them good field position. Either Wales would have surrendered a penalty or Catt could have stood off to attract the rushing defenders leaving Wilkinson to have a pot.

England can have a terrific World Cup if they develop the patience and self-belief that now gives Wales hope of being a handful as hosts.