Rugby Union: Welsh leave their mark in history

AND SO, amazingly, there is a little corner of north-west London that will be forever Wales. How wonderfully bizarre that one of the most thrilling feats in the history of Welsh rugby should take place in a home match played on enemy territory, where their temporary residency had previously yielded four defeats in five matches. All that and much more besides, not least the run of five consecutive defeats at England's hands, disappeared in the third minute of injury time at Wembley yesterday when Scott Gibbs swerved across the line with his hand in the air.

Wales's victory presented Scotland with the final Five Nations title, but the champions' euphoria last night can hardly have matched that of the men in red, who had toiled through a difficult first half but came out for the second period determined to get something from the day. So, after Scotland's win in Paris on Saturday, this topsy-turvy weekend brought down the curtain on a tournament that has been continuously contested since 1910, when Wales opened the series by scoring 10 tries in a 49-14 win over France.

Two tries were enough to do the job for yesterday's winners, against England's three. The difference, in terms of points, was the contribution of Jenkins, who kicked nervelessly and flawlessly, landing every one of his six penalties and two conversions. It may be cruel to point it out, but Jonny Wilkinson's failure to land his eminently kickable conversion of Steve Hanley's 20th-minute try, the boy wonder's only miss in seven attempts, turned out to be the difference between victory and defeat for his team.

The brave Jenkins had kept Wales in the game during a first half in which little went right for them as they tried to make Clive Woodward pay for his temerity in giving an England debut to a man named after Wales's greatest player. Jenkins's 18 points, against England's half-time aggregate of 25, were kicked into the teeth of a stiff breeze that must have added an effective 10 metres or so to the two angled kicks from close to 40 metres that he landed after 25 minutes and in first-half injury time.

Nevertheless the interval was spent in contemplation of England's general superiority. With the wind at their backs, the white shirts swept through the red defence like racing yachts slipping past a line of tethered buoys. They made their point as early as the second minute, when Mike Catt's exchange with Wilkinson ushered Dan Luger in for a try that rocked the Welsh confidence. Twenty minutes later, Richard Cockerell and Tim Rodber worked a nifty line-out trick which allowed Catt once again to provide the quick pass for Hanley to smash across the line.

But odds things were already happening. Craig Quinnell, slow to rise from a ruck on the halfway line, found that by the time he got to his feet the ball had been across the field and come back again, putting him in the perfect position to act as an auxiliary wing. Fed by the nearest back, he galumphed up the line until he met Hanley, the 6ft 6in prodigy. The younger Quinnell hit the Sale boy, supposedly the English Jonah Lomu, with exactly the abrupt ferocity that the All Black had flattened Tony Underwood on that amazing day in Cape Town in 1995.

But by this time any admiration of the spirit in which Wales approached the match was being submerged by concern about their naivety and clumsiness. Both defects were in evidence three minutes before half-time, when Shane Howarth and Gareth Thomas went for Matt Dawson's high kick, their painful collision inviting Richard Hill to collect the loose ball and notch England's third try.

Up to that point, Howarth had been having a bit of a shocker. This was a match in which his defensive qualities were most urgently required, given that Wales's midfield defence was offering all the deterrent properties of a bunch of lace doilies. But it was he who changed the mood at the start of the second period, first kicking a long clearance that Neil Back knocked on, and then, barely a minute later, looping round the right-side cover with Jenkins's floated pass in his hands, to score the try that gave Jenkins the chance to bring Wales level for the first time. For the rest of the match, Howarth's catching, kicking and running were of inspirational quality.

Two Wilkinson penalties gave England a six-point lead which lasted from the 54th to the 83rd minute, a period of feverish rugby in which moments of brilliance from both sides were mixed with equally remarkable blunders and fumbles. For once, the mistakes did nothing to spoil the match as a spectacle. In fact the more the Welsh gave the ball away, the more determined they seemed to atone for their errors.

The nerve-shredding climax meant that next year, when they come to tear Wembley Stadium down, the readiest market for pieces of the old place will surely be in Wales. Every clubhouse in the principality should have a shard of stone or a mound of soil, preserved above the bar like pieces of the true cross, as a memento of the day when all the tribulations and humiliations of the recent past were most gloriously swept away.

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