Rugby: Wales have never looked so small

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WHAT now of Max Boyce's gloating Twickenham lyric? "A very pukka English chap said: `Oh Lord, give us a try, a try would be terrific' then JPR scored again and God said: `You should have been more specific'."

It's been a long time since Welsh supporters could make the February trip with more optimism than the Celtic nature normally allows when England are in opposition, but last week's persistent misgivings did not run to such humiliation.

Sixty points on the board, England equalling their best-ever total and setting a Five Nations record. In truth, it might have been 100. No wonder Wales had to suffer the cruel suggestion that they should forget about playing in the World Cup and concentrate their energies on presentation.

On the eve of the match, Jonathan Davies was guest of honour at a Lord's Taverners dinner, the toast to him proposed by another Welsh hero, Cliff Morgan, one of four Welsh players recently inducted into an international rugby hall of fame that does not yet include an Englishman.

There is no consolation for Wales in past rugby glories, neither is it any longer possible to blame decline on the blandishments of rugby league. The romance of Welsh rugby was rooted in the spirit of industrial communities and the importance of a game as national expression. Wales has changed and change alters attitudes. Defeat still hurts, but in time it loses the proportions of disaster.

It is pretty obvious that professionalism has condemned the Celtic nations to second-class rugby status. "We are a small country," the Wales coach, Kevin Bowring, said when sifting through the debris of Saturday's catastrophe. Under the hammer blows of England's driving lineout play, Wales have never looked so diminutive, crushed psychologically as well as physically.

Introduced by Twickenham's announcer as the world's best scrum-half, Robert Howley later had the glazed look of a man who had spent weeks in a trench under heavy bombardment. "The two tries early on encouraged us to think we might have a real chance, but our discipline went," he said afterwards.

Misfortune here and there (a first-half penalty awarded against Wayne Proctor could easily have gone the other way, and one of England's tries resulted from a lucky bounce of the ball) and injuries too. But once England hit full stride, Wales were heading for the most debilitating defeat they have ever known.

Nothing was harder for Wales to take than the realisation that England's supporters shared in their embarrassment, applauding politely when Scott Gibbs crossed for a try in the last minute. Politeness from a Twickenham crowd? Now there's disgrace for you. Yet it would be wrong to even hint that Wales committed the cardinal Celtic sin of capitulation, but the systematic destruction of their scrum was brutal confirmation of defensive shortcomings.

Bowring had pointed to encouraging progress in development and Wales were not short of confidence, believing that their backs had the talent to capitalise on the pressure imposed by England's failure to win any of their seven previous matches. It turned out be just another false dawn.

If the steamroller effect of England's forwards always carried the threat of extinction for Wales, even when Allan Bateman's tries established a 12-6 lead, the roof came in during a 12-minute period that saw their defences reduced to rubble. It was all over by half-time, England already ahead 34-12 and coasting.

It became exhibition stuff, England so supreme that the need for improvement their captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, later spoke about was frightening for the future of Welsh rugby.

Maybe it was a mistake to take England on at the 15-man rugby Clive Woodward has ordered. Another mistake was to suggest beforehand that England might be there for the taking. "We took that on board," Woodward said.

What Wales need to include in their baggage is that naturally gifted backs are at a long price in the modern game unless they have a sound base to work from. Bowring insisted that the fight will go on. "There won't be any throwing in of the towel," he said. A more appropriate boxing analogy is that Wales were beaten up in a mismatch.