Club beat country as Dragons feast after famine

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The Independent Online

They scoffed at the prospect. Wales, with 13 Ospreys starting here and a couple more on the bench, would provide a fascinating examination of that old theory that the best club side are entitled to overcome adecent international one. But England defeated by a club side? Even Wales's new coach, Warren Gatland, spoke beforehand of apprehension, of being twitchy and nervous. Going to Twickenham, he opined, was like a League One club going to Manchester United in an FA Cup tie.

You could not have imagined such an outcome in that first half of England superiority. It was a fanciful concept the moment Lesley Vainikolo made his 12th- minute entrance and swiftly contributed to Toby Flood extending England's lead to 13 points.

It had all began so propitiously for Brian Ashton, who had resisted the temptation to draft in young guns, preferring to depend on flintlocks, so to speak. With the loss of Jason Robinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Corry and Mike Catt, there was only one new cap, the 24-year-old Gloucester No 8 Luke Narraway.

Most contentiously, Mathew Tait had been ditched, four months after what many perceived as an inspired performance in the World Cup final, and replaced by Mike Tindall, whom Ashton claims is the Premiership's form No 13.

Yet, perversely, Tait was not switched to full-back. Ashton claims he is too inexperienced, and would have been "exposed". After this second half by England one can only speculate what the head coach thinks after his entire team were left naked.

Instead, Ashton opted for Iain Balshaw, who was then publicly identified as England's weak link by Gatland. Wales duly pressured him early on. Mark Jones clobbered him, but he is not easily fazed and stood firm. Indeed, as the half wore on it was his attacking prowess that came to the fore. Just before half-time his run instigated the move that ended with Paul Sackey going over for a "try" which was ruled out after TV replays had deemed the evidence "inconclusive".

Before then, England had been assertive and looked to run the ball, and no more so than when David Strettle darted through the visitors' ranks with a scintillating run. But Strettle was forced to retire, injured. His departure was accompanied by a roar of approval that began as a murmur of excitement but rose to a crescendo. Not something that you expect at the sight of a mere replacement, and a debutant at that. But this was no ordinary newcomer: at 17st 5lb and 6ft 2in, Vainikolo is a hulking vision of power, with features adorned by beaded dreadlocks. Immediately he endeared himself to the home crowd, insouciantly hurling Mark Jones over the touchline. The Llanelli Scarlets winger must have wondered who, or what, had hit him. A little later, that same player was in serious danger of decapitation as he ducked under Vainikolo, who had advanced on him like a runaway truck.

The Gloucester man's best was to come, though. Jonny Wilkinson, whose penalty kicking had secured England a 9-3 advantage and whose decision-making had been instrumental in his team's initial domination, kicked precisely out to the left. Into that space Vainikolo appeared and rose above the unfortunate Mark Jones, but then – and here's the smart part – in the same movement deftly released the ball to Flood to gallop over for England's first try of these championships.

And so England's followers acclaimed a new hero, in the mould of Jonah Lomu. And never mind that this Tongan-born, New Zealand-capped, rugby league convert was representing their nation. Not with an opening contribution like this. The crowd would have departed content, if only he and England could have maintained it.

The likelihood of Wales feasting after 20 years of famine was remote at the interval but, inspired by James Hook, Wales achieved the unthinkable. England capitulated to two tries, the latter of which originated when Mike Phillips charged down a kick from Balshaw. And to compound England's humiliation was the spectacle of Shaun Edwards plotting their downfall as Wales's defensive coach.

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