Dragons prevail despite the thorns of Red Rose

Grinding and grunting of bully boys is not enough to eclipse Welsh pass masters
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The Independent Online

The history books show that over the 128 years in which Wales and England have been sorting out their cross-border differences with an oval ball there is nothing separating the two teams with 53 wins apiece. And for much of this enthralling drama on Saturday primetime that it is just how it seemed. Barely a fag-paper between them, a hymn-sheet even. Indeed, perhaps it was only the thickness of those two yellow cards.

So much for the one-way procession. This was positively two-way and how it grabbed the attention, this way and that. Thank goodness for sport's unpredictability. In the event, it was the well-signposted home victory, but there was no arguing it had been erroneously billed.

In the build-up, Dick Best, the former England coach, warned the Welsh "to enjoy it while it lasts" and said "these things are cyclical". Indeed, form does come in cycles and indeed Wales were going to enjoy it. Because they happened to be approaching the top of the wheel and England were threatening to drop down to where the rusty spokes dwell. Surely yesterday was to prove that.

Well, it didn't. Not quite. Wales were left to kick penalties – and hope that England missed one of theirs – in the last 10 minutes to be sure of it and while there was no shame in that, considering some of the heroic England performances, there was a certain anti-climax. At least from the Dragonhood's perspective.

Which was a shame for them and a shame for the Welsh players who had not enjoyed their finest, most free-flowing evening but had still come through when they had to as they kept alive dreams of a second successive Grand Slam. "We knew it was going to be tough and it was more than that," said the scrum-half Michael Phillips. "We have proved we can win big games like that and grind it out when we need to. In the end it was a tremendous effort."

Tremendous would be overstating it, but impressively professional probably wouldn't be. Certainly, the significance of their success should not be understated and no doubt it wouldn't be when the realisation hit home that this had been England humbled and, in fact, not come within a score. Yes, there were still many stats for the red-shirts to jam down the necks of the white-shirts on a Valentine's Night when, for once, the red rose should have seemed more a symbol of submission than love.

This was the first time Wales had won three Six Nations matches in succession over their dear neighbours in 20 years and was their fourth victory over them in five Championships. Would that be enough for the over-expectant Welsh public? The hype that will continue to build over the next fortnight until Paris will suggest so. But they had arrived here with such a more resounding script in mind.

First the English forwards would be hung, then the ball would be drawn and their backs would be three-quartered. It did not happen like that. The team who had tried to play the rugby did not crush the team that had tried to stop rugby. It was not a case of right prevailing over wrong, of good over evil, of Luke Skywalker over Darth Vader. But still, when it all came to pass – and strewth can those Welsh boys pass – there were drunken Welshmen who had plainly waited all their lives to feel this righteous.

No doubt, there was an illusion in operation; there just had to be in a modern game where the majority of moves are born on the blackboard. Warren Gatland told them at half-time "we're in a Test here". The donkeys had to carry on doing their work and the pretty stuff would have to wait.

Or maybe Wales were simply missing the man named the best player in the world for 2008. Shane Williams hurt his ankle when he twisted it at Murrayfield last weekend; but that was nothing to the pain he could have caused here in twisting the England defence. Leigh Halfpenny did, in many ways, fill the void with aplomb, and for a 20-year-old that is some statement. His was one name they could toast all night. Yet there was a nagging voice, too. They had won on the scoreboard, but lost on the try-count. Who would have thought it?

Definitely not Shaun Edwards, the defence coach who duly did his traditional rendition of "Saturday Night At The Movies" in the Welsh dressing room afterwards, but who would have done so suspecting he had just witnessed glimpses of something X-rated. Wales conceded as many tries in this game as they did in the entire 2008 Championship and did so against a side Gatland had pilloried as "the Leicester of old". England will never be that, just like Wales will never be the "Wales of old", no matter how hard the nation wishes for a Seventies re-run. Rugby has changed too much for all that.

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