England limited but lucky after Jones loses his head

England 30 Wales 17
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The Independent Online

There was an Edwardian tinge to proceedings as Twickenham marked its centenary with the 119th match between two nations still obsessed by the idea of rugby as class warfare: enough royalty for a garden party, lashings of Elgar, a large contingent from the armed forces and a set of England shirts so old-fashioned that they made Harold Abrahams' running kit in "Chariots of Fire" seem scandalously risqué. Yet the Welsh headed for home feeling there had been nothing remotely retro about the occasion. "How," they argued, "can you hark back to an age you never really left?"

Warren Gatland, the defeated coach, set the after-match tone by dismissing England's rugby as something out of the sporting ark. "Their game plan was based on the pick-and-go and the box-kick," he said. "If they tried to play a little bit, they didn't have much success. From the kick-off, they moved the ball from side to side and found themselves being tackled back 20 metres. When we played, we looked really dangerous."

It was difficult to disagree: in the attacking sense, Wales made infinitely more happen during the 30 minutes of their ascendancy than England managed during the 50 minutes of theirs. Had Tom James completed the simplest of tasks after being presented with rugby's equivalent of an open goal by the spellbinding James Hook around the hour mark, the visitors could easily have won. Had the home full-back Delon Armitage not intercepted Stephen Jones' pass three minutes from time, they certainly would have done. As for what might have happened had Alun Wyn Jones not flicked out his right foot and tripped Dylan Hartley in open field towards the end of the first half... that, in the private view of the England manager Martin Johnson, does not bear thinking about.

Johnson's men scored 17 points, more than half their tally, during the lock's spell of sin-bin incarceration: three of them from the resulting penalty and 14 from tries either side of the interval, the first a scrum-based up-the-jumper job and the second a longer-range effort set in motion by Steve Borthwick, continued by Nick Easter and finished with a touch of élan by Danny Care. "We've all been there, all made mistakes," said Johnson, happy to offer a victor's sympathy to Jones, his successor in the Lions engine room. And Gatland? He used the word "stupid" more than once in connection with the episode while wearing a "hanging's too good for him" expression on his face.

An hour or so after the final whistle, Gatland had not so much as breathed a word to the miscreant, leaving it to Shaun Edwards, his second in command, whose bollockings are measured on the same scale as recent taxpayer hand-outs to the Six Nations title sponsors. While Jones is hoping this week's meeting with Scotland will provide him with an opportunity for atonement, there is no guarantee the coaches will pick him. Pressed on the Ospreys forward's immediate future in the Wales starting line-up, Gatland would not commit himself either way.

Apart from anything else, Jones did not cover himself in glory at the line-out, which England dominated for much of the encounter. This was largely down to Borthwick, the much-maligned captain, who, not for the first time this season, turned in a display wholly at odds with the picture of ineffectiveness painted by his critics. Not only was he able to predict the Welsh throw with startling accuracy – the visitors must have wondered whether their code had been cracked well before the game – he was close to faultless on his own ball. Add to this his turnover of the unfortunate James in the build-up to Care's try and his effectiveness was indisputable.

England were nowhere near as comfortable at the scrummage. Convinced that the Lions J-Force of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones would make a rare old mess of a fragile red-rose set-piece, Wales were deflated by the withdrawal of the first of these outstanding props two days before the game. As it turned out, they could have picked Katherine Jenkins and Aled Jones in the front row and still "got a nudge on", as the phraseology has it. Even when they were packing down a man short, with their captain Ryan Jones filling the gap at lock, they made their opponents fight tooth and nail for every inch of ground.

Taken together with the lack of dynamism about England's back-line play – for all his gifts, Jonny Wilkinson is not even a poor man's Stephen Jones when it comes to sensing, creating or maximising space – these were good reasons not to celebrate this performance as any sort of turning-point. Yet only a hard-hearted sort would have begrudged a relieved Johnson pointing to some positives, not least the energetic contribution of his back-row unit, whose work-rate would have put the Trojans themselves to shame. If Lewis Moody, Nick Easter and the two-try flanker James Haskell had their hands full with Ryan Jones, they could not hope to live with a footballing flanker as accomplished as Martyn Williams. Yet such was their collective fervour, they just about shaded the contest.

Most encouragingly of all, there was barely a hint of consternation about England as their opponents ran them ragged in transforming a 20-3 hiding into a three-point ballgame. The Welsh backs, with Hook to the fore, had the measure of their opponents during the second half, yet there was no 2007-style descent into panic. Indeed, Mathew Tait, barely employed in the attacking sense for 75 minutes, showed the coolest of heads in capitalising on Armitage's interception, turning Shane Williams inside out with a perfectly judged run before freeing Haskell with the cutest of concealed flick-passes.

It has been a long time since England won a genuinely nerve-shredding contest – indeed, it is in an entirely new experience for this regime – and there is a danger of Johnson learning the wrong lessons from a game that might easily have been lost. If he learns the right ones, he may look back on Twickenham centenary day as a beginning.

Scorers: England: Tries Haskell (2), Care; Conversions: Wilkinson (3); Penalties: Wilkinson (3). Wales: Tries: A Jones, Hook; Conversions: S Jones (2); Penalty: S Jones.

England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale), M Tait (Sale), T Flood (Leicester), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Haskell (Stade Français), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins).

Replacements: S Thompson (Brive) for Hartley 61; D Cole (Leicester) for Wilson 61; L Deacon (Leicester) for Shaw 72; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Care 78; S Armitage (London Irish) for Moody 78; D Hipkiss (Leicester) for Flood 80.

Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); T James (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), G Cooper (Cardiff Blues); P James (Ospreys), G Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), A W Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), A Powell (Cardiff Blues), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Replacements: B Davies (Cardiff Blues) for Charteris 15-17 and 53; H Bennett (Ospreys) for G Williams 53; L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues) for James 66; R Rees (Cardiff Blues) for Cooper 70; J Thomas (Ospreys) for Powell 70.

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).

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