England vs Wales RWC 2015: England left to stare in horror as unthinkable defeat becomes daunting reality

Six minutes of calamity saw England snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

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The Independent Online

A rare blood moon, the savant’s sign of impending Apocalypse, was on the rise over Twickenham. For England it was a harbinger of doom, for Wales a symbol of spiritual defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.

Calamity consumed England six minutes from the end of a monumental match. Dan Biggar’s 49 metre penalty sailed through the still night air and between the posts. The stands were suddenly blood red, as 20,000 visitors celebrated salvation.

For England unthinkable defeat became daunting reality. The inquest will be harsh, angry. Australia must be beaten here next Saturday night; if the hosts fail to progress from Pool A this World Cup risks becoming a national curiosity, rather than a national obsession.

Wales were immense, overcoming the loss of Scott Williams and Liam Williams to serious injury. England, who had won their eight previous home matches, played with pace and tempo but were limited by persistent indiscipline. Wales resisted resolutely, like a terrier hanging on to a victim’s trouser leg.

It wasn’t a carousel of creativity, but that much was set by the shift in England’s selectorial strategy. It was utterly compelling, with bodies intermittently littering the lush green turf. It got the unforgettable, climactic conclusion it deserved.

We hear a lot about the pressure of such events, while underplaying the pleasure that can be derived from their scale. When England arrived with timetabled precision, 90 minutes before kick-off, the concourses were a dreamscape.  

The light was soft, emphasising the firefly flashbulbs of countless mobile phones. Fans, a fortunate minority of the 600,000 people who applied for tickets, hung from balconies six stories high, and responded with unashamed reverence to the squad’s gladiatorial march to the dressing room.

The old place was slightly unhinged. The tumult surpassed the traditional tribal rite of a Six Nations international, when everything from Celtic culture to socio-political iniquities are thrown at the dressing room wall, in the hope something inspirational will stick.

It was as if the ghosts and legends of 134 years of ritual combat had been summoned to orchestrate white noise and alcohol-fuelled hysteria. Not before time, the organisers’ fondness for pyrotechnics was exposed as shallow showmanship.  

The chronically over-excited public address announcer had screamed “this is going to be the experience of your lives.” But once the searchlights were extinguished, and the last powerchords of the Rolling Stones’ Pump Me Up had drifted away, a deeply personal, intimate, challenge awaited.  

Some players respond to such a shock to the nervous system with cold, carefully nuanced diligence which signals comfort amidst chaos; others recoil, abashed by the magnitude of the occasion and the importance of the result.

Whatever the long term wisdom of Ben Burgess’s elevation from interloper to talisman, however difficult the technical transition between codes, England’s fledging inside centre has a pedigree of producing on the biggest occasions.

Shrinking violets are not named man of the match in one of Australia’s most highly-charged occasions, the NRL Grand Final. Anyone who treats a broken collarbone and a damaged eye socket as an inconvenience has what the Aussies refer to as “ticker,” the beating heart of a natural competitor.

Yet we are dealing with human beings, rather than pre-programmed robots. Burgess began nervously, unwisely attempting to force a pass when enveloped by Scott Williams, and shanking an ugly clearing kick when obliged to retreat into England’s 22.

The other contentious decision, the reinstatement of Owen Farrell at fly half at the expense of George Ford, drew more immediate dividends. He had the requisite combination of accuracy and audacity, with a 35 metre drop goal the highlight of an assured first half performance.

The crowd had to wait 25 minutes for the first confrontation involving Jamie Roberts, the British Lion who threw himself at Burgess with the unerring accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, but was stopped in his tracks.

As tackles go, it had the power to shift tectonic plates. There was an audible intake of breath, a primitive yelp of collective pleasure. Burgess, an inch taller, two years younger and nearly a stone heavier, had physical advantages, and could not fail to notice Farrell on his shoulder, in the heat of battle.

The fact remained this was only his fifth senior match in his starting position.  He had to supress the instincts which made him such a compelling rugby league player. He had to show the discipline to submit himself to the system, rather than looking for the ball like a retriever ferreting for fallen pheasants at a country shoot.

He was following a rutted path, littered with obstacles. Owen Farrell’s father Andy, the coach who has quietly championed Burgess’s progress, endured only eight England appearances in union, following his departure from the thirteen man code.

He has moved smoothy into a position of authority and influence, but will be bound by collective responsibility for what will be judged as a flawed selectorial gamble.

Burgess rewarded him by looking for the gaps assiduously, angling his runs towards pockets of space, though he kicked poorly. Yet he was substituted 11minutes from time, and his muscular resistance was much missed.

Wales, ten points behind early in the second half, had the heroes. England have only regrets.