Stuart Lancaster, the temporary red-rose coach who would surely have secured something more permanent had this been a 70-minute contest, could be heard talking afterwards about "small margins", and the margins were indeed tiny. Had the visiting captain Sam Warburton mistimed his wonderful try-saving tackle on Manu Tuilagi by so much as a millisecond; had Mike Brown carried the ball a yard further in the last move of the match; had the television match official Iain Ramage been blessed with slightly better eyesight... had any of these things happened, a four-week-old England team might well have prevailed over a high-class Welsh side four years into its development.
At the same time, Lancaster's opposite number was speaking of big margins. Warren Gatland was not so divorced from reality that he thought his team had won comfortably: former All Blacks tend to see rugby matches for what they are, and this one was within a gnat's crotchet of ending all-square. The New Zealander's point was that Wales, once the worst-conditioned side in the elite international game, are now so fit that final half-hours have ceased to be their enemy and have become their friend instead.
"Was I surprised at the way England lived with the tempo? If I'm honest, I think the tempo was the difference," the one-time hooker said as he celebrated a slight piece of history – Wales had never before completed a Triple Crown triumph on Twickenham soil – that will grow in the telling, especially if another Grand Slam comes their way early next month. "This all goes back to last summer and the cryotherapy work we did in Poland before the World Cup. In terms of fitness, I would put us right up there with the big southern hemisphere nations. It's amazing, the way your skills seem to improve the fitter you are.
"We try to keep the ball in play for as long as possible because that's when our conditioning kicks in. If it's in play for 40 minutes or more, we win 90 per cent of our games. Out there today, the ball was in play for 16 minutes in the first half and 24 in the second. That's a big differential and it told. We're winning matches in the last quarter: we did it in Ireland and we've done it here. If your fitness is such that you can maintain your skill levels and make good decisions deep into an exhausting contest, you're bound to have an advantage."
Gatland was preaching from the same pulpit as his countryman, the great All Black flanker Graham Mourie, who, three decades ago, could be heard linking physical conditioning to decision-making under pressure. Wales left London with a seven-point victory largely because they were able to accelerate the pace and increase the intensity of the encounter in the second period despite losing Rhys Priestland, their outside-half and principal game-shaper, to the sin bin.
Even with this crucial edge in lung and muscle power they found themselves in extremis as England sought an equalising score at the last knockings, and the final few seconds threw up enough talking points to keep rugby debating societies in business for many years to come. Brown, the replacement full-back, had been on the field for only two minutes when Toby Flood picked him out with a "Hail Mary" pass off the left hand. He could, and should, have fixed the covering Jonathan Davies before delivering to David Strettle and had he done so, the wing would have made it to the line and given Flood a wide-angled conversion to draw the match. Unfortunately for the home side, Brown shipped the ball a second too early – a macro-mistake in a micro-situation – and allowed Davies to clatter Strettle on the line.
Strettle's courageous contortions – he might easily have dislocated his shoulder in attempting a completion of the try – allowed him to place the ball, albeit momentarily, on terra firma. "I certainly felt the ball touch the ground before people piled in on me," he said, convinced he had scored. But the on-field officials were unsure and although one camera angle appeared to confirm Strettle's impression, Ramage took a different view. Harsh? To borrow a phrase from the lexicon of football punditry: "We've seen them given."
By way of rubbing an entire ocean's worth of salt into English wounds, the referee Steve Walsh refused – or, perhaps, forgot – to activate the penalty he had awarded against the outstanding Wales prop Adam Jones for collapsing the driving maul that launched this do-or-die attack. That the clock had ticked past the 80-minute mark was neither here nor there. Walsh had been playing advantage and had not, so far as anyone on the pitch knew, called "advantage over".
Walsh might be said to be a member of his own Mutual Admiration Society: he thought rather too much of himself when he was a New Zealander – during the 2003 World Cup, he pushed his personal love-in too far by engaging in an embarrassing touchline spat with the red-rose conditioning coach Dave Reddin – and apparently thinks the same now that he is an Australian. Here is a man who could embrace a dozen nationalities and annoy the English in all of them.
Not that Lancaster and his colleagues should stay annoyed for long. This was England's best performance since the opening Six Nations game in Cardiff a little over a year ago and was all the more impressive for the excellent contributions of the three players promoted to the starting line-up from the bench: the lock Geoff Parling, the No 8 Ben Morgan and, in particular, the energetic scrum-half Lee Dickson. Tuilagi, back in the side after injury, was a regular handful, while Owen Farrell, switched to fly-half after two games at centre, would have been a revelation had those with eyes to see not already labelled him a 50-cap No 10 in the making.
While Farrell's premature departure with cramp did not condemn England to this defeat – Flood is nobody's fool, after all – Lancaster's voluntary substitutions worked better for Wales than they did for his own side. Matt Stevens, on for Alex Corbisiero, conceded the penalty that allowed Leigh Halfpenny to level the argument at 12-apiece; Courtney Lawes, introduced for the highly effective Mouritz Botha after an hour, was the man too easily pickpocketed by Scott Williams in the build-up to the Welsh centre's decisive try five minutes from time; Ben Youngs, asked to fan the flames following Dickson's successful stoking of the fires, reduced everything he touched to ashes.
"There was a momentum shift around the replacements," Lancaster acknowledged. "But people were getting tired and you have to trust your bench." A fortnight previously, he had thrown on Dickson and Morgan against Italy and reaped the rewards. Here, he withdrew the same individuals and paid the price. Such is life.
For his part, Gatland made only two substitutions, one of them forced upon him by Jamie Roberts' knee injury. He thought of replacing an out-of-sorts Priestland with Stephen Jones, a playmaker with 100-odd caps to his name, for the final quarter – and then thought again. "I was about to do it, then decided that if Rhys could come through this and out the other side, it would be huge for him," the coach revealed. "That's what he did. He played really well in the last 10 and he'll draw on that in the future."
These are the calls that matter, and Gatland has made a lot of them over the last year or so. The British and Irish Lions hierarchy, most of whom were at Twickenham, are working their way through a shortlist of coaches for this year's Test series in Australia. That list is now very short indeed, consisting of two initials: one is a W, the other a G, and they have nothing to do with a long-dead cricketer.
England: Penalties: Farrell 4. Wales: Try: Williams Conversion: Halfpenny Penalties: Halfpenny 4.
England: B Foden (Northampton); D Strettle (Saracens), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), C Ashton (Northampton); O Farrell (Saracens), L Dickson (Northampton); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), M Botha (Saracens), G Parling, T Croft (both Leicester), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Scarlets). Replacements: B Youngs (Leicester) for Dickson, 60; C Lawes (Northampton) for Botha, 60; T Flood (Leicester) for Farrell, 65; M Stevens (Saracens) for Corbisiero, 65; R Webber (Wasps) for Hartley, 71; P Dowson (Northampton) for Morgan, 71; M Brown (Harlequins) for Foden, 77.
Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert (both Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Blues), G North; R Priestland (both Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne); G Jenkins (Blues), K Owens (Scarlets), A Jones, AW Jones, I Evans (all Ospreys), D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons), S Warburton (Blues, capt), T Faletau (Dragons). Replacements: S Williams (Scarlets) for Roberts, h-t; R Jones (Ospreys) for A W Jones 53.
Referee: S Walsh (Australia).
ENGLAND Points WALES
0 Tries 1
0/0 Conversions 1/1
4/5 Penalties 4/5
0/1 Drop goals 0/0
Phases of play
1/0 Scrums won/lost 2/0
8/1 Line-outs won/lost 9/2
13 Pens conceded 12
3 Mauls won 2
21 Ruck and drive 48
60 Ruck and pass 42
163 Passes completed 134
1 Line breaks 3
23 Possession kicked 22
5 Kicks to touch 1
110/12 Tackles made/missed 99/9
6 Offloads in tackle 7
14 Total errors made 9
84 In open play 92
8 In opponents' 22 6
21 At set-pieces 24
5 Turnovers won 5
Official match data delivered by:
Rules are rules: was referee right?
Steve Walsh, the referee, had two options once he decided to consult the television match official, Iain Ramage, about David Strettle's disputed late score. He could have asked if there was any reason he should not award the try – an indication that he felt the touchdown had been legitimate and simply wanted to ensure he had not missed anything significant. This is rugby's equivalent of the "umpire's call" in cricket. The second option, chosen by Walsh in this case, was to ask whether or not the try had been scored: a subtle difference, but one that left the call to the TMO. Walsh's initial impression was that Strettle had been held up over the line. Therefore, he asked the right question.