Six Nations: Stuart Lancaster faces huge rebuilding mission after England are beaten by Wales
Wales brutally exposed England's shortcomings and head coach admits lessons must be learned before 2015 tournament
There were precisely seven and a half minutes left on the clock when Barry John rose from his seat opposite the players' tunnel, ghosted past a couple of security types as though they were All Black flankers circa 1971, grinned cheekily at a female member of the catering staff and clenched his fist in triumph. Just then, it was possible to believe that The King, as he has been known in Wales for the best part of half a century, was happier than at any point in his long rugby life.
If the fabled stand-off from Cefneithin does not move as effortlessly as he once did (although he is still plenty quick enough to play in this current England back division), his rugby instincts remain razor-sharp. And those instincts told him that he had witnessed something very rare and very special: a comprehensive Welsh demolition of their most bitter rivals, on a scale barely imaginable even when he and his fellow royalty – JPR and JJ, Phil and Gareth, Merv the Swerve and the Viet Gwent – were in their pomp. No wonder he was smiling.
John could have made his exit rather earlier, for Wales had guaranteed themselves another Six Nations title well before close of play. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, he could have left within 10 minutes of the kick-off, for by then, the Grand Slam-hunting visitors were already clinging on for dear life at the scrum and being butchered by an experienced, battle-hardened home pack at the breakdown.
History tells us that red-rose victories over the red dragon are, first and foremost, exercises in brutal subjugation. When the Welsh take charge physically as well as artistically, as they did on Saturday, the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.
England were in such desperate trouble at the set-piece, they withdrew the outclassed Joe Marler as early as the 44th minute. "When you see a loose-head prop being substituted that early, it tells you something," said the Wales front-rower Gethin Jenkins, captain for the day and as ruthlessly efficient as any member of his pack. It was the same story in the tackle area, where Sam Warburton, the captain-in-exile, was quickest in adapting to the ultra-strict refereeing of Steve Walsh, who was unwilling to permit even the briefest contest for the ball on the floor.
Not for the first time in recent memory, England were left cursing Walsh to hell and back. They did not criticise him publicly this time – when a team falls short by 27 points, their problems run just a little deeper than the questionable interpretations of a whistle-happy Antipodean who likes to look good for the cameras – but they were profoundly frustrated by the imbalance of the penalty count. They knew that if they could not make the breakdown a "s*** fight", to use the popular jargon, Wales would hurt them badly with ball in hand. And so it proved.
"I was surprised there was so little in the way of a contest on the ground," admitted Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach. "Let's just say it differed from our expectations, and it certainly caused us some trouble. When you're up against a goalkicker like Leigh Halfpenny, you don't want to be giving away penalties. But let's be honest: we were second best in virtually every department. We lost because of rugby reasons.
"Will this experience leave a scar? I prefer to think it will provide us with huge motivation to ensure this never happens to us again. But I can't deny that this is a deeply disappointing place to be right now. I remember speaking to Steve Hansen [the New Zealand coach] after we beat the All Blacks in December, and he told me it was particularly hard losing the last game of a series because you have so much time to think about it. This is tough, but we'll come through it. Wales lost eight on the bounce recently and found a way to recover. We'll do the same."
Not without a lot of soul-searching, they won't. When England take their first shot at revenge in the 2014 Six Nations – "This time next year at Twickenham, we won't have forgotten this," Lancaster said, darkly – the back division will surely have been revamped.
Wales armed themselves with a potent mix of size, pace and footballing ability, all of which coalesced in the approach work for Alex Cuthbert's outstanding tries either side of the hour mark. England? They were smaller, slower and nowhere near as blessed in the skills department.
We have probably, God willing, seen the last of the narrowly-focused Brad Barritt-Manu Tuilagi centre partnership. Each has qualities Lancaster is understandably reluctant to lose but the only thing they create together is a vacuum. The coach must also be preparing to dismantle the back-three combination of Alex Goode, Chris Ashton and Mike Brown. If there are fewer issues up front – Dan Cole will not always be as tired as he looked at the weekend; Joe Launchbury will not be asked to play too many games in a half-fit state; Tom Croft will be a different player with matches under his belt; Tom Wood will not continue to be picked out of position at No 8 – the scrum is subject to the law of diminishing returns at the moment and in urgent need of readjustment.
But even if Lancaster succeeds in beefing up a tight five badly exposed in Cardiff by the return to form of two Lions in waiting – Adam Jones has reclaimed his status as the world's best tight-head prop in recent weeks; Alun Wyn Jones is playing like a lock for all the ages after his return from injury – will he ever be able to run a pair of fleet-footed, hunter-gatherer flankers as lethal as Warburton and Justin Tipuric?
Chris Robshaw, the England captain, ransacked himself mind, body and spirit in making the most courageous of defensive stands on Saturday, yet for all his vast reserves of energy and resilience, he was blown away. A lesser player would have been broken, irreparably. Afterwards, as he pondered the implications of this horrible defeat, Robshaw was honest enough to say: "We've often spoken about the home World Cup in 2015 as the long-term goal of this group, but frankly, it's hard to see that today."
He will get over it, as will his colleagues, but when that tournament finally comes around, one of the early games – perhaps the first – will be against Wales. Right now, it is not an enticing thought for the English. They would rather play the All Blacks. At least they know they can beat them.
Scorers: Wales: Tries: Cuthbert 2; Cons: Biggar; Pens: Halfpenny 4, Biggar; Drop: Biggar. England: Pen: Farrell. Replacements: Wales: A Shingler (Roberts, 75), J Hook (Biggar, 75), L Williams (Phillips,75), P James (Jenkins, 61), K Owens (Hibbard, 52), A Coombs (Evans, 70), S Williams (Warburton, 75). England B Twelvetrees (Goode, 64), T Flood (Farrell, 67), D Care (B Youngs, 64), M Vunipola (Marler, 44), D Hartley (T Youngs, 52), Wilson (Cole, 72), C Lawes (Launchbury (52), J Haskell (Wood, 67).
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