At least England were not kidding themselves in the aftermath of their most chastening Six Nations defeat since the Grand Slam pratfall in Dublin two years ago – or, it is equally reasonable to argue, the terrible 43-13 beating they suffered in the same city in 2007. "Humiliating," said Geoff Parling, one of the better red rose performers on a day when "better" did not add up to much. "That's the first time we've found ourselves playing for pride at the end and it wasn't a good feeling."
Like the rest of his countrymen, the Leicester lineout specialist had suffered his share of cruelties and indignities in the course of a record defeat at the hands of the Welsh: not in his chosen area of expertise, for the visitors were reasonably secure on their own throw, but pretty much everywhere else.
Even at the death, the rugby gods were having their evil way with him. Having launched a last, despairing attack with a long run up the middle of the pitch, he fumbled a pass as the ball was switched back across field from the ruck. It was the final English error of an error-strewn occasion.
"The worst thing about it is that we can't point to one thing as the reason we lost," he continued. "Usually, if one part of your game is going wrong, you can rely on other things going right and find your way out of trouble. We couldn't do that out there because it all fell apart.
"Plan A didn't work, plan B didn't work, and as a result we've finished this tournament on a real low. We have to bottle this up and use it to come back stronger."
Parling, never less than honest in his appraisal of a weekend's thud-and-blunder and one of the more erudite members of the second-row fraternity, was lost for words when it came to explaining the whys and wherefores of England's startling demise.
He could be forgiven his bewilderment. Not since his formative years as a professional player, spent shoring up a lightweight Newcastle pack, had the Tynesider been part of a scrum so comprehensively dismantled. With Leicester, he has taken precious few backward steps. Ditto with England. Until now.
He also found the tackle area hard to fathom. "We went out there looking for a contest at the breakdown, but it didn't happen," he said with a shake of the head. "We thought we were legal in what we doing because we had been right through the tournament, but the referee decided we weren't legal at all. And that being the case, I suppose we were a little slow in adapting."
Wales were anything but slow. When Sam Warburton engaged the referee Steve Walsh in a long conversation after being penalised for competing too hungrily at a first-half ruck, he arrived at a swift and extremely important conclusion: that if Walsh was going to load everything in favour of the side in possession, the Welsh forwards may as well butt out of the breakdowns and play the game on their feet. It was manna from heaven from their perspective.
That being said, the home pack were in such control at the set-piece – still the key psychological tipping point in a game of rugby despite years of tinkering by the law-makers – England could have been given free gifts by Walsh around the tackle ball and still finished a distant second. It was one of the great performances by a Welsh eight, and at the heart of it was Parling's opponent, Alun Wyn Jones.
"People were questioning the character of this side at the back end of the autumn, when we'd lost all four of our games, and it's quite something for a team to turn it around to this degree," Jones remarked. "Did we always have it in us, that character? I think we did, and it came out at the right time."
Jones did not suggest for a second that England might be short in the character department, but red-rose followers will have to wait a long time to find out just how strong the spirit might be. The next time Parling and company play a game at full strength will be against the Wallabies in early November, almost eight months distant.Reuse content