When Andy Goode kicked for the umpteenth time as England strove for a foothold in a breathless match, a guttural Welsh voice in the crowd, full of emotion and speaking for everyone in Wales from Port Talbot to Prestatyn, cried: "That's all you've got". Hearteningly for anyone who wanted a proper match and not a supine deflowering of the Red Rose, England – in short spells of defiance – found the wherewithal to roar an answer.
Let's forget Martin Johnson just for now. What of Brian Smith, the attack coach? With his video analysis, the enigmatic variations tried out during his previous job with London Irish and his grounding in the great rugby school that was Australian back-play in the early 1980s, he came to this role with a promising pedigree. The results to date had, however, been unconvincing.
Smith pleaded for time when he got going last autumn with a new England line-up including Delon Armitage at full-back, Riki Flutey at inside-centre and Danny Cipriani (since jettisoned) at fly-half. The only man anyone could remember from the England backs in the 2007 World Cup – apart from the bootylicious Jonny Wilkinson – was Mathew Tait, for hissearing line-break in the final. But Tait appeared unable toget beyond the bench under this regime.
Here, though, we saw a classic Smith ploy early in the first half. Stamping his mark, at last. Andy Goode – picked ahead of the more widely gifted Shane Geraghty at fly-half – packed down at blindside flanker on a Wales put-in, with Joe Worsley (the flanker) standing off in midfield. Worsley was there to deal with the big Wales centre Jamie Roberts, and did so, often. English gristle crunching on Welsh bone; gripping stuff.
Goode, when he got the ball in his hands, kicked it, quite a lot. So it has been with England in the past couple of years, particularly in tough away matches. It helped get themto the World Cup final butwas of little practical use in2008 in Scotland and Italy, for example.
Any Test team worth their salt need Plans B, C and D, though it is difficult to get beyond first base without confidence. As England got to grips with the old enemy, having not won in Cardiff since Johnson's heyday in 2003, there were signs that the restoration of Mark Cueto – mostly injured last year – on the wing and Mike Tindall in midfield gave them a scintillaof self-belief, at least. Tindall trotted off for 10 minutes in the first half, having dabbled with a ball the referee deemed not to be his, but his muscular presence freed up Flutey to have a few darts and jinks. That, plus Cueto appearing on his opposite wing to give a neat inside pass, gave Goode a bit of space to fashion a 23rd-minute try for the speedster, Paul Sackey.
So could Tindall be the son of Yorkshire to make England's winter of discontent into a glorious summer? You didn't need the Bard to tell England that they could afford only so many breaches. When Goode went to the sin-bin for a very similar offence to Tindall's not long into the second half, Wales struck. A try by Leigh Half-penny meant a lot of good work undone by Goode and, though both yellow cards were marginal calls, they were probably correct.
Goode did not return; instead Toby Flood came on as the other No 10 presently preferred by Smith and Johnson to Geraghty and Cipriani. Forget Shakespeare and plump instead for a more up-to-date wordsmith: "And when do you think it will all become clear? Cos I've been taken over by the fear."
Thank you, Lily Allen. But with Armitage around, England can embrace the ambitious. Another Flutey run, continuing a move begun by Armitage, ended with the London Irishman galloping over the line.
Tindall sprinted and tackled and fought to the last. What had looked a regressive choice had paid off and, even if the result went west, England began to look more of a sum than a bundle of spare parts.