Theoretically, it should have been a perfect match for connoisseurs of the 0-0 draw: a team incapable of winning the ball against a team incapable of using it. But in practice, there is always the chance that an individual as gifted as James Hook will mess things up by being brilliant without permission, and so it came to pass. Hook is a Welsh back who plays the way Welsh backs are supposed to play, which places him in an entirely different category to the backs in the current England squad, most of whom play like forwards. They have no one remotely as good, although an outcast by the name of Cipriani is back in town for a week or so. Just a thought.
Hook had one chance to score a try in the second of these trans-Severn warm-up matches for the forthcoming World Cup. Correction: Wales had one chance to score a try, and needless to say, the touchdown was duly completed. Not that this was in any way revelatory. Over the stretch of the two fixtures, Wales looked infinitely more dangerous than their opponents with ball in hand – quicker in thought, more subtle, more imaginative, more surprising, more ruthless – and were excellent value for their aggregate victory over the two legs.
The phrase "heads-up rugby" has been bandied around by England for years now, but it means precious little when the heads concerned are made of meat. If the former world champions are outstanding in securing possession from scrum and line-out – every bit as powerful as the Argentines in the first discipline, almost as clean and tidy as the Springboks in the second – they are equally adept at doing bugger-all with it.
A little over a year ago, they monopolised possession for an hour against the Wallabies in Perth and contrived to lose the game. They bettered that in the Welsh capital on Saturday, winning even more of the ball while losing by the same margin. This achievement should not be underestimated, and there was no obvious prospect of the England manager Martin Johnson doing so. Of the many f-words close to his lips in the minutes after the match, "flabbergasted" was by some distance the politest of them.
Even had the England backs played with brains fully engaged, they would have had to work hard to break down a Welsh defence in which the two flankers, Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate, made the Trojans of old look like slackers. Toby Faletau, the inexperienced No 8, was scarcely less effective in manning the barricades, and although his all-too-frequent handling errors make him something of a liability, his energy will be of value over the next few weeks – especially if the body-count is high during and after his country's opening World Cup pool matches with South Africa and Samoa.
Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, knows a decent open-side flanker when he sees one: as a New Zealander, he can claim common heritage with Waka Nathan, Graham Mourie, Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld and Richie McCaw. It would be stretching a point to put Warburton alongside those titans – the 22-year-old breakaway from Cardiff is not one of life's more creative spirits. But as Gatland pointed out, there are few better when it comes to the down-and-dirty business of forcing penalty turnovers or pinching the ball on the floor.
Johnson acknowledged this too, albeit tacitly. Uncomfortably aware that for the second time in recent months, his juggernaut pack had been derailed by a single opponent wearing a No 7 shirt – John Barclay in the Calcutta Cup match last March; Warburton at the weekend – he furrowed his brow and muttered: "There are times when you have to understand you're in a battle and deal with it." In other words, if people are taking liberties, take them out.
Yet if the manager was concerned at England's failure to sort it on the deck, he must be in a state of blind panic with regards to his misfiring midfield – especially as his first-choice unit from the Six Nations was reunited for Saturday's game. Toby Flood did everything in his power to play Jonny Wilkinson back into the starting line-up at outside-half, and if Mike Tindall did some things better than others, the "others" included bright decision-making when points were on offer.
"We want to see if the things we're working on in training work on the field," he had said beforehand, adding that he wasn't much interested in winning contests of a preparatory nature on penalty kicks alone. This made a degree of sense, but if, as was presumably the case, he was even less interested in losing, a little adaptability would not have gone amiss.
And then there was Shontayne Hape at inside centre, who was never less dangerous than when he had the ball. The New Zealander tackled his weight, as per usual – how the England coaches love him for it – but the moment he found the oval thing in his hands, he coughed it up to the opposition. "I'll sit here and defend Shontayne all day long," Johnson had remarked during the build-up to the game. By strange coincidence, this was precisely what the Welsh were saying during it.
Defeat in Cardiff in mid-August is not the end of the world, still less the end of a World Cup that has yet to start, but there are only 80 minutes of rugby left to England, in the unpromising city of Dublin, before they face Argentina in their opening tournament game on 10 September – and if we know one thing about the South Americans, it is that they will compete at the set-pieces in ways entirely beyond a Wales team stripped of a Lions front row riddled with injury. They may not have a Hook now that Juan Martin Hernandez is out of the equation, but they will fancy their chances against anyone playing meathead rugby against them.
"That performance, especially in the second half, could have hurt a few individuals," admitted Tom Wood, the Northampton flanker, with characteristic honesty. It hurt Johnson more than anyone, so when the players reconvene this weekend after a few days with friends and family, they can expect a redoubling of the pain.
Scorers Wales: Try Hook. Conversion Hook. Penalties Priestland 2, Hook 2. England: Penalties Flood 3.
Wales J Hook (Perpignan); G North (Scarlets),J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (unattached), Shane Williams (Ospreys); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonne); P James (Ospreys), L Burns (Newport Gwent Dragons), C Mitchell (Exeter),L Charteris (NG Dragons), A W Jones (Ospreys),D Lydiate (NG Dragons), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), T Faletau (NG Dragons).
Replacements Scott Williams (Scarlets) for Henson, 34; A Brew (NG Dragons) for Priestland, h-t;H Bennett (Ospreys) for Burns, 55; J Turnbull (Scarlets) for Jones, 62; R Bevington (Ospreys) for James, 74; James for Mitchell, 83.
England B Foden (Northampton); M Banahan (Bath), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), S Hape (London Irish), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), R Wigglesworth (Saracens); A Corbisiero (London Irish), S Thompson (Wasps), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), H Fourie (Sale), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements D Care (Harlequins) for Wigglesworth, 32; J Haskell (Ricoh Black Rams) for Fourie, 52; L Mears (Bath) for Thompson, 62;M Stevens (Saracens) for Corbisiero, 62; D Armitage (London Irish) for Tindall, 63; T Palmer (Stade Francais) for Deacon, 71; Tindall for Banahan, 73; C Hodgson (Saracens) for Flood, 73.
Referee A Rolland (Ireland).
Winners and losers
A great leap forward for...
Steve Thompson (England) The hooker unretired himself in the hope of regaining his England place and his bruising performance raised his stock to its highest point in years.
Scott Williams (Wales) Wales have quality centres to burn, but on this evidence they may yet find a place for the 20-year-old newcomer from Carmarthen.
A big step back by...
Shontayne Hape (England) England's coaches are very defensive about Hape, which fits neatly with the centre's style. Needed: a No 12 with an attacking dimension.
Craig Mitchell (Wales) Given a rough ride by both Alex Corbisiero and Matt Stevens, the prop is now well acquainted with an unpleasant part of his own anatomy.Reuse content