Wales vs England comment: Ben Youngs blows hole in the roof debate with glittering performance

COMMENT: What took England home was a distinct lack of the over-complicated: patience, a willingness to build

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The Independent Online

A big statement to begin this most monumental of years for English rugby. The players who fought tooth and nail in this blisteringly cold Cardiff night will tell you that they were not thinking 223 days ahead, to the September day when they will play each other in their World Cup pool match. Nonsense.

England arrived here with the memory still lingering of the 30-point demolition they sustained two years ago and, though no one saw a repeat of that kind of ignominy, another loss for Stuart Lancaster’s men would have sent them to a very dark place. They didn’t go there.

They looked for long periods like they would suffer a calamity. We have been waiting a long time for any material sense that Lancaster knows his best line-up or even how he wants England to play, while Warren Gatland –just like his compatriot Joe Schmidt, running Ireland’s show – reveals no such certainties.

But sometimes it takes more than the right strategy to break through a ponderous attempt to progress, and requires  individuals to step up and deliver in the eye of the storm.

A lot of the talk had coalesced around George Ford being that talisman – but last night Lancaster found a hero in Ben Youngs, the leader of a second half rally which had looked well beyond his team and a dagger in the heart of the home nation. It punctured the Welsh belief and consigned all the talk about the noise and the roof to nothing.

 

There was something rather Dave Brailsford about Lancaster’s strategy for dealing with that cauldron – having his players train to a loud soundtrack of Welsh songs, and you felt he was overcomplicating it, heading for a fall with his clipboard coaching and incremental gains.

But what took them home was a distinct lack of the over- complicated: patience, a willingness to build and wait for the gaps and the chances, with Alex Cuthbert’s absence to the sin-bin a very significant factor. Lancaster, the quiet man, delivered.

The home nation did him a favour by taking the sting out of the night with the artificial light show they put on to engineer a spectacle. It wasn’t necessary. The Pontarddulais Male Voice Choir was quite enough to trigger an ignition.

It actually had needed no more than Calon lan and Cwm Rhonda. When the players ran out they were unseen because the stadium had been cast into darkness for the fireworks show. The Millennium Stadium didn’t need this.

Lancaster’s men offered more than expected when they went to work. The strength in the scrum – always the point of differentiation weighing in their favour – was a worry for the Welsh as the half wore on and the red rose side edged the first half in terms of possession.

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Anthony Watson (left) collects the ball to score England's first try

There was an exquisite piece of individualism – the beautiful moment’s handling by Luther Burrell which set in motion England’s first-half try, put down by Anthony Watson, who took on Mike Brown’s clever touch kick.

 But Wales looked the sharper, more incisive side  even in the first half which was as close as Lancaster had anticipated.

There will always be an anxiety for a team who know that every penalty conceded in their own half will be converted by Leigh Halfpenny, who only needed a minute and a half to set Wales on their way.

The Welsh defence was resolute – eight turnovers to England’s two during a first half in which Warren Gatland’s men looked like a group who understood each others’ plans

Wales were the ones who could draw most from their 30-3 annihilation of the English in 2013. Indeed, 11 members of that side are still in their starting positions, a sobering a contrast to England.

England’s injury-hit back line took time to grow but Gatland’s was shimmering with physical menace and skill with the ball. There really did not seem much risk of hubris, early on, in the Cardiff Western Mail’s assessment of how many of Lancaster’s players would make Wales’ side – a grand total of three. The ruck and run strategy we had expected to see from them materialised.

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Jonathan Joseph breaks free to score England's second try

It was not an opening without its anxieties. Jonathan Davies mishandled as Gatland’s men drove down the left flank, looking to build on that early start, but they revealed just how narrow  the margins of error against them can be when James Haskell’s moment of hesitation allowed Talupe Faletau to carve out the opening try with the game not fully 10 minutes old. A one-handed pick-up and offload, Faletau driving forward and Rhys Webb was free to run over the try-line. 

Wales led 10-0 at that stage and then 16-8 at the interval, which seemed to confirm what we had thought about the respective merits of these sides.

But the beauty of England’s performance was their refusal to panic. They drew on the front row in the way we had thought they would, but attacked as well.

They wanted to play – in a way which deconstructed the way that Gatland had characterised them as negativists, seeking to kill the flow of the sport.

  There was not a huge amount in it. The ball was in play a lot. Both teams wanted to play attacking football but both teams showed the capacity to defend well. However, England revealed ice in their veins. It was a win as big as perhaps any we have seen under Lancaster – the All Blacks game apart.

“I’m sure the winner of tonight will take some bragging rights into September but it won’t have a direct impact on that game,” Gatland said in the programme before it all began.

“The team that wins will probably go in thinking they are on the right path but there will be plenty left up each other’s sleeve.”

Who was he kidding? England know that a win in Ireland can put this Championship in their grasp. The World Cup has a different feel already.

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