As if this much-anticipated fixture needed any extra cranking-up, there was a five-minute delay to the kick-off while England refused to emerge from the players’ tunnel. Was it a case of the captain Chris Robshaw aiming to minimise his team’s jitters? Or did it indicate that the hairy-jawed Harlequin possessed the chin-out defiance once displayed by a predecessor martin Johnson, who once mucked about over a stretch of red carpet pre-match in Dublin, certain that those around him would not be fussed. The unfolding drama suggested the latter, with the less experienced among Robshaw’s cohort proving up to the task.
There were five men starting a Six Nations Championship match for the first time, so nerves might have fairly been considered a factor but the youngest of the quintet, George Ford, was quickly into his game in a performance that would go a long way to judging his candidacy to retain the No 10 jersey for the rest of this World Cup year (he had it for the last two matches of the autumn Tests last November and his main rival Owen Farrell, is out of this Championship injured).
21-year-old Ford sent an up-and-under soaring to the night sky – a black, chilly canopy after this militant England decreed the stadium roof must be left open. A one-out pass to Luther Burrell, a skipping sidestep to fox Wales’s fly-half Dan Biggar, a good tackle in vain on Taulupe Faletau as Wales scored their opening try. These were signs of what Ford brings in self-confident defending belying his modest dimensions and a measured brashness in attack that can be utterly beguiling at its best.
But while Ford had won his all three of his most recent matches against Wales, they were in age-group rugby, for the Under-18s and 20s. When England proper lost infamously 30-3 here two years ago, he was on his parents’ sofa watching TV with his two brothers; mind you, don’t get the picture of a callow youth; even in 2013 Ford was on the way to a second Premiership final at Twickenham for his first club, Leicester.
The inevitable challenges to Ford’s innate coolness soon mounted, He had a midfield kick partially charge down by Jamie Roberts, obliging England to scramble back to their 22; then Ford sent his conversion of his Bath club-mate Anthony Watson’s try against a post. He is not the most reliable goal-kicker on the planet (his own England head coach Stuart Lancaster granted that accolade to Wales’s Leigh Halfpenny this week) but he knows it and has been working in training with the past master Jonny Wilkinson’s favoured guru, Dave Alred to put it right. He used the boot well in open play, dabbing a short one for Joseph to catch and a longer cross-kick caught adroitly by Watson. A penalty off target in the third quarter, when England would have nudged ahead 18-16, caused more winces in the outnumbered supporters lustily trying to get a chorus of “Swing Low” going in the stands.
But in the meantime there was a seminal moment; a metaphorical two fingers to those who would chuck Ford out on lack of size alone. He had already made light of the conjecture about crowd noise in the build-up, joking that mums and dads screaming on the touchline when he was growing up playing rugby league in Lancashire were pretty fearsome. On the pitch a big test in more than one sense arrived. The ballsy lad from Oldham was smashed into by the mighty Roberts as England built 20 phases in an insistent 45th minute attack. Would Ford crumble; would he ruin such a fine team effort by being turned over? No, he held his nerve and composure, twisted and laid the ball back and watched triumphant as another Bath back, Jonathan Joseph battered over for the second England try.
Ford converted and, moving into the final quarter, popped over a gimme kick to give England that narrow lead his earlier miss had forfeited. With Danny Cipriani covering fly-half on the bench, it looked as if Ford would see his seventh cap through to a victorious end, with two of those Six Nations debutants, Watson and Joseph, beside him on the scoresheet. A 45-metre penalty by England’s new star topped it off and the visiting songs were loudest.
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