Wales vs England: Payback tastes so sweet for bold England

Lancaster’s team laid to rest ghosts of 2013 as inquiry is launched into tunnel shenanigans

Watching England’s win over Wales on Friday night from the press seats in the Millennium Stadium’s West Stand, we were subject to a human tsunami generated by Twickenham Man and Woman.

The English supporters stood and cheered in ones and twos when Anthony Watson scored in the far corner in the first half (a bouncing-bomb pass by Chris Robshaw turned into gold by Luther Burrell’s quality link and Mike Brown’s grubber); they jumped and roared in threes and fours when James Haskell made his splendid if scoreless rampage that ended with him crashing face first into a post protector. And when Wales were penalised in the last couple of minutes, allowing the emerging leviathan of an English fly-half, George Ford, to kick the deciding penalty, they were on their feet in their hundreds, noisily outdoing the much talked-about Welsh din.

This was exactly as England had intended; a payback to all those who suffered the ignominy of losing to Wales 30-3 in the corresponding fixture in 2013. “It really did hurt deeply,” England head coach Stuart Lancaster said after the 21-16 victory. “There were a lot of players who played in that game and we wanted to make sure we gave the England supporters who were fantastic here today something to cheer about.”

As the final whistle blew, and the spectators filed out to tortuous journeys home for some – until adequate travel arrangements are put in place, this Friday-night rugby remains a two-fingered affront to those who pay the players’ wages – a familiar face emerged from the throng: Rob Andrew, the former England fly-half, and now the RFU’s professional rugby director “To come back from 10-0 down, which was the worst possible start – wow,” said Andrew. He knows what it is to win and lose in Wales; a smash in the face from the elbow of Jonathan Davies in the 1987 Battle of Cardiff was one souvenir.

There were tactical reasons for England’s win, not least their expertise in the scrum and line-out. But a lingering impression was of the inner sanctum of the England changing- room showing its togetherness. Two senior Harlequins – the full-back Mike Brown and captain Chris Robshaw – led the standoff in the tunnel that delayed the kick-off by six minutes, prompting a Six Nations disciplinary inquiry. “I said to one of the officials if they want to stand out in the cold they’re welcome to do that,” Brown reported.

The Welsh Rugby Union and the Rugby Football Union will be asked for their versions of events, and one possible outcome is a break with tradition: an insistence that the two teams emerge from the tunnel together, in a change to time-honoured protocol in British-based Six Nations matches that sees the home team always come out after the visitors.

 Lancaster also revealed how injured flanker Tom Wood sent a good-luck message the night before the match. And Manu Tuilagi, the injured centre, did the same thing before kick-off, although the coach only saw it afterwards. “Manu had texted saying, ‘I believe the boys can do it’,” said Lancaster, “and that’s from someone who has been in camp and is obviously hugely disappointed not to be here.

“Tom Wood sent me a text the night before the game. That means a lot to me. Because you’ve got guys out there who know there are other people playing in their shirt but they care about the team.”

England’s centre combination of Burrell and Jonathan Joseph thrown together by chance kept Wales’s Lions Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies quiet in the second half. There may be opportunity – although no pressing need – for England to change against Italy at Twickenham next Saturday, with Lancaster “hopeful” of centres Brad Barritt and Kyle Eastmond, and lock Geoff Parling, being fit for training tomorrow.

England were not perfect; Ford’s two chargedowns were marginal errors and his goal-kicking had two lapses, the Welsh enjoyed some first-half turnovers and Andrew Farrell, the England attack coach, felt three possible tries went begging.

But it was the 21-year-old Ford, of course, who belted that late kick; head on to the posts on the outer edge of his usual comfort zone. “He retains incredible strength of character,” said Lancaster, “to come to an environment like this, start his third game for England and then nail that kick at the end. That was a huge kick to give us that five-point differential when all it would have taken was a penalty at the breakdown and [Wales’s] Leigh Halfpenny would have booted it over and we would have lost the game. That was a big moment for George and the team.”

Joseph spoke in equally warm terms of his midfield colleague: “I have been with him at Bath and he is one of the best players in the world with amazing game understanding at such a young age.

“Mentally if something does not go well, the next thing he does is usually world-class. I never worry when he misses a kick or he throws a loose pass. More times than not he is going to make good decisions.”

If the statistical runes are to be believed, England are assured already of some kind of reward from this Six Nations. According to the noted number-keeper, John Griffiths, on the 13 previous occasions when they have won in Cardiff in the Championship, England have shared the title, taken it outright and/or won a Triple Crown or Grand Slam (in detail: five Grand Slams, seven Triple Crowns, 11 outright Championship titles and one shared title). Only once, in 1997, have England failed to win the Championship after a Cardiff success.

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