James Lawton: Can Wales at last sniff the blood of a wounded, ageing England?

It was the kind of question you might expect from a tough, clinical cop. Someone, you might say, with a feel for the case. So it was no surprise that it came from a former police inspector who was in at the start of England's persecution of Welsh rugby.

"Do you think," Paul Ackford asked Robin McBryde, "this World Cup has come four years too early for Wales - and six months too late for England?" There, it was out in the open, this staggering suggestion of approaching parity with the great enemy that for a few days now had been secreted in Welsh souls like a half-bottle of gin deep in the pocket of a preacher going to chapel.

Ackford certainly brought historic weight to his question. He was in the first wave of the current England dominance that brought the Grand Slam going into the 1991 World Cup and victory for the first time in Cardiff for 28 years.

With Wade Dooley and still another policeman, Dean Richards, he hammered at the Welsh spirit. And now, before a quarter-final on Sunday that a few days ago would have seemed like a mere English loosener, he was speculating on a new dawn. McBryde, the hooker whose withdrawal after 65 minutes last Sunday marked the end of the uprising of Welsh spirit and wit that so spectacularly challenged the All Blacks, shuffled his feet and ducked the question, pointing out that, "being up there myself", he was not in the best of positions to draw a line between a warrior's glory and his old age.

McBryde, who is 33, contented himself with the thought that for so long world rugby seemed to have been trying to catch up with the iron-clad progress of England. But has the march finally stalled? Could he sniff the blood of wounded, ageing Englishmen? He wasn't saying it but he wasn't dismissing it. The question hung in the warm air beside the swimming pool of the the Welsh headquarters. It spoke of new currents, and, maybe, the regained hope of the Welsh.

"The English have been special for a long time," McBryde said, "and despite that encouragement we got against New Zealand, we're under no illusions about how much pressure we'll be under this coming Sunday. I just wish we had more time to correct the mistakes we made last Sunday. We played some great football, but we also made those mistakes which lost the game.

"You know that if you make a slip against England, they punish you. They have been doing that to us for a long time, and yes, there's no doubt we carry a lot of hurt into this match. One good performance doesn't shake that away. No, you remember the bad defeats, and the last we got in Cardiff was terrible. They didn't field their strongest team but they just didn't give us a platform. They took away the set-pieces, and if that happens you have no chance. I will say that it's a long time since we've gone in against them feeling so positive.

"But there is another problem: against New Zealand we had nothing to lose, against England we have everything." Everything? One surge that ultimately failed against arguably the best-equipped team in this fifth World Cup perhaps doesn't make an empire, but there is no doubt that Wales, who came to Australia dry-mouthed with the fear of new levels of humiliation, have something precious that has been elusive for so long.

They have belief again that they know how to play rugby: real, intuitive, thrilling rugby. You could see in the stride of the pocket flyer Shane Williams, and the confident gait of Jonathan Thomas, the 20-year-old whose exuberant running against the All Blacks brought a smarting of the eyes to old Welshmen who thought the likes of Merve the Swerve had gone forever.

Thomas performed like an old rugby soul, inspiring one Australian commentator to delve into the autobiography of Gareth Edwards for an insight into the ancient passion - and genius - of a once great rugby nation. He quoted Edwards saying: "It was inbred in us, of course, from a young age to say to ourselves, 'We've got to beat the English, we've got to beat the English'. Losing to England was unthinkable."

A few days ago, they were words locked away and discarded by time. Now, as you looked at the jaunty Williams in his shades and his newly acquired swagger, they were vivid again. You remembered Edwards thronged by well-wishers in the bar of the Angel near the Arms Park after a defiant victory over England in the fading days of JPR and Merve and Gerald Davies, and him saying: "It wasn't our best performance but there was a wonderful spirit. For us to lose today, they would have had to dig a hole in the pitch and bury us."

There is no such epic talk before the action at the Suncorp Stadium but Williams does say: "It is good to have smiles on our faces again. We've taken a lot of stick in recent years, and the worst of it was that we didn't have any national pride. I like to think we've put that charge in a new perspective."

For the Wales coach, Steve Hansen, there is the last major agony of his long ordeal. Vindicated totally by the spirit and adventure of a team which showed 10 changes from the one that nervily guaranteed passage to the knock-out phase with victory over Italy, his reassessment of available resources is inevitably massive. The best bet here is for Thomas and Williams to be among the first names to go on the team sheet and that Iestyn Harris will return at outside-centre with Stephen Jones, Wales' half-hero, half-martyr, keeping his place at fly-half as reward for the clever kicking that kept his team in the fight against New Zealand for so long.

Four years too soon for Wales, six months too late for England? We will know soon enough. The Welsh can hug themselves that they have managed to provoke the question. For some years they had reason to believe it had perished on pale, dead lips.

Comments