James Lawton: Ghosts of Wales past and England future on show at Twickenham

Click to follow

In the end, but only then, England were something like England, inflicting that cruel division of power and competitive authority that for so long has made Wales a subject rugby nation. But there is surely a magical addendum. It is also true there were times when Wales were something like Wales.

In the end, but only then, England were something like England, inflicting that cruel division of power and competitive authority that for so long has made Wales a subject rugby nation. But there is surely a magical addendum. It is also true there were times when Wales were something like Wales.

Not the Wales of terminal decline, of the long witness of the dying of the light. No, another, older Wales - a Wales that played rugby with joy and panache and which, given more heft and craft and steel up front, would surely have struck a sensational blow at the heart of their world-champion tormentors.

For a little while early in the second half this Wales provided a stunning sunburst on a grey afternoon buffeted by cold, swirling wind. They made you extremely glad to be around, and when first Gareth Thomas, then Mark Taylor ran in tries of beautiful, wit-filled execution it felt as though 30-odd years of rugby history had been wiped away.

There were several key reasons why England eventually dismantled the time machine. Lawrence Dallaglio dredged up an authentic captain's performance, first concentrating the minds of his team's infinitely stronger pack, then rallying it to match-winning force.

Ben Cohen at vital moments gave a passable impression of Jonah Lomu. Olly Barkley, at 22 and starting his first international in the less-than-heroic guise of a ticket scalper, entirely justified the faith of his coach Clive Woodward with an assured performance at fly-half that rocketed him past the injured Paul Grayson and Charlie Hodgson and, though mention it quietly at this point, a potentially authentic challenger to the nation's darling Jonny Wilkinson. These were the elements that killed off the Welsh, but surely not the possibility of a new coach, who swears that he will work zealously on set-piece fundamentals, conjuring genuine resurrection.

This was a brilliant match and a performance of genuine hope from a rugby nation, which like the revolutionary footballers of Hungary, had seemed to have trailed off down the high-road of sporting history.

It is not encouraging that the Welsh Rugby Union settled on their new man, Mike Ruddock, while adopting a selection process that lacked only the obligatory wearing of Comic Relief red noses at every committee meeting. But then the Welsh genius for creative rugby has long been the captive of inept administration, and the encouragement in the valleys must be that many years after former captain Ieuan Evans bemoaned the fact that the rugby passion of his youth had been dissipated in front of television sets and in video game arcades, an old spark has indeed been rekindled. Certainly nothing produced by the reigning world champions began to rival the sweetness of the Welsh tries. When the Twickenham horde did manage to produce a few tentative bars of "Sweet Chariot", they sounded so nervous they might have been passing a graveyard late at night - and with very good reason.

For Wales there is maybe then more than a hint of a new dawn of much greater substance than the many that have been betrayed since the departure of Edwards and John, Bennett and JPR, Gerald Davies and Merv the Swerve.

The current Welsh back division, with Stephen Jones touching real authority and the attacking verve of the Williams boys on the wings, and the likes of Gareth Thomas and Mark Taylor moving with both authority and imagination, is no less than thrilling. If the pack is far too easily pushed around, and on Saturday required their team-mates to conjure almost literally something from nothing, it is not without some impressive potential, notably in the flanker Jonathan Thomas and the talented lock Michael Owen.

If Ruddock can indeed have some success in going back to basics, he may also be less inclined than his predecessor Steve Hansen to make arbitrary changes at pivotal moments in a game. The departing Kiwi said that he withdrew his scrum-half, Gareth Cooper, in pursuit of fresh legs and because the feisty little half-back had taken a "few bumps". At the time it seemed like an act of desecration, so spirited had been Cooper's contribution to the Welsh defiance.

The new Welsh coach says he knows where he is going, and, so of course, does Woodward. He says, yes, England will beat the French in Paris, and that the most vital aspect of the defeat of the Welsh was simply that it was achieved. "It was a must-win situation," said the coach, "and we did it when we weren't playing well against a very good Welsh side. It will get better now." But will it? Have the world champions peaked, as many feared they had on the build-up to the final in Sydney last November?

Certainly they will have to produce a performance with vastly more wit and cohesion to beat the smarting French on their own soil, and if some of the old power and conviction resurfaced at Twickenham there was not enough of it to disperse the memory of what had gone before ... and two weeks previously against Ireland.

On too many occasions there was something desperately leaden about the English game. Attacking invention was at some points touching zero, and though the often brutal command of Martin Johnson is inevitably missed, the significance of this can be overstated. Dallaglio produced a winning impetus in the last 20 minutes and the control of the English pack had never been in question. What was most absent, and redeemed only by the power of Cohen and the good kicking of Barkley, was the sense of a team armed with options to win in any circumstances.

The truth is that England were in peril of their second straight defeat at Twickenham. It would almost certainly have come if Welsh hands had collected the ball, as they so easily might have done, rather than those of Jason Robinson when Ceri Sweeney charged down a relieving kick of Barkley from inside his own 22. Robinson ran England to safety, but for how long? Relief, naturally, swept Twickenham at the end, enough of it anyway to distract from the peculiar intensity of any watching French eyes. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were burning like coals.

Comments