Jonathan Davies: Rebirth of Wales prompts some tough questions

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If ever a team did not need to hear the half-time whistle it was Wales yesterday. Quite simply, they were rampant in an opening 40 minutes that must rank among the country's finest. Wales had the English on the rack and they did not know how to get off it.

And then Clive Woodward brought on Mike Catt. That changed everything. Suddenly Jonny Wilkinson, who seems a pale imitation of himself at this World Cup, had a steady head to count on in his back line. England kept it tight, Catt showed the composure and the nous that Wilkinson, for some reason, could not muster and they managed to avert an embarrassing defeat that a few weeks ago many believed impossible - including, it must be said, me. It's rare to find a Welshman lost for words when they're winning, but even surrounded by Englishmen here in Melbourne yesterday I was stunned into silence.

No matter, because my companions said what needed saying anyway. They applauded Wales for playing the game like it should be played, agreed that this was reminiscent of the "Three Feathers" of old and were generous enough to comment that long may it continue. And believe me it will if the Welsh hierarchy builds on two performances that have come from nowhere.

Within seven days Wales have taken on the world's top two-ranked sides and frightened the hell out of them. I will contend that yesterday's was an even better performance than last week's 80 minutes from the gods. We will be shaking our heads over the Severn Bridges for months to come at a turnaround that many of us thought impossible. From the zeroes of a month ago our boys have become heroes, scoring seven tries - yes, repeat that, "seven" - against New Zealand and England. Both games could have been won, should have been won, and, indeed, in future Wales probably will win them.

That is if we carry on marrying the clinical nature of the All Blacks that Steve Hansen, and before him Graham Henry, have instilled into Welsh rugby with the flair that some of us have been crying out to be utilised. Shane Williams is a glittering case in point, a jewel that has been criminally buried in the mire of Welsh club rugby for far too long.

Maybe now is not the time to be criticising a Welsh coach who has taken his team to the brink of glory but there are some questions that need answering before Wales can raise Hansen to "Great Redeemer" status. Why is it that the singular talents of Williams have been ignored by the Welsh set-up for two years? Why is it that Gareth Thomas has never played full-back before? And, most intriguingly of all, why have Wales only in the last fortnight been allowed to cut loose from the rigid structures that have so obviously been stifling our naturally expansive game? The answer will probably be that there is no answer, and who will care if Wales carry on producing displays like yesterday's?

If it hadn't been for a referee who did the Dragons few favours, for the odd piece of bad luck with the bounce and for that man Catt, then the celebrations would still be going strong in the Principality. As it was, those of us red at heart were left to bemoan the fact that Stephen Jones had missed three kicks in the first half that might have just put the game beyond England's despairing reach. Defensively, Wales were England's superior and so, for huge periods, were they the more dangerous side in attack. What probably let Wales down was the inexperience of being in command. England confirmed yesterday that if they know how to do anything it is win.

Personally, however, I'd still not given up hope until the 70th-minute mark when Iestyn Harris's long-range effort sailed wide and that in itself is indicative of the strides that have been made. Before this World Cup, the only hope on the horizon of Welsh rugby was the new domestic set-up, but now these players can return to enrich the new competitions with their heads held high.

I have had my differences of opinion with Hansen, but will only too gladly admit that when he departs - as he insists he will at the end of his contract next spring - he will leave Wales with a far richer legacy than Henry ever did. There is a club base getting more solid by the day, a healthy development policy and now a belief in the national side again. And that will prove more important than anything.

But what now for England? Well, they will have to raise their form several notches from this showing if they are to beat the French in next weekend's semi-final. There will be no way back from the lacklustre forward performance of yesterday's first half against Bernard's Laporte well-oiled machine. Les Bleus look fit, organised and controlled and those three wholly uncharacteristic virtues in any French side makes them world-beaters. Just ask the Irish who barely had a sniff yesterday. Ronan O'Gara had a day to forget, as did the Irish pack who were put mercilessly to the sword. That same weapon now awaits England. But, boy, it could so easily have been Wales.