Last sour grapes of once great vineyard

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The question is loaded with poignancy but offers no prize for the correct answer: how do you run up 50 points at Twickenham without achieving a single, earth-moving moment or provoking more than a desultory bar or two of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"?

You do it against the Welsh in the year 2002. You trample on the last sour grapes of a once great vineyard. If you are not Jonny Wilkinson shattering records, you do scarcely anything that is extraordinary – and not all that much which is thoroughly competent. You go through the motions of total, modern rugby and you drop the ball quite a lot. It is like some glum stealing from the poor box, and it is an impression which was only magnified by a glance at the television monitor showing the moment French prodigy Damien Traille ravaged the Scots at Murrayfield.

There was nothing so dynamic at Twickenham. Indeed, it was as though the clock had stopped, England were effectively pulverising but dull. They were operating in a competitive void, raiding a graveyard of expired dreams. Wales do not need a revolution as much as a redrawing.

Allan Bateman, the fine old warhorse Welsh centre, agreed that his compatriots, distracted by the possibility of strike action, ultimately overrun quite contemptuously, had indeed touched rock bottom.

He could scarcely have said otherwise after a slaughter of the pack and a lack of authority with the ball, on the rare occasion it was in their possession, that became progressively pitiful. But this time the Welsh crisis went way beyond any technical deficiencies. It wasn't so much a failure of performance as one of will and any vague sense of identity. For this Welsh team having the ball wasn't a gift but a relentless rebuke. Bateman was right about it being rock bottom, but, you had to guess he was talking not about a game plan but the soul of a sporting nation.

The England coach, Clive Woodward, made it clear that it was a victory which did little to help him choke back the angst which came with defeat in Paris two weeks ago. How could it? In the Stade de France there was an edge and the constantly lurking presence of cold steel. At Twickenham we had the prosaic matched against the pathetic. England won in a dirge.

Even Wilkinson, who racked up 30 points, admitted that England had been prone to error before adding: "You are going to make mistakes when you're playing fast and with ambition." Ambition? On this day it could never amount to more than the callous professional obligation to put down the halt and the lame.

Astonishingly, it has to be said that until deep into the second half the Welsh defended well. Not in the way of the French in Paris, not with a predatory eye and a hunger for the possibilities that would come with repossession of the ball. But with a dourness which nullified much of what passed for English invention.

Where the imbalance was shocking was in the relative confidence of the teams when they had the ball. For the first minutes of the match Wales had the English line at their mercy. All they needed was a touch of conviction and the breezy creation of a little width. That surely would have opened up the English defence and provided a vital surge of early Welsh confidence. The lack of service to the quick and plainly motivated Craig Morgan was particularly wasteful. Instead, we had a piece of chance and speculation from the full-back Kevin Morgan, who instead of feeding a line brimming with overlap potential kicked optimistically into the try zone. England, like an agitated fish slipping the hook, swam safely to clear water. It was the end of the match – and, for the dire moment at least, Welsh rugby as it has been increasingly difficult to remember it.

Steve Hansen, the New Zealander coach who must feel that in succeeding Graham Henry he has been invited not to fashion a new dawn but wind up a moribund business, was asked how much of his game plan had been achieved. With commendable resignation, he said: "Not much of it, mate."

If he has any comfort as he consider his options before next year's World Cup challenge – he will presumably be given the chance to scuffle at least for that long amid the rubble he inherited just six weeks ago – it is that Iestyn Harris may have moved a little further up the learning curve which his severest critics have been comparing to the north face of the Eiger. Harris was culpable on two of England's five tries, but by then the game had long gone and there had been times when his natural poise had brought stirrings in the Welsh gloom.

But it was the merest glint of light. Elsewhere points of hope were brutally obliterated. Scott Quinnell collected his 50th cap but looked like a shell. Robert Howley searched in vain for his muse. Andy Marinos unerringly chose the wrong option. Wales were bankrupt.

For England the recurring nightmare was that this may indeed be just about as good as it gets, that their fate is to be the hammer of the outgunned Celtic nations but never free from the threat of an inspired France or a southern hemisphere team pulling itself back to traditional standards.

Certainly, it seemed to be a fear reaching into every corner of the Twickenham fortress. There have been more animated gatherings of the local Conservative party. England have deep player resources but a limited power to move the spirit, at least any more elevated than that which apparently continues to draw pleasure from the ever-rising scale of revenge on the Welsh who once dared to be so great.

In that narrow way the English could be most satisfied that no Welshman remotely matched the natural bite and vision of the man of the match, Will Greenwood. His gobbling-up of Wilkinson's perceptive little kick brought the first and utterly decisive try. If perhaps not perfectly legal, it announced a division of self-belief which became more obvious with every minute.

But if the Welsh dwindled, the English didn't really grow. They did only what the bookmakers expected of them, which was a winning margin of at least 30 points. It was not something to criticise too heavily or to celebrate. England squashed Wales, it is true. But it can never have meant less.