James Lawton: England wash away the doubts as Flood parts Welsh defences
Saturday 05 February 2011
Yes, maybe it was a little early to talk too freely about an emerging England team of strength and a certain old, tough gravitas but let us put it this way: coach Martin Johnson came into Cardiff playing the quiet man oozing confidence and it wasn't so long before we had reason to understand why.
Before an eruption of Welsh running brilliance born of growing desperation, the fact was England indeed looked like a team who had grown into the belief that they could truly take hold of a game, even if it happened to be in the frenzied Millennium Stadium.
For a while this seemed to be consummately the case, even when Louis Deacon rather witlessly conceded a penalty and sentenced himself to the sin bin.
A Welsh team containing Shane Williams and James Hook, especially when he moved to his natural position of out-half in the most vital phase of a game, is never going to be comfortably subdued, even without a one-man advantage but for so much of the time that was precisely the effect of England's assurance.
They were without their captain, Lewis Moody, but there was no shortfall of men willing to take up the fight and this effort of will appeared to be beautifully crowned when Chris Ashton, the most potent attacking figure in the new team, ran in the second of his two tries.
At 23-9, Johnson, so embattled so recently, could afford to stand up from his seat with the aura of a man who may just have come through the worst of his times as the tyro coach who couldn't begin to match the weight of his performances as a player.
Well, he is looking much more the man in charge of both his team and himself now.
In the end he knew some of the angst that came to him when his team looked so raw and ill-shaped, when fashioning a few coherent moves let alone a striking victory seemed several bridges away. So much so that when the Welsh flailed away in the second-half rally – and came within one score of drawing level – it was the old guard, the ultimate one, who preserved the victory.
Jonny Wilkinson kicked a reassuring penalty and made one of his classic tackles to preserve England's triumph but then that might just give the wrong impression.
There is new blood and new confidence flowing through the England team – and certainly we can say that Toby Flood has found something of authentic quality in his second coming as a significant England player.
He and his half-back partner Ben Youngs finished on the touchline – but not before showing a degree of rhythm and confidence that always suggested that England would produce the right level of confidence when it mattered.
Flood went one better with the most inventive initiative of the game, the seizing of a little available time and space that should have been an affront to Welsh belief in their superior creative powers. In fact it was an impressive statement of a new level of confidence and invention. Flood picked up the rifled pass of Youngs, saw the red shirts parting as if they were recreating the great Biblical deliverance, and then made the ground which enabled him to send home Ashton.
For Ashton it was a moment to compare with his stunning try against Australia at Twickenham last November – and for Flood it was an announcement that if the great Wilkinson's presence on the touchline was some kind of reassurance to his coach it was not as a threat to the new owner of the number 10 shirt.
Flood created the momentum for the ultimately impressive victory that carries them now to three straight games at Twickenham and, you have to suspect, a potential stranglehold on the tournament. There was the authentic sense of a team on the move, something that was also true of Wales. Unfortunately, though, they were going in the wrong direction and it is something Warren Gatland has to address with something that runs deeper than the psychological warfare he attempted to inflict on England's Dylan Hartley.
Giving Hook the green light to finally express himself as a potentially world-class out-half, one around whom Wales can build new levels of panache and confidence, seems to be an obvious priority.
Johnson, though, faces now such challenges of nerve and judgment. He is moving, plainly, in the direction of a settled – and increasingly impressive team.
There were moments last night when old doubts did re-appear, but in the end they were swept away. England found a surgical edge when the pressure was at its highest. Best of all, they looked like a group of players who had begun to believe in themselves.
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