The Calvin Report: The mourning after the Six Nations nightmare
Stuart Lancaster's team lick their wounds after being eaten up and spat out by a more experienced and physical Wales
Sunday 17 March 2013
The venues and dates of England's Grand Slam calamities have the bleak clarity of tombstones in a war cemetery. Cardiff 2013 will acquire the resonance of Murrayfield in 1990 and 2000, Wembley in 1999, and Lansdowne Road in 2001 and 2011. The mourning will be prolonged, and the inquest painful.
The noise beneath the closed roof at the Millennium Stadium was supersonic, and the rugby was supercharged. It was impossible to think straight, futile to speak at anything less than a bellow. Somehow, amidst the bedlam, Wales retained the composure required to win another Six Nations title.
As their conquerors celebrated, and a fusillade of fireworks was detonated in a darkened arena, the England players formed a desolate circle and recoiled from the reality of their inadequacy. There were few consolations, and there must be no concessions. England were routed, brutally exposed by opponents driven by an undeniable sense of destiny.
Welsh victory wasn't about vengeance for the dispossessed, the victims of the decline of the great industries, like coal and steel. It wasn't an eco-friendly alternative to torching holiday homes. This was a definitive test of will, an investigation of the limits of physical and mental durability.
No city submits so completely to the street theatre which complements great sporting occasions. The centre of Cardiff was social carnage; a cloudburst 90 minutes before kick-off, legions of girls in skintight cocktail dresses. As the exultant hordes spilled on to sodden streets, oblivion beckoned.
They say Welsh history, before the Romans, was learned orally by the Druids on 15-year apprenticeships. When they sober up, the modern equivalents will be able to recite the names of yesterday's pivotal warriors: Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton, Gethin Jenkins, Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert.
The day lacked the tribal bitterness of football occasions. There was no edge to the rivalry; the barbs were blunted by their underlying warmth. There was no segregation or suspicion, but in rugby terms it could not have been more serious. It was the type of challenge which exposes hidden fears and latent reserves of courage.
Wales made the sort of entrance which would have made a world heavyweight champion boxer blush. The tunnel was bathed in eerie red light, and pumped full of smoke, as Jenkins led his team out with measured tread. Everyone else suffered sensory overload. A dozen jets of flame radiated heat which could be felt at the back of the bottom tier of the stand. The Welsh anthems were luminous, even to those of us from the expensive side of the Severn Bridge toll booth. They placed into context the braying nonsense that is England's theme tune, 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' bellowed by a collection of currency traders from the Home Counties.
The primal scream which greeted the final whistle was the sound of nationhood; a chorus of pride, solidarity and hope fuelled by alcohol and adrenalin. Despite the ritual recycling of Phil Bennett's tirade against economic imperialism in the build-up, this was a crowd imbued with a passion that the anaemic politics of nationalism cannot match.
The Welsh have been seeking redress against the English ever since their defeat in the initial fixture, at Blackheath in February 1881, a month before the Welsh Rugby Union was formed. Wales failed to muster a point, and conceded seven goals, six tries and a dropped goal. The shame of surrender has been ingrained into the psyche of each and every player who has pulled on the scarlet jersey down the generations. England have much to ponder. Chris Ashton, creator of the Ash Splash, belly-flopped again. He tackled poorly and lacked impact. He will struggle to remain in a team which lacked experience in a match of manic intensity. The fact that the World Cup-winning side of 2003 was similarly fallible in Grand Slam showdowns will be of little compensation.
Signs of nervousness were portentous. Manu Tuilagi knocked on, with a clear run to the line beckoning early on. Wales scrummaged powerfully, defended manfully and kicked accurately. They counter-attacked with verve and instinct. The physical contest was captivating and summarised by one huge tackle by Jamie Roberts on Tuilagi.
The bruises will take weeks to heal. Chris Robshaw raged against the dying of the light and Mike Brown made a saving tap-tackle to prevent George North bullocking to the line. England were worn down punishingly. The Welsh back row was immense, and in Tipuric they have a potential British & Irish Lions captain. The crowd revelled in the drama, and the roof was nearly lifted off for Cuthbert's two tries.
The Millennium Stadium is a unique venue, and rugby has a unique resonance in Wales. Stuart Lancaster, to his credit, was respectful and realistic. "Rugby is a pretty simple game, when you come down to it," he said. "This was not about psychology. We didn't match their physicality." The words, delivered deadpan, had the ring of doom.
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