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How often do you come away from an international rugby match feeling that any of the possible results – a win for either side or a draw – would have been equally plausible, equally satisfying? Parity might have been fairer to both sides at the end of an absorbing and vibrantly entertaining contest on a beautiful afternoon at Twickenham, but it was Wales’s response to adversity that provided the foundation for a victory which keeps them on course for a possible grand slam showdown with France in Cardiff on 17 March, assuming they can dispose of Italy at home a week earlier.
On Saturday they could say that they won because of, rather than despite, their bad habit of losing players to yellow cards. When Rhys Priestland, having perhaps his worst game in a Wales jersey, went to the sin bin for an illegal tackle on Alex Corbisiero in the 45th minute it enabled the remaining 14 to demonstrate their resilience, to themselves as much as to their opponents. And they had yardsticks by which to measure their progress.
Two years ago at Twickenham they lost Alun Wyn Jones with the score at 3-3, and by the time the lock returned they were 13-3 behind and on the way to a heavy defeat. Last year in Cardiff the prop Craig Mitchell was sent to the sin bin with the score at 9-13 and 10 minutes later it was 9-23, a margin from which they were unable to recover.
On Saturday Priestland departed with England leading 9-6, and Owen Farrell swiftly kicked the penalty to double the margin. But then Wales dug in. They made the most of the restart and, with the significant assistance of Mike Phillips, their forwards kept virtually unbroken possession until the fly-half’s return.
Leigh Halfpenny capped their achievement by kicking a three-pointer that meant no net loss. “When we got the yellow card we had to tighten it up,” Gethin Jenkins, their vastly experienced prop, said. “It was a bit of a lung-burster for the forwards. There wasn’t much point in giving it to the backs because they had a lot of numbers on them.
“I thought Mike did really well – obviously he’s big enough to be a forward and he carried a lot during those 10 minutes. We managed to ride it out.”
Their head coach thought they had played better with 14 men than with a full complement. “That’s how we should have been playing with 15,” Warren Gatland said. “We wanted to be pretty direct, getting behind them and earning the right to move the ball, but we were guilty of trying to move it in the first half without having earned that right. Keeping the ball for the whole 10 minutes was probably the turning point of the match.”
They started as if intending to have the game wrapped up in the first quarter, but the success of a shrewdly organised England defence in repelling wave after wave of early attacks gave heart to the home side. For most of the second and third quarters it was the white shirts who flowed forward, demonstrating a purpose and a flexibility in midfield not seen for several seasons, animated by Lee Dickson and guided by Farrell.
England’s unexpected brightness gave Gatland’s young Wales side a test that they were relieved to come through. Their achievements at the World Cup may have persuaded some of their supporters that they are the finished article, but this performance showed that they still have questions to answer, both tactically and individually.
Priestland was at the centre of several of them. He and Halfpenny were the culprits as Wales attempted to run the ball back at their opponents from deep positions without sufficient thought or inventiveness, exasperating their colleagues in the pack in the process.
“Perhaps we played a bit too much rugby in our own half and got turned over which put us under pressure,” Jenkins observed, with a mildness he may not have shown in the dressing room at half-time. “The forwards really had to work hard in our own half. I know we’re a pretty fit and strong team, but you want to be playing on the front foot.”
It had been, the 85-cap forward said, one of the most physical international matches he had taken part in. “Every contact was a big battle,” he said. “England had a lot on the line and I was very impressed. They did their homework on us and we had to grind it out.”
Yet it contained enough creative, expansive play from both sides to grace a day borrowed from spring. The big tackles brought gasps of appreciation, but so did the passages of interplay and the shafts of inspiration like that one that brought the 21-year-old Scott Williams, playing the second half in place of Jamie Roberts, his match-winning breakaway try.
“It’s the first time in Wales’s history that they’ve won the triple crown at Twickenham,” Gatland said. “I told the players before the game that they’d got the opportunity to create history today, and they’ve done it.” Now, as Jenkins pointed out, only one problem remains as they press on towards further glory: “It’s a case of dealing with the expectations of the Welsh public, like it always is.”
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