There is little doubt in my mind that right now – almost 2 days after the captivation of England v Wales culminated – that the Welsh supporters are still celebrating.
That should give an indication of how much it means to them to beat England – particularly on the Rose’s hallowed turf – when leading up to the game and at half time, they were almost completely written off as having any chance of victory. The statistics couldn’t have been any more incorrect.
From a match that is a clear contender for Game of the Tournament, 5 points were extracted, from “How on earth…?” To “What now?”
1) Injury crisis? What injury crisis?
A big question mark overhanging the Welsh upon their visit to Twickenham was how would they cope with the injuries afflicting the squad. Centre Jonathan Davies was the first to be ruled out with a knee injury, before scrum half Rhys Webb and full-back and kicker Leigh Halfpenny both fell foul of injuries in the friendly against Italy which would ultimately rule them out of the entire competition. In truth, whilst the trio were noticeably absent, their replacements; Scott Williams, Gareth Davies and Liam Williams all performed admirably at Twickenham, giving a battling performance individually and as a unit that so underlined just how much they wanted to come away with a win. What it also underlines is that the players they have lost are not the difference between victory and defeat, and Wales are still a team very much in with a shout of winning the competition.
2) England’s XV
Stuart Lancaster has never been one to shy away from the bold decision making. More often than not, they have paid dividends. However, it was a big call by the England chief to select Owen Farrell over George Ford at fly half and, perhaps bigger still, bequeathing the number 12 jersey to rugby union rookie Sam Burgess ahead of what some might call the natural choice in Henry Slade – whilst the decision to leave Luther Burrell behind continually mystifies. In one sense, the tactics paid off. Farrell landed five kicks, plus his drop goal, and was fearless in the defence of his try line all night long. However, his ball handling and movement in the attack were less than efficient as the game wore on, and by the time Ford was called upon with ten minutes remaining, he was asked to play at centre, where it was his physicality that was relied upon, rather than his distribution of the ball. With Wales in the ascendancy at this point, England could have done with Ford’s adventurous play and fresh legs so much more than they gave credit for.
3) Dan Biggar’s right foot
As reliable as a fly half as he is, many people seem to forget that before Leigh Halfpenny’s ability to kick came to the fore, it was Dan Biggar who was kicking the points. He reminded everyone of what he can do, and was flawless from the tee all night. To prove his mettle, he nailed a penalty from a distance similar to that which Halfpenny attempted against France in 2011, though the Toulon full-back’s effort actually fell short. More than that though, he was the leader of their attacks, carrying the ball, jumping without fear, and having a considerable hand in the build up which led to Gareth Davies game-turning try. An outstanding effort from the Welsh no’ 10.
4) THAT penalty decision
It was an opportunity to snatch a draw that England will feel they deserved. For all Wales’ point scoring and gladiatorial defending, the stats are that England made more with the ball in the middle of the pitch. When Sam Warburton was penalised on the far right wing around the 22 metre line, the decision was made by captain Chris Robshaw to kick for territory rather than an attempt for the 3 points. With just five minutes to go, Wales simply would not give out, and the subsequent line out repelled and the English chance gone. Had the foul been committed anywhere else on the pitch, criticism of Robshaw would be far more scything if he had made the same call. However, I feel sure he wouldn’t have. Whoever the kicker of the penalty would have been, the angle was against him, and the reality of missing the kick would have been staring him directly in the face. England’s maul had been reasonably good to that point, and had they moved the ball with more width at the line out, Robshaw’s decision may very well have paid dividends.
5) Wales’ XV
Many plaudits of Wales victory note their large injury list as being something of a disadvantage. Whilst this is true, they are not exactly bereft of talent on it. Dan Biggar took home man of the match, with some justification, however, one cannot overlook the contribution made by others. Scott Baldwin finally seemed to have mastered the line out in the second half. Up until then, he and Alun Wyn Jones were struggling against Dan Cole and Tom Youngs for the high balls and lost their first two. However, it was the Welsh pair who triumphed in the final maul to bring the points home. Taulupe Faletau seems to be the player that most people overlook when the compliments are dished out, yet he is making the no’ 8 shirt entirely his own, leaving any competition trailing in his wake. His relentless pushing during the rucks and scrums covered distance, while his carrying was brave to the last moments. He shines as an example of the physicality of Wales training regime. On the other end of the scale, Alex Cuthbert was benched for the start, and was ultimately ill disciplined and ineffective when he came on. With Welsh wingers few and far between, Gatland will desperately need the Cardiff Blue man to step up against Fiji and Australia. Goodness knows they don’t have enough players to do any carrying of each other.