So, to make sense of it all. Twickenham on Sunday provided a compelling pre-World Cup ding-dong between two sides who daren’t fail, for risk of acute Japanese indigestion.
First blood went to England who deserved their 33-19 win. After such a reality check, Welsh fans of a nervous disposition will naturally be hovering over the panic button, but they need reminding this incident-laden contest in the home of English rugby is only half-finished because these two will go toe-to-toe again next Saturday at an intemperate, baying Principality Stadium. So what to take from the phoney war in London?
For a clutch of England squad members it was a case of now or never. They simply had to perform. In a classic case of handing your homework in early Eddie Jones trims his squad on Monday, weeks in advance of the official World Rugby deadline.
Whether that is the most efficient strategy, with three warm-up games to come, only time will tell. Warren Gatland was quick to scoff but as English players did a celebratory lap-of-honour in front of 81,000 fans and 007 (okay, Daniel Craig), it seemed like Jones’ roll of the dice had paid off.
Lewis Ludlum, Anthony Watson and Willi Heinz all pressed their claims. The momentum, as Alun Wyn Jones attested, was with England. For Wales, with just over three weeks to their squad announcement, the motivation was different – to come fully-loaded, claim the world No1 spot and maintain their unbeaten run.
Both dashed accolades were downplayed by Warren Gatland afterwards who didn’t look too disconsolate. End up on the wrong scoreline next weekend and the furrowed brows might be more pronounced.
AN ANXIOUS WAIT
As a fan, family member or coach, you will spend the next month stomach knotted with a mix of trepidation and anticipation. Collisions between 120kg men are always going to come with a risk of injury and so it proved.
When Tom Curry, the great white hope of English rugby, went down nursing his shoulder to depart the whole of Twickenham held its collective breath– ‘an AC joint, nothing to worry about,” quipped Jones, almost-convincingly.
Ten minutes later, it was Gareth Anscombe, having skipped down the right flank with such alacrity from Jonathan Joseph, who had to be helped from the field by the Wales physios. He reappeared to watch the second-half on crutches and will have a scan on suspected ligament damage to his knee.
It would be a savage blow for Wales to lose a player with such natural gifts. Yes, rugby fans know economic bottoms lines have to be met in order to prop up a game not exactly overflowing with cash, but it is a human tragedy to see players who have sweated blood and tears all summer left a hospital appointment away from missing the world’s greatest tournament. All the luck in the world to the both of them.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 11, 2019
WALES WERE RING RUSTY – PERIOD
Skipper Jones, who broke Wales’ all-time cap record at Twickenham, isn’t one for excuses and flatly refused to blame a lack of finesse for their torpor at the start of each half, but there was no disguising their execution was less than perfect.
Passes went astray, touch finders were missed and lineouts overthrown. It made a nonsense of the pre-match chat that a hopelessly inexperienced England side would be steamrollered by a well-oiled Welsh machine.
Within the first 15 minutes, pre-match predictions were spiked as England bolted out of the traps to score two big tries from two big men, Billy Vunipola and Joe Cokanasiga.
For periods, it was as if Wales’ Grand Slam heroics had been frozen in time and the squad had been cast back to that miserable first 40 minutes in Paris when the ball was auditioning for a Dove advert.
It was frustrating for Gatland, who could not have been blamed for snapping a few pencils. The pièce de résistance was an overthrow on the cusp of half-time when the mechanics of a lineout between two of Wales’ most dependable cogs, Jones and Ken Owens, went awry and the ball dropped into Luke Cowan-Dickie’s mitts for him to canter over the whitewash like he had won the lottery. The upside, Gatland mused, was that these were fixable mistakes.
REASONS FOR CHEER
Despite Wales’ teething troubles, there was enough promise to temper a national meltdown. There weren’t, for instance, the parallels that saw a much heralded Ireland side, dismantled by England in the first game of the Six Nations.
Wales contested and left several scores out on the field. Jonathan Davies ran with purpose and guile in midfield for 94 metres, splattering George Ford into the Twickenham turf with a trademark fend, and Gareth Davies, despite a chargedown and some errant passing, ran in one of the finest Welsh scores at Twickenham with a jet-heeled break down the blindside that left Vunipola and Elliot Daly caught in his tailwinds.
George North and Liam Williams also prospered in the backfield, running the ball back with interest. It wasn’t a noteworthy day for the front five, but in the back row, Aaron Wainwright snapped at English heels in a Dan Lydiate-esque manner with 20 tackles. It was also heartening to see Aaron Shingler return to action after a year lay-off. These were crumbs of comfort to take into their next Test week.
UNBEATEN RUNS ARE OVERRATED
There is a train of thought among Welsh pessimists – I’m a paid-up member – that Wales heading into a World Cup unbeaten on the back of 18 wins would have been ominous. After all, who can forget the squall of Dublin when Ireland arrested England’s unbeaten run in 2017?
England boss Jones once told this writer that with every win you are statistically closer to a loss, so if you want to lose a game, the World Cup warm-ups is the place to do it, not knockout rugby in Japan.
If history is anything to go by, these games tell you very little about the World Cup form book. When Wales lost 23-19 to England in 2011 at Twickenham, one side skipped all the way to the World Cup semi-finals and it wasn’t England, who departed the tournament in a dwarf-tossing pickle. Reading too much into these results is a fool’s errand.
RANKINGS – DO THEY REALLY MATTER?
When World Rugby slip a few permutations to an expectant rugby public about how a nation can push up or down the rankings with a win at the weekend, it’s usually just a chance for WhatsApp bragging rights, but it means diddly-squat in reality – unless it’s before a World Cup draw.
Gatland himself said would have been a ‘nice to be No1′ but added that the only true measure of being the best in the world was lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy on November 2 in Yokohama. It was hard to disagree. Onto Cardiff.
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