CARDIFF, Wales — Leave aside verdicts over just how great this Wales side is for now, until Grand Slam deciders and Rugby World Cup knockout games, and for one night, revel in this epic Test match and performance from Warren Gatland’s team.
Gatland had said in the build up to this Six Nations encounter that England had no idea what Wales animal was going to turn up and he was right. It was a victory pumped up on the training fields with a game plan that nullified England’s potent aerial threats and blistering pace, and answered with a game anchored on counter-punch and being as disruptive as possible.
Wales won the battle in the air and, despite a wavering set piece, managed to just about force England into submission and prevent them from playing any of their shots. For the first two rounds of the Six Nations campaign, England were the king of the pack, but under the cool Cardiff sky, Wales brought a structured attack which was focused on preventing Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell from finding any momentum. Once they had spent the first half picking-and-going and found themselves seven points down, they shifted to a kicking game, moving from playing into England’s hands in the middle of the pitch to finding joy on the flanks.
And then, once the battle was won and the focus and intensity could finally drop, came the strangest of occurrences. For so long the captain with the poker face, Alun Wyn Jones let out a roar of accomplishment and celebration — he would later say it was a little “uncouth of him”. All week he had been firing his team up and it was rewarded with one of the best performances of Gatland’s 12-year Wales tenure.
Some have doubted Gatland in the past and his ability to turn Wales into Six Nations contenders. But Gatland wins, and he believes this Wales team have now forgotten how to lose — not a bad place to be in a World Cup year. Their focus in training pre-game was around nullifying England’s kicking game, and they did just that with Josh Adams, Liam Williams and George North all superb under the high ball. Williams was eventually crowned Man of the Match — rightly so — but it could have gone to any of the back three or the outstanding Jones.
England played well in the first half, making three visits to Wales’ 22 and returning 10 points thanks to a Farrell penalty and a Tom Curry try, where the flanker exploited a momentary lapse in Welsh concentration to crash over. The home crowd, after an uproarious start fuelled with Welsh fervour and engrossed with thoughts of past glories and present opportunity, was quietened and you could hear Swing, Low rolling around the stadium. England had eventually sussed out how to halt Wales’ pick-and-go, round-the-corner game plan and went into the break 10-3 to the good. The chariot was rolling on, all was going to plan for Jones’ side.
But then came the break, and out came a different animal in the second half. England’s discipline wavered, Kyle Sinckler — such an important player for Jones’ side — started letting the red mist cloud his judgement and Wales got a grip on the game. Gatland later said Sinckler could have some “demons to deal with”; Jones returned by questioning whether Gatland was a qualified psychologist and asked for the world to go easy on the young talent. But that spell of England making uncharacteristic errors in the battle between the two 10-metre lines allowed Wales to get a foothold in the match.
They chipped away at England’s score, making it a one-point game after 57 minutes and then landed the first of two heavyweight blows when Cory Hill crashed over following 35 phases of precision rugby 11 minutes later. Then as England attempted to rally, despite having Courtney Lawes and Jonny May off through injury, Wales waited for another chance to punish England as they frantically scrambled to haul Gatland’s side back. Dan Biggar, so impressive from the bench, sent a cross-kick to Adams who scampered over for the knockout punch. England were left bloodied on the canvas as the Principality Stadium erupted with beer launched into the darkening sky.
Clive Woodward used to have that phrase TCUP — “think correctly under pressure” — but this victory was a sign of confidence within Wales and a clarity in game plan. They were drilled all week in ways to stop England’s game, but also knew they had their own weapons in their arsenal, along with this trust in the system and unwavering self-belief.
Before Wales got on the coach from their base to travel to the stadium, Gatland told his team they were going to return as winners as they had forgotten how to lose. Privately, he also believed that when he looked at England’s form over the past few years, they always fell short in the big matches while his team found a way to grind out key victories. In short, he knew that if it came down to an arm-wrestle, there would be only one winner. It’s hard to doubt that when you see Alun Wyn Jones ripping his vocal chords to shreds celebrating the win with the gusto he allowed himself.
It is not a case of boom and bust for England, but a sign of how they need to find a way to haul themselves back into the game when they are under the kosh. They missed the injured Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje, and also the calming words of Dylan Hartley, who has now been ruled out of the rest of the Six Nations through injury. But when you have the player pool Jones does, there are no excuses. Instead, this has to be looked at as a match England learn from and work out how they lost the aerial game, how they can correct their penalty count and how they can maintain composure. Matches against Italy and Scotland remain in the final two weeks of this championship, and nothing but bonus-point wins at Twickenham will do.
Meanwhile, Wales are now riding the crest of a record-breaking 12 wins on the trot. One day it will come to an end, but it would take a brave individual to expect that to happen over the final two rounds of the Six Nations, against Scotland at Murrayfield and then Ireland in Cardiff on the final Saturday. They will enjoy tonight, rightly so, and will nurse sore heads tomorrow — as will the entirety of Cardiff — but then comes that need for calm. After a match won through the air, they need to come back to earth. There are bigger prizes awaiting them, but this was a deeply important victory and removed any chance of Wales flying under the radar.