On Saturday (25th of February) Wales went up to the home of English rugby, Twickenham, to play England in their annual 6 Nations fixture. Wales were in the unusual position of being favourites for the game which, given that Wales have only won there once (in 2008) since 1988, was not something we Welsh are used to of late. Their favourites tag was based on getting to the semi-finals of the recent 2011 Rugby World Cup, and winning their first two games of the 2012 6 Nations against Ireland and Scotland in slightly more convincing style than England’s two wins against Scotland and Italy.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, Wales were the dominant team in the then 5 Nations (Italy did not join until 2000). Wales won in 1970 (when they shared it with France), 1971, 1973 (when it was shared between all 5 countries, the only time this has happened), 1975, 1976, 1978 & 1979. So 7 of the 10 years (although sharing it on 2 of those). Our results against England during this 2nd “Golden era” of Welsh rugby was even better. Wales beat England in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978 & 1979; the only year we didn’t beat them in that decade was 1974.
Things had changed dramatically by the end of the 1990s, particularly at Twickenham. In 1998 England won 60-26, in 2000 they won 46-12, in 2002 they won 50-10, in 2004 they won 31-21, and in 2006 they won 47-13. These were dark days for Wales playing up in Twickenham. But, in 2008, in one of the most remarkable turn-arounds in international rugby, Wales came back from being 19-6 down to beat England at Twickenham by 26-19, gaining our first win there since 1988. This is an entire video of that 2008 game.
The Welsh rugby public are not known for acting in moderation. It is either all doom and gloom in our rugby world, or we are going to win and win easily. There never seems to be any half measures. The bookies had made Wales favourites going into Saturday’s game, with one well respected rugby pundit (and ex-player) Jonathan Davies predicting Wales would “smash” England. Thankfully, our level-headed coach Warren Gatland, and our team, showed more reserve.
In reality, it was a very close game. England stopped Wales from playing their usual fast, running game by smashing into us in mid-field. The English tackles were brutal, and Wales conceded far too many turnovers at the breakdown. In addition to England’s ferocious tackling, they also ran the ball more than they had done so far this 6 Nations, and made some lovely breaks. Wales’ captain Sam Warburton saved an almost certain try just before half time with an amazing tackle.
With 10 minutes to go, England were ahead 12-9. Then, Wales got a penalty and brought the scores level. With some 5 minutes to go, the replacement centre Scott Williams ripped the ball of an English player and scored a superb solo try from some 40 metres out. The conversion followed, to put Wales ahead 19-12. There then followed on onslaught from England, who tried to score to equalise the match. They did cross the line in the dying seconds, but the Television Match Official decided he could not see enough evidence that England had grounded the ball, so no try was awarded.
These are highlights of this year’s game.
Wales had won a remarkably tight and bruising match. It gave Wales our 20th Triple Crown (the trophy for beating the other 3 Home Nations), and of course means Wales are still on course for the Grand Slam. Our next game is against Italy in Cardiff in 2 weeks, followed the week after by France, also in Cardiff. The Welsh public will go into heightened expectation over the next 2 weeks, and it is fair to say Italy should present no problem to a confident Wales. But France may be our banana skin, although they did not look too impressive against Scotland this weekend.
What has impressed me most about this Welsh team in this 6 Nations is their ability to win games even when not playing particularly well. They were the better team against both Ireland and Scotland, but certainly did not play that well against either team. Against England, they were prevented from playing well by an excellent aggressive defence from England, and yet we still managed to pull the win off in the last 10 minutes. Winning when not playing well is the mark of a team which will achieve great things – and I am beginning to think that this team could go on to achieve great things over the next few years. I hope so, because the 1970s are a long time ago now, and with rugby being the National religion, Wales need success on the rugby field for our national psyche!