It must rank as one of the sweetest wins of Warren Gatland’s chequered Welsh coaching career but I have a strange feeling that Australia could yet prove the biggest beneficiaries of this result.
Labelled in advance as the biggest game ever between England and Wales, it lived up to its billing for drama, excitement, and passion, if not for the quality of the rugby shown — but that tends to happen in major tournaments.
With both sides harbouring genuine aspirations of going the whole way in this World Cup, Saturday night’s Twickenham contest carried massive significance. England are the side now under all the pressure in this ridiculously challenging pool.
That Wales somehow found a way to win a game that appeared beyond their reach by half-time and turned a ten point deficit with 30 minutes remaining into a three-point win at fortress Twickenham would automatically render this one of the finest ever victories by a Welsh side in London.
That it was on the biggest stage of all, a World Cup hosted by England, makes it even more significant. It was achieved having lost three heroic figures across the back line within a five-minute peri-od: Liam and Scott Williams along with Hallam Amos, in addition to the already absent Rhys Webb, Leigh Halfpenny, and Jonathan Davies. That says everything about the character in this Welsh squad. This win will have registered with every man, woman, and child in Wales.
Gatland is at his best when his back is against the wall and, coming into this one, not much else could have gone wrong for him in terms of injury to key figures. Yet he backed his men and, with the odds stacked against Wales, with their scrum and lineout barely surviving, they somehow found the will to win. They are a truly resilient bunch.
On the flip side, England froze when the game was there for the taking, butchering two glorious try-scoring opportunities due to indecision and uncertainty. The loss of scrum-half Ben Youngs on 50 minutes proved pivotal for, despite limitations in his kicking game, the running threat he posed around the fringes had Wales back-pedalling constantly.
When Sam Warburton’s men were left hanging by a thread, England froze alarmingly and were paralysed by a fear of winning. Great teams sense and seize their moment but England, despite the raucous support from a capacity Twickenham crowd, failed to do so. That does nor auger well.
Wales never gave up and took every single opportunity that came their way. For that they can thank out-half Dan Bigger who was not only immaculate off the tee but offered direction and leadership when it was most needed.
In the build-up to this game, the Sam Burgess factor apart, all the talk surrounded who England should select at No 10, Owen Farrell or George Ford. Bigger barely got a mention in the great out-half debate but when it mattered most, he was the one that kept his team in the contest and showed maturity when it was needed most. Farrell’s tactical kicking was well short of what is required at this level and his team suffered.
If anything the ground rules were set well in advance of kick-off when England re-shaped their entire back line to counter the physical threat of the Welsh.
After ten months in the union game, having made the cross over from rugby league, respected Bath coach Mike Ford took the decision that the impressive range of skills Burgess brings to the table are best utilised in the back row.
England coach Stuart Lancaster chose a different route and has ended up paying a particularly heavy price. To blame Burgess for this defeat misses the point completely. England found a way to play in last season’s Six Nations but abandoned that completely to cater for the strengths of the opposition. If you don’t believe in yourself, it is difficult to get others to do so.
On that basis alone, they deserved to lose. Last week we lauded the decision of Japan’s inspirational captain Michael Leitch to forfeit a draw against South Africa and go for broke. The end justified the means.
England skipper Chris Robshaw went down the same route but it was a flawed decision. A draw would have kept England well in contention to make the knockout stage but now everything will come down to their game against Australia back in Twickenham on Saturday night.
With Wales now having to deal with an inhumane injury list and a five-day turnaround before facing Fiji in Cardiff, Gatland’s men are vulnerable. Fiji have shown in their opening games against England and Australia that they are a very good side. They have the capacity to stretch an emotionally drained Welsh squad.
Meanwhile, Australia, having accounted for Uruguay with consummate ease yesterday, could be the ultimate winners from Saturday night’s bruising encounter at rugby head quarters.
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