Fired-up England expose the depth of Gatland's ills
Victory in Cardiff will have Martin Johnson and his men targeting Grand Slam success, writes Eddie Butler
Published 06/02/2011 | 05:00
The tempestuous exchanges before the opening game turned into a beautifully still night under a roof shut tight against the elements. The words raged pre-match and the wind blew hard up the Bristol Channel and over Cardiff, but not a breath blew into the Millennium Stadium, and Dylan Hartley's every arrow flew straight and true into the upstretched arms of Tom Palmer.
Hooker and second-row made a delightful couple.
Warren Gatland is left to ponder that the next time he loses interest, as everyone does, in the banality of the pre-match press conference as it is currently conducted, he might just concentrate on stifling a yawn, rather than trying to brighten up proceedings by criticising opposing players, as he did with Hartley. Mind games are not his forté.
The trouble for the Welsh coach is that neither is sorting out the ills of his team. If Hartley's throwing was impeccable, the Welsh lineout went off-course, as is its wont. And the scrummaging, apart from the second set-piece of the evening when Wales earned themselves a penalty, lost enough precious inches to compromise any progress from the back row.
Wales have been in this sphere of basic uncertainty before and responded with what is now their customary refusal to buckle. They made a real game of it, coming back from 23-9 down to eventually lose 26-19 on Friday night, and there were some sparkling touches of defiance and thrusts from long-range turnover ball.
But even these positive notes were merely part of a well-established ritual. What began as a gloriously raucous and irreverent welcome for the big brothers, turned into an acknowledgement that there is much to put right.
Wales as a collective force in attack, as opposed to their individual breakouts, drifted across the field. The straight yards gained by the ever-willing Bradley Davies stood in contrast to the lateral miles that mounted up. Wales veered towards the sideline together and the same old picture was painted of their attackers being shepherded towards the defenders' safety of touch. You could tell how much sideways movement there was by the fact that the other player who knows only forward motion, Jamie Roberts, was almost invisible.
Such movement is the compass bearing set by a lack of confidence, and nowhere was the collective diffidence more apparent than in the play of Mike Phillips. It was hoped that the scrumhalf, who last shone on the Lions tour of 2009, would be galvanised by his head-to-head with Ben Youngs, the young pretender improving at Leicester and with England at the same rate as Phillips seems to be losing his authority.
On the night, Phillips came off second best, his passing, never the slickest, failing to hit anything with regularity other than the ground.
The debate about the merits of Stephen Jones or James Hook at No 10 has already begun, but the argument is redundant as long as the ball bounces before arrival.
So much for the losers, for whom there is no instant cure, just away days in Edinburgh and Rome. Wales's fortunes in the remainder of the Six Nations were always going to be determined by their performance at home against England. Their prospects are not exactly making their supporters shield their eyes.
As for England, they are in a completely different place. As in, home sweet home. To win away is such a bonus that, hard as they will try to say that chains of games mean nothing -- only links, to be joined one at a time, can be contemplated -- the prospect of three consecutive games at Twickenham, against Italy, France and Scotland, will do nothing but inspire dreams of the Grand Slam, the first since 2003.
Which, of course, was a World Cup year . . . not that England under Martin Johnson would ever allow themselves to be carried away on such trains of thought.
But, goodness, Dan Cole scrummaged and tackled well. And Palmer was a revelation in the second row, and Easter was unstinting beyond the call of duty, and Tom Wood had a debut full of industry and intelligence.
And as for Toby Flood, well, he played the game tight against the face of the Welsh, assessing with alacrity and responding with variety, from the run between Craig Mitchell and Paul James that led to Chris Ashton's first try, to the kicking game that kept Welsh defenders on their heels. Youngs had one of those days when he was denied, or denied himself, his trademark runs, but still managed to make an impression because he was wise enough to recognise that this was Flood's day and his role as scrumhalf was to feed the machine. To serve is sometimes enough.
It wasn't by any means a total performance by England.
Mike Tindall, resolute as ever in defence, seems to have to squeeze one horrible pass out of his system in attack, like spewing up a hairball. It came out in the first half, and a healthy overlap turned into a lineout as the England captain sprayed a pass over the touchline.
Tindall has far too much experience to allow one bad pass to corrupt his game, but it was symptomatic of a lack of fluency in the England midfield.
The best pass in the centre, for Ashton's second try, was delivered by the other wing Mark Cueto. Still, to win and be able to declare yourself far from satisfied is even more rewarding than simply being pleased with the result. England, at the risk of repeating the formula that they will be attempting to avoid at all costs, are good when it comes to performing at the World Cup and especially good when they can marry it with a Six Nations series.
It was only the first day in a long year, but it could not have gone much better. And now they have an extended run of games at home. It is a fine reward for taking every hostile slice of the Cardiff mission and turning it to their advantage. It's too early to say anything, but that includes being rude about Hartley's throwing.
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