Sunday 21 January 2018

English lament 'small margins'

England 12 Wales 19

England's David Strettle fails to clearly
ground the ball with his last-gasp effort
as Wales' Jonathan Davies holds him up
England's David Strettle fails to clearly ground the ball with his last-gasp effort as Wales' Jonathan Davies holds him up

Chris Hewett

England's interim coach Stuart Lancaster could be heard talking afterwards about "small margins", and the margins were indeed tiny.

Had visiting captain Sam Warburton mistimed his wonderful try-saving tackle on Manu Tuilagi by so much as a millisecond; had Mike Brown carried the ball a yard further in the last move of the match; had TMO Iain Ramage been blessed with slightly better eyesight; had any of these things happened, a four-week-old England team might well have prevailed over a high-class Welsh side four years into its development.

At the same time, Lancaster's opposite number was speaking of big margins. Warren Gatland was not so divorced from reality that he thought his team had won comfortably: he knew this was within a gnat's crotchet of ending all square. The New Zealander's point was that Wales, once the worst-conditioned side in the elite international game, are now so fit that final half-hours have ceased to be their enemy and have become their friend.

"Was I surprised at the way England lived with the tempo? I think the tempo was the difference," said Gatland after Wales completed a Triple Crown triumph at Twickenham.

"This all goes back to the cryotherapy work we did in Poland before the World Cup. In terms of fitness, I would put us right up there with the big southern hemisphere nations. It's amazing, the way your skills seem to improve the fitter you are.

"We try to keep the ball in play for as long as possible because that's when our conditioning kicks in. If it's in play for 40 minutes or more, we win 90pc of our games. The ball was in play for 16 minutes in the first half and 24 in the second. That's a big differential and it told. We're winning matches in the last quarter: we did it in Ireland and we've done it here."

Wales left London with a seven-point victory largely because they were able to accelerate the pace and increase the intensity of the encounter in the second period despite losing out-half Rhys Priestland to the sin-bin.

Even with this crucial edge in lung and muscle power they found themselves in extremis as England sought an equalising score at the last knockings, and the final few seconds threw up talking points galore.

Replacement full-back Brown had been on the field for only two minutes when Toby Flood picked him out. He should have fixed the covering Jonathan Davies before delivering to David Strettle -- had he done so, the wing would have made it to the line and given Flood a wide-angled conversion to draw the match. But Brown shipped the ball a second too early, allowing Davies to clatter Strettle on the line.

"I certainly felt the ball touch the ground before people piled in on me," said Strettle later, convinced he had scored. But the on-field officials were unsure and although one camera angle appeared to confirm Strettle's impression, Ramage took a different view. Harsh? To borrow a phrase from football punditry: "We've seen them given."

By way of rubbing an entire ocean's worth of salt into English wounds, referee Steve Walsh refused -- or, perhaps, forgot -- to activate the penalty he had awarded against the outstanding Wales prop Adam Jones for collapsing the driving maul that launched this do-or-die attack, and blew the final whistle. That the clock had ticked past the 80-minute mark was neither here nor there. Walsh had been playing advantage and had not, so far as anyone on the pitch knew, called "advantage over".

Not that Lancaster and his colleagues should stay annoyed for long.

This was England's best performance since the opening Six Nations game in Cardiff a year ago.

Impressive

It was all the more impressive for the excellent contributions of the three players promoted to from the bench: second-row Geoff Parling, No 8 Ben Morgan and, in particular, energetic scrum-half Lee Dickson.

Tuilagi, back after injury, was a real handful, while Owen Farrell, switched to out-half after two games at centre, would have been a revelation had those with eyes to see not already labelled him a 50-cap No 10 in the making.

The Lions hierarchy, most of whom were at Twickenham, are working their way through a shortlist of coaches for next year's Test series in Australia. That list is now very short indeed, consisting of two initials: one is a W, the other a G. (© Independent News Service)

England -- B Foden (M Brown 77); D Strettle, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, C Ashton; O Farrell (T Flood 65), L Dickson (B Youngs 60); A Corbisiero (M Stevens 65), D Hartley (R Webber 71), D Cole; M Botha (C Lawes 60), G Parling, T Croft, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan ( P Dowson 71).

Wales -- L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts (S Williams h-t), G North; R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins, K Owens, A Jones, AW Jones (R Jones 53), I Evans, D Lydiate, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.

Ref -- S Walsh (Australia).

Irish Independent

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