Sunday 17 December 2017

Wales salvage pride in refusal to lie down

George North scores the second try for Wales. Photo: Reuters
George North scores the second try for Wales. Photo: Reuters

Eddie Butler

With the score at 25-7, it couldn't have been much worse for Wales. They had been struggling - couldn't hang on to a pass, had conceded a try and had had to stand around while their captain was placed on the injury-cart. Luke Charteris, usually a model of and discipline, had given away two penalties and in the process dislocated his finger. While it was being put back he watched Owen Farrell kick the last of his six penalties.

Even worse, Tomas Francis had just been spotted running fingers over the eyes of Dan Cole. This was not just a poor day on the spectrum of skills and tactics; this was about to turn ugly.

Luck suddenly kicked in. Francis may have a case to answer from the citing officer, but due to inconclusive evidence yesterday, the only sanction was a penalty. Cole, on the other hand, was sent to the bin for something technical. Still, there were only eight minutes left. Two converted tries later, England were scrambling to prevent a third. Manu Tuilagi has been away for a long time, but he made one of the most important tackles of his career, shoving George North into touch when it seemed the wing was away.

On this occasion, England survived. Wales could not spin their own way a game that had been going against them for almost its entirety. Would they have deserved it? Would they care?

They will be left to dwell on the negatives, for of those there were plenty. Warren Gatland could not deny the first-half display had been substandard. England went through their phases, while Wales lost control or booted the ball down the throat of Mike Brown. Only Liam Williams revealed a skill-set unaffected by the occasion. In this unedifying first half, there were collective meltdowns at the lineout, where Taulupe Faletau lost two to the wonderfully impressive Maro Itoje. There were bumps in midfield between players trying to avoid each other.

Wales were could not find the answers. They were down by a further three points after the interval when they opted for scrums and line-outs close to the England line on the one occasion they did manage to approach it, but they came away empty-handed. Or so it seemed. Perhaps there was a change of luck before the dramatic last few moments. Wales were lucky to be on zero when George Ford, having picked a difficult pass off his toes, delayed his clearance by a fraction of a second, and Dan Biggar charged it down. Was it luck? Biggar targeted the right-hand side of Ford. Nobody judges time or another player's misfortune more acutely or more cruelly than he.

It was but a crumb at the time. There was a little more urgency in the tempo, but it was born more of desperation than a turning of the tide. At some stage, Wales were going to have a go, but when Jonathan Davies released North for the first time, it seemed England had the situation under control and once they could lay hands on the ball, they could restore the rituals of the day: pressure leading to a penalty or better.

Wales removed Alun Wyn Jones. It was like taking off John Charles or Gareth Bale. If he's fit the mighty second row plays. AWJ is an 80-minute player with the biggest heart in his homeland. Here, off he trudged. Then came the swing. Ah, luck, you fickle foe. Gatland does not believe in luck. He believes in fitness and never giving up. Even when you're 18 points adrift and staring at the referee who is being advised by the Television Match Official that there is an incident of possible foul play - a scrape, a slide of a hand into the ultimate no-go area - you do not give up.

And so it was that Wales did not go the way of others whose heads drop in the closing minutes when the result is known. It did not work, but it gave the scoreboard respectability. As if Wales care about that. It gave England a scare. That was something. It gave Wales reason to believe that out of a performance that will make them wince, something good came. This has been a ragged campaign, but never giving up will serve them well for better days.


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