Ben Wildsmith reports from the borderlands as Wales just fall short against England
England 23-19 Wales
I had planned to report on this game from England. The idea was to find the leafiest, most cut-glass sounding venue I could ‒ Beaumont-Super-Care RFC perhaps, demand a pint of Brains Skull Attack and engage the members on recent results against Scotland. Then Wayne Pivac dropped Rees-Zammit.
I understand the rationale for this, he’s not been on his best form, and we needed a physical presence in defence. But damn it, Zammit? A confident Wales would always field a winger like him, in the belief that whatever he let in would be repaid doubly by his attacking threat. So, I pulled up short of the border and took up a perch at the Old Nag’s Head in Monmouth.
Border towns, the world over, have a unique vibe, don’t they? Whether you’re in Tijuana, Amritsar or Oswestry you’ll find mangled accents, complex loyalties and enigmatic transients. Before the game, nobody had a clear vision of the outcome. Lloyd has concerns about the Welsh setup.
‘It’s going to be a tough couple of years for them. The Taine Basham generation will come through, but until they get some caps under their belts it’s going to be hard. They’ve got no out and out 12/13 combination and that’s crucial in the modern game.’
Matt, meanwhile, was more optimistic. Here was a classic border town character: marooned in his native Wales by Covid restrictions, he owns a bar called the Welsh Dragon in Wellington, New Zealand and seemed to have absorbed his adopted nation’s quiet perspicacity about the sport.
‘Neither side is on their A game; they are both misfiring. I see Wales edging it in a low-scoring match.’
As English penalties started going over, cheering roared across the bar from the smaller front room where white jerseys dominated. We clapped politely after each and shouted ‘Come on Wales’ loudly to demonstrate support and moral rectitude in the face of adversity. Wales were doing unexpected things well, forcing a scrum penalty in the opening minutes, for instance.
The last time that happened at Twickenham, Peter West twisted a vowel and had to be stretchered out of the BBC studio. This was on ITV, however, where the sainted Shane is permitted to congratulate ‘our forwards’.
The breakdown was England’s and infringements left them ahead by twelve unanswered points at half time. So, when England were gifted a try three minutes into the second half, the outlook was bleak. Referee Mike Adamson, notably punctilious about the most minor Welsh infringements in the first half, somehow managed to miss Maro Itoje barging Adam Beard out of a defensive lineout, leaving the line at Alex Dombrandt’s mercy.
Rugby, however, Matt explained, is like life: you live it in four quarters. For the first 20 minutes you don’t know what’s happening, just like a child. The second quarter is where you find your feet and decide how to prosper, as we do in our 20’s and 30’s. After half time, you score points by accumulating assets and this sets you up for the final quarter of the game. You hope to make 80 minutes, and if there’s any extra, that’s a bonus.
And after the disputed England try, Wales began to build on the best aspects of their play in the first half. At the centre of their efforts, Taulupe Faletau made a mockery of predictions that he’d fade as the game wore on and played with increasing authority. Dogged at the breakdown, he also became an attacking threat, skilfully negotiating contact so that yards were gained each time he was held up. Josh Adams scooped up a difficult delivery for Wales’ first try and the manner in which he took it should end any debate over which position this consummate wing threequarter should play.
Even after Nick Tompkins sliced through the English defence to leave Wales 5 points behind, there was a feeling that too high a mountain had been left to climb. Joe Marler’s appearance on the field coincided with a more committed effort from England, and despite hope lingering into overtime, the physicality and discipline England displayed earned them a four point victory.
Statistically, Alex Cuthbert was Wales’ most effective attacker, notching up 17 metres in the game and justifying his inclusion at the expense of Rees-Zammit. If Wales really are in the borderlands between the Alun Wyn Jones and Taine Basham eras, it’s concerning that Faletau and Cuthbert were the standouts here. They won’t be reliable forever.
In Monmouth, most were happy with the performance.
‘Why can’t we start better?’ asked Tony, who had sat quietly and rapt throughout the game. Well, that has to be down to confidence, and the selection policy doesn’t seem to be geared towards fostering that.
We have lost 2 from 3 and have no idea who will be playing in the centres or back row when France visit. I appreciate a transient atmosphere but, travelling back to Cardiff, couldn’t help but wish for more clarity of purpose from a coaching team whose reputation is, I suspect, being saved by the native wit of their players.