The forecast was for rain during the game on Saturday. The two coaches had kept one eye on the weather apps all week, Warren Gatland had already had to cancel Wales’ outdoor training because the conditions were so miserable in the run-up, and they had tailored their plans to suit. So had the 80,000 crowd, who had come in boots, coats, and caps, carrying brollies, everyone expecting another heavy grey wet day, and a hard-going game, what they got, instead, was the first fine afternoon of February, and, what was in its way, a regular helter-skelter set-to of a match.
It started under a glorious sunset, which lit the west stand of the old ground brilliant pink. For an hour, it felt like it might have been an omen. Red sky at night, Gatland’s delight.
He had warned the Welsh weren’t intimidated by the prospect of playing here, and his team were as good as his word. Wales tore up Twickenham for an hour, and even though England scraped by with a win, the truth is their latest game here turned out their shakiest since their last, when they lost to Fiji by eight points in August. It has been a long six months since, and they have put together a run of seven wins in eight away from home, in Marseille, Nice, Lille, Paris, and Rome, with the solitary loss that 16-15 defeat to South Africa in the World Cup semi-final.
That run of results was based on a stripped-back, pragmatic, style of play that suited the circumstances, and the short time head coach Steve Borthwick had to work in. Now that the tournament’s behind them, Borthwick is trying to build something a little more ambitious. Which is good, and right. Only watching his team here, it felt clear they’ve a way to go yet before they’re close to perfecting it. They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but you do wonder if it is supposed to be a backwards one.
England’s new blitz defence, in particular, is clearly taking a lot of getting used to. It’s the work of their new defence coach, Felix Jones, who joined them from South Africa in the winter. Jones explained in the match programme that “what most defences are chasing is an increase in putting opposition skill sets under pressure”. England, on the other hand, seemed to be giving the Welsh a chance to show theirs off.
Seeing it in action was a bit like watching a fire brigade take turns to try to put out a blaze by rushing up to smother it with a damp flannel. The tacklers would come hurtling up out of the line, and often as not the Welsh would simply ship the ball on and the next man along would slip into the gap the tackler had left in the line behind them. So far England have conceded more tries in the opening two matches of this championship than they did in all four they played in the pool stages of the World Cup.
They have some resilience though. You could see that in their try in the first half, when they managed to score off an attacking scrum even though they had two forwards in the sin-bin. Ollie Chessum had been sent there for a high tackle on Keiron Assiratti, and Ethan Roots joined him five minutes later after he collapsed a maul in the run-up to Wales’ opening try. It was a hell of an effort given that they were packing down with seven men, and one of them was Tommy Freeman. They held steady long enough for Ben Earl to pick up the ball and charge over the tryline.
It was just a shame that George Ford failed to get his conversion away afterwards. The Welsh defence set off sprinting when Ford shuffled a couple of inches to his left, and he stood there dumbstruck as they hacked the ball away off his tee for him. It sort of summed up their performance, which was ever so earnest, and full of effort, but lacking a little wit. This time, though, effort was enough. England pulled themselves back into the match over the course of the second half, and scored, in the end, after they spread the ball wide to Fraser Dingwall.
Along with a couple of penalties, it was enough to give them a skinny two-point victory. The margin made it an entertaining old game in its way. And it’s true, too, that England carried the crowd along with them. The atmosphere at the ground was better than it had been in a long while, and the fans sang throughout, but still, you sense England need to get better, and fast, if they’re going to beat any of the three teams waiting ahead of them in the championship.