Wounded Wales go to well and find just enough to quench home fires
Warren Gatland’s men overcome steep odds after England fail to convert superiority
Wales number eight Taulupe Faletau shows the England defence a clean pair of heels at Twickenham. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP photo
Sometimes a game actually lives up the hype, and in this instance that’s really saying something. After nearly two years of planning, pre-match talk, selection U-turns and injury bulletins, such was the feverish scramble for tickets that Twickenham could have been filled three or four times over. Come the final crescendo to this thunderous occasion, it felt like it had been too.
Bravery comes in many forms. In a contact sport like rugby, it’s a weekly event, and it seems never more so than in this World Cup, albeit with a toll bordering on savage. It is usually associated with players putting their bodies on the line, but then there’s the bravery required to play under pressure.
For almost all of the first half, England were the superior team. Superior in the set-piece, and at the breakdown – albeit at the cost of penalties for the unerring Dan Biggar to keep Wales almost single-handedly in the game – England led 19-9 only to let their opponents off the hook after Farrell missed a penalty to touch.
Wales re-grouped and re-gathered, clawing back from 22-12 down to 22-18, after a clever tactical shift – utilising more pick-and-go to go up the guts of the largely impenetrable white wall and strike moves to get outside Brad Barritt, while committing way more men to the breakdown. But a triple whammy inside four minutes appeared to have done for them.
Brutal demolition derby
Having lost three front-line backs – two of them Lions and one another in waiting – before the tournament, and then a hat-trick hero from their first pool outing, Wales lost another three backs in this predictably brutal demolition derby.
Scott Williams took a huge dunt from Barritt after releasing George North with a long skip pass, Liam Williams was concussed from a careless kick in the head by Tom Youngs, and Hallam Amos damaged his shoulder in handing off Farrell after the whistle had gone. The latter two departed together, four minutes after the first. Two minutes later Owen Farrell made it 25-18. Entering the last 10 minutes, Wales’s goose looked to be cruelly cooked.
North, went into centre, their magnificent outhalf Biggar went to fullback, and the replacement scrumhalf, little Lloyd Williams, went to the wing. Cue the try of the tournament. Now that’s bravery!
After Luke Charteris, who made a big impact, trucked it up, the Welsh players went into their well-rehearsed positions.
Trio of forward
Well, actually, this exact group of players couldn’t have rehearsed this one too much. Alun-Wyn Jones, possibly beyond magnificent, shaped to carry or link with a trio of forwards on the line outside him, but instead used them as a screen and passed behind them to replacement outhalf Rhys Priestland.
The English four-up defence advanced. Come into the parlour, said the spider to the fly. Priestland passed flat to Biggar, who skip-passed beautifully to Jamie Roberts. Now two-on-one, with Barritt and co outflanked by not drifting, Roberts drew Anthony Watson and released Lloyd Williams.
Scooting up the left wing, Williams was confronted by Mike Brown and opted for a deft left-footed crosskick infield, reminiscent of Didier Camberabero’s kick infield for Philippe Saint-André to finish that try here in 1991 which Serge Blanco instigated from behind his own line.
But the pick-up on the run by Gareth Davies to gather and dive over under the posts in one sublime moment was even better – in terms of skill, it was the high point of the match.
From one scrumhalf to another. Amongst many other things, at a stroke Warren Gatland’s decision to have little Lloyd on the bench as inexperienced back-up to the inexperienced Davies – rather than Mike Phillips – was utterly vindicated.
After Biggar’s monstrous 49-metre penalty inched Wales ahead with five minutes remaining, England had one last throw of the dice. Cue Chris Robshaw’s fateful decision to go to the corner rather than ask Farrell to draw the sides level.
Under pressure, teams can resort to type. Not only did Robshaw go up the line for a lineout, but the throw went to himself at number two in the line. Wales read it like an open book. Gatland said they had been undone by a maul off Robshaw before and had specifically practised defending this move.
Sam Warburton revealed that not much was said. He just looked into his players’ eyes and knew how much this meant to them. Wales didn’t contest, and as Robshaw hit the ground, all eight drove England over the touchline. Toby Faletau picked up from a retreating scrum for Wales to run down the clock and Biggar hoofed the ball into the stands as the excellent Jérôme Garcès signalled the end. The Welsh fans were beyond delirious. For all their injury woes, this game, and especially the endgame, underlined that Wales have more big-game players in Jones, Warburton, Faletau – who rose to the occasion in the second half much like he did in the second half of their quarter-final win over Ireland four years ago – Biggar, Roberts and North, who suddenly burst into life in the second-half and took some understandable pleasure in winning Biggar’s sensational match-winner against the typically tetchy Mike Brown.
The injured Scott and Liam Williams also showed what fine players they are too. And little Lloyd didn’t do too badly either.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 3 mins Biggar pen 0-3; 12 mins Farrell pen 3-3; 16 mins Biggar pen 3-6; 18 mins Farrell drop goal 6-6; 24 mins Farrell pen 9-6; 27 mins May try, Farrell con 16-6; 39 mins Biggar pen 16-9; (half-time 16-9); 44 mins Farrell pen 19-9; 47 mins Biggar pen 19-12 52 mins Farrell pen 22-12; 53 mins Biggar pen 22-15; 58 mins Biggar pen 22-18; 69 mins Farrell pen 25-18; 71 mins Davies try, Biggar con 25-25; 75 mins Biggar pen 25-28.
ENGLAND: M Brown; A Watson, B Barritt, S Burgess, J May; O Farrell, B Youngs; J Marler, T Youngs, D Cole, G Parling, C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw, B Vunipola. Replacements: J Launchbury for Lawes (half-time), R Wigglesworth for B Youngs (48 mins), M Vunipola for Marler (61 mins), J Haskell for Vunipola (62 mins), R Webber for T Youngs (66 mins), G Ford for (69 mins), K Brookes for Cole (71 mins).
WALES: L Williams; G North, S Williams, J Roberts, H Amos; D Biggar, G Davies; G Jenkins, S Baldwin, T Francis, B Davies, AW Jones, D Lydiate, S Warburton, T Faletau. Replacements: K Owens for Baldwin, S Lee for Francis (both 48 mins), A Cuthbert for S Williams (63 mins), L Williams for Amos, R Priestland for L Williams (both 67 mins), L Charteris for Davies, Justin Tipuric for Lydiate (both 70 mins).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).