Wales 19-9 England, Millennium Stadium, August 13
Plenty of food for thought
Graham Jenkins at the Millennium Stadium
August 13, 2011
England captain Mike Tindall is floored by Wales' defence © Getty Images
England debuted their new all-white kit at the Millennium Stadium but things appear far from alright when it comes to their preparations for the Rugby World Cup.
Rarely will a side dominate so much in terms of possession and territory and come out on the wrong side of a result but that is not to make excuses for the visitors or take away from Wales' fully deserved victory.
Plentiful ball and the luxury of being able to play deep in your opponents' half of the field are all very well but mean little if you do not have the wherewithal to make the most of it. Time and time again England failed to find an opening or conjured an error and evidently still lack the creative spark that has hindered much of their progress over the last year or so. Toby Flood delivered a solid display in his return to the No.10 shirt but failed to dominate as he did on his visit here during the Six Nations.
England's commitment to an attacking game plan, turning down kicks at goal in favour of turning the screw with a lineout, is praiseworthy to a point as the critics would be lining up to question their World Cup credentials had they opted to take a shot at the posts on each occasion. But so numerous were those opportunities that you wonder why they did not opt to put some daylight between the two sides on the scoreboard before returning to a more brutal approach.
At this stage of a World Cup year, with the sport's showpiece event less than a month away, momentum is vital and with such a policy they have denied themselves what would have been a crucial and morale-boosting victory. You sense not even the rightly bullish All Blacks would have adopted the same tactic and England's arrogant stance could well be seen as a little disrespectful to their hosts. Winning ugly may have also drawn scorn but this is a results business.
It was if England were convinced that the try would come - it was just a matter of time. How wrong they were. The same attacking inadequacies that plagued much of their work last weekend were still clear for all to see and while the error-count was not as alarming there were still enough to cause significant concern. But their problems do not begin and end with their attacking shortcomings. Having been outscored four tries to two over the two games with Wales it would appear there are also question marks over the defensive patterns.
Instead of reflecting on a win of any nature, England must try to find answers to some difficult questions. England boss Martin Johnson will have learnt little from this game in terms of the make-up of his 30-man squad that must be named before his side's trip to Dublin to face Ireland. They have two weeks to find a cutting edge or risk being dealt an even bigger headache by an Ireland side that already has its number.
In contrast, Wales can reflect on a heroic, if far from perfect, display marshalled by man of the match Sam Warburton who looks destined to be a star of the World Cup. Wales could not want for more in a player or a leader. Bullied by the England pack for much of the contest, in the loose and at scrum time, the likes of Warburton and his back-row colleagues Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau were in no mood to send a packed home crowd home fearing for their side's World Cup hopes.
But it was an outstanding team effort that shackled and frustrated England, most notably when Shane Williams and James Hook combined to deny winger Matt Banahan. That level of commitment may not entirely make up for inadequacies elsewhere but is a solid bedrock on which a strong World Cup challenge can be built.
Almost twice as many tackles highlights the team's impressive fitness levels, honed during their recent gruelling training camps in Poland, but it was their superior desire that gave them the edge. That quality cannot be found on the training paddock and is a credit to the work of Wales coach Warren Gatland and his team. Having run England close on their own patch last weekend, Wales are arguably ahead of their rivals in terms of development and look well-placed for what is sure to be a testing World Cup draw. But on this performance they have plenty of reason for hope and while by no means the finished article, they will have Argentina in their sights next wekeend.
Gatland will have been buoyed by the performance of Gavin Henson who was heavily involved in defence and attack during a 31-minute cameo before injury cruelly ended his game. A suspected broken arm/wrist may end the debate over his World Cup inclusion here and now which would be a shame after hinting at a return to something a lot nearer his best. The immediate future of another injury victim - fly-half Rhys Priestland - may be a little more promising which will be a relief given his pleasing assurance on the Test stage in only his third international.
Luckily, Wales have more than one player capable of something special with James Hook offering the latest reminder of his game-changing class. A threat when given the time and space to attack from fullback, his move to fly-half underlined his versatility and value to his side. If Wales are to go a long way in the World Cup then you can bet that Hook will be at the heart of that effort. How England would love to have such a talent in their arsenal.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.