Saturday, February 02, 2008

A (Sorry) Tale of Two Halves

Six Nations Game 2 - England vs Wales (19-26)

The long-anticipated Six Nations didn't begin as Englands' supporters would have wanted. There was early promise in the first half, and I was pleasantly surprised with the way England were playing - with some width and adventure.

The two teams traded early penalties, and then England camped in the Welsh half for a few minutes. David Strettle looked sharp and made a great break before being carted off the field injured after 13 minutes, to be replaced by Lesley Vainikolo [right], aka The Volcano. Jonny Wilkinson kicked England ahead once more to make it 6-3. Lewis Moody was another casualty and hobbled off as Tom Rees came on.

Just after the half hour, England were again in the Welsh 22, having turned over ball for the 4th time, but the try wasn't on, so Jonny popped a drop goal to bring the lead to 9-6.

One England player who did impress me, despite the team's loss, was new cap Luke Narraway [left]. He picked up scraps, caught high balls, charged with the ball up his jumper, took a lovely intercept of a Welsh pass, and generally made a nuisance of himself as far as the Welsh were concerned. Scrum Half Andy Gomarsall also had a pretty good game, his distribution was quick, and he made some good breaks especially in the first half.

Wales squandered a scoring opportunity around 20 minutes when a wayward pass went into touch. James Hook's kicking wasn't great at times, going out on the full instead of just inside the touchline. At 22 minutes, The Volcano took a great crossfield kick, challenging Mark Jones in the air, and sent a lovely pass off the floor to Toby Flood to go over the whitewash. Jonny added the conversion, and England's lead stretched to 16-3.

There was plenty of endeavor for the rest of the half, particularly from England. Hook popped over another penalty for Wales, Wilkinson missed one for England. Paul Sackey nearly made it another 5 for England 3 minutes before half time, but the TMO judged it to have been held up by Wales, so they went in 16-6 at the break.

[Lesley Vainikolo tackled by Wales' Alix Popham and Duncan Jones]
Even at the start of the second half, depsite a raft of injuries, England looked OK, and Wales were pinged for taking out lifters in a lineout - Jonny punted the extra 3 points. But unfortunately, they were the last points the Red Rose boys managed. In the last 20-odd minutes, the wheels really came off the Sweet Chariot, Wales woke up and the game changed beyond all recognition.

The first nail in the English coffin was a penalty for Wales, bringing the score to 19-9. And another on 63 minutes, 19-12. A third nail when Mike Tindall was carried off on a stretcher, replaced by Danny Cipriani. England kicked too many balls away when they looked pretty good running with it in the first half. Jonny Wilkinson threw a terribly wayward pass, Paul Sackey tried to clear it up, but English hands knocked on in the subsequent ruck and Wales had a scrum deep in English territory. Wales put together a great passage of play switching from side to side, going through loads of phases, and Lee Byrne was the lucky recipient at the end. Hook's conversion was sweet, and all of a sudden the scores were level at 19-all. The Welsh fans found their voice at Twickenham and Swing Low died away. 12 minutes to go. Worse was to come for English fans.

[Steve Borthwick stretches for a lineout catch]

Iain Balshaw's clearance kick was charged down by Mike Philips, it changed hands a couple of times and Philips finished it off in the corner - after an agonising replay for the TMO. Hook struck a fantastic conversion under pressure and the Welsh were leading 19-26.

The next 8½ minutes were fast and furious as the clock ticked away. England looked disorganised and wayward. Wales kept up the pressure and it was a wonder they didn't score again since they spent much of that time in England territory.

Unfortunately, Balshaw's [left] pre-match detractors were proven right - particularly in the second half, when he made a couple of costly blunders and looked decidedly shakey. It was his delayed clearance kick which ultimately cost England the game, and after Wales had scored that try, the whole England team looked demoralised and lacklustre. I'd be highly surprised if he's on the team sheet at 15 next week.

It was an extraordinary turnaround for both teams, England having looked so dominant in the first half, and Wales in the second. The Welsh deserved their win, the first at Twickenham for 20 years. And England will have to pull up their collective socks next week if further disaster is to be averted. As Italy proved earlier against Ireland, they will be far from pushovers, especially at home in the Stadio Flaminio. What can Ashton do now to inspire his team?

You can see more of my match photos here.

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