By Shane Thomas
WALES 19-26 ENGLAND
England walked through the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium to start their Six Nations campaign off with a victory. The Welsh crowd were predictably raucous. But while their fervour was the equivalent of a fire-breathing dragon, England were St.George, bringing the dragon to its knees.
The build up to the game had been growing exponentially in its intensity, with Wales head coach Warren Gatland stoking the fires with his provocative pre-match comments. It was clear that he had tried to get his players suitably fired up, and they came out of the traps with a ferocious zeal - Dan Cole & Ben Foden were on the receiving end of a few choice words in the opening exchanges.
But any early momentum garnered by Wales was crushed after 13 minutes. The superb Toby Flood took advantage of a huge gap in the Welsh defence to burst clear in their "22, Chris Ashton made the perfect support line and the Northampton man put England ahead.
England then proceeded to do the professional job of quelling the Welsh fire in the stands. The Number 8, 9 and 10 combination of Nick Easter, Ben Youngs & Flood controlled the tempo and guided the away side to a 13-6 half-time lead. Wales could not be faulted for their commitment, but they contrived to concede possession on numerous occasions.
Wales lack of game-smarts continued to thwart their chances of getting the win, with Craig Mitchell being yellow carded for infringing in a ruck. Not long after, Ashton scored his second try after Tom Palmer drove through the centre of the pitch to create space. England recycled quickly and with men over, Mark Cueto put Ashton in to make it 21-9.
The contest looked finished, but within two minutes the Welsh had given themselves a lifeline. A ball-watching Shontayne Hape was taken out by Stephen Jones's incisive pass. Jonathan Davies burst clear and put Morgan Stoddart in for a try. Davies' pass wasn't the best, but Stoddart did well to check his run and gather the ball behind him before grounding it - he also deserves plenty of credit especially for staying on the pitch after his leg was caught in a ruck that looked extremely painful.
Nerves were frayed a little after England failed to make the most of a driving maul that took them to the precipice of the Welsh try-line. But they managed to see themselves to full-time in relative comfort after a penalty from Jonny Wilkinson.
England now have three successive matches at Twickenham, and are in a strong position in the Six Nations table. Wales however, are left with a ton of searching questions before they go to Murrayfield to play Scotland. Gatland's attempts at mind-games backfired. His Wales team went out pumped up, but without a clear plan of how to win the match. Their passing was far too lateral, with Mike Phillips a major culprit. It was if they thought raw passion alone would be enough to steamroll their way past England.
Maybe it would have worked against English sides of the past, but Martin Johnson's men are made of stronger stuff. They were exacting and clinical when they had to be, as well as matching their opponents for passion. Wales were like a bunch of ritalin children, all manic energy without solid purpose.
In the lead-up to the match, Foden had said that England needed to behave like a big brother and put Wales in their place. Incendiary yes, but also prescient. England were exactly like a big brother in Cardiff - wiser, smarter, and ultimately stronger. Wales could do with heeding a few of the lessons they were taught by their old masters.
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