That’s the odd, and compelling, thing about sporting contests. They very rarely pan out as you think. Or, to put it another way, sometimes the result does – but not in the way that you had anticipated.
In advance of yesterday’s England v Wales rugby match at Twickenham, I was forced to give a public opinion as to the outcome. I plumped for a prediction that the hosts would win by a margin of 12 points. In the end, it was 11 (final score 29-18).
It could so easily have been 20-plus. Wales were that poor and distinctly fortunate that they had Leigh Halfpenny to take their place-kicks – he notched an impressive six out of six, some from great range. He was matched by England fly-half Owen Farrell, who also notched a 100% record – the modern era is a world away from the 1970s and before, when a strike-rate of 50% was an acceptable norm.
However, despite their comfortable victory, England butchered at least two genuine try chances and were also unlucky that one of the best moves of the match ended with centre Luther Burrell missing a touch-down by barely a hair’s breadth, his foot coming into contact with the touchline as he went over under pressure from a last-ditch Halfpenny tackle.
That said, England’s first try, a short tap-kick taken five metres from the Welsh line by scrum half Danny Care – which he very nearly dropped, by the way – was a walk-through, the equivalent of taking candy from a kid. The Welsh defence was asleep, which was odd because Care was the one man on the England team they would have been warned about for sniping and adding pace to an attack.
Had they been alert, and had Care not scored then, the game might have ended 22-18 with Wales pressing at the end, a try away from victory. That would have been a travesty, but it also demonstrates how small are the margins of victory and defeat in a modern rugby Test match.
One game doesn’t make a great team, or destroy one. However, though still a work in progress, England are making large strides, especially considering those players still out injured but coming back into contention soon, possibly as early at the hellishly tough New Zealand tour coming up in June.
Wales, on the other hand, have some serious thinking to do.
Yesterday they were by a distance the less dynamic team. Some of their forwards are beginning to show their age. Their game plan of the day, which involved attempting to instigate (the always-unedifying) bouts of aerial ping-pong in an effort to play down in England’s half, was firstly, a big mistake and secondly, executed so poorly that it back-fired. England’s back three players simply spent the day collecting high balls and returning them with interest.
The Rugby World Cup is about twenty games and eighteen months away, and – of course – there’s many a slip between cup and lip.
However, on this showing, England have demonstrated they have every chance of climbing out of their ‘difficult’ group (it includes Wales and Australia, with only two to qualify) and get at least as far as the semi-final stage.