There is a common belief amongst rugby coaches that small advantages make for big scores. Never was this more true than in the Wales vs. England finale to the 2013 RBS Six Nations.
Historians will read the bare statistics and conclude this was a one sided game in which Wales annihilated a hapless England side. There is a parade of them:
- The final score – Wales managed 10 points for every one that England scored, 30 points to 3 being the final tally.
- Preponderance of play – in the second half 72% of the play was in the England half, in the first half that was a mere 56%.
- Possession – Wales secured 57% of the first half possession and 69% of the second half possession
- Scrums – Wales won 8 scrums to England’s 1
- Lineouts – Wales won 11, England 5
- Penalties – Wales conceded 7 penalties to England’s 12
- Mauls – Wales won 4 to England’s 2
- Line breaks – Wales 8 England 3
- Errors – Wales 34 England 58
- Missed tackles – Wales 11 England 23
There is more, but you will have the picture by now. That picture is, in nearly every phase of play (offloads being the one exception) Wales were superior to England by some margin. The statistics tell a story that Wales came out on to the park, started attacking and did not stop until the final whistle blew. As one pundit said, Wales were better in two key areas: everything they said and everything they did.
So, were the dreadful team that conceded 30 points in the first half to a very ordinary Ireland transformed into supermen as the tournament wound on? Of course they weren’t.
The truth is Wales did everything just a bit better than England, moreover they did it with intensity, commitment and at pace. By half time England were shell-shocked.
As they trudged off the park, there was a weariness in their step that belied the words of Sir Clive Woodward, who believed that England “were still in it at 9-3”. They weren’t. These are professional sportsmen, and they knew in their heart of hearts that this was not going to be their day. They may never admit it, but they wanted to get back to their paddock in the Home Counties and plan for another day.
The fierceness of their encounter with Wales was something most of them had never experienced before and crucially: did not expect. After all, these were the conquerors of the mighty All Blacks. Was there anything that Wales could bring to the party that they had not already seen and overcome in their encounter with New Zealand? Well, the fitness of the All Blacks at the end of a season and after a week of Norovirus may not have been the best measure to use when gauging 80 minutes in the Millennium Stadium with a crowd hyped up by the English press, who had spent weeks crowing about how England only really needed to turn up to complete the Grand Slam procession. 2011 should have told them it does not happen like that. The Celts love a scrap with England.
But in the end, were Wales THAT much better than England? Statistics aside, especially the 27 point margin; was the difference between the two teams so great? If you look at the game with an analytical eye, then you will see that Wales were just a bit better at everything in the first half. They were more committed in the rucks, got the shove on in the scrum and applied enormous pressure against a wilful English defence. England did not buckle under that pressure and instead applied a bit of pressure of their own and had they not made a few nervous errors, they may well have gone into the dressing room in the lead.
Had Tuilagi caught the ball rather than tried to head a goal, he may well have been unstoppable in his headlong charge for the line. It looks like Cuthbert had a bead on him, but many would have bet on the Englishman to have crossed. He didn’t though, because he took his eye off the ball. Why? Probably nerves, the occasion, the crowd. It was something he had never experienced before and the weight of expectation told. He head butted the ball. End of try-scoring opportunity.
80 minutes in the Millennium Stadium with a crowd hyped up by the English press, who had spent weeks crowing about how England only really needed to turn up
Would you have bet on the metronomic right boot of the curiously Welsh named Owen Farrell throwing a wobbly and missing a couple of relatively simple penalties? Of course not. He has been slotting them over in his sleep, but on Saturday, he missed and he missed again in the second half; then he got no more chances. Pressure again. Inexperience. The occasion.
Meanwhile, the REAL Mister Ice, the baby faced assassin, Leigh Halfpenny was keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
These are the differences. England’s much vaunted confidence was shot. Their steamroller had already thrown a gasket against Italy and now they were trying to play rugby in a viper’s nest. The noise in the Millennium Stadium had to be witnessed to be believed.
Then there was the defence. Wales had not conceded a try since just after half time against Ireland. Take a bow the hero of the hour, Mister Sean Edwards (even more curiously Welsh named). The Welsh defence would not cough up a try and all of a sudden, the one man who they could not defend against was kicking goals like a drunk grandmother.
That must have played on the minds of the players around him. Add to that the penalty count mounting up against them and Wales’s edge in the scrum, a source of even more penalties. How could they win the game? Plan A is to score tries. Plan B is to kick penalties. There is no Plan C. This must have passed through the mind of every England player: “How do we go about winning this game?” The empty space where the answer should have been must have drained the will from the men in white.