RBS SIX NATIONS: Wales 23 England 15
It is a sign of how far English rugby has fallen since they ruled the planet, indeed in the 16 months since they were last in the World Cup final, that a convincing defeat against a team they used to dominate can be viewed as progress.
After all Wales used to be England’s bunnies. When Clive Woodward’s white orc hordes snarled their way to the Webb Ellis trophy, the Welsh had a few wispy backs that were worth a look but little else.
A mere year-and-a-half ago a Wales team went to Twickers and shipped 62 points. In February 2006 the best The Principality could muster were routed 47-13. How things have changed.
The current Team England are so becalmed that a sign of basic competence is regarded not so much as a green shoot of recovery as The California Redwood of Hope.
Their effort in Cardiff was a massive improvement on the cack-handed manner in which they grasped at victory over Italy last week.
There is a chance that when Martin Johnson has restored England to their position at the forefront of global rugby – perhaps that should be if – he will look back at this match as the turning point. The day when those with the Red Rose on their chests rediscovered a heart beating under it.
It was Joe Worsley who led the search. The Wasps back row was inspirational – more of a leader than Cap’n Borthwick will ever be.
Installed in the unfamiliar position of openside Worsley did not head any of the statistical tallies. Delon Armitage carried more, Phil Vickery put in more tackles and Nick Easter made more off-loads.
But Worsley was asked to do the hardest job of all – close down the rampant Jamie Roberts – and he did so to such an extent that one wag noted afterwards he wasn’t available for interview because he was in the shower with the Welsh inside centre.
Vickery had a very good game in the loose. Armitage looked a threat with ball in hand – though he wobbled a bit with his defensive work – and Riki Flutey can claim to be the biggest success of the Johnson era thus far.
The New Zealander is developing into a very decent Test centre whose footwork and handling will, in time, give his outside backs the platform to prosper.
But before that happens they have to find a No 10 worthy of the position. It is strange that former Coventry colt Andy Goode has impressed more running than he has kicking.
He made a couple of breaks and set up the first try but his defence was found wanting and his decision making - particularly the one that saw him sin-binned for killing the ball early in the second half – was not up to standard.
That incident was just one of many – 12 to be precise – when England got on the wrong side of Jonathan Kaplan.
The experienced Mike Tindall also found himself in the cooler – he too should have known better than to handle the ball on his knees – bringing to eight the total of yellow cards Johnson’s England have received in the last three matches.
Johnson mumbled about Kaplan’s administration but he also recognised his players must take responsibility.
What most coaches say is that indiscipline is based on anxiety, a fear that they must intervene illegally to protect their line.
England need more faith in their defensive capabilities. If Worsley continues to maraud through the rest of the Six Nations that should develop.
Whether he can do that and contribute more when games need to be won at home, remains to be seen.
But for the time being England remain a work in progress. They did not have anyone with the elan of Leigh Halfpenny nor a boot as reliable as Stephen Jones’.
While the former accounted for the hosts’ only try – and a massive penalty – the latter kicked five penalties of his own.
Armitage and Paul Sackey each crossed but it was Goode’s failure to convert the latter’s score and Flood’s late, unacceptable miss from the 22m line that cost the visitors what could have been a giant leap forward. Instead they had to settle for a small step.
WALES: Byrne; Halfpenny, Shanklin, Roberts, M Jones; S Jones, Phillips (Peel, 75); Jenkins, Rees (Bennett, 69), A Jones, Gough, A-W Jones, S Jones, Williams, Powell (DAR Jones, 61). Replacements: Yapp, Charteris, Hook, Bishop.
ENGLAND: Armitage; Sackey (Tait, 66), Tindall, Flutey, Cueto; Goode (Flood, 53), Ellis; Sheridan, Mears (Hartley, 66), Vickery (White, 66), Borthwick, Kennedy (Croft, 55), Haskell (Narraway, 67), Worsley, Easter. Replacement: Hodgson.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa).