By Josh Needham
Savage. Heroic. Bludgeoning. Through the ages Wales and England has always been a tumultuous love/hate affair. Neighbours, not friends. Though relationships are much more civilised and developed in our 21st Century world Saturday’s battle at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff echoed of the millennia of war, bloodshed and turmoil that precede our centuries past.
Whether it was the seeping wound from James Haskell’s knee, Ross Moriarty’s bursting lungs or Owen Farrell’s equally gut wrenching blow – from the former’s monstrous hit – this latest instalment of these iles’ rich rivalry was quite awesome in its brutality.
Though the pain on their faces was clear it left you wanting more. You became one of the mob. Baying for more bloodshed, for a further sadistic twist of the blade. Rugby in some ways is our closest comparison to the battle field. Although war is unfortunately still a part our present, modern warfare is very much different to the battles fought by our forefathers. Rugby, curiously, brings us home.
Our patriotism returns. Our pride. Our fight.
Saturday was full of this and more. Players now weigh 18st but can run the length of the field in less time that it takes to pour your half time pint. They are monsters. Beasts. Medieval giants in our modern sporting world. Of all the previous meetings this latest chapter, the 130th, needed its own definition. It reached new heights of aggression, power and force.
Initially the match brewed, a penalty to Wales. First blood. As England took their charge they met Wales’ mighty wall, Nathan Hughes losing his gum shield in one instance. As England went over to score through Ben Youngs the opening twenty minutes had yielded them three quarters of the possession. Wales forced to retreat, defending for their lives. Leigh Halfpenny flattening Mario Itoje just three metres from the line. At half an hour in Wales’ tackle count stood at double their counterparts’.
But like any great battle there was ebb and flow, gains and losses. Territory won, yards conceded. Wales immediately returned pressing forward and dominating. Refusing to succumb. They dominated the rest of the half forcing their way to England’s 22 on numerous occasions. One fluid strike and Liam Williams was over to give them a 13-8 half-time lead.
Wales were in the ascendency, it was England’s turn to retreat, to fortify the reserves. Alun Wyn Jones leading the charge. But this was not all plain sailing, at the 50 minute mark, of the top 5 tacklers in the match 4 were Welsh. Jones and Moriarty halting Itoje dead in one collision.
Attacks from the red rose were diminishing, the shirts of red were striding ever further forward. Counter after counter. Hit after hit. As the game wore on the ferocity only ever increased. Wales pounding at England’s door. If it were not for England’s heroic efforts you feel Wales could have had the game won there and then. But each time Wales bore down, England’s guts and retaliation forced Wales into mistakes. They added just a further 3 points.
As fifteen minutes remained England’s second battalion came strong. Haskell added power. Care added energy. T’eo incision. Two metres from the tryline with the guillotine primed enter Dan Biggar with an interception and length field sprint to the finish line, muscling alongside Eliot Daly. It would be Daly to the rescue however to slide tackle in to touch. Two monumental lung busting efforts from one tryline to the other.
With the clock ticking Wales were still battling hard and in charge. They lead by two. But battle makes you weary. A moment of fatigue, a lack of clarity forced Jonathon Davies to kick haphazardly, Farrell spread the ball out to Daly and England turned the final screw. Wales summoned one last effort but it wasn’t meant to be. England dragged themselves over the line. Taking Welsh bodies and hearts with them.
It was truly a monumental tussle between two rugby giants. A landmark of history. Consider these statistics, Joe Launchbury made 18 carries, Nathan Hughes 22. Tackles made for – Justin Tipuric 19, Courtney Lawes 20, Launchbury 23. In 80 minutes of rugby England second row and man of the match Launchbury was involved in 41 bruising hits.
The significance of these stats are this. This match soared new heights of damage. Bodies were left in ruins. But know that this isn’t criticism. Rugby faces ongoing inquests into its duty to protect players from the consequences of collision. And more must be done. This is encounter is a plea for recognition. For herald and acclamation. These men are warriors and have proven it so. The result may have shown that England claimed the spoils of war but if this match has proven anything it is that rugby and the public were the ultimate winners.
We live in a ‘selfie’ self obsessed society. Convenience and consumption is our norm. In our developed world very little is earned. Most is just acquired. England and Wales both showed that there are still some things that are worth fighting for. And we should all sit back and applaud.