Special report by Owen Slot
From The Times Newspaper 10th March 2016
Saturday brings us back to where it all happened, where the blood was shed. It was Australia who delivered the killer blow, knocking England out of the World Cup, but it was Wales who did the real damage.
We return to another instalment of England v Wales at Twickenham with recent history significantly influencing the present. We will never know what would have happened had Chris Robshaw gone for that kick, whether Stuart Lancaster would still be in the job, whether the Eddie era may never have started. Hey, it’s unlikely, but England could have won that World Cup.
Nearly six months on, a rummage through the ashes of England’s World Cup campaign reveals the following:
• When Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, and his assistants, heard the team that England had selected, they were astonished. They felt the pressure was getting to England.
• The All Blacks had long been tracking England, in the likelihood the two teams would meet in the knockout stages. When they heard the England team, there was a similar sense of amazement.
• The England management felt that they were refereed out of the game. Before the World Cup was over, they had received notification from Joël Jutge, the World Cup head of referees acknowledging that four of the penalties against England were awarded in error.
• After the game, the England players did not even feel physically spent. They had experienced more intense training sessions. The stop-start nature of the game had never allowed their fitness and conditioning to play a part.
England’s team selection remains the controversy. Lancaster had an injury to Jonathan Joseph, at No 13, to cover; his solution was to change completely the 10-12-13. George Ford was dropped, Owen Farrell came in at No 10 with Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt at 12 and 13.
The All Blacks’ fear had been that England were stumbling towards their best back division. Their concern was that Henry Slade was the next man in and that, by the knockout rounds, England would settle on what they saw as the dream-team combination of Ford-Slade-Joseph. When England went concertedly in the other direction, they were delighted.
In the England camp, in the lead-up to the game, even some of the players were concerned about where the tries were going to come from. Lancaster, though, bore in mind a training game when Farrell-Burgess-Slade had carved up Ford-Luther Burrell-Joseph. He also saw the yardage Ford had conceded in his soak-tackles the previous weekend against Fiji. Farrell-Burgess would, he said, be the hardest selection decision of his life. To this day, he is defined by it.
For all the controversy, though, that selection was no failure. Farrell was one of England’s best players that night; Burgess did his job.
The most damaging man on the pitch for England was Jérôme Garcès, the French referee. England were dominant in the set piece and controlled the game for the first 50 minutes but they could not build a big lead. Wales had one threatening break in the first half — Scott Williams caught Burgess out of position defensively — and when Mike Brown tackled him and competed for the ball, he was penalised.
This was one of the penalties Jutge would later clarify was a mistake. Yet Dan Biggar, the Wales fly half, snaffled three points. That was how Wales managed to hang in the game.
“Never in my life had I been so nervous in the build-up to a game,” Biggar recalls. “But when I got to the ground, the nerves melted away.” Indeed, Biggar did not miss anything.
Garcès’s whistle did not hit England only on the scoreboard. England’s conditioning programme had been based on stamina and high tempo; they wanted a long ball-in-play time to run oppositions into the ground. However, Garcès never gave them the chance. A good ball-in-play time is more than 40 minutes; that night they got 34 minutes.
The momentum started to shift around the hour-mark. There was an England maul from which Wales defended and gained a turnover. From the ref mike, you could hear Gareth Davies, the Wales No 9, exhorting his team-mates, telling them: “That’s a game-changer.” Davies still recalls it. “I remember thinking we were in a better place. A lot of their forwards were blowing, a few of them were on the floor, struggling a bit.”
England deny they were remotely struggling. The only thing they could not contain was the psychology of a momentum swing.
Lancaster is widely criticised for taking off the very man who he is criticised for putting on it — Burgess. And his substitution certainly failed. The thinking was sound — Ford for Burgess gave England two kickers, and Wales had already exposed Burgess in defence — but it meant that Jamie Roberts immediately ran at Ford and had the same success as the Fijians. Wales’ confidence grew further.
Their miracle try — scored by Gareth Davies — followed. Then Brown conceded another penalty (another one Jutge confirmed was in error) and England were chasing a game they should have closed out. The contest is crystallised in the 77th minute: that penalty, Robshaw’s decision, the safety of the draw versus the gamble of the lineout.
The decision not to kick for goal still haunts England. Before the game, it had been agreed that although a victory was the priority, the draw was not a failure. Robshaw gambled on the win and later acknowledged that he got this wrong.
The reason the decision to go for the win was particularly ballsy was that Geoff Parling, the England lineout captain, had done his analysis of Wales and found that they were outstanding at defending the driving maul. He could not find in the previous two years a single try conceded.
The reason Parling has been criticised for calling the lineout to Robshaw at the front was because the front is easiest to drive back into touch. This, however, does Parling an injustice. He called the “shift drive” lineout to the front, the intention being that the front man sucks in the maul defence, but immediately shifts the ball out for the drive to form away from the majority of defenders.
A decent plan. It was undone because Robshaw was being driven backwards before he had hit the ground — which is illegal — and so the shift never happened. Of all the refereeing decisions that went against England, this was the costliest. The big gamble failed. It should have won England another penalty. Instead it saved Wales the game.
The ghastly silence of the England dressing room afterwards was broken by the sound of Welsh celebration; down the corridor, Welsh players and management belted out Lawr Ar Lan y Mor. The English felt mentally exhausted but never physically so.
The singing continued all the way down the M4 to Wales. At 3am, back at their hotel, it stopped; cryotherapy before bed — such is the way of the modern professional. The World Cup, though, was dying for England. They would never sleep well again.