After a week in Welsh rugby that most will want to forget came a game to be quickly confined to the cobwebbed corners of the mind. It was a scrappy squabble of a contest, two imperfect teams grappling and flailing like shin-kickers with a more forceful England emerging on top.
The disruptions and worries of the last seven days no doubt would have taken a significant toll on the Welsh players, but it is clear that Warren Gatland’s side find themselves in a bit of a state. But for Louis Rees-Zammit’s snatch and scamper, this would have been all the uglier numerically for the hosts. Having created, but failed to take, scoring chances in the first two rounds, this felt like a step back.
“The last thing you want to do is get the wooden spoon,” said Gatland of a very real possibility given Italy’s development. “That’s got to be our focus [after the England loss]. Part of this Six Nations is about us thinking about the next six or seven months.
“We’ve got older players still holding their hands up and some younger players who need some time. We’ve not got that group in the middle who have 30 or 40 caps. We’ve got to marry the two together and start thinking about that going forward.”
Gatland’s squad is almost entirely formed from two halves – a group nearing the end of their international efficacy and a group not quite yet ready to step up to lead. Centre partners Joe Hawkins and Mason Grady promised at times, but produced little of consequence. Taulupe Faletau was a nuisance at the breakdown, but Wales were short of collision winners.
Perhaps the influx of youth will prove more fruitful in time, but with whispers of further imminent off-field squabbles bouncing through the Cardiff corridors, there seems little for Welsh supporters to be optimistic about.
In the matchday programme, Gerald Davies, president of the Welsh Rugby Union, referred to these as “solemn” and “harrowing” times, funereal terms befitting the mess in which the WRU find themselves. Perhaps given all the uncertainty in the build-up, it was understandable that the Welsh capital felt oddly subdued. The visitors had braced for a cacophonous, fervid welcome but, once the hairs had settled again from a full-throated roaring of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, there seemed to be almost as many English voices inside the Principality Stadium as Welsh ones.
With a better day from the tee from Farrell, the winning margin – already England’s largest by the River Taff in two decades – would have been significantly greater. Wins in Cardiff do not easily come but it is still a team of parts rather than a cohesive whole, and Borthwick has not yet truly settled on an identity. A fatiguing Ellis Genge’s early withdrawal speaks to England’s reliance on the loosehead for carrying punch.
Six Nations 2023
Standings after Round 3
Ireland 15pts (+51 points difference)
Scotland 10 (+23)
England 10 (+21)
France 10 (+3)
Italy 1 (-36)
Wales 0 (-62)
While Gatland felt that Wales kicked better after the interval, the repeated bombardment of England’s air traffic controller Freddie Steward looked a curious strategy – one that did not really work. Wales made only eight dominant tackles to England’s 18: each time the hosts appeared to be building an attack of promise, up rushed the English forwards to drive them back.
Their bits and pieces outweighed those of Wales, with Steward’s command of the skies providing a bedrock. Owen Farrell’s kicking was off but he and Maro Itoje led a defensive effort which is proving ever more accurate – Mathieu Raynal looked favourably on a couple of English breakdown interventions, but the discipline as a whole is significantly improved since the last days of Eddie Jones.
“That was huge for us if we’re being honest,” Kyle Sinckler stressed afterwards. “Over the past two years or so we’d have probably lost that Test match – especially how we started the second half. One of the things that Steve and the coaches have implemented with us is the fight, making sure we never give up. It probably, from the outside, looked like a messy Test match at times, but for us it’s a huge win.
“If you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best and we are relishing those challenges that are ahead of us – first up France, then Ireland on St Patrick’s Day. I can’t wait.”
Can England drag a more competent and controlling opposition into this sort of scrap? It looks to be their only route to a victory over France or Ireland that would still come as a major surprise. Certainly what is to come is significantly more strenuous. But if, as both coaches insisted afterwards, these two sides are still in the opening stages of a major rebuilding job, England have at least laid a foundation. Wales are on significantly more shaky ground.
A thrilling contest, again, in Rome as Italy once more worried one of the world’s best sides with a headlong hurl around the helter-skelter. It is tempting to chastise the hosts for errors that ultimately proved costly, but Kieran Crowley’s frisky side have made Six Nations trips to the Italian capital fun again, and are early in their development. In Lorenzo Cannone, they have another budding starlet to accentuate their rise.
Ireland emerged with Grand Slam hopes intact. The importance of Garry Ringrose was underlined by how Italy exploited a lack of mobility in midfield; Andy Farrell will be hoping two weeks of healing ensures the centre’s calf is good to go for the trip to Edinburgh.
An honourable defeat for Scotland, but how Gregor Townsend must have hoped that this would be the year his side might put that sort of terminology behind them. After the first 10 minutes, it looked like France’s forwards would blow away their visitors as feared, but Scotland adjusted well, recognising the need to obfuscate the breakdown to slow the heavy runners. It worked, earning the opportunity to win – but another near miss means further Scottish development will rely on a positive result against Ireland.
The hosts provided another reminder of their psychological strengthening in the last couple of years by squeezing out the final ten minutes. Like Ireland, their enviable squad depth is being nibbled away at, revealing a few flaws, but they have plenty of problem-solvers at their disposal. They may require them at Twickenham, a ground that has too often been the scene of French failures but must now look as conquerable as ever.