There are numerous reasons why Warren Gatland is revered around the world as one of the best coaches on the planet and on Saturday we saw one of those reasons in glaring and snarling technicolour.
At half time in Cardiff England were in the ascendency and although they hadn’t seen too much ball they were comfortable in defence and had preyed on any Welsh error to counter attack or relieve the unimaginative red wave trickling towards them.
They will have trotted down the Principality tunnel thinking that despite making a high volume of tackles, Wales looked devoid of imagination in attempting to unlock John Mitchell’s defence and with a seven-point lead, were comfortable. The crowd been quietened and for 40 minutes, mission accomplished.
Obviously, I have no idea what was said by Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones at half time in the home dressing room but I imagine it was something along the lines of:
“Let’s start provoking them, they’ll lose their heads and we’ll capitalise. Wind them up a bit, especially the younger players. The crowd will love it.”
The game plan wasn’t to play audacious, running rugby nor was it to try and force the game, it was about winning a test match in the only way Gatland saw it possible.
Wales kept their heads and within minutes it was obvious that Kyle Sinckler was in for a tough time. The red shirts were swarming around him and his team mates. Niggling away, holding on to players at the side of the breakdown, little taps on the back and head here and there.
The fishing rod was cast and how England took the bait. They gobbled it up like a starving lion after a kill.
Sinckler lost his head and the rest of the team soon followed. Ill discipline crept back in and as they were starved of more ball, the frustration grew.
Panic mode kicked in for England and when Dan Biggar came on things just got worse. Biggar’s kicking is far superior to Gareth Anscombe’s and the sky-high bombs that Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell, Jonny May and Billy Vunipola were taking uncontested were suddenly bringing George North and Josh Adams into the game. Liam Williams was lapping up the loose English kicking as the normally unflappable Owen Farrell booted aimlessly down field or straight out on the full because the perceived ‘Plan B’, if there even was one, had disintegrated.
England were forcing the game now and Wales’ job was done.
Justin Tipuric and Jones managed the breakdown beautifully. Apart from one moment of magic from Tom Curry that resulted in England’s only second half points, the men in white just hit a red brick wall every time they tried to disrupt or slow Welsh ball.
What Gatland and his team did in the second half may not be pretty but that is what test match rugby is all about. It’s gritty, unforgiving and sometimes a bit nasty.
You need to be able to dig down in the trenches sometimes do the dirty work to then reap the benefits.
As World Cups move into the knock out stage’s, matches can tend to become more like this. High stakes, high error count and every decision could make or break your tournament. He who blinks first usually falls on his sword.
We know already that Wales can play free-flowing, attractive, attacking rugby that can cut teams to ribbons but we also know they are more than comfortable in a dog fight.
They have mores strings to their bow than some may have thought previously.
This victory may well be a watershed one for the Welsh Dragons. They broke their all-time winning streak in the progress but they also taught England a valuable rugby lesson.
When your backs are against the wall, it’s fight or flight. They fought hard and England were beaten into submission.
Should Gatland and his men march on to a Grand Slam now that will make them the best team in the Northern Hemisphere and should they top their group at the World Cup, which they should, then their march towards the business end of the tournament will very much be on the cards.
High level tags like ‘best team’ and ‘top ranked’ come with potentially crippling pressure but after Saturday, we know that Wales can handle it.