AS the sounds of an epic, but ultimately frustrating, battle faded on the night air and the army of disappointed Welsh fans streamed away from Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on Saturday, caretaker head coach Robert Howley summed up the feelings of the camp after the 16-21 defeat to England: “We’ve been criticised for winning ugly in the autumn; we didn’t get over the line today, but it was a fantastic performance - apart from the last 6-7 minutes.”
And, of course, few would argue with that statement, for the Welsh players to a man, had put on a hugely committed, at times heroic display, fronting up manfully to the RBS Six Nations title favourites with passion and defiance, laced with skill and real intent, that almost to the end of this titanic struggle between two evenly-matched teams looked set to reap their rightful reward.
Therein though lies the tale, for as Wales clung to a narrow 16-14 lead, with just three minutes remaining and a famous victory tantalisingly in sight, not for the first time it was snatched away, as an old problem again reared its head - Wales’ continuing inability to close out tight-fought games when put under pressure as the stadium clock winds down.
In this case, it was the confident men in white who showed the way by taking clinical advantage of a poor clearance by centre Jonathan Davies that unfortunately failed to reach the safety of touch and quickly ran it back - which saw wing Elliot Daly racing around his opposite number, Alex Cuthbert (a late replacement for the injured George North) for a converted try that sent a much relieved English chariot rumbling on towards back-to-back Grand Slams.
“I think everyone could tell in those last 10 minutes that there were opportunities for England,” said Howley “They probably believed they were going to win, and that feeling is pretty precious... We defended really well, but unfortunately, those moments where we needed to execute under pressure, we didn’t, and as a result, they scored with three minutes to go. That’s what happens in Test football. We’ll just have to make sure we’re better next time when we get into that position.”
The scene had been set for this monumental 130th clash between arch rivals, stretching back to 1881 (England now have 61 wins under their belt compared to Wales’ 57, with 12 matches drawn), by RFU chairman Bill Beaumont - “The rivalry will never be dampened… It is one of the great sporting occasions… That has been the same for 130 years and it will continue to be a great rivalry for the next century,” said the old England warrior.
Wales had made only two changes - props Rob Evans and Tomas Francis - who were rewarded for their efforts off the replacement bench in the win against Italy six days before, and the band and choirs had barely left the field when England were penalised and Wales claimed first blood through the boot of Leigh Halfpenny.
Centre Owen Farrell replied moments later with an equalising penalty and English power and accuracy began to dominate a first quarter that saw scrum half Ben Youngs squeeze over for an 8-3 lead as the pressure told.
To their credit, the home team, urged on by their ‘16th man’ - a capacity Welsh crowd in full voice - applied intense pressure of their own and forced a penalty, which Halfpenny lofted over.
Then the crowd erupted once more as outside half Dan Biggar made a stunning break that took everyone by surprise, but with no-one in close support, he was forced to kick ahead - and the ball was hacked into touch.
Full-blooded exchanges were fast and furious, outstanding action man Ross Moriarty scattering all before him (inexplicably, he was to be substituted later) as Wales, to their immense credit, shook off memories of lacklustre starts and met the fierce challenge head-on, putting in over 61 tackles to England’s 38 and laying siege to their line in a pulsating, seesaw first half that saw livewire scrum half Rhys Webb held up just finger tips short of a try, which culminated in Liam Williams completing a training ground move with a fine touchdown at the posts, the simple conversion giving Wales a deserved 13-8 lead at the interval.
The breathless intensity showed no sign of abating after the change-over, although controversial substitutions seemed to disrupt Welsh momentum and those English players, in particular, who had been on the receiving end of rampaging Moriarty’s uncompromising presence were no doubt delighted to see the back of him!
When the ice-cool Farrell struck again with a penalty to cut the deficit to just two points, home fans feared the balance of power was ominously shifting, with Wales clinging to a fragile 16-11 lead following another Halfpenny penalty, and facing an all too familiar situation with 10 nail-biting minutes to go and victory agonisingly within reach.
Incredibly, they appeared to have weathered a final all-out English onslaught on their line and the ball went out to the Scarlets’ centre - the crowd willing him to hoof it into touch… Alas, it was not to be, and England capitalised to break Welsh hearts yet again at the death.
“We just couldn’t get a foothold in the last 10 minutes and when we did, we didn’t execute as effectively as we would want to,” Howley admitted.
“Ultimately, test matches are decided in the last 10 minutes, in terms of composure and discipline, and executing those decisions under pressure. I think England did that a little better than us and as such deserved to win. We’ll try to learn from those last 10 minutes where we went wrong.”
The problem for Howley and his fellow coaches is that fans may well ask why it is taking so long to find a solution to a 10-minute ‘mystery’ that prevents this immensely talented squad from finally realising their full potential.
Meanwhile, Murrayfield awaits a week Saturday, and the improving Scots are already sharpening their dirks in anticipation of a second big RBS Six Nations scalp.