Bright futures and troubling slumps
We thought it would be tight. It was. We thought it would be deafening, and tense, and bone-shaking from first minute to last. We had that right too.
In a contest of relentless ebb and flow, England emerged from the rubble with a precious 26-19 victory for two main reasons: they converted their chances into points when Wales did not, and in Toby Flood and Chris Ashton they had the two most influential players on the pitch.
One was the controller, the other the finisher. Between them they launched England's Six Nations campaign on the sort of trajectory that might just end somewhere rather unexpected.
This match was always bigger than just the opening salvo in what most reckon to be a very close championship. Any Wales-England fixture is soaked in centuries of cant and bile, but the way this one has fallen in the calendar gave it even greater significance.
It was snakes and ladders on a rugby field. England's first win in Cardiff in eight years segues into three successive home matches, two of which they should win and one they will be very optimistic about. Suddenly, outlandish though it might sound, there will be talk that the game in Dublin on 19 March could be a Grand Slam decider.
A victory for Wales would have stirred renewed hope of a charge of their own. Instead, another Friday fright night (three Six Nations matches played on that day, three defeats recorded) sends them sliding the other way. This defeat, albeit a narrow one, makes it just two wins from their last 14 games. With their next two fixtures both away from home, the Gatland revolution is in danger of looking awfully similar to the discredited regimes it replaced.
As momentum swung from one side to the other, four key shifts stood out.
Wales had dominated the opening 10 minutes, playing with tempo and direction, only to miss the two penalties that their pressure created. England made their first serious possession pay.
The drives from the back row were relentless, the ball was quick. With the Welsh backs sucked in to plug a hole, Flood was suddenly running into a large gap with Welsh props Paul James and Craig Mitchell the signposts pointing to the try-line. Ashton, who appears on a breaking man's shoulder with a rugby league-learned regularity that is becoming a trademark, did the rest.
Wales fought back. When another rumbling carry from the impressive Bradley Davies led to Stephen Jones putting Dan Lydiate through, only a desperate illegal intervention from Louis Deacon prevented Mike Phillips getting the ball away for a certain try.
Deacon was sin-binned, but a single penalty was scant punishment for his act. Last year at Twickenham Alun Wyn Jones's yellow card led to 17 unanswered English points. This time Andy Powell's own daft infringement meant there was no net gain at all.
Wales fought back but were shattered to lose to England
Early in the second half, and another Welsh chance. The score was back to 9-13, the Millennium Stadium roaring its feverish support, England wobbling. Then Mitchell dived over a ruck to kill the ball, found himself yellow-carded and handed the impetus straight back to Martin Johnson's men.
Many in the home support thought Alain Rolland's decision harsh. Mitchell was not in his own 22, and Ashton had just escaped with a penalty for the same offence down the other end. But it was still a reckless - and needless - gamble, and the extra man allowed Ashton the space to cross for his second try of the night.
There was still hope of a home triumph. With 10 minutes left on the clock, the gap was down to 19-23. Wales were running at the English line with a wave of noise at their backs.
Then Lee Byrne, on as a replacement for Stephen Jones, sliced a simple clearing kick straight into touch. England drove off the line-out and spent three precious minutes camped on the Welsh line. When marvellous defence held them up, Byrne was pinged for not releasing to give Jonny Wilkinson the chance to finally put the win more than a converted try away.
Flood had gone off with 14 minutes to go, his best game in an England shirt behind him. His distribution from hand was excellent, his decision-making under pressure faultless. From the hand he kicked with purpose, turning defenders and never giving James Hook the chance to run the ball back from space; from the tee he nailed every opportunity he had.
Ashton, meanwhile, was a livewire sparking all around the pitch. He currently combines the try-scoring regularity of Will Greenwood with the dramatic acceleration of Rory Underwood, his five tries in eight internationals turning him into the sort of finisher England have lacked since their last Grand Slam triumph in 2003.
In the visitors' ranks, only Shontayne Hape had a poor game, exposed in defence by Jonathan Davies for the break that led to Morgan Stoddart's try and guilty of giving away a pointless penalty that almost brought Wales back into it.
After all the pre-match sledging from Gatland, Dylan Hartley hit his jumpers on every single line-out. Tom Palmer dominated in the air and did significant damage with the ball under his arm. Tom Wood, in his first international start, was relentless in the tackle and indefatigable around the field. After a worrying first half, the defence tightened up dramatically in the second and by the end looked impenetrable. 126 tackles were made to Wales' 93, the five missed almost all in that first period.
There was also the matter of how England's six Cardiff debutants dealt with their baptism of fire. The strong winds that buffeted Cardiff all afternoon were nothing compared to the gale of boos and whistles as England ran out at the start, but the young guns - Ashton, Wood and Ben Youngs in particular - stood firm.
For Wales it was a painfully familiar tale. At times they looked electrifying, dangerous with ball in hand and coming back again and again where lesser teams on better runs might have crumbled and given way. The scrum was not the key battleground many had expected, and Bradley Davies and Sam Warburton cemented their burgeoning reputations for the campaign ahead.
But, just as in the autumn internationals, possession could not be converted into prizes. In the first half overlaps and half-chances were kicked away; in the second, their best efforts and attacks broke up on a relentless wall of white jerseys. Throughout the 80 minutes, even experienced heads like Shane Williams and Andy Powell allowed pressure to dent their decision-making.
Scotland at Murrayfield next weekend will be little easier. Nor will France in Paris on the final weekend. Somehow this talented but inconsistent side has to start winning, rather than falling short by tantalisingly small margins.
For England there is obvious improvement. For the first time under Johnson they fired away from home in a Six Nations match that really mattered; until Friday night, they had won just one of their last six matches away from home in this old tournament and just four of their last 16, three of which came against Italy.
They also stayed strong when the squeeze was on in the last 20 minutes in a way they couldn't against Ireland and Scotland last season, refusing to crumble even when 80,000 screaming Welshmen were giving them every excuse to do so.
"When you get into the last 20 and its close, it's how you put it away that matters," said a relieved Johnson afterwards.
"There were anxious moments all the way through. If Wales had held onto a couple of balls, they might have had us in trouble. Both teams will have what ifs, but ultimately we won. And that was a great game for our guys to come through and win."