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Where England went so wrong - and Wales went so right

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Tom Fordyce | 06:29 UK time, Monday, 10 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

Perhaps it was fitting that England's ill-fated stay in New Zealand ended with their best player throwing himself off a ferry into Auckland harbour.

Plenty of their supporters felt like doing the same after a month which began with such optimism and anticipation finished in dismal disappointment and defeat.

If the headlines should write themselves - Manu Overboard seems as good a place to start as any - the jokes were almost as obvious: the first time England had a man over all tournament; Tuilagi's team-mates attempting to grab him a life-jacket only to fumble it under pressure; Jonny Wilkinson throwing a lifeline three metres behind him.

The fun masks a rather more serious truth. England's quarter-final exit at the hands of France capped a campaign as sobering as any they have endured since the inaugural World Cup 24 years ago.

Wales, by contrast, have reached their first semi-final since those heady days of 1987 playing the sort of thrilling rugby that has made them every Kiwi's favourite second team. In their progression, like that of the other three nations left in the competition, can be found the key reasons why England went so badly wrong.

England's players look dejected as they reflect on defeat by France. Picture: Getty

Playing personnel first. A World Cup is no place for dilettantes, goes Martin Johnson's maxim. Tight Test rugby requires battle-hardened veterans, experienced old hands bearing the scars of previous campaigns. His starting XV against France featured seven players over the age of 30.

Warren Gatland, like Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, has taken a different approach. Six of his picks for the hugely impressive win over Ireland were not even born in 1987, yet those young bucks - Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies and George North - have formed the bedrock of his side's success.

Where Wales' tyros have played with dynamism and without fear, their English rivals appeared slowed by the weight of expectation and history on their shoulders.

The same tale was repeated in the other Wellington semi-final. The Springbok team was their most experienced ever, with 836 caps in their starting XV alone; the Australian side that put them out was inspired by 23-year-olds David Pocock and Will Genia, 22-year-old Kurtley Beale and 21-year-old James O'Connor. Who says you win nothing with kids?

Johnson stuck doggedly with 32-year-old Wilkinson, even when all the evidence suggested his best days in an England shirt had passed. Gatland didn't even have Stephen Jones, his closest equivalent, on the replacements' bench.

Had the two coaches switched jobs, would Johnson have first gambled on picking Rhys Priestland, such a cool controller at 10 for Wales, and then stuck with him when Jones and James Hook returned to full fitness?

North, at 19 years and 158 days, became the youngest player to ever play in a World Cup knock-out match. Would Johnson have capped a teenager who had played just six games of regional rugby and then thrown him into a World Cup quarter-final?

Let's narrow the focus. All four of the semi-finalists have at least one place-kicker in their ranks who could handle the controversial Gilbert Virtuo match ball.

Priestland slotted a beauty of a conversion from the right touchline to cement Wales' early lead against Ireland, with Halfpenny landing a penalty of near Paul Thorburn dimensions to extend it further before the break. Dimitri Yachvili's two early pots gave France a lead they would never relinquish. Piri Weepu landed seven penalties to ease a nervous All Blacks past Argentina's brave challenge, while O'Connor 's boot nicked a win for the Wallabies that their paltry 24% of possession barely justified.

Wilkinson has seldom looked less comfortable. Of his 21 place-kick attempts during this World Cup, he landed just 10. So concerned were team management that they gambled on that ball-switching manoeuvre that ended with two of their key backroom staff suspended for the Scotland game.

Wales' most impressive performer has been skipper Warburton. The Wallabies' win over South Africa was based around Pocock's tireless turnover work at the breakdown, the departure through injury of his opposite number Heinrich Brussow a pivotal moment.

England's lack of a modern-day open-side to match that trio proved critical. Lewis Moody is many things - frighteningly brave, utterly committed - but a top-draw scavenger and stealer he is not. He was also not match fit, his nagging knee injury leaving him short of gas and go-forward.

Across the team, England had stop-gaps where others had specialists.

Andrew Sheridan's early injury meant Matt Stevens filling in at loose-head and struggling against the wily experts in Euan Murray and Nicolas Mas. James Haskell was shuffled round the back row no matter how well he played, Toby Flood thrown in at inside centre despite not having played outside Wilkinson for 18 months.

In Warburton, Jamie Roberts and Gethin Jenkins, Wales have on-pitch leaders through the spine of the team. When Keith Earls slid into the corner just after the interval on Saturday to bring the scores level, those three led a team-talk under the posts that stiffened resolve and lifted spirits.

Teenager George North (left) and captain Sam Warburton have been two of Wales' outstanding performers. Picture: Getty

England once had the same. Their World Cup triumph of 2003 was founded on the strong minds and loud voices of Neil Back, Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson and Will Greenwood - all of whom could step up from skipper Johnson's shadow when times got tough. There are pleasant characters throughout the team of 2011, but inspirational rabble-rousers are in short supply.

What of the coaching set-up?

Johnson's managerial career is just over three years old. Gatland has been a coach for five times that period of time. While Johnson's sole experience has come with England, his Welsh counterpart honed his trade in club and provincial rugby with Galwegians, Connacht, Waikato and Wasps, and first coached at international level seven years before Johnson's own playing career even came to an end.

Johnson may one day become as good as coach as he was a player. But these things take time and involve struggles (and learning how to deal with them); Graham Henry freely admits the All Blacks defeat in the 2007 World Cup changed both his methods and results.

Johnson continues to defend his forwards coach John Wells and attack coach Brian Smith from the criticism regularly aimed at them. Whether either is as effective as Gatland's lieutenant Shaun Edwards - of the modern game's most innovative thinkers and motivators - is another matter.

Advocates of Johnson and his staff would rightly point out that none of this was being raised last spring, when England were winning the Six Nations championship off the back of successive victories over Australia and Gatland and Edwards were presiding over a run of eight consecutive defeats.

But one team has peaked at the right time and the other has not. England have regressed over the past six months, Wales have come on at pace.

To the nitty-gritty. The dominant aspect of Wales' win over Ireland was their extraordinary defence.

Luke Charteris alone made 16 tackles in the first half, his team-mates following Edwards' plan to take the Irish marauders low round the legs to halt their charges rather than wrapping them and keeping them on their feet as Ireland prefer.

England had shipped just one try in their pool matches. Against the French they missed 10 tackles in the first 40 minutes to concede that 16-point lead, a bigger deficit than they had ever come back from before.

Where the Welsh were composed under pressure, holding Ireland at bay time and time again on their try-line and doing it all without conceding penalties, England crumpled.

Wilkinson kicked a re-start straight into touch and flung passes behind his runners and straight into touch. Stevens was mangled by Mas into error after error. Louis Deacon ambled back through the French forwards like a man in a day-dream.

England's players had talked all week of the importance of winning the first 20 minutes.

But where Wales exploded out of the traps with Roberts' battering runs and aerial threat and then Shane Williams' try in the corner after multiple quick, clean phases, Johnson's men lumbered and toiled.

Finally, the intangibles. England may have enjoyed themselves off the field in New Zealand, too much so at times, but they looked uncomfortable with the attention their antics, allied to their patchy form, brought them.

They weren't the only ones who got stuck into the sauce - All Blacks winger Cory Jane was all over the weekend papers here after a late night before the Argentina game - but they couldn't produce fireworks on the pitch to match.

Gatland's men appear to have relished every second. His wife, Trudi, arranged free homestays for travelling fans in their hometown of Hamilton, while his players imposed a voluntary alcohol ban from pool games onwards.

One team is heading home, another into their biggest game in a quarter of a century. The contrast could barely be clearer.

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