Victorious Wales see off resurgent England
With five minutes left on the clock on Saturday evening and both sides on weak legs and wobbly nerves after a wonderfully ferocious contest, it seemed that we were going to see the first try-less Test between England and Wales in 32 years and only their second draw in 44 years.
Scott Williams had other ideas. The 21-year-old Scarlets centre, only on the pitch because of injury to the more heralded Jamie Roberts, will now go into the record books as the scorer of a famous match-winning try for Wales at Twickenham alongside JPR Williams, Adrian Hadley and Mike Phillips.
Before his late larceny on Courtney Lawes he had already made two key contributions, first dragging Mouritz Botha to the ground after the England lock had blocked Rhys Priestland's clearing kick and threatened to score his side's third charge-down try in three matches. With 12 minutes to go he capitalised on a barrelling break from Ryan Jones and had George North outside him, unmarked and untroubled to the line, had he not taken the ball into contact instead.
Redemption was to follow. Lawes, rumbling over halfway, was robbed. With England's line up flat, the kick through took him into acres of open space, and the bounce of the ball did the rest. Lucky? Not a bit of it. Wales practice ball-stealing in every training session.
That had seemed enough late drama even for this contest, but David Strettle's was-it-wasn't-it try in the corner as the clock ran out had the 81,598 packed into the stadium with hearts in mouths and hands on heads.
It was a horrible decision for television match official Iain Ramage to have to make, but from the replays I saw he looked to have got it right.
While the post-match arguments in the bars under Twickenham's concrete stands were all of a rumoured super-slow-mo replay which some felt had shown Strettle grounding the ball, the desperate defence of Wales' backs should not be ignored. Leigh Halfpenny delayed Strettle's dash for the line with a kamikaze dive at his flying feet, Jonathan Davies somehow turned him on the line and North shoved the ball off the paint before the winger could get clear downward pressure.
Even had the decision been given, Toby Flood would then have had to land a conversion from the right-hand touchline, the wrong side for the natural shape of his kick, to secure England the draw. For his first place-kick of the match he could not have asked for a tougher one.
Warren Gatland was relatively sanguine about the incident. "If they had been awarded a try we wouldn't have complained about that," he admitted, before gently raising the issue of Flood's conversion chances.
Lancaster's reaction at the time - frozen still with Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree disconsolate on either side, staring expressionlessly at referee Steve Walsh as he signalled no try - also refused to hang the game on that single heart-stopping second. "It was far away from us. I stopped looking in the end because it wasn't my decision. Games are won and lost on lots of things that happened during the match so I don't want to dwell on one moment."
After two distinctly average performances brought wins, Lancaster had seen his side produce easily their best rugby of his short reign but finish on the losing side.
Yet the display of his inexperienced XV - seven of them making their Twickenham debuts, both half-back and centre pairings playing together for the first time - will ensure that the defeat does little damage to his hopes of being awarded the job full time.
Rain in Murrayfield and snow in Rome had given him ready-made excuses, had he wanted them, for England's lack of creativity in their first two matches. In warm west London sunshine more suited to cricket than winter rugby, his side not only showed that they could play but did so with a pace and style that had choruses of 'Swing Low' breaking out before the interval. And that hasn't happened for a long, long time.
His trio of full debutants - Lee Dickson, Geoff Parling and Ben Morgan - all justified both their inclusion and retention for the difficult trip to Paris that follows in a fortnight. Dickson's speed of pass transformed the options of men outside him. Parling was arguably more impressive in the loose than his specialist area of line-out, while Morgan added impetus and zip before fading late.
At the heart of England's best work was the precocious Owen Farrell, reminding many of another tyro 10 who burst into international rugby with big hits, calm kicking and a fresh face.
He is not yet the finished article, just as Jonny Wilkinson took time to dominate at the highest level. But his decision-making belied his tender years, his defence was flawless and his appetite for the fray undiminished by a hit from North that would have snapped most watching in two.
Wales' defence coach Shaun Edwards was still playing for Wigan when the younger Farrell used to come in to training with father Andy, so has seen both develop from close quarters.
"He's got the assurance his dad had at that age," he said afterwards. "And his dad had assurance beyond his years."
Despite all the talk during the week of the dents the giant Welsh backs would punch in the thin white line, the home defence was resolute throughout. The centre pairing of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi looks as promising a combo as England have had in years.
Where they disappointed, and where Lancaster might have erred, was in their choice and timing of replacements. Ben Youngs struggled with the speed and accuracy of his pass, Matt Stevens gave away a foolish penalty to allow Halfpenny to bring the scores level and Lawes had his pocket picked for the key score of the game.
Their game management in the last 15 minutes also suffered in comparison to that of a vastly more experienced Welsh side. But Lancaster had seen enough in his first game in charge at headquarters to be optimistic about what might follow.
"We've been together for less than four weeks now, and I think it's a credit to the team that they played that well," he said afterwards.
"The lads played with credit and did the rose proud. The reality is that games at this level are won by very fine margins, and it is up to us to learn those lessons.
"The players are hurting, but that shows what it means to them. I'm very proud of them and they effort they put in; some of the things we've been working on in training is beginning to come through."
Wales captain Sam Warburton was far from happy afterwards, despite the win and another man of the match award. "We didn't play well at all," he told BBC Sport.
For the first 20 minutes his side had been dominant. In that opening quarter they enjoyed 72% possession and 64% of territory, but they failed to garner the points to match that pressure.
When Rhys Priestland was sin-binned four minutes into the second half, England threatened to turn their three-point lead into a decisive one. But whereas the yellow card received by Alun Wyn Jones in the corresponding fixture two years ago triggered an avalanche of 17 home points, this time the score for that 10-minute period read 3-3.
"We played better with 14 men than 15 men," said Gatland. "To be level in that period and keeping the ball for the whole 10 minutes was probably the turning point in the match.
"That was the way we should have played with 15 men. We were probably guilty of trying to move it on too many occasions without having earned that right."
What Wales have started doing in this tournament is winning the close games that in the World Cup got away from them. In the last 10 minutes it was the visitors playing with more composure. Priestland, after his earlier troubles, came good just in time.
Gatland also paid tribute to his skipper Warburton, who has been unable to do any contact work since coming off against Ireland three weeks ago yet whose work at the breakdown conjured key turnovers and penalties as the pressure mounted. "Today Sam showed his real class and quality," he said.
The statistics reflect the tightness of the game. England conceded 13 penalties to Wales 12; both sides won five turnovers. England kicked from hand 23 times, Wales 22. The Welsh line-out was not the weakness some had anticipated - they lost two of nine to England's one in eight - while both made close to 90% of their tackles.
But it is Wales who will now believe that they can win their second Grand Slam under the Gatland-Edwards axis. With Italy and France both to travel to Cardiff, there are more than a few who will agree with them.