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Blood, guts and old-fashioned Six Nations thunder

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Tom Fordyce | 23:40 GMT, Saturday, 14 February 2009

If you wanted a Valentine's Day of love and hugs and holding hands, you should have stayed well clear of Cardiff.

Wales' narrow, nerve-wracking win over England was not for faint hearts and fans of fluffy toys. This was brutal, bruising stuff, engrossing and exciting, thunderous and thrilling.

It was a match that dragged you to the edge of your seat, made you wince with empathetic pain and left you wondering which way it would go right until the final five minutes.

In the tunnel afterwards, the players were limping, grimacing and bleeding. It was as romantic as an A&E department.

No-one in a red shirt cared. After a record-equalling eighth successive Six Nations win, the old foe vanquished for a fourth time in five years, the Welsh players could live with their war-wounds. For England, vastly improved on seven days ago, everything hurt just a little bit more.

With this Welsh team, the plaudits are generally handed out to the flair players, the orange-legged wizards in the backs.

Saturday, by contrast, was all about the lumps up front. Gethin Jenkins is only slightly less likely to use a set of hair-straighteners than Mike Tindall, but his performance at the Millennium Stadium was as impressive as anything Lee Byrne and the glamour-boys have produced in the last 12 months.

So ever-present was he in the contact zone that you suspected he may have been cloned. So indefatigable was he in the tackle that you half expected to look out at the pitch three hours after the match and see him smashing the groundstaff into the stands.

Andy Powell wasn't far behind. Watching him crash into walls of defenders with relentless relish - in just 60 minutes on the pitch, he made almost half as many carries again as any other man - you wonder whether he actually enjoys the sensation of pain.

It was to England's considerable credit that they refused to yield. In Joe Worsley they had a man who drew a line in the turf and refused to let a Welshman past.

Worsley tenderised Jamie Roberts time and time again. In the battle with fellow campaign veteran Martyn Williams he came out with honour intact.

"Shaun Edwards said at half-time, 'We're in a battle here,'" said Wales coach Warren Gatland, drolly, afterwards.

"Did he?" said Williams. "I can't remember. I was blowing too much."

"The collisions with Joe and Andy - that's what's rugby all about, " Edwards added, with happiness written all over his battered features.


What let England down, once again, was their discipline. While they played with bucketloads more spirit and style than in the turgid opener against Italy, and were within a converted try of taking the lead with 20 minutes still to go and ball in hand, it was not enough to satisfy coach Martin Johnson.

"I'm not into moral victories," he said darkly. "I want to win games.

"We had a chance - we definitely had a chance. These are special games. They only come round every two years, and you don't get to play many, and we let one slip by."

Winning in Cardiff was always going to be an uphill struggle for England. By shipping nine needless points early on, they made the climb steeper. And when Andy Goode was yellow-carded at the start of the second half, Wales scored the 11 points that ultimately sealed the game for them.

In their last three games, England have now lost eight players to the sin-bin. In the first 15 minutes on Saturday alone, they conceded six penalties. For a quarter of the match they were forced to play with a man down.

As Ryan Jones said afterwards, "We knew that if we posed questions of them mentally and physically, they would crack, and we could take the advantage."

Johnson was clearly not happy about the number of penalties awarded against his side. The old warrior referred to a "perception issue" between England and referees, with a "self-perpetuating" disciplinary record.

At the same time, he refused to exonerate his sinners entirely.

"We have to sort it out," he rumbled. "We need to end it. We've said it for the last two games, but it keeps letting us down. We have to be whiter than white. They kicked 18 points from penalties, and that's hard to overcome."

As in any good match, the momentum swung one way then the other. Twice England looked at out it, only for Paul Sackey's chase-through try to haul them back to 9-8 at the break and Delon Armitage's scintillating break to make it 20-15 with time to burn.

The 2009 Welsh team, however, is not for panicking. As in Dublin last year, they absorbed an unholy pile of late pressure and possession with the calm authority of true champions.

"You'll never be in the ascendancy all game," said skipper Jones. "You have to make sure that when you're on the way down, you don't go too far."

This victory gave the thousands of Wales fans streaming out into St Mary Street something to sing sweet harmonies about all night long.

It brings the two countries level at 53 wins apiece in their long-running battle, made it three on the bounce for Wales over England for the first time in 20 years and brought a second successive Grand Slam a significant stride closer.

It also confirms that the side continues to improve. Last week they won without captain and star centre; this week without talismanic record try-scorer, and in a battle that could easily have been lost.

"We posed the question at half-time - is there any more we can give?" said Jones. "The way we started and finished the second half proved that this is a side that works harder than last year.

"The way the boys train, the way they prepare, we felt there was another gear in us. There's a big heart in this team."

England will travel to Ireland encouraged but chastened. Wales go to France with wind in their sails and history within their grasp.


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