Moment of madness gives England edge
A stadium packed to the steel girders with 80,000 screaming fans should be an impossible place to be alone, but for Alun Wyn Jones, Twickenham in the chill Saturday gloaming must have felt like the loneliest place in the world.
A split second of madness, a championship spoiled for one side and saved for another. It sounds too stark and too severe - we're one round in, with hours of rugby yet to be played - but this most enduring of tournaments provides the most exposed of stages.
When Wyn Jones left the field after tripping Dylan Hartley, the match was poised at 3-3 and bang in the balance. By the time he returned, 10 minutes of game-time later, England were 17 points clear.
There was room for ebb and flow afterwards, for an almost-comeback of epic proportions and a stirring grandstander of a last 15 minutes, but the key play in the day had been made. And if the scoreboard didn't tell you enough, the coaches' faces afterwards did.
Wales coach Warren Gatland could barely disguise his fury; Shaun Edwards couldn't. You could forgive the second row if he decided to change his name to Alun Wince Jones. "Shaun told Alun at half-time, I just hope you never do that again in your career," said Gatland, with the air of a man who has witnessed one of the great ear-bashings.
"We've talked about discipline all week, and then that happens. It was massive. "
For Martin Johnson, there was a certain sweet irony in it all. Last season England's hopes were wrecked by their own indiscipline, summed up by the moment Danny Care got himself sin-binned in Dublin and sent Johnson into a fearsome fist-thumping fury.
This time around, Care epitomised everything that was better about England. After the dismal, leaden autumn internationals, here was a little pace, here was sometimes quick thinking - hell, here was even the occasional moment of spontaneity.
It might not always have been pleasing on the eye. There might have been scrappiness and errors aplenty to go with the drama and tension, and a period in the second half where the wheels wobbled if not quite came off completely, but if ever a game was all about the win, this was it.
Both teams were desperate for something after a run of results that has raised significant questions about exactly where they were heading. For both, with eminently winnable games up next, Saturday was either going to launch them into this Six Nations with momentum and renewed belief or leave them listing and listless.
Despite that stirring second-half fightback, it's Wales who will spend the rest of the campaign playing catch-up. They have now lost nine of their last 18 internationals, a record that does a disservice to the quality of both their players and management.
For England, there is finally some sunshine and optimism after a run of performances that had left Twickenham at best bored and at worst openly mutinous.
The last time they ran out in a new shirt, against Argentina three months ago, they produced a mauve mess. This time the cream colours clothed a display that left Johnson at times purring like the cat with the proverbial. Even his under fire skipper Steve Borthwick had a stormer, stealing line-outs and ripping the ball from Welsh hands on several key occasions.
"We've all been there and done silly things that had an influence on the game," said Johnson, "but the good thing from our point of view is that we turned that pressure into scores. They didn't give us those 17 points - we still had to score them.
"There are lots of things we need to improve on, but ultimately we found a way to win. We've been in games like that and lost them."
For all the pre-match talk of an expansive running game, the man of the match was a blind-side flanker, the first home try from an old-fashioned forward rumble that wouldn't have been out of place in 1991 or 1980. James Haskell hasn't always been everyone's cup of tea, but this was his best performance in an English jersey.
"That's probably the most nervous I've been for an England game," he said afterwards, pumped up with adrenaline, talking on fast forward. "Wales are a team who can cause chaos, but today we stuck together as a team and imposed ourselves on them. There's always a sense of desperation when you're under your posts and you're suddenly only three points ahead, but we kept calm."
Haskell was on the pitch two years ago when England famously threw away a 13-point lead, and conceded the penalty that allowed James Hook to kick-start the comeback that day. Hook's twinkle toes threatened an even bigger turnaround this time, but whereas in 2007 it was an English loose pass that sealed the result, this time it came from Stephen Jones as Wales threw caution to the late winds.
The visitors, for all their dominance in the scrum, struggled at line-outs (seven won, five lost). Matthew Rees was missed more than Gethin Jenkins. While there was the trademark adventure and flair, there were also too many errors - 19 when in possession to England's 12. Gareth Cooper's pass was as patchy as it has been all season, and Jamie Roberts failed to make the impact many had anticipated against the lightweight England midfield.
England remain a side in transition, not transformed. There was still a robotic feel to parts of their play, problems up front and no great chemistry from 10 through to 13. Equally, their second try demonstrated a quickness of ball and mind and that had been almost entirely absent for the past eight months.
Thanks to Wyn Jones and that moment of madness, they have a platform and purpose again. Whether it can be sustained for the rest of the campaign is another matter, but in an otherwise bleak midwinter, there are green shoots visible. If nothing else, it's been a long time since anyone saw so many home supporters leaving Twickenham with smiles on their faces.