Wwhatever is wrong with Welsh rugby, it has never lacked heart. You could hear it in the singing of Katherine Jenkins, who must have broken windows in Aberystwyth, and feel it in the heat of the fireworks that spiraled into the bright blue sky beyond the open roof. For all its faults, the Welsh Rugby Union still know how to put on a show at Principality Stadium. And you could see what it all meant on the faces of those two old friends and teammates, Alun Wyn Jones, 37, and Ken Owens, 36, too, as they roared out the final words of the anthem, their arms wrapped around each other. the other’s shoulders.
Jones’ heart is bigger than most, as is Owens’. Together they helped keep Welsh rugby alive despite all its problems for over a decade, Jones made his debut in 2006, Owens in 2011. Warren Gatland relied on them throughout his first spell in charge of his team, you wonder if he’s surprised to find he still needs them so badly now in his second.
Owens, of course, is their captain, and Jones was one of the few players from that older generation he called into the squad for this match, along with Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, after dropping them for the last game against Scotland. In part, he said, it was because he needed their experience to balance his fledgling midfield. In the centres, he had Joe Hawkins and the massive Mason Grady, who played together for the Under-20s last summer, and within them Owen Williams, 30, making his first start at centre-half. But it was more than that. Gatland almost looked as if he were daring his old favorites to hand it over to him.
Jones and Owens were two of the key figures in negotiations with the management that dominated the run-up to this match. Gatland supported their demands, but made it clear that he thought they too could have handled it differently. “Young people are sometimes a little impulsive,” he said in the week. He was irritated that he had interrupted preparation for this game. It cost them a training session on Tuesday and meant their mid-week rest day was spent drifting in and out of meetings at the team hotel, reviewing trades. Only on Thursday morning did they manage to turn their attention to the game. In the end, they had 48 hours to prepare.
Gatland wanted them to fix this. Everyone here did. In the match program, WRU President Gerald Davies wrote a set of welcome notes that read more like a set of notes for a funeral. “This is a solemn moment for Welsh rugby,” Davies wrote. “In the foreground are major grievances, occasional recriminations and deviations, hostile reproaches and domestic truths.” The troubling part was that it wasn’t really clear what series of complaints and recriminations he was talking about, this week or last. As he himself said “as soon as a wound is treated” “another stain appears”. He described it as “a harrowing time, unrelenting in its commentary and judgment”.
He offered an apology, “we’re sorry it came to this”, and a reminder that “rugby is meant to be enjoyed”.
This wasn’t that kind of game. It was a fierce game, where every yard was hotly contested. But it was also full of flaws and it was decided, in the end, by England having fewer flaws. Both teams seemed, as the coaches put it, to be “in a rebuilding phase”, and if they were in similar phases throughout the early part of the Championship, it is clear that England, who were far more skilful and more accurate when it mattered, have come out ahead in the last few days. “We created a lot of trouble for ourselves by not being accurate at key moments,” said Gatland. “It’s not that the opposition is hurting us, it’s that we’re hurting ourselves.”
There were many times when it looked like Wales could do it regardless. Five points adrift with ten minutes to go, they came rolling down the field after Jones had won a half-time penalty. The play died somewhere on the right, after another one of the small mistakes that cost him in crucial moments. It had been that way from the start, there were shots that went over the lineout, passes that whistled high or far from outstretched fingertips, turnovers given because they left the ball exposed.
They just weren’t clinical enough and created so few chances that they couldn’t afford to waste as many as they did.
Wales were a force to be reckoned with. In the opening moments, the crowd roared as Faletau charged against Owen Farrell’s release and chased Freddie Steward. Faletau caught him with his fingertips as he retrieved the loose ball, but Steward escaped. It was another 35 minutes before they got back to England’s 22nd. When they did, England took the ball away from them as Lewis Ludlam looped past Jones to snatch it at half-time. Thus, the crowd did not cheer like that again until that interception made by Louis Rees-Zammit at the beginning of the second half.
“I’m proud of the boys”, Owens later said, “we’ve faced it, you can’t question our energy or our pace of work, we’ve changed.” They did. Heart abounds, but not enough, even when it beats as hard as it does in Owens, Jones, and the rest of those former champions.