CAPE TOWN – Nobody would have blamed you for thinking Eddie Jones was just engaging in his favourite past time again – mind games – when he talked Wales up ahead of their Six Nations brawl.
Maybe he wanted to take some pressure off of his team and make Wales feel the heat. Maybe he wanted to deflect some attention.
It didn’t work, though. Wales didn’t crack. In fact, they went on to produce a record-breaking, inspiring victory at the Principality Stadium.
Wales’ stunning victory over England at the weekend matters. It matters a lot, and not only with regards to the Six Nations standings.
Warren Gatland’s team produced a brilliant second-half performance to crush England’s grand slam hopes – and keep theirs alive – in front of 60 000 fans on Saturday.
The 21-13 coup was their 12th consecutive win. And while that alone is seriously impressive, it’s what went down between kickoff and fulltime, and also what the win meant, that’s even more significant.
In their first two matches, particularly against France, it was England’s tactical kicking that helped them lay down the marker, and their clever attacking kicks helped them run in seven tries in two games (they scored 10 in the first two in total; seven of those from attacking kicks).
But in the first half at the cauldron especially, Wales neutralised their kicking game and piled the pressure on their halfbacks. England didn’t let down on the kicking, even though Wales’ back three, fullback Liam Williams in particular, should have made them realise it wasn’t working.
Jones’ men had led 10-3 at the break, then on came Dan Biggar.
The replacement flyhalf played scrumhalf after Wales had strung together 34 phases – yes, 34 – before George North flicked a short pass to lock Cory Hill to smash over.
And just when you thought the emotion from the crowd couldn’t get any more ear-splitting, Biggar – who replaced Gareth Anscombe at the hour mark when Wales were 10-9 behind – made sure that everything he touched turned to gold and allowed Josh Adams to seal it at the death with the last try.
Biggar sent an accurate cross-kick, one that found space in almost magnetic style, to the right-hand corner, where Adams showed ridiculous control and skill to gather and finish.
That golden moment certainly took Wales closer to the sterling silver Six Nations trophy, but it also made their chances of securing their first grand slam since 2012 look sparklingly promising. If they manage to beat Scotland in Edinburgh in two weeks’ time, only the defending champions, Ireland, will stand in their way in Cardiff.
The bigger picture here, though, is the World Cup. England will go to Japan without a win over their rivals, who they could meet in the knock-out stages. And they’ll feel that. Wales, on the other hand, will feel, and know first hand, that England are beatable.
Only Wales now stand a chance of winning the grand slam, and a win in Cardiff wouldn’t only have given Jones & Co that chance, but it would also have bumped up their confidence…you know, that “we reigned supreme in the north, now we just have to deal with the guys from the south to win the World Cup” kind of confidence.
But that didn’t happen.
The last, and only, time England won rugby’s biggest prize was in 2003. Coincidently, they also won the Six Nations in that year, secured the grand slam, and of course bagged the Triple Crown, Calcutta Cup and the Millennium Trophy before the spectacle in Australia. Following the epic Test, former World Cup-winning England coach Sir Clive Woodward said he was “in shock” at the result and that “every team raises their game against England”.
No surprises there – if you listen to rugby talks, England lead the northern-hemisphere pack when it comes to the southern hemisphere teams’ World Cup competition. But this loss might have changed that. And if Wales manage to go all the way, even more so.
Wales will perhaps now feel like they’ve got England’s number, and they’ll want to do anything and everything to hold onto those digits (hello grand slam). And they just might be right.
I’m not saying Wales now have the best chance out of all the northern teams to lift the Webb Ellis Cup but, should they take the Six Nations trophy and secure that grand slam, they sure will have the confidence and bragging rights to feel they sure do.
Their emphatic win in Cardiff and chance at Six Nations and grand slam success should have done enough to show England that early form is nothing if not consistent. It should also have done enough to show the traditional big dogs just how open this World Cup race is.
And, ultimately, that it’s not just the Red Rose who pose a serious northern-hemisphere threat.