Now the dust has settled and the players have gone through ice baths and massages in order to get their bodies back into one piece, there is some frank assessment needed from both sets of English and Welsh management. It was far from the full-blooded Test match seen the same morning between the All Blacks and the Wallabies in Auckland, but then it was never going to reach that level of precision. After weeks in the gym and on the training field, a run out was what both teams needed.
No one was keener to stress that point than England coach Martin Johnson, who stated that the match had given England “plenty of context for what to work on in training this week”. England wanted a full-on, full-blooded Test match, and whilst nothing will be set in stone following the match at Twickenham, the team “needed realistic pressure”. Alex Corbisiero added to this point, stating that “For us it was the first game back after a tough pre-season, and it was good to get some of the rust out of the way.”
They certainly did that, with Wales dominating the proceedings in the second half following the try from Manu Tuilagi. Tries from Shane Williams and George North brought them close to the lead, whilst captain Sam Warburton’s effort in the corner was ruled out by the TMO. That’s a level of pressure than England won’t have felt in training or in the trial match at the Stoop. The fact that the two tries came from substantial overlaps is also a concern, but highlights how hard England were having to work at the breakdown in order to keep Wales from powering through the middle. George North’s finishes were some of the easiest he’ll come across in international rugby, and the fact the Delon Armitage’s calls for men to come over for North’s first try fell on deaf ears will no doubt come up in the post-match analysis.
Of the England players, the most impressive performers were Wilkinson, Tuilagi and Matt Stevens, who Johnson all praised. Assessing Tuilagi’s debut as “pretty good” was probably an understatement, but why build the hype up around the man who is apparently “the future of English rugby” when his performances speak for themselves. One wild high tackle on Shane Williams aside, the Leicester centre looked impressive, busting holes in the defence and then pleasing the crowd with some big hits himself.
Wilkinson was at his best in terms of game management, his two drop goals intelligently taken when firstly nothing was on, and secondly when captain Lewis Moody was down on the ground with the attack rapidly coming towards him. Johnson was keen to emphasise that Jonny was “world-class”, and that England were fortunate to have him, but remained coy on whether he was first choice. There were occasions where he seemed to be searching for space all on his own, unable to create the fluidity with Riki Flutey in the centre that we’ve seen in the past. As for Stevens, both Johnson and his fellow prop Alex Corbisiero were both full of praise for him, given his impressive performance in the scrum.
There were other debutants for England apart from Tuilagi, namely Mouritz Botha, and new favourite on The Rugby Blog, Charlie Sharples. He spoke afterwards of how the game had been brilliant for him personally, describing it as “A great experience, and although I didn’t get involved as much as I’d have liked to, it was just nice to be on the pitch.” When quizzed on which song he had lined up as debut number on the team bus, Sharples was unable to reveal what he’d be singing, not because of some secrecy pact, but because he simply didn’t know. “I’ll pull it out in the moment” were the bold words from the Gloucester winger.
England’s two main injury worries, captain Lewis Moody and Corbisiero, were also put to rest by both players. Moody stated that whilst he had tweaked his knee, “It’s nothing serious and we’ll assess it again in 24/48 hours.”, whilst Corbisiero stated that his hamstring problem was a minor one. “It’s just a bit of cramp so the guys wanted to take me off as a pre-caution, but it’s nothing serious.”
The major injury concern was slightly more tragic however, with Morgan Stoddart being carried off the field a sad sight for everyone watching. Both Johnson and England scrum-half Danny Care were keen to offer their sympathy, with Johnson describing it as “nasty” and that “it was never nice to see anyone suffer a serious injury, especially now with the timing.” Care shared this view, but offered some perspective. “It’s such a sad way to get injured, but it’s a contact sport and unfortunately it happens. You have to force it to the back of your mind, because the second you start worrying about it you stop playing 100% and that’s when you do get injured.”
Stoddart’s injury was a blow to Wales, adding to the disorganisation of losing Stephen Jones in the warm-up, but Wales rallied in the second half. In Sam Warburton they have a great young captain who looks set for a long future on the international stage. Rhys Priestland was very impressive at 10 with his goal kicking and range of passing, offering Wales a different option at 10 to the experience of Jones. Warren Gatland will be encouraged by the second half, and hoping the momentum will carry through to the encounter at the Millennium Stadium next weekend.
There’s plenty to talk about, from the performance of Manu Tuilagi on debut, to Morgan Stoddart’s horrific injury. Did both sides look like they’d spent too much time in the gym? Which fringe players put their hands up for World Cup selection? Let us know your thoughts.
by Ben Coles