Here was fun, for all of us who got to watch it at any rate. It looked like it must have been murder to play in, a real ring-a-ding set-to of a match between two fast, loose and fierce teams on a freezing March afternoon, 30 bullies busy knocking seven bells out of each other. The rivalry between England and Wales never needs much stoking and the game blew up even though the players and coaches had been on their best behaviour in the run-up. It was as if the teams wanted to work off all the cares that dogged them in the week, all the irritating business of the postponed fixtures and cancelled flights.
England played like they were irritated. There was an edge to them, as if they had been rubbed up rough after being shut up in camp all winter with Jones, who has been in the sort of ornery mood where he’s been picking fights left, right and centre. He was at it again here, lashing out at the referee, Ben O’Keeffe, something he hardly ever does. You could see their mood in the way Owen Farrell sparked a fight by thumping George North when they met in an early tackle and in how Joe Marler groped Alun Wyn Jones during the scrap that followed.
At the other end of the game there were those two cards that Jones got so worked up about, one shown to Ellis Genge, the other to Manu Tuilagi for a reckless and unnecessary tackle that damn near decapitated George North out on the right wing.
Tuilagi, who made a point of walking over to North to apologise, was a deal more gracious about it than his boss was.
In the middle of it, right where the fire was white hot, those two great locks, former teammates for the British and Irish Lions, Maro Itoje and Jones. They were at each other from the opening minute, Jones yanking at Itoje’s shirt in a ruck like he was trying to tear down a redwood. Strong as Jones is, there wasn’t an inch of give in Itoje’s limbs. If Itoje seemed hardly to notice Jones that time, he sure did a few minutes later when the two of them set about each other when that scrap broke out on the English try line.
The days when they were merrily sharing a room in New Zealand seemed a long way away right then as they had to be pulled apart while they were wrestling on the floor. In 2017 Jones had the edge as a player. These days Itoje doesn’t lose an inch in the comparison. In the years since, he’s grown into one of the very best players in the world. And right now he’s playing as well as ever.
Itoje’s form’s been gathering through this tournament, coming on like a boulder downhill, and now it’s about over he’s become runaway unplayable. He seemed to be involved in almost every good thing England did. We even got a rare glimpse of him galloping through midfield, 10, 20, 30 metres on into the Welsh half. In the end it took three men to bring him down.
We don’t see that side of Itoje’s game so often anymore. He’s more often prowling around the midfield at a steady jog, his mind working overtime as the game plays out around him, and he’s waiting, watching, wondering where the next best opportunity will come.
Or else he’s running the well-oiled lineout. In the first half England had two throws five metres from the Welsh line and they threw to him both times. They scored tries off both. He stole one of Wales’ throws, too, and came within inches of spoiling another when he came bursting through in pursuit of their scrum-half, Tomos Williams. He would have scragged him if Ross Moriarty hadn’t hauled him back at the last minute. Itoje takes some guarding.
Right now Itoje has made more tackles than any other player in the tournament, and he’s in the top five for turnovers won and lineouts won too. In among it all there were a couple of times he went in too high and a couple more when he was near as dammit to being offside. That’s the way he plays, right up on the line, pushing the limits of what he can get away with. It’s one reason why everyone else’s fans spend so much time grumbling about the way he plays and grousing about everything he’s gotten away with. Consider it a misbegotten mark of respect.
When Tuilagi scored the try that seemed to settle the game midway through the second half, Itoje didn’t celebrate but he rushed up to Joe Launchbury, who had just come on, to pass on a couple of pointers about what was going on. And he was right to do it, too, because it turned out the game wasn’t done.
England had to play out the last six minutes of the game with 13 men. They were 17 points up already but you’d never have guessed it from the way they fought in those moments. And there was Itoje, of course, right in the thick of it, ripping through mauls, rolling and twisting in the sea of bodies, rubbing up against Jones one last time, unforgiving to the very end.