Wembley is on loan but today it really must belong to Wales for the final Five Nations game of the 1999 tournament. With Cardiff’s sporting Asgard being rebuilt, the ageing London edifice teems with scarlet-clad fanatics determined to see English noses rubbed in their own hallowed turf. Tom Jones leads the choir with a lusty Bread of Heaven, stood alongside that cheeky bard of the valleys Max Boyce. Clear London skies cast long shadows in the late April afternoon.
The feeling shared among the Welsh is that something is afoot, that Graham Henry’s men could poop the party and deny England a grand slam at the site of their footballing brethren’s greatest sporting triumph, 1966 and all that. How wonderful that would be.
But, quietly, there are doubts, for Clive Woodward’s formidable England bristle with intent, marshalled by Lawrence Dallaglio, flanked by a youthful Martin Johnson and a baby-faced 19-year-old Jonny Wilkinson.
Just to confirm Welsh fears England make a thunderous start, Matt Perry flashing from inside his own half, a quick pass to Dan Luger and over the line he speeds. Wales agog. Young Jonny converts and the Wembley scoreboard reads 0-7.
But England have a flaw. Almost from the restart they concede a penalty and Neil Jenkins slots the kick. Wales’s metronome will keep his side hammering at the door every time the English put daylight on the scoreboard.
It’s breathless as penalties are traded and, after 19 minutes, England are a point in front. They press hard and another of their teenagers, Steve Hanley, charges over to touch down on his debut. But, hold on, Wilkinson fluffs the conversion. 15-9 to England but will that uncharacteristic miss prove costly?
Wales, undeterred, regather and bullocking through England ranks comes Craig “Mad Hippo” Quinnell. Jenkins strikes a beauty from the right touchline, his fourth. Then a fifth from almost the middle of the pitch, and on the half-hour Wales are level.
Wilkinson answers that with an uprights-splitting arrow of his own and England make a bold statement before half-time. Matt Dawson kicks ahead and two Welsh defenders, transfixed by the ball’s arc, collide. Richard Hill claims the ball and slides over. Wilkinson converts and England are 10 points up. There’s still time for another penalty as Jenkins keeps his cool and Wales in contention.
From the restart – at last – a score for Wales to cheer. Again it’s Jenkins at the fulcrum, lobbing a long pass out to his right and Shane Howarth crosses. The Ponty No10 converts: 25-all, just three minutes into the second half.
England, affronted, surge back, claiming a penalty under the posts that Jonny slots … anything Jenks can do is the message. Then another and all the game’s protocols are forgotten as his kick is roundly booed. Still, it’s now 25-31 but as this Wembley thriller edges to 80 minutes the cold reality is all too clear to the Welsh: the steadfast black boot of Jenkins alone will not be sufficient to win this match.
Wales are punished for dangerous play and England, scenting blood, kick to touch. The ball moves inside and Mike Catt lobs a high one towards the Welsh posts.
Claim it and they must score – hard luck, boyos, but the title is England’s. But it is red 13, Mark Taylor, who grasps the ball and turns away, the game slipping into injury time.
Wales’s redeemer arrives. Scott Gibbs is in full flight when the other Scott, the punk-haired Quinnell, sells England’s defenders with a slight of hand gleaned from rugby league and Gibbs, sidestepping, floating, motors through the gap, showboating for a heart- stopping moment, and touches down.
One point in it, and here cometh Jenkins. A flutter of his hand and a swing of that redoubtable boot – the conversion is sweet perfection: 32-31. Victory belongs to Wales, to Gibbs and Jenkins and the travelling hoards, revelling in a first defeat of the old enemy since 1993.