They are easier to like these days: brave against all odds and more interested in attack than the defence that has defined them for so long, but the trouble is, being easy to like is usually an alternative to winning. Wales travelled east in search of a surprise to rank alongside their legendary mugging of England in the 2015 World Cup but were comprehensively bullied out of proceedings, doors slammed on them at every turn, a big ugly hand in their face throughout, at a longer arm’s length than heir own.
In the end it was a shoulder in the face – Manu Tuilagi’s in George North’s – with five minutes to go that earned Wales a measure of late relief. Tuilagi’s red card, two minutes after Ellis Genge’s yellow, afforded the visitors the luxury of a duck shoot and two bonus tries for a bonus point at the death. This defeat was nowhere near as close as a three-point deficit might suggest.
Thus the fall from grand-slam champions at the end of one era to a life of building at the start of another. At least Wayne Pivac has the benefit of working with the most experienced lineup in Welsh history, but here experience just meant the frustration of another shut-out at Twickenham felt all the more familiar. Wales are likely to finish the defence of their title in the bottom half of the table. Ireland, subject to any impending apocalypse, have fixtures in Paris and, one day, in Rome to register the points that would condemn Wales to that ignominious fate.
Bar that famous recent exception to the rule in 2015, Wales have tended not to like life at Twickenham lately. It’s that bullying thing. England’s habit of tearing into them from the start, even if they so often, as here, struggle to sustain it to the end, was brandished again, with gusto. Wales looked disconcerted in the face of it.
Two attacking lineouts for England in that first half; two sweet moves to tear with relative ease through Wales’s defence, until so recently their hallmark. When Wales had opportunities they snatched at them: North knocking on over the line, Hadleigh Parkes from off a lineout deep in England’s 22.
But, having established themselves as the most defensive-minded side in the world in 2019 (the only one, really), Wales have rediscovered a measure of flair under Pivac. Never have they hit a sweeter note this campaign than the one that conjured a glimmer of hope amid the onslaught; a sustained pitch that resonated for the best part of 27 seconds, the time it took them to score after the restart.
Perhaps the shift from defence to attack this season is best represented in the figure of Nick Tompkins, who has relished the ball in his hands as much as he has suffered a few moments of discomfort without it. He was picked out by England at the kick-off, and he exploited a gap in their defence, to play a one-two with Josh Navidi out of Wales’s 22, before setting Tomos Williams away. The latter timed his pass to Justin Tipuric perfectly for Wales’s best try of the Six Nations to date.
Alas, it merely poked the bear, England responding with 13 unanswered points. Leon Power came on for the injured Dillon Lewis and was on the receiving end of the eye-watering reimposition of, well, power.
Joe Marler went through him at a scrum for the second of two England penalties in the space of a few minutes, then Kyle Sinckler did the same in the loose as England swarmed on the approach to their third try. Power was in evident agony, clutching his shoulder, and seemed certain to have to retire, which might at least have meant uncontested scrums, albeit with Wales playing the rest of the match a man short. Incredibly, he stayed on and indeed stabilised the set piece.
Bravery personified, but the damage had been done. That third try had put the game beyond Wales, even if England’s own power would get the better of them in those final 10 minutes. Wales know they were flattered in the end; flattered but brave. We came away liking them. They will want to fix that as quickly as possible.