Whatever else is wrong with Welsh rugby, they’ve never lacked heart. You could hear it in Katherine Jenkins’ singing, which must have shattered windows in Aberystwyth, and feel it in the heat of the fireworks that spiralled into the bright blue sky beyond the open roof. For all their failings, the Welsh Rugby Union still know how to organise a show at the Principality Stadium. And you could see what it all meant, too, in the faces of those two old friends and teammates, Alun Wyn Jones, 37, and Ken Owens, 36, as they roared the final words of the anthem, their arms wrapped tight around each other’s shoulders.
Jones’ heart is bigger than most, so is Owens’. Between them, they’ve helped keep Welsh rugby alive despite all its problems for well over a decade now, Jones made his debut in 2006, Owens in 2011. Warren Gatland relied on them all through his first stint in charge of his team, you wonder if he’s surprised to find that he still needs them so badly now in his second.
Owens, of course, is his captain, and Jones was one of a handful of players from that older generation he recalled into the team for this match, along with Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, after dropping them for the last one against Scotland. Partly, he said, it was that he needed their experience to balance his rookie midfield. In the centres he had Joe Hawkins and the hulking Mason Grady, who were playing together for the U20s just last summer, and inside them the 30-year-old Owen Williams, making his first start at fly-half. But it was more than that. Gatland almost seemed to be challenging his old favourites to deliver for him.
Jones and Owens were two of the key figures in the negotiations with the management that dominated the run-up to this match. Gatland supported their demands, but he made it clear that he thought that they could have handled it differently, too. “Young men are sometimes a little bit impulsive,” he said in the week. He was annoyed that it had interrupted their preparation for this game. It cost them a training session on Tuesday, and meant their midweek rest day was spent in and out of meetings at the team hotel, going over the negotiations. It was only on Thursday morning that they were able to turn their attention to the game. In the end they had 48 hours to get ready.
Gatland wanted them to put that right. Everyone here did. In the match programme, the WRU president Gerald Davies wrote a set of welcome notes that read more like a set of notes for a funeral. “This is a solemn time for Welsh rugby,” Davies wrote. “In the forefronts have been major complaints, recriminations, and occasional diversions, hostile censures, and home truths.” The worrying part was it wasn’t actually clear which set of complaints and recriminations he was talking about, this week’s, or the last’s. Like he said himself “no sooner than one sore has been attended to” than “another blemish arises”. He described it as “a harrowing time, unrelenting in its comment and judgement”.
He offered an apology, “we are sorry that it has come to this”, and a reminder that “rugby is to be enjoyed”.
This wasn’t that sort of match. It was a fierce game, one in which every last yard was fought hard. But it was also full of flaws, and was decided, in the end, by the fact that England made fewer of them. Both sides looked, as the coaches say, like they were “in a rebuilding phase”, and if they were at similar stages along it back at the start of the championship, it’s clear that England, who were that much slicker, and more accurate when it mattered, have pulled ahead in the last few days. “We created a lot of problems for ourselves by not being accurate in key moments,” Gatland said. “It’s not that the opposition is hurting us, it’s that we’re hurting ourselves.”
There were plenty of moments when it looked like Wales might do it, regardless. Five points behind with ten minutes left to play, they came rolling downfield after Jones won a penalty at the breakdown. The move died out somewhere on the right, after another of the little mistakes that cost them in the crucial moments. It had been that way since the beginning, there were throws that flew long over the top of the lineout, passes that whistled just high or wide of outstretched fingertips, turnovers given away because they left the ball exposed.
They just weren’t clinical enough, and they created so few chances, they couldn’t afford to squander as many as they did.
Wales were a blunt force. In the very opening moments the crowd had roared when Faletau charged down Owen Farrell’s clearance and then chased after Freddie Steward. Faletau caught him with his fingertips as he gathered in the loose ball, but Steward slipped away. It was another 35 minutes before they made it back into England’s 22. When they did, England stripped the ball from them as Lewis Ludlam ripped past Jones to grab it at the breakdown. So the crowd didn’t get to cheer like that again until that one interception made by Louis Rees-Zammit early in the second half.
“I’m proud of the boys,” said Owens later, “we fronted up, you couldn’t question our energy, or our workrate, we put a shift in.” They did. Heart is plenty, but it’s not enough, even when it beats as hard as it does and in Owens, and Jones, and the rest of those old champions.