Six Nations 2014: England improving while Wales flounder
It should be hard to make much sense of anything on an early March day when London is warmer than Ibiza, where anthropomorphic daffodils swill lager and there are enough men dressed as crusaders to lay siege to Jerusalem, let alone sing it.
But after England's buccaneering, liberated 29-18 win over Wales at a raucous Twickenham on Sunday, there was an unmistakeable sense of two teams going in two markedly different directions.
It wasn't just a first Triple Crown for the men in white since 2003 - simultaneously a reason to celebrate for the home support and to lament a wasted decade. Neither was it merely the atmosphere at this so often silent concrete bowl, which in the past two weeks has roared and reverberated again as it did in those long-ago golden days.
It was the style in which it was done, the ambition and verve shown against a vastly more experienced opposition, the sense of a young side maturing into something genuinely exhilarating.
England under the coaching triumvirate of Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree have always been robust in defence. What was missing until the last few months was the creativity and attacking edge with which to garland those characteristic virtues.
After failing to score a single try in their last three battles against Wales, England this time had one within five minutes. They had a second with barely half an hour gone.
They attacked not only when deep into Welsh territory but from their own doorstep, not just with the desperation of a team with little alternative but often with instinct.
This may not impress those in the southern hemisphere for whom such things come entirely naturally. But Twickenham in the blank years since 2003 has grown accustomed to the risk-averse and over-cautious, to a diet of stout rather than champagne.
Often England fell short, or tried too much when too little was on. Just as often they drew rich dividends - running penalties, running from deep, favouring fortune, favouring the brave.
"We've tried to remove the fear of failure and go out and play," admitted Lancaster afterwards. "While your heart is in your mouth a bit, and sometimes we played in the wrong areas, our intent got its reward."
Taken on its own, this victory over a side with 12 Lions in its starting XV and almost twice as many caps in its match-day 23 might signify little more than another rosy but ultimately phony dawn.
Coming a fortnight after the similarly impressive defeat of Ireland, after dominating Scotland at Murrayfield, after being a few bounces of the ball away from victory in Paris and pushing the All Blacks mighty close at winter's start, it instead confirms a pattern.
Warren Gatland Wales coach
“England were a bit more accurate than us. They defended incredibly aggressively and put us under pressure. They deserved to win the game”
In each of those displays there were flaws, periods of toil and error, points left begging and gifts given. With each game those regrets are growing fewer, just as with each 80 minutes Lancaster's young bucks grow stronger still.
Mike Brown is so consistently excellent now that the most remarkable thing about his 156 metres made was how unremarkable it seemed.
Owen Farrell, ever since warming the bench behind Johnny Sexton on the Lions tour, has developed a control and class that many thought naturally beyond him. If his kicking from the tee was as flawless of that of Leigh Halfpenny, his kicking from hand - particularly in the second half as Wales desperately sought some position and pressure - dictated both tempo and territory.
Just as good was the second row pairing. While Courtney Lawes won the man-of-the-match award, Joe Launchbury was relentless once again both at breakdown and in the loose. It may sound like giddy hyperbole to say that they could go on to be England's greatest ever combination in their slots, but both are young and on upward trajectories.
"We've challenged the guys to play at an intensity other teams can't match, and they did that today," said Rowntree, tellingly, in the aftermath.
For Wales, sniffing a fourth successive win over their great adversaries, searching for a third Twickenham heist in four visits, there was only dismay at the performance and disbelief at the errors.
Twice easy overlaps were blown by baffling kicks, once by George North, once by Jamie Roberts. Twice the defence slept as Danny Care took tap penalties that could only have come as a surprise to someone who has never before seen Danny Care. The first led to a punching drive into the Welsh 22, the second to the early try that set the tone for what was to follow.
The place-kicking from Halfpenny was the definition of perfection. The kicking from hand by his half-backs was indiscriminate, aimless and seldom chased. Just 12 months on from butchering England by 27 points, Wales were rendered try-less, reduced to speculation and desperation well before the end.
There are excuses available should they want them. For all that Lions experience reflects the abilities of this group of players, it also seems to have left them weary and uninspired for the campaign that has followed.
There were also muted mutterings from within the camp afterwards about some of the scrum interpretations of referee Romain Poite; when even Steve Walsh is quick to give decisions England's way, as he did as assistant on Sunday, you fear for your chances.
Equally, this was a display in keeping with much of what Wales have offered in the past two months. Awful in Ireland, uninspired against Italy, they have shone only against France - a team mired in their own stylistic slump.
"We will put our hands up and say that, in this tournament, we have been pretty inconsistent," said a glum Warren Gatland afterwards.
England could look back at their own defeat against Les Bleus and torture themselves with what ifs and maybes. A Grand Slam, not just a tilt at the title, could have been up for grabs in Rome next weekend had they begun that game or closed it out as they bossed the middle hour.
But that is in the past, and eyes now turn increasingly to their future. Last season they began brilliantly and were dulled a little with each additional match until that deserved demolition on the deciding day in Cardiff.
This year they have advanced with each match. And the improvement shows little sign of slowing.
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Comment number 1267.Cymru Rydd
11th March 2014 - 23:08
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