It had been 133 years since Llanelli last staged this ultimate test of Welsh nationhood, at the local cricket ground of all places, for a scoreless draw in the frost. Perhaps it was the shadow of 1887, or the fact that Ian Botham’s grandson, James, was in Wales’s line-up here, that bred fears this unscripted return to Carmarthenshire would go England’s way by a cricket score. Such was the perceived chasm between these teams, even the record English winning margin of 57 points was thought to be under threat.
As it turned out, Wayne Pivac’s young side were not about to tolerate their pride being shredded so easily, least of all in a town where ghosts of beating the All Blacks still dwell.
Llanelli has changed, not always for the better, from the Scarlets’ 1972 humbling of New Zealand, a result that inspired a Max Boyce song while draining the place of its last drop of beer. In lieu of the evocative Stradey Park, framed by the chimneys of the Duport steelworks, there is now Parc y Scarlets, this anonymous corporate bunker bounded by a housing estate. And yet for as long as these two nations collide, the weight of history ensures that the outcome is never preordained. What the 135th instalment of this rivalry lacked in soul, it compensated for with Wales’s resolve not to be humiliated.
Emotion alone was not sufficient to avert defeat. England were too patient, too content for their forwards to grind down Welsh resistance with noses three inches from the ground, for the final result to be in much doubt. For Eddie Jones, who had lost on two of three Six Nations visits to Cardiff, any type of victory was richly gratifying. He delights in Wales’s sensitivity to his goading, which has embraced everything from derogatory remarks during a motivational talk, for which he later apologised, to telling Warren Gatland to “enjoy the third-place play-off” at the last World Cup. This time, there was no crowing. He was quieter, more businesslike, satisfied only that he had guided England to the Autumn Nations Cup play-off and the chance of a second continental title in five weeks.
There have been too many spectacles in the past 8½ months emasculated by the absence of a crowd, but few so much as a match traditionally accompanied by a 75,000-strong Cardiff cacophony. As lustily as Alun Wyn Jones led his men through Land of My Fathers, the segue into the silence of an empty provincial ground felt painfully discordant.
The ferocity of Welsh support in non-pandemic times can make a mockery of predictions. In 2012, Stuart Lancaster’s England had headed to Cardiff confident of completing a Grand Slam and left with a 30-3 loss. Eight years on, the most common forecast was that Jones’ team would mete out a thrashing to eclipse even the 62-5 victory at Twickenham in 2007. This was an insult to Wales’s capacity for defending their own turf, even without a vast audience to cheer every English error. For all the pain of the Pivac reign, which stretched last night to a seventh defeat in nine, there was a certain relief that the margin of inferiority was not more galling.
England’s style was unashamedly austere. Never mind feeding Jonny May for a supercharged dash down the wing, they were happy to attack through endless phases of pick-and-go, watching Mako Vunipola barrel over for the decisive score. Jones, evidently, did not mind that there were no lashings of flair to entice the neutrals.
All told, it was hardly a seamless resumption between these teams. The last Anglo-Welsh confrontation, on March 7, had been staged at Twickenham in an atmosphere so combative that Joe Marler had resorted to a tweak of Alun Wyn Jones’ nether regions in his desperation to gain an advantage. The Prime Minister was present that afternoon with his fiancee, in a last carefree whirl of life as we knew it. Just 16 days later, he was shutting down the country. The Principality Stadium, due to have hosted this return fixture, has since been redesigned as a Covid-19 field hospital called the Dragon’s Heart. Such is the speed with which rugby has been cut loose from its spiritual moorings.
When England return for their autumn decider at Twickenham next Sunday, there will at least be a semblance of energy in the stands, even if only one in every 40 seats is occupied. The change in England that is most noticeable this autumn is the improved athleticism. Jones drills his team with an intensity more befitting of Navy Seals, and the rewards were evident here as they absorbed every vestige of late pressure that Wales could bring.
For Wales, the causes for consolation were thin. The most rousing message that Parc y Scarlets could deliver come the end was a big-screen note of congratulations to Nigel Owens for officiating his 100th Test. With the regions in financial turmoil and a national team most politely described as transitional, the prognosis for Pivac remains bleak. As for Jones, his jaunty stride back down the tunnel told you that he has these England players exactly where he wants them. They are, just like their coach, cussed to the end.