I don't know what will age the human body quicker: smoking ten packs of fags a day, or watching Wales play England at Twickenham. As predicted, Wales came out of the blocks as if they'd been slurping on rocket fuel during the warm-up. They dominated every facet of the game for a short period. When Mike Phillips cleverly popped the ball inside to George North on the English 22-metre line, a try looked certain. For a moment, it was England fullback Ben Foden's worst nightmare realised as he watched the genetic behemoth from the north come thundering at him. Somebody up there was smiling at Foden, because David Strettle came roaring across the field to give North's ankle 'a little tappy' (as Happy Gilmore would have it) which put a halt to the attack. Foden's shorts remained white, for the time being.
Strettle was in great form for England, with and without the ball, which only served to highlight the metaphorically absent Chris Ashton. What has happened to Ashton in the time between scoring twice against Wales in 2011's reverse fixture, and now? Statistics show he had his hands on the ball more than most, but you'd be hard pressed to remember when (besides passing it desperately to Sam Warburton). Early last year, his former Wigan teammate Kris Radlinski claimed that Ashton was "rewriting" the role of the rugby union winger. Maybe he is, but going by Saturday's performance, he seems to be doing so using crayons on a toilet wall. Peaks and troughs, I suppose.
Wales certainly didn't appear to be peaking on Saturday, but their errors don't constitute a trough either. They won at Twickenham for only the second time in 24 years with their fly-half in the sin bin at one vital stage of the game. That they outplayed an inspired England during this period (as we knew they could, following that red card against France not so long ago) is a tribute to the higher ground they have reached through the guidance of their coaches.
Before I forget to mention it, England were very good. At one point, a draw seemed the best-case scenario for Wales, 12-6 down and with Rhys Priestland yellow-carded. The cool showing of Owen Farrell means he is now drawing comparisons (perhaps prematurely) to Jonny Wilkinson, which is probably making Toby Flood nervously readjust his collar. We all know Brad Barritt's defence is immaculate, although he has yet to show the attacking instinct of Jonathan Davies, who is at the beating heart of Wales.
They gave Welsh fans real moments of panic when Wales were on the back foot. The architect of England's fast-paced attack was scrum-half Lee Dickson's tap penalties; the irony being that he could also have been the architect of his side's downfall, taking an eternity at the back of the rucks instead of delivering quick ball. Initially, it appeared to be a tactical ruse to allow the English to realign, but upon re-watching the match, there is one passage where Chris Robshaw is evidently screaming for the ball, dangerously close to his own try line. By the time the ball had reached him, not only had our clothes gone out of fashion, but it was Wales who had realigned and swarmed the English captain for a penalty. This may have been why coach Stuart Lancaster replaced Dickson for Ben Youngs just past the hour mark. Another replacement, second row Courtney Lawes, was to experience an even worse 20 minutes than Youngs.
Scott Williams, on for the injured inside centre Jamie Roberts, is still something of an unknown quantity to the wider rugby world. All they need knows is: this boy can play. Williams was instrumental in stopping another England charge-down try, this time by Mouritz Botha. Realistically, if Wales had lost the match, we would be dwelling on the moment he chose to ignore two support men outside him for an easy run-in as a factor in the loss (instead running into the deceptively strong Ben Foden). But Wales didn't lose, and when Williams chose to grab the bull by the horns -probably not just a metaphor, because he's from farming country- and stripped Lawes of the ball for a chip-and-chase try on 76 minutes, one nation leapt, while another wept.
At 19-12 to Wales, it wasn't quite over. In the last play of the game, Strettle received a sharp pass from replacement fly-half Toby Flood with what looked like enough space and time to touch down for a tough conversion for the returning (not to mention nervous-looking) Flood. But here came the heroic Leigh Halfpenny, rattling his brain throwing himself at Strettle; Jonathan Davies showed judo strength to turn the winger over; and George North was clever in burrowing his hands under the ball at the right moment.
If I was English, I would doubtless say it was a try. But I'm not, and it wasn't. Referee Steve Walsh blew the whistle for full-time: Wales had won.
It takes one hell of a forward effort to win at Twickenham, which is why it will rate as one of the finest wins of these players' careers thus far. Rarely does an England scrum go backwards, but that happened more than once on Saturday. It wasn't all one-way traffic, and Wales fought for every inch of the field with England's Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw and Geoff Parling defending as if their lives depended on it. England props Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole won't find many tougher opponents than Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins. Wales are truly lucky to have them.
Wales hooker Ken Owens showed the passionate performance that typifies the embarrassment of riches Warren Gatland has at hooker. To be a supposed fourth choice in your position and to win at Twickenham on your first start is something else. It was a day he probably never wanted to end.
Remember when Wales' second row was going to be Alun Wyn Jones and Ian Evans for years to come? We had a glimpse of what that would be like on Saturday as the Ospreys teammates went some way to fulfilling their potential as partners in the engine room. Injuries and other factors had deprived them both of the opportunity to do so until now, but Evans is back on track, ready to make up for lost time.
Finally, the back row of Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and Dan Lydiate. They might just have learnt more in this game at 'HQ' than during any other match in their fledgling careers. While England quite rightly deserved plaudits for stopping Wales getting over the gainline, the Welsh trio were vital in containing the threat of Tuilagi (hats off to Warburton's try-saver here) and co, while their scramble defence was exemplary - especially when Dickson's tap-and-go's threatened to carve Wales up. Any way you look at this Welsh pack, it is special.
Victory for England might have been just as much a victory for the English press. I can't remember a time when an English rugby team has been so widely written off during the Six Nations. But in heaping praise on Wales -grudgingly, by some notable former England players- they had given themselves room into which a new view on English rugby could be manoeuvred, because England were never going to play as badly as they had in Italy or Scotland.
The coverage following the match was centred on England's improvement rather than Wales' win. (Wales, lest we forget, had just won the first ever Triple Crown at Twickenham.) The reasons are obvious, given that all the major publications are based in London, and their readership is predominantly English, but the newspapers have done well to keep the English populace in line with their views. Very clever indeed.
Wales face Italy on March 10th, which allows extra recovery time for those players nursing injuries. The question still remains as to how many changes, if any, Warren Gatland will make. Some might see sense in giving players such as openside Justin Tipuric and scrum-half Lloyd Williams a run-out against the Azzurri.
Warburton might be given a spot on the bench, while Mike Phillips could be one of the many Welsh players who has earned a rest. The likes of Tipuric and Williams are hungry for game time and the chance to impress, which could prove advantageous in what should be the easiest match of the tournament, but where the win will still have to be worked for.
I had anticipated centre Ashley Beck getting his first cap at some point in this Six Nations, especially with Jamie Roberts in desperate need of some respite after the brutal nature of his game. After Scott Williams' match-winning display at Twickenham, however, I imagine Beck will have to wait. That is, unless Gatland makes a wholesale midfield change, but there seems little chance or need to disrupt Wales' formations.
This isn't to play down Italy's chances, but it would take a Welsh nosedive out of the Unlucky Tree and hitting every branch on the way down for the Italians to emerge victorious against a Welsh side that has already won in Dublin and Twickenham.
Best Failed Drug Test Story of the Week:
Stories about rugby players getting banned are rarely humorous (unless it's the one about John Hopoate and his thumb, which you can Google at your own discretion), but one such tale I heard recently made me chuckle.
An international rugby team in Europe had one of its players called up to take a random drugs test. Fully aware that he had been smoking marijuana 'on the reg' in the past couple of weeks, he decided to hatch a scheme that might just have been crazy enough to work - if this was an episode of Scooby Doo.
Instead of attending the drugs test, he decided to send his brother (not a twin, but still uncannily similar, and also a player) in his place.
The magnificent/devastating part of the story is, they would have gotten away with it if some pesky member of their team's management hadn't caught wind of the situation and shopped both of them in. Needless to say, both have now received lengthy bans. Does this mean they're weeding out the drug cheats?
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