Perhaps the happiest England players were those sat in the stands, watching stone-faced in their tracksuits, surrounding by giddy Welsh supporters dancing to Tom Jones.
On the pitch, England’s trialists crashed. In the final match before Steve Borthwick names his World Cup squad, they saw their stock plummet during a Welsh demolition job.
Aside from Lewis Ludlam and Joe Marchant, England’s long list of hopefuls failed to make their mark before the coaches retreated to St David’s Hotel for their final selection meeting.
Their performance was littered with handling errors – 16 to 2 – and they failed to score a single try. It was a performance did nothing to instil belief that England will cause an upset at the big dance, with a hell of a long way to go before they can match the likes of France and New Zealand.
Back in June, Borthwick said there were six or seven places up for grabs. Last week, he said it was closer to two or three. On last night’s evidence, few would argue if he decided to defer his final selection until later in the month to see who comes good.
England surrendered their first half lead against Wales at the Principality Stadium on Saturday
England fly-half Marcus Smith kicked the visitors into a first half lead at the Principality Stadium
Gareth Davies (middle red top) unlocked England’s defence to score a first try for Wales
That will not happen but Ben Earl, Henry Arundell and Jonny May are among those who can feel hard done by if they miss out.
Borthwick has notepads full of scribbled notes and he will pour over each written word as he makes his decisions. Every call will be backed up by data and performance metrics that feed into his game-plan. Kicking metres, collisions, turnovers, speed. One man’s thoughts will be supported by an army of analysts.
Decisions are likely to be made with his head, rather than his heart, and some of the statistics from Cardiff are damning. Wales won 21 turnovers against nine, while England’s conversion rate in the red zone was zero.
He will have noted how England’s lineout collapsed in the Welsh 22, blowing attacking platforms as they settled for just three first-half penalties from Marcus Smith.
At half time, England were in front, although a better team could have run riot.
The tried-and-tested Harlequins combinations offered a couple of elusive flashes in attack. Marchant impressed on both sides of the ball, winning a turnover in defence and showing his vision with neat lines off Smith’s shoulder. Alex Dombrandt linked up well at times but he does not offer the menace of the best No 8s in the game.
Dombrandt, Jamie Blamire and Guy Porter all dropped easy balls. It felt like exam day nerves. Giant winger Joe Cokanasiga fumbled two high kicks in quick succession, failing to shine in his final audition as Borthwick looks for a sprinkling of magic in attack. His time may well be up.
So what can Borthwick be happy about? One area of English improvement this year has been their scrum. They won some early penalties at the set-piece, allowing Smith to kick his side to a six point lead. But be warned: they will face far more experienced challengers than debutant props Corey Domachowski and Keiron Assiratti.
Wales veteran George North added his side’s second try of the match in the second half
England head coach Steve Borthwick is left with plenty of questions as he prepares to name his Rugby World Cup squad on Monday
Wales star Leigh Halfpenny kicked 10 points on his 100th appearance for the hosts in Cardiff
Rookie No 10 Sam Costellow got Wales back into the game with his daring ball-in-hand play, something that Smith does not seem to do in an England shirt. He popped inside passes to create line breaks, watching Leigh Halfpenny kick the score level on his 100th cap.
WALES VS ENGLAND PLAYER RATINGS AND MATCH FACTS
Wales: L Halfpenny 6; L Rees-Zammit 7, G North 7, M Llewellyn 6, R Dyer 6; S Costelow 7 (D Biggar 55, 6), G Davies 6 (T Williams 55, 5); C Domachowski 5 (N Smith 50,6), R Elias 5 (E Dee 6,5), K Assiratti 5 (H Thomas 50, 6), D Jenkins 6 (M Grady 60, 6), W Rowlands 8 (B Carter 50, 7), C Tshiunza 7 (TPlumtree 50, 7), J Morgan 8, A Wainwright 9
Tries: G Davies, North
Cons: Halfpenny 2
Pens: Halfpenny 2
England: F Steward 7; M Malins 5 (H Slade 70,5), J Marchant 7, G Porter 5, J Cokanasiga 5; M Smith 6 (G Ford 60,5), D Care 6 (J van Poortvliet 50,5); E Genge 6 (B Rodd 70,5), J Blamire 5 (T Dan 54,5), W Stuart 6 (K Sinckler 54,5), D Ribbans 4 (J Hill 46,5), G Martin 5, L Ludlam 7, T Pearson 6, A Dombrandt 5 (T.Willis 54,5)
Pens: Smith 3
Max Malins and Freddie Steward chased kicks for territory but they lacked the killer edge. For the first time under Borthwick, England failed to force their way over for a single try. They lacked verve. Smith kicked the visitors to a three point lead before the break, but it lasted for a matter of minutes.
With 49 minutes on the clock, Wales’s sharp decision making reaped rewards. No 8 Aaron Wainwright spotted an aerial mismatch on the wing and demanded a crossfield kick from Costellow. He claimed the ball above Danny Care and offloaded to Jac Morgan, patiently timing his pass to set up a Gareth Davies try.
Against a rampaging Welsh back-row, Ludlam had more up to the fight than Tom Pearson. Both are pushing for selection and this did not feel like Pearson’s day – particularly when he was man handled in the tackle by his opposite number. Wales’s back-row were in demolition mode and England struggled to match their clout.
The hosts began to rumble, with Dan Biggar coming on to close out the game. The veteran No 10 prodded a grubber kick into the backfield to leave England scrambling. The forwards whacked their way through 14 phases, before George North burst under the posts to take Wales’s haul to 20.
Perhaps the only upside for England was they suffered no serious injuries, while Wales lost hooker Ryan Elias after just six minutes.
The introduction of debutants Theo Dann and Tom Willis could not slow the collapse of England’s set piece. England fell to pieces and their cast of replacements could do nothing to stop the rot.
Wales made it look easy. Louis Rees Zammit almost rubbed salt in the wounds with a wonder try, only to be millimetres short from touching down.
The good news for England is that there are plenty of reinforcements to come back into the starting XV. The bad news is their understudies looked well off the mark as the clock ticks down to the World Cup.
Star winger Louis Rees-Zammit (right) thought he had added a third try in the game’s closing moments but was denied after knocking the ball on
Wales head coach Warren Gatland will be the happier of the two team bosses after the match
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