Welcome to England’s winter of love. The recently invested captain Jamie George used the L-word 10 times in the space of three answers in his press conference after the 16-14 win over Wales at Twickenham on Saturday – he was loving the walk-in to the stadium, loving the atmosphere, loving the defence system, loving the efforts to improve – and maybe the message is understandable.
There is enough bad news in rugby and the world beyond without loading on more regret over a clunky England attack, and the greater challenges of Scotland, Ireland and France to come in this Six Nations. “I don’t think it needs a huge leap, a quantum leap,” George said of those matches in Edinburgh, London and Lyon respectively, in the next five weeks. “We believe in what we are doing, believe in the England way and want to continue what we are doing and keep growing.”
It might be seen as a little too schmaltzy by those sporting cauliflower ears, but then again look at the way England spend their downtime. George is one of a bunch of players including Ben Earl, Elliot Daly and Danny Care who get together to watch Love Island. Their head coach Steve Borthwick is more likely to be hunched over a laptop studying line-outs at those times, but even Borthwick in true reality-TV style is making references to England’s “journey”.
And the players and coaches are mad keen for the rugby public to embrace it. Two sold-out open training sessions coming up at Twickenham and in York this month are a sign that the charm offensive is working. Beating Italy in the first round of the Six Nations and now Wales was the minimum requirement on the field. The love-in, for now, is intact.
Wales, by contrast, have no wins from two, and their 21-year-old captain Dafydd Jenkins sternly bemoaned a possible win that got away. Still, there were moments of sheer class as the flanker Tommy Reffell added carrying to his turnover jackalling. The head coach Warren Gatland could justifiably predict better days to come, although it may not be against the Irish in Dublin in a fortnight’s time.
Half-time on Saturday had seen England trailing 14-5, amid a few boos from supporters going off the appreciative script. The red rose had trailed by the same margin or worse in 71 previous Tests and came back to win only once, in Argentina in 2002.
They did it here thanks to a seminal moment involving George Ford in the 70th minute. Receiving the ball from a ruck just inside his half, after a Welsh clearing kick, Ford looked to launch a pass to the two players in space on his left but didn’t fancy the odds. This happens so often with England – a delay to the next pass or carry, making you pine for the instinctive backing-up of the Irish or Scots or New Zealanders, or England themselves of trophy-winning vintages – and it is a frustration whether you wish them well, or ill.
But then Ford turned and hammered his right boot through the ball to launch it beyond the scrum-half Tomos Williams and complete a magnificent 50-22, bringing a line-out throw for England from which a panicky Wales conceded a penalty and a sin-binning for Mason Grady deliberately batting down a pass by Ford. The penalty was easy, England were ahead for the first time and they survived the nerves of a near-try by Rio Dyer to complete the win.
Ford told TV interviewers he might have to make like a “statue” in future, but this was a reference to his first-half conversion attempt being cancelled out by an onrushing Wales, after a slight sideways step was deemed to be starting his approach. The preceding try had been scored by Earl breaking through soft Welsh tackles from a seven-man England scrum including the wing Tommy Freeman, as the home team had Ollie Chessum and Ethan Roots in the sin bin.
If that sounds like England repeated some bad old disciplinary failings, the second half was a triumph by contrast, as they conceded just one penalty, and hit the target of seven for the match set for them by their lock, Maro Itoje.
Dan Biggar, the former Wales fly-half summarising for TV, praised England’s second-half tactics. “The last 30 minutes was a masterclass in how you kick the ball, and how you apply pressure, how you win line-outs with 50-22s, how you pressure the air, how you pressure opposition line-outs,” Biggar said. “Instead of just kicking the ball away as an end result, they kicked with a purpose, they kicked with numbers, and they kicked accurately.”
George the captain climbed into the stands afterwards for selfies, and players smiled and revelled in the company of family. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, the young wing on the bench, had been called forward and was ready at pitchside for the last five minutes but there was no opportunity to get on. Still, Manny’s 90-year-old granny, Margaret, was said to have enjoyed her trip to Twickenham.
There may be returns from injury soon for one or more of the hefty George Martin, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Manu Tuilagi. Meanwhile, and in case anyone worries England are going to head to Murrayfield next with daisies in their hair and pouting at the Scots, George the captain did make a pertinent point. “It’s not just the laughing and joking we’ve got to love, we’ve got to love getting better,” he said.