Sunday, 7 August 2011

England 23 v 19 Wales

Saturday 6th August 2011
Rugby Union International
Twickenham, London
Admission: £30.00
Programme: £5.00
Attendance: 80,945
Match Rating: 3

Today was the opening day of many leagues in the football season, however it was to the home of rugby I went to today. I have always wanted to watch England play at Twickenham in a major international match, but tickets are generally almost impossible to come by (certainly without making use of the touts). However, for this very early season Test match, acting as one of three warm-up matches before the Rugby Union World Cup in New Zealand next month, I was able to purchasr tickets several months ago. It was in many ways an ideal match for me personally to take in, being against Wales, the country where I lived for five years, and where I had all watched all of my previous rugby matches, country and club.

Twickenham is located about a twenty minute walk from the train station, and arriving at the station only three quarters of an hour ahead of kick off, progress was slow in the middle of a thick of crowd of people also making their way to the game. After a very quick tour around the outside of the ground, I made my way through the turnstiles and then made the long climb up to the top of the stadium for my seat in the north-west corner of the upper tier of the ground. The stadium is certainly an impressive facility, which is perhaps more appreciated from such an elevated view as I had. It has a continuous design of three tiers of seating, with more than enough legroom, and it has a very intimate feel to the place which makes for a fantastic atmosphere acoutiscally. The South Stand is the newest part of the ground, having been reconstructed in 2006, but as mentioned, there is little sign that is was built separately from the rest of the stand, as it blends in seamlessly with the other stands, except that the roof is clearer than around the rest of the stadium. The 76 page programme was exactly what one would expect from an international publication - very professional, plenty of relevant information to read about both teams and other interesting articles such as the history of the World Cup, but overpriced at £5.00.

Today's match would be a rusty affair more about finding fitness and form, being the first competitive game of the season for the players, well before the league season starts. England won the Six Nations earlier this year, having won their first four games, including a 26-19 victory in Cardiff against Wales, before being denied the Grand Slam by losing their final game to Ireland in Dublin. Wales finished in fourth place, winning three and losing their other two games.

As the teams burst on to the pitch through fire cannons, it was rather disappointing to see England in their new black change kit for this game, and after considerable build-up, fanfare and rousing national anthems - even as a proud Englishman, the Welsh national anthem will always make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, the game began in front of a packed house. With six minutes on the clock, England opened the scoring with a long range penalty from near the half way line by Johnny Wilkinson. Wales soon hit back though, and following length possession and pressure close to the try line, George North scored a try in the corner, which was well converted by Rhys Priestland from close to the touchline. England responded well though and soon scored a try of their own through James Haskell following a scrum, Wilkinson converting, to give England a 10-7 lead. They continued to dominate proceedings, and two minutes before half time, Wilkinson extended England's lead with a simple drop goal, to make the score 13-7 at half time.

England continued their dominance into the second half and soon extended their lead when debutant Manu Tuilagi evaded a couple of tacklers before scoring a try underneath the posts, easily converted from close range by Wilkinson for a commanding 20-7 lead. Soon after came a rather sad moment with the Welsh player Morgan Stoddart having to be carried off with a suspected broken leg, to put paid to his chances of playing in the World Cup. However, this seemed to spur Wales on, as Shane Williams showed some good trickery to score in the corner, but this time Priestland missed the conversion. Another drop goal from Wilkinson - a real class act with his faultless kicking and orchestrating proceedings - extended England's lead to eleven points. Shortly afterwards, it was England who suffered an injury, captain Lewis Moody limping off with a tweak to his knee. Wales continued to be more than a match for their hosts, and Sam Warburton was denied a try by the TV referee. He soon played a major role in Wales scoring a try though, breaking forward and eventually North converted in the corner. This time, Priestland made no mistake with the conversion. England saw the game out in the remaining minutes to hold on for a four point win. This game was hardly a classic, inevitably for a game played so early in the season, but both sides will take positives from the game, and the two teams will play each other again next Saturday in Cardiff. Once again, the route back to the train station was heavily congested - it's well worth not planning on being in a hurry after a game at a packed Twickenham!

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