Walking through the mixed zone deep inside Principality Stadium late on Saturday night, Warren Gatland couldn’t help but emphasise again his belief as to why Wales had got the better of England.
‘Too fit for them,’ said Gatland, sipping an ice-cold lager and with a wicked grin on his face. Finally, after months of misery, things might be looking up for those of a Welsh persuasion.
Yes, this was only one game. And a World Cup warm-up at that. And yes the paucity of the display produced by England’s second-string side must be acknowledged.But after a miserable season dominated by off-field chaos and poor performances on it, Wales’ most recent result was much more like it.
Gatland had said in the build-up to the 20-9 victory over England that his team was capable of ‘something special’ at the World Cup in France.
On the back of a nightmare campaign, it seemed a bold statement. But on the evidence of the first of Wales’ three preparation matches, there was cause for belief that Gatland’s players can back-up their head coach’s words.
Warren Gatland couldn’t help emphasised his belief as to why Wales got the better of England
The Wales boss said that his side were simply ‘too fit’ for England in the World Cup warm-up
Gatland praised his team who he says ‘has gone through a lot’ after a challenging Six Nations
‘There’s no doubt the team has gone through a lot. The Six Nations was challenging,’ said Gatland, the latter part of that statement a significant understatement.
‘I made the decision then to let that go and then build after with my own stamp. It was a good start.’
It certainly was. And Gatland certainly seems to have stamped his mark this summer.
Wales blew England away in the second half to score tries through Gareth Davies and George North. What would surely have pleased Gatland the most was the return of Welsh traits which have characterised the team’s past successes under his guidance.
They included impressive fitness, a never-say-die attitude and as a result, the ability to stay in the contest. When at their best, Wales never go away. That dogged attitude – understandably missing in the Six Nations given the circumstances – was in evidence against England.
Wales scored two neat tries, their set-piece was dominant, and their defence was hungry. England failed to score in the second half after three Marcus Smith penalties in a low-quality first 40.
Rookie Welsh captain Jac Morgan, 23, was player of the match and fellow back-row Aaron Wainwright also excelled. Both played key roles in Davies’ try.
Henry Thomas and Taine Plumtree, among five Welsh debutants, impacted strongly from the bench.
Leigh Halfpenny made his 100th appearance for Wales and kicked 10 points
At the other end of the experience scale was Leigh Halfpenny, the 34-year-old full-back who was making his 100th Welsh appearance. Halfpenny would have reached a century for his country long ago were it not for serious injury but he finally hit the mark against England. Halfpenny kicked 10 points and was immaculate in defence.
‘It was an incredibly special day for me and my family,’ he said, his fiancée Jess and two young daughters having walked through the mixed zone before him.
Halfpenny’s children wore shirts with his name and the number 100 on the back.
‘I could never have dreamt of it to be honest,’ Halfpenny added.
‘Winning one cap for Wales was a dream come true and this is surreal. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. There have certainly been some ups and downs along the way.
‘With injury there have been some really tough moments – times when you weren’t too sure whether you’d play for Wales again. It makes this a proud day.
‘I’d love to carry on playing. You never know when your last game could be but certainly the ambition is to keep going. You never take it for granted. I’d love to go to the World Cup in France.
Wales looked fantastic in the 20-9 win over England and now head into the Rugby World Cup
‘Jess and my two girls – they’ve been my rock to be honest. They’ve kept me going and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who has helped me achieve this.’
Halfpenny showed why he should go to France with a trademark defensive and kicking display.
So, how did he celebrate his 100th cap? With a song, of course.
‘It was Silver Dollar,’ said Halfpenny, his eyes wide and red with emotion after a day to remember and a commemorative 100th appearance cap on his head.
‘It’s a song we sang in Gorseinon Rugby Club. As a kid coming through you see the adult boys singing it and you learn it. It’s a favourite among my friends and the rugby club so it’s a song close to my heart. It felt right to sing that. It was quite a full changing room so there were a few nerves!’
Gatland is poised to make wholesale changes to his side for Wales’ rematch with England at Twickenham on Saturday. Another youngster in Dewi Lake is a contender to take on the captaincy from Morgan. Wales did lose forwards Ryan Elias and Dafydd Jenkins to hamstring and knee injuries, but both players indicated post-match their problems weren’t too serious.
They will have scans today (MON) but regardless of the outcome, Wales will head to Twickenham this weekend with players full of confidence.
It’s been a while since that’s been the case.