Welsh rugby’s greatest moment?
There are way too many to choose from, but one from modern times which is right up near the top came exactly six years ago when Warren Gatland’s Wales stunned England in their own Twickenham backyard in a World Cup win for the ages.
There’s nothing quite like beating the old enemy anyway.
But to do it at the home of English rugby, in a crunch Saturday night World Cup clash and when pretty much everyone has written you off, takes some beating.
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September 26th, 2015 was the night our Welsh rugby team made the nation lose the plot when it came to celebrations.
Wales did this one against the odds. And them some again. That’s what made the triumph extra special.
It pretty much guaranteed a passage into the quarter-finals for Gatland’s men in red.
As for Stuart Lancaster’s England, defeat to Australia the following week saw them crash out of their own tournament before the group stages had even finished.
England wound up with a comfortable thumping of Uruguay, but it was irrelevant as by then Wales and Australia had already booked their passage into the knockout phases.
England had everything going for them, but failed.
As for Wales…
Adversity shadowed them to the point where, with 12 minutes left and two more Welsh players leaving the field injured, a London journalist tweeted: “If Welsh players keep dropping like this, I think Tom Jones gets a game. Then Prince William. Then Kate.”
It didn’t come to that.
Three minutes later, Gareth Davies scored a try which Dan Biggar converted, squaring the scores at 25-25.
Fast-forward another three minutes and Biggar, the calmest man in the house despite carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, nailed a long-range penalty shot that seemed to travel through six or seven different counties before finally reaching its destination.
Soon after, it was over: 28-25 to Wales.
Cue delirium on one side of the Severn Bridge and despair on the other.
This is the story, then, of a Wales rugby win that will never be forgotten…
It is an understatement to say Wales had appalling injury problems.
They had seen Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb ruled out of the tournament after picking up injuries in a warm-up against Italy. Jonathan Davies had previously been taken out of the equation by a knee problem, while Tom James damaged a foot.
Just six days after being called into the squad, Eli Walker succumbed to a hamstring injury, a case of the replacement needing replacing.
Then Cory Allen hit hamstring trouble in Wales’ tournament opener against Uruguay and Liam Williams and Samson Lee were renewed injury concerns.
Oh, and the front-row situation was borderline calamitous, with Wales starting the England week with only two fit props, Paul James having developed a calf strain and Aaron Jarvis having popped a rib cartilage.
The temptation might have been for someone to hoist the white flag over Wales’ training base in Surrey.
Because if not broken physically, Wales were being held together by metaphorical sticking plasters heading into a match that had been billed as the biggest England-Wales encounter in history.
It was time for the coaches to do their stuff, and they did so by constantly emphasising the positives.
“They instilled confidence in us,” says hooker Scott Baldwin.
“We were reminded of how fit we were, having been through two incredibly tough training camps. The suggestion was we were as well-conditioned as anyone else in the competition.
“Those camps, particularly in Doha, bonded us and made us believe we could withstand anything, even injuries on the scale we had.”
A tale of two coaches
It was England’s own World Cup and the heat was on.
In Stuart Lancaster, they had an able coach but this was his first World Cup and he found it hard to convey confidence via his media pronouncements and about the general direction his team were travelling.
Early in the week there had been a leak suggesting Lancaster was going to trial a new midfield axis of Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt.
Burgess, otherwise known as Slammin’ Sam, had been playing as a professional in union for less than a year after his switch from rugby league. He was tough, rough and incredibly durable, but there were questions over his 15-a-side skill set.
Put bluntly, he was no John Dawes as a centre. Passing the ball wasn’t his strongest suit. Indeed, against Wales he was not to send out the ball once.
And Lancaster had reportedly been in tears when explaining to another centre, Luther Burrell, why he had been left out of the squad. Three days before the Cumbrian’s side faced Wales, someone suggested the weeping would be uncontrollable if the script didn’t go to plan.
By contrast, Warren Gatland remained unruffled.
An old hand at the coaching game, the New Zealander had long recognised that it wasn’t just players who had to be on top of their games at World Cups.
Coaches had to be as well.
Just 48 hours before the England game he had travelled to London Irish for an event that had been billed “An Evening with Warren Gatland”. He waxed lyrical to those present, giving no indication of nerves before one of the biggest matches of his career.
The first 40 minutes
The atmosphere was electric as the players came out in front of a crowd of 81,129 at Twickenham. “It was pitch black at first, then the lights came on. It was the best atmosphere I have experienced,” says Baldwin.
England led 16-9 at the break after a Jonny May try, but, as with Neil Jenkins at Wembley in 1999, Dan Biggar kept Wales in the game by regularly bisecting the posts. Some of the kicks were eminently missable, but Biggar hit the target unerringly.
“Dan’s goal-kicking was outstanding and kept us in the game,” recalls Gatland.
“Having a world-class kicker is a given.
“The time they spend with Jenks is important.
“It’s probably why we’ve been comfortable, with either Leigh Halfpenny or Dan kicking, to keep the scoreboard ticking over by taking three points and, if we have to, stay in games.
“We did that against England by taking the three points again and again.”
Later, it was to be asked why England didn’t take three points at a vital moment.
The second-half injury carnage
England forged 22-12 ahead and looked firmly in control, but Wales were reading from a different script, even after they saw Scott Williams, Hallam Amos and Liam Williams leave the field injured.
“How will they raise a team for the game with Fiji on Thursday?” one hack wondered aloud in the press area.
But team selection for the game five days hence would have to wait. There were more immediate concerns in London.
As the match moved towards its final knockings, Wales had a scrum-half on the wing, a wing in the centre and a fly-half at full-back.
Surely, victory was beyond them?
Really, it should have been.
Coming through the darkness
But they showed incredible fortitude, climbing off the floor when logic suggested they would not get up.
“I remember just trying to put out clear messages,” says Gatland.
“It was a question of trying to cope with the injuries.”
The resolve Wales had built up during the summer was also about to come into play.
“Those camps conditioned us superbly and helped develop a fantastic sense of togetherness,” says Baldwin.
“We knew that in dark moments, like we faced at certain points against England, we wouldn’t crack.
“You then realise how important that training was. It simply has to be that way.”
But, down 25-18 and with emergency substitutions all over the backline, Wales were still all but done.
Moment of inspiration
Then the match turned.
Slick passing across the field saw the ball eventually come to Lloyd Williams, a scrum-half playing out of position on the wing, and he took play on.
Williams had long been known as one of the fittest and quickest No. 9s in Wales, but playing out wide was a whole new challenge.
But, in that one moment, he proved up to the job, and then a bit more.
Jamie Roberts had sent out a lovely pass 45 metres out and Williams put his foot on the accelerator, making 25 metres before hoisting a kick infield.
Near the press box looks of horror cemented themselves on English faces as Gareth Davies sped forward in pursuit of the ball, gathering it at shin height and diving over, pretty much all in one movement.
Lloyd Williams would later be asked what prompted his moment of improvisation: “It’s been mainly the wingers in the squad asking me about it, asking why I did it.
“It was the first thing that came into my head. Instinct kicked in.”
Biggar nailed the conversion and the scores were tied with eight minutes to play.
Dan Biggar had time again proved himself to be one of the most accurate marksmen in the game, particularly when hooking over a late, late conversion from the touchline to win the Ospreys the RaboDirect PRO12 title in the 2012 grand final against Leinster in Dublin.
But the penalty shot he faced with barely five minutes left at Twickenham was arguably the most pressurised moment of his career.
It was from a few inches inside England’s half and straight in front of the posts. A good connection and the right amount of power would do it; a nervy strike might easily put the ball on the wrong flight path and wide of the posts. On such margins are reputations made.
English whistles around the ground gave way to throaty Welsh roars as the ball flew towards where Biggar intended. The flags went up, prompting the feeling that the Welsh No. 10 was not going to leave the field a loser.
Wales were ahead, but, as is the way of the truly lethal goal-kicker, Biggar stayed calm after his strike. The game wasn’t won yet.
There was one more moment of major stress for Wales’ coaches, players and supporters to endure.
England had a chance to tie the game when the referee awarded them a kickable penalty with the clock ticking down.
But skipper Chris Robshaw fatefully went for touch instead of taking the three points.
The ball was subsequently lobbed to him at the front of the ensuing line-out and Wales bundled him into touch.
Seconds later the game was up for the hosts. Biggar kicked the ball out of play and pumped his fists in celebration.
“Wales put us under pressure and made us make silly choices,” Robshaw said. “You don’t make silly choices just for the sake of it and credit to them: they came with an effective game plan and it won them the game.”
Of the decision to go for the corner, he said: “It was a tough kick, we weighed up the options and we wanted to go for the win. In the two driving mauls before, we made up some good ground and we thought if we could get in that position, we could go for the win. As I’ve learnt in time, unfortunately it didn’t work.”
Jiffy goes crazy in Press box
One of the golden rules of sports journalism is to try to remain impartial.
But it was about to come under severe strain at Twickenham.
Up in the press area, Jonathan Davies and the rest of the Welsh boys in the broadcasting area were in no mood to keep their euphoria under wraps. This was a famous Welsh win, and one that needed to be properly acknowledged.
“You get emotionally involved in the game,” Davies laughs in memory of that September night six years ago.
“The last thing you want is for your country to go out of a World Cup at the pool stage.
“So, yes, you could say a few of us were a bit pleased.”
He continues: “It was just a phenomenal win. I didn’t think we had much of a chance until the last 10 minutes.
“Then Lloyd ran down the wing to set up that try for Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar’s boot did the rest.
“It was just an incredibly exciting game of rugby, with a huge swing in fortunes late on.
“There was so much riding on the match: it was England-Wales, a World Cup match potentially with a quarter-final place depending on it — it doesn’t get much bigger.”
In the visitors’ dressing room, joy abounded, though Scott Baldwin sat quietly in the corner until being spoken to by his head coach.
“I didn’t think I’d had a great game,” says Baldwin.
“The set-piece hadn’t gone that well and while I was delighted with the win for the team, I was a bit subdued about my own performance.
“Gats came over and asked what was wrong. I told him I didn’t think it had gone too great for me, and he said: ‘You’ll get a chance to put it right against Fiji on Thursday’.
“It was a great thing for a coach to say at that point, the lift I needed.
“We couldn’t celebrate in the traditional way because we were in mid-tournament and had a game a few days later, so a few of us toasted the win with bottles of Pepsi and bags of crisps on the bus going home.
“We got back to the Vale Resort and had a 3am cryotherapy session. Then we had another one the next morning.”
Of the coaches’ immediate post-match reaction, Gatland recalls: “It was one of the most emotional celebrations I’ve been involved in.”
A nation erupts
All over Wales celebrations erupted that Saturday evening.
Thousands of supporters had packed into the fanzone at Cardiff Arms Park to watch the game. Some could barely watch the dying moments as the Welsh defence stood firm.
Pretty much all at the ground screamed in triumph and embraced after Jerome Garces blew the final whistle.
Elsewhere, Welsh Hollywood actor Ioan Gruffudd almost collapsed with the emotion of it all as he showed exactly what it meant to him.
For Welsh fans all over the world, it was one of the most incredible rugby nights.
What happened next
Wales qualified for the World Cup quarter-finals after beating Fiji in Cardiff ahead of Australia defeating England in London.
“If Fiji had been in a couple of other groups, they would have qualified for the quarter-finals as well,” said Gatland.
Wales went on to come within five minutes of a second successive World Cup semi-final before succumbing to a late try against South Africa.
England became the first host nation to exit a World Cup at the pool stage, with Stuart Lancaster leaving as head coach and the RFU later announcing that Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and Graham Rowntree would also depart.
Dan Biggar was named as Welsh sports personality of the year, while the win was dubbed Wales’ greatest on foreign soil.
“I will always cherish the memories of that tournament,” says Baldwin.
“Just thinking about it makes you want more.”
The win over England was the squad’s high point.
A night to remember, indeed.
Was it really six years ago?
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