Wales’ 14-match unbeaten run came to an end at Twickenham on Saturday as World Cup preparations began with defeat against England.
While Warren Gatland stuck with a recognisable away side, Eddie Jones named an experimental team as he prepares to name his 31-man squad this week, picking players with points to prove.
England flew out of the blocks, with a first attack seeing Tom Curry cut through the away defence before the chance was ended with a Welsh knock-on in the tackle.
From the subsequent scrum both Joe Cokanasiga and Willi Heinz took possession close to the try line, but in the end it fell to the talisman Billy Vunipola to touch the ball down despite appearing to have been held up well.
A shell-shocked Wales found themselves 7-0 down inside four minutes, and when the next attack saw Gareth Davies’ pass intercepted and Jon Davies having to scramble the ball clear, we were right on the back foot.
The England driving maul was held up short, and even though the away side avoided conceding another try straight away when the TMO couldn’t see a clear grounding from a pick-and-drive, the reprieve didn’t last long.
Vunipola and Heinz went close again after the scrum, but this time the responsibility for getting over the whitewash fell to Cokanasiga, with George Ford adding his second conversion.
As the midway point of the first half approached Wales tried to get back into the game, with Gareth Anscombe sparking a superb counter attack but Justin Tipuric was stopped by a last gasp Anthony Watson tackle.
In the end it fell to a moment of individual brilliance from Gareth Davies who scampered down the blindside off the back of a scrum, cut inside Heinz and Cokanasiga, fended off Vunipola and stepped past Elliot Daly to score a wonderful try.
As the game began to settle down both teams created chances, with Cokanasiga and Jonathan Joseph breaking for England, while Jon Davies and George North teamed up well down Wales’ left, but no points were forthcoming until right on the stroke of half-time.
Some good Welsh defence and forced Daly into touch close to the try line, but the away side inexplicably chose to throw the subsequent defensive lineout to the back, so that when a Ken Owens overthrow picked out Luke Cowan-Dickie he had a simple job of diving over for a score.
The confidence England gained from the try, and the disappointment felt by Wales continued into the early minutes of the second half, with the home side’s physically dominant attack taking them into our 22 and winning them three points off the tee.
It took the Welsh until 10 minutes after the break to get going, but when we did we came away with a hit-and-fun try.
A penalty pushed us into the corner with Ken Owens peeling off the back of the resulting maul to go close, before George North showed great awareness to pick-and-dive for the line, taking the England defence by surprise.
Then five minutes later a third try of the game after two home infringements saw Wales tap-and-go on both occasions and multiple phases later Wyn Jones was able to dive over.
Dan Biggar converted the second of the scores to close the gap to 24-19, but a high tackle from Aled Davies allowed Ford to stretch that by three as the game crept into the final quarter.
Wales pushed to get in front for the first time, going through 14 phases in the opposition 22, but couldn’t convert pressure into points, and when England asserted some scrum dominance they took the game away.
Firstly Ford added another three points off the tee, before Elliot Daly produced a stunning piece of skill to kick a drop goal on the move to go two scores ahead.
It appeared as if Ben Youngs had added salt to the wound with the last play of the game, but his try was ruled out for a forward pass. Nevertheless a 33-19 scoreline will be tough for Warren Gatland’s team to take.
There were positives in a dangerous counter attack and a much more dynamic attacking game, even if some of the offloads didn’t quite go to hand on this occasion.
However, an uncharacteristically passive defensive game that tied in with being physically defeated up front will not please Shaun Edwards, and issues in the set piece persist into the new season.
Injuries to Adam Beard, Justin Tipuric and Gareth Anscombe will also be a worry for Gatland, but he’ll be aware that this is only the first game on the road to Japan.
Work-ons are to be expected and nobody ever won or lost a World Cup in early August. The key will be improving week on week, starting next Saturday in the return game against England.
And it’s fair to expect some sort of backlash in front of a home crowd at the Principality Stadium.