Warren Gatland enjoyed three Grand Slam triumphs in the Guinness Six Nations during his superb tenure in charge of Wales – and it all started with a memorable comeback at Twickenham 12 years ago.
Few were backing Wales for glory in 2008. After winning the Grand Slam in 2005, Wales finished fifth in successive years before appointing the New Zealander following their pool stage exit at the 2007 World Cup.
A trip to Twickenham represented a tricky start to his reign. Wales had not won at English rugby’s HQ since 1988 and had painful memories of their most recent visit, a 62-5 defeat in a World Cup warm-up match the previous August.
It was perhaps understandable, therefore, that Gatland confessed to feeling “twitchy, apprehensive and nervous” before his first match in the hotseat.
Eighty minutes later, however, he was the toast of a nation having inspired a famous fightback which laid the foundations for a second Grand Slam in four years.
The hero of the hour was scrum-half Mike Phillips, whose try with 10 minutes to play was the match-winning moment in a rollercoaster encounter which remains part of Welsh rugby folklore.
While Wales had failed to progress past the pool stages in the 2007 World Cup, England had made it all the way to the final – where they were beaten 15-6 by South Africa.
Their starting XV for this 2008 Guinness Six Nations opener contained eight of the side who had played in the final, while the same number had been part of the squad which lifted the World Cup trophy in 2003. That experience, blended with the youthful promise of David Strettle and Toby Flood, meant hopes were high among the home faithful.
The Welsh line-up was dominated by Ospreys, who provided 13 of the 15 starters, with Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues) and Mark Jones (Scarlets) the only outliers. Gatland also opted for the youth of James Hook over the experience of Steven Jones at fly-half.
Both sides were on the board inside five minutes, Wilkinson’s early penalty cancelled out by Hook, before two more Wilkinson three-pointers put the hosts in control.
When Flood strolled over for the opening score of the game on 24 minutes to open up a 16-3 advantage, Wales had a mountain to climb.
Hook’s penalty before the break gave Wales hope and the visitors had to withstand huge pressure in the half’s closing stages, with Paul Sackey’s try disallowed before a knock-on two metres out saw Wales reach the interval without further punishment.
At 16-6 down, Gatland’s first half-time team talk was a vital one. The impact was not immediate – England drew first blood after the restart through Wilkinson to move 19-6 ahead – but Wales slowly edged their way back into the game.
Two Hook penalties reduced the deficit to seven points and the pendulum was beginning to swing towards the men in red. When Lee Byrne found space to cross on the left wing and Hook converted from the touchline, it was all square at 19-19 with 12 minutes to play.
Wales had all the momentum following Byrne’s score and they took the lead almost immediately.
Scrum-half Phillips was both the architect and the scorer, starting the move by charging down Iain Balshaw’s clearance kick inside the England half.
Phillips could not quite gather the awkwardly bouncing ball but had help at hand, with Gethin Jenkins making light work of a difficult pick up.
The prop found Martyn Williams, who in turn shipped it to Phillips, by now in space on the left wing.
He managed to get the ball down despite a last-ditch tackle from Balshaw and another nerveless Hook conversion put Wales 26-19 ahead, capping a breathless passage of play which had seen the visitors turn the game on its head.
Following their terrific spell of 20 unanswered points in 13 second half minutes, Wales dug in for the closing stages to see out a famous win – their first at Twickenham for 20 years.
Captain Ryan Jones called it “the most fantastic day of my career” and there were plenty more special days to come in Gatland’s 12-year reign.
Wales carried their momentum from Twickenham right the way through their 2008 campaign, following it up with convincing home wins over Scotland (30-15) and Italy (47-8).
A tense 16-12 triumph in Dublin sealed the Triple Crown and put them on the brink of the Grand Slam, which was sealed on a memorable evening at the Principality Stadium – then the Millennium – as Gatland’s rampant side beat France 29-12.
Wales would go on to win further Guinness Six Nations Grand Slams in 2012 and 2019, Gatland’s final year in charge, as well as winning the Championship in 2013.