England still need to step up a gear for the Grand Slam

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The Independent Online
Wales 9

England 23

Some of England's rugby, with the percussive power of the heavyweight, takes the breath away - quite literally so in the case of those poor unfortunates who have to tackle them. In the aesthetic sense, though, it cannot yet be called breathtaking.

This bothers them less now than it will if the same can still be said in South Africa in May. So England were good at their least favourite ground but not that good, and not good enough to be World Cup winners either. Which can be viewed as a disappointment or, contrarily, a cause for encouragement.

The latter suits England, because they are travelling hopefully and the last thing they want is to think they have arrived when much of the journey lies ahead. There is an improvement yet to make and if England are to complete the Grand Slam against Scotland in four weeks, never mind prosper at the World Cup, they will have to make it.

"There are one or two major steps England can take," Jack Rowell, their manager, said. "If we can beat Scotland then that will catapult us into the World Cup in the right frame of mind." Indeed, this was a less clinical, less awesomely authoritative England performance than they had given against France or Ireland.

England wish to take figurative steps; John Davies took a literal step so reckless that it got him sent off, the fifth Welshman to join this particular roll of dishonour. Even if his offence, putting the boot in at a ruck, was more careless than malicious that is mitigation and not excuse.

The prop's punishment, imposed by a disciplinary panel convened after the game, is a 60-day suspension which will leave him eligible for the World Cup but only after he has missed the rest of this championship. With Anthony Clement and Nigel Walker the latest Welsh casualties, the team will again have to be reshaped for the Scotland game on 4 March.

"I'm not sure why we keep getting these people injured but we are losing players at three a game," Alan Davies, the coach, said, reflecting on the debilitating sequence which means he is either unable to field his best team or else unable to keep them together.

"We are faced, and have been all along, with a test of our spirit and resolve, and we have the capacity to meet these tests," he added exasperatedly. "One day it will be nice to overcome not only the obstacles but also get the icing on the cake."

"For the Five Nations champions to have successfully mixed their metaphors on Saturday required rather more than the decent start that brought a penalty by Neil Jenkins after five minutes. They have lost their try-scoring capacity as utterly as England did last season, and the chances that were squandered when Clement and Ieuan Evans dropped important passes were more precious because of their rarity value.

The greatest, and saddest, complaint against the Welsh is that they are playing rugby by rote, dragged down by the disappearance of instinct. There is little joy in this rugby. Looked at harshly, this is a betrayal of a glorious rugby heritage but there it is: against South Africa, France and now England Jenkins and his penalties have been the only points Wales have made.

Besides, England have triumphantly rediscovered the try-scoring knack while Wales have been slipping into tactical incoherence. Thus, having previously been accused of kicking too much, you could argue that in this match Wales did not kick enough.

The stated aim of putting the frighteners on Mike Catt, the England full- back, turned out to be kidology, because as long as Wales were gaining possession they preferred passing. Mostly it was too predictable to circumvent England's sturdy defences and it meant Wales, like Ireland and France before them, scarcely ever took the aerial route to Catt.

Having said that, Catt was so assured and skilful in everything else he did that it probably would not have made much difference if they had. In any case, once the early sparring was over and Wales had suffered their first casualty - Clement with concussion - tactical questions became more or less irrelevant.

England responded with Victor Ubogu's try after 19 minutes but it was its creation - a 25-yard driving maul - as much as its scoring that heralded the waning of Welsh hopes. In the second half they were extinguished altogether by Rory Underwood's first try, immaculately pieced together after Jenkins had dropped out straight to Ben Clarke, and John Davies's dismissal.

For Underwood it was a belated breakthrough after 452 tryless and occasionally embarrassing minutes at Cardiff Arms Park. Meanwhile, Davies's untimely departure provoked Hemi Taylor into an instant limp so that Wales could bring on a prop, Hugh Williams-Jones, to plug the gap in the front row.

By now Walker had already dislocated a shoulder and, as a good 20 minutes remained, England might have been expected to exact a more severe penalty. Instead it was in keeping with their performance that they kept the ball with the forwards, prompting the thought that all the fine words spoken by Rowell and others are not equating to actual deeds. This was not that different from the grimly grinding day when they won here in 1991 for the first time in 28 years.

In the end, all was well for the would-be Grand Slammers, but it was not until the fourth minute of injury time that the elder Underwood's second try, like his first a tantalising product of forwards and backs in unison, extended his England record to 42.

Rowell plainly wants more. "Once we get a chance with these backs of ours, we can do famous things," he said. "When we get to South Africa, in those conditions if you're not going to run the ball you're not going to win." The victory had been as flawed as it was famous, and this sounded suspiciously like an admonition.

Wales: Penalties N Jenkins 3. England: Tries Ubogu, R Underwood 2; Conversion Andrew; Penalties Andrew 2.

WALES: A Clement (Swansea); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), M Taylor (Pontypool), N Davies (Llanelli), N Walker (Cardiff); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Jones (Swansea); M Griffiths (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), J Davies, G O Llewellyn (Neath), D Jones, H Taylor, E Lewis (Cardiff), R Collins (Pontypridd). Replacements: M Back (Bridgend) for Clement, 10; R Moon (Llanelli) for Walker, 46; H Williams-Jones (Llanelli) for H Taylor, 64.

ENGLAND: M Catt (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), K Bracken (Bristol); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton), D Richards (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath).

Referee: D Men (France).