England's forward march

Five Nations' Championship: Davies sent off as overpowered Wales are put to the sword by Underwood
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The Independent Online
THIS WAS less of a festival of reconciliation between England and the ground they like least than a victory from grudging opponents who gained some measure of honour in adversity. The dismissal of the Welsh tight-head prop, John Davies, midway through the second half was an insurmountable handicap for their already beleaguered pack, although the game had already gone beyond Wales's grasp. But all hope went with Davies, who became the fifth Welshman to be sent off in an international. And none surely can have been so bewildered as to the reason why.

His crime escaped all but the touch judge, Patrick Robin, whose consultation with the referee ended in Davies being shown the red card. There had been some harmless grappling between the Welshman and Martin Johnson in the maul, but Davies had apparently been spotted stamping on the England flanker, Ben Clarke, and the referee had no choice but to send him off. He was later suspended for 60 days.

The reorganisation of the Welsh front row, which required a tactical injury to Hemi Taylor, did not appreciably weaken the Welsh scrum, which had managed to give England their most uncomfortable passage of the season so far. Not only did they steal a strike against the head but, in the first half, Kyran Bracken was having the utmost difficulty getting the ball to the feet of his forwards, whether it was the front row or, as occasionally happened, straight into the second.

In the conditions, England eschewed all attempts at the running game. Jeremy Guscott can scarcely have been so inactive in attack as the forwards returned to basics, keeping the ball entombed in the maul which at times must have resembled hell's kitchen. To their credit, Wales held on as best they could despite their physical and, in the final quarter, numerical disadvantage. Everything about this England side in their two previous championship matches has been so superbly stage-managed, so utterly controlled and so immaculately rehearsed, that there was no room left for surprise in Cardiff yesterday.

Or so we thought until the opening quarter of this match when Derwyn Jones, Gareth Llewellyn and Taylor made such a mockery of England's line- out that the Welsh half-backs, Robert Jones and Neil Jenkins, were controlling play on their own terms. England tried a number of line-out options, the most successful of which was the switching of Tim Rodber to the middle.

Nevertheless, it was Wales who had taken the lead when Jenkins kicked the first of his three penalties. It is difficult to see how Wales can score from anything other than penalties at the moment, and almost impossible for them to imagine life without Jenkins. There was certainly no venom in their attacks from wider out, although the Welsh were wretchedly unfortunate in losing their most elusive runner, Tony Clement, early on.

Gradually, England regained their composure. The Cardiff Factor, even to the power of 20, was clearly not going to be enough to protect the Welsh from severe burning by the England forwards. Will Carling made a surging run down the Welsh left, Bayfield won the line-out, and England drove in an irresistible phalanx towards the Welsh line. They were stopped short, but Victor Ubogu broke off from the side of the maul and plunged over. Rob Andrew, whose game lacked the vision and variety of his previous performances this season, kicked the conversion and later kicked a penalty, but unaccountably missed with another on half-time.

Heartened by this, Wales returned with vigour for Jenkins to kick his second penalty but, through the faithful reproduction of driving forward play which has served them so well, England forced their way back with another Andrew penalty.

It was here that the game began to lose its shape. The small scraps of possession falling to Wales were frittered away by moments of indecision on the rare occasions when they had the English line in their sights. Their kicking from the hand was also wayward and Mike Catt, in only his third international at full-back, finished with scarcely a smudge on his all-white uniform. Nevertheless, he is beginning to learn the trade in his new position, his covering and positional play improving all the time and his incisive running in the back line is undoubtedly giving England greater width.

Catt showed up to maximum effect in the closing stages when England were in complete control and when Rory Underwood, with two tries, exorcised all the demons which have haunted him here. His first came after Jenkins had made the most terrible hash of a drop-out on the Welsh 22.

The ball went straight to Ben Clarke, who fed Carling. The centre was held, but Bayfield drove on, and with Catt in the line to make the extra man, Underwood skidded over in the corner. And as the game moved towards its rather muted close, Underwood scored again after Carling had broken and Guscott and Catt had handled in what was England's best move of the day.

If the game was of coarser texture than England would have wished, the wet conditions may in part have been to blame. But despite the almost hypnotic power of their forwards, there is too little about their back play as yet that is instinctively unconventional. But on the ground where they have won only twice in the last 32 years, victory will, for the moment, suffice.

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 (Neath), G Llewellyn (Neath), D Jones (Cardiff), H Taylor (Cardiff), R Collins (Pontypridd), E Lewis (Cardiff). Replacements: M Back (Bridgend) for Clement (10); R Moon (Llanelli) for Walker (46); H Williams-Jones (Llanelli) for Taylor (60).

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 (Harlequins), B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), T Rodber (Northampton), B Clarke (Bath), D Richards (Leicester).

Referee: D Mn (France).

How they stand

P W D L F A Pts

England 3 3 0 0 74 27 6

Scotland 2 2 0 0 49 34 4

France 3 1 0 2 52 63 2

Ireland 2 0 0 2 21 46 0

Wales 2 0 0 2 18 44 0

Remaining fixtures: 4 March; Scotland v Wales, Ireland v France. 18 March; England v Scotland, Wales v Ireland.