In one sense only, Rhys Priestland had the right idea. The Wales fly-half sat so deep in the first half at Twickenham he was almost playing in Llanelli, and though the principal reason was doubtless something to do with a game plan based on clever kicking that never came to pass, you sensed a survival instinct at work.
By treating the gainline as foreign territory, Priestland was keeping his body a safe distance from Courtney Lawes. And who can blame him? No sooner had Dan Biggar replaced Priestland midway through the second half than he was chopped down by the Northampton lock forward, who is redefining the way second-row forwards play the game.
Martin Johnson was the last England captain to lift the Triple Crown before Chris Robshaw yesterday, an extraordinary 11 years ago. Extraordinary, because it was a component part of a Grand Slam in 2003 that led on to winning a World Cup that led on to… a decade of English disjointedness and disappointment. They won the Six Nations title in 2011 under Johnson’s management but were hammered in the final match in Ireland. Last year, the burgeoning regime of Johnson’s successor Stuart Lancaster put themselves in a position to win the Crown and the Slam but were thrashed in Cardiff. This season, but for Gaël Fickou’s late try on the first Six Nations weekend in Paris, they would be going for the clean sweep in Italy.
The difference, at only a minor risk of hailing a false dawn, is that this England team is constructed differently. It is built on bright-minded, strong-willed, and – crucially – humble men like Lawes. He and Johnson, in their separate eras, occupied nominally a similar role: shoving in the heart of the scrum; jumping in the line-out; eyeballing the biggest and meanest men among the opposition, a master’s degree in arm-wrestling enforcement – that kind of thing. But while Johnson certainly had a footballer’s brain behind that beetle brow, he would never be able to replicate the ability of Lawes to fly out of a defensive line and fell fly-halves like a Canadian lumberjack might deal with a modest-sized spruce.
“I’ve got the pace which is my main difference from most second rows,” Lawes explained, a few days before England cut the now ex-Triple Crown holders and 2013 Six Nations champions down to size.
England 29 Wales 18: Player ratings from Twickenham
England 29 Wales 18: Player ratings from Twickenham
1/30 Mike Brown 8/10
He may be Mr Angry, but Mr Reliable is not far off the mark. Dangerous with ball in hand and proved once again what a player he is. Sparked the backline into life
2/30 Jack Nowell 7
Given he was up against North, coped very well and showed his turn of pace on occasion
3/30 Luther Burrell 9
Scored his third try in four Tests to put England clear. Could have had a breathtaking second had he not tried to barge over Halfpenny. Outstanding nonetheless
4/30 Billy Twelvetrees 7
Coped much better with Roberts’ hard-running, and his deft kick was perfectly weighted for Burrell’s try. Grew into the game as it went on, and can be proud of his performance
5/30 Jonny May 6
His major threat seems to come on the switchback, but if given the chance to run he can definitely punish teams. Somewhat starved of ball in attacking spaces
6/30 Owen Farrell 9
Ran the show superbly in what was arguably his finest outing in the Red Rose. Perfect kicking record kept the scoreboard ticking, and he continues to develop into a fine player
7/30 Danny Care 8
Give this man space at your peril. Set-up and scored the first try from a tap-and-go, and sniped around the edges all afternoon
8/30 Joe Marler 7
Recovered from a first scrum-shock to give England a solid platform. Departed after 64 minutes after a good day’s shift
9/30 Dylan Hartley 7
Without a doubt England’s first-choice hooker. His accuracy at the lineout rivals the best in the world, and tackled his heart out today
10/30 David Wilson 8
Doesn’t look like a man two games into his comeback from injury. Departed when the game was won, and his break that set up the first try was eye-catching
11/30 Joe Launchbury 7
England have a jewel of a second-row right now, and Launchbury is only getting better. Bossed the defence and used his pace to plug the gaps. Thudding hit on Roberts defined his game
12/30 Courtney Lawes 9
His bruising reputation was boosted today with a man-of-the-match performance. Tackled anything red that moved, and even bounced off the referee at one point
13/30 Tom Wood 7
Remained quiet, but that’s exactly what you want from a top quality blindside. Work around the edges was as good as has become expected
14/30 Chris Robshaw 8
Took a few big hits but got up as always. Played his heart out and the win is a just reward for his two previous defeats against Wales
15/30 Ben Morgan 7
The absence of Billy Vunipola wasn’t felt as Morgan handled the burdon of carrying the ball very well. Made some hard yards, and bailed England out of trouble when they were on the back foot
16/30 Leigh Halfpenny 7/10
Ultra-reliable with the boot to keep Wales in the game at the break, but caught out for Burrell’s score. Defended valiantly as always, and prevented a great try with his last-ditch tackle on Burrell in the second half
17/30 Alex Cuthbert 6
Much quieter than his last outing against England. His big-game potential deserted him, and exposed in defence for the second try
18/30 Jonathan Davies 5
Looked rusty, which isn’t surprising. Dropped the ball when Wales were on the attack and was unusually outpaced at times
19/30 Jamie Roberts 6
Tried to thunder his way over the England defence, but came up against an in-form Twelvetrees who was up to the task. Ran out of ideas soon after
20/30 George North 5
Unusually quiet, and butchered two clear chances to get the Welsh across the tryline
21/30 Rhys Priestland 6
Need to develop a ‘Plan B’ as Warren Gatland has put it when Wales’ bludgeoning tactic doesn’t work. Hauled off early and could lose his place to Biggar
22/30 Rhys Webb 5
Looked star-struck on the big stage, as he was quickly warned by the referee for giving away penalties. Lost the ball in a good chance for Wales and left the field immediately after
23/30 Gethin Jenkins 5
Had success early, but was soon under pressure once Wilson and more importantly Romain Poite figured out his angling in at the scrum. His yellow card cost Wales, and he didn’t return after
24/30 Richard Hibbard 6
Carried the ball well and was a force in defence, but cracked under pressure at a crucial 5m lineout that led to Burrell’s try
25/30 Adam Jones 7
Gave Marler a hard fight in the scrum and got the better of Vunipola when he entered the affray. Struggled once England regrouped, but ultimately one of Wales’ better players
26/30 Jake Ball 6
Didn’t challenge enough of England’s ball in the air, but at 22 years old he can still develop. Left with 10 minutes to go when the game was lost
27/30 Alun Wyn Jones 6
Not as commanding as we are accustomed to, and knocked on when Wales were in the England 22m
28/30 Dan Lydiate 6
Tackled his heart out with his famed chop, but did little else in open field. Replaced by Tipuric, who has to ask what he has to do to get into the side
29/30 Sam Warburton 6
His impact on the game was felt more in his conversations with the referee as his side fell short of his whistle time-again. Tackled well, but couldn’t get his hands on the ball to have an impact
30/30 Taulupe Faletau 6
Another who fell away when the game got tough. Faletau has shown his big match temperament in the past, but this wasn’t one of his better showings
Coming from a man or a team with different values to Lawes’s and England’s, it might have been gauche or even arrogant. The kind of comment expected from Robbie Savage or Joey Barton, who, amusingly, the BBC interviewed at half-time to represent jointly football and respectively Wales and England. From the lanky 25 year-old who, among his other many attributes, has surprised the game and perhaps himself by learning to run the technical discipline of the line-out, it was a matter-of-fact statement of the obvious.
In the rare moments when Wales were able to get on the front foot, their hands let them down – from the second-minute fumble by Jamie Roberts, attempting to skewer England with precisely the same line-out move involving Sam Warburton that had brought a try against France a fortnight previously. George North and Justin Tipuric were others who might have hurt England if they could have held their passes.
The point here, with Lawes’s multi-faceted role in the line-up, was the white straitjacket England’s defence threw around Wales, and are able to throw around most teams (aside from the All Blacks, maybe, but we will see).
The reason Lancaster was able to follow the ill-deserved two-point loss to France by more or less predicting – if you read between his carefully chosen lines – that England would win their other four matches in this Championship was that he could see the development his team was making.
After the fifth of Owen Farrell’s seven successful kicks sailed its 35-metre course in the 46th minute, Wales trailed by eight points and were in need of a lift. Some supporters of theirs somewhere in the sun-dappled North Stand had a go, but they raised the weakest chorus of “Hymns and Arias” since the Merthyr Tydfil Male Voice Choir went down with mass laryngitis. This England dominate, and it will take different selections and a different tactical approach for Wales to reverse this comprehensive result when the teams meet in Cardiff in next year’s Six Nations and back here at Twickenham on 26 September 2015 in the World Cup.
England ever so humble... really? What about the try-scoring fist-pump of Danny Care, the scrum-half giving the best of himself now after being given a chance by Lancaster to sort out a slightly wayward private life. Or Dylan Hartley’s photos tweeted last night of himself and Owen Farrell with the England footballers Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick, Oscars-selfie style. Surely they fall into the bracket of permitted celebration.
It was impossible to lip-read accurately from the press benches halfway up Twickenham’s East Stand, but it may be assumed Joe Marler, the England prop, was not politely asking his opposite numbers Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones where they would be taking their post-match tea after one of many instances of Welsh scrummaging discomfort. We can forgive Care’s fellow Harlequin that too, because Marler – like Lawes, another forward talent on the rise, not plateauing or dipping like some of Wales’s – must have been floating on an emotional cloud at the realisation that England had subdued the twin pillars of more than one Welsh Six Nations title.
It is not entirely certain whether Wales, riven by rancour between their national Union and the regions who employ those players yet to have been signed to French clubs, have any props quite ready to step in.
Nor was it a case of anyone rubbing Wales’ noses in it that they waited on the field at the final whistle long enough to see England posing for photos with the Triple Crown trophy. To the victors, the flashbulbs.
Actually, the trophy is a silver salver, nothing like a crown, but this England look like a team who will wear it well.
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