England 29 Wales 18: Aggressive Courtney Lawes serves up humble pie in Six Nations victory

 

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.

 

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.

Dylan Hartley's post-match selfie Dylan Hartley's post-match selfie 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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