The unseasonal Six Nations sunshine beat down unrelentingly here, adding several degrees of heat to an already molten contest, but infinitely more importantly for England, the sun shone on the righteous.
Stuart Lancaster’s team beat Wales with something to spare to end the visitors’ recent domination of this tournament, keeping alive their own title hopes into the bargain. They also secured a first Triple Crown in more than a decade and landed a solid blow ahead of next year’s World Cup meeting between the two countries. A very decent afternoon’s work, all things considered.
Yet there was an additional element for England to savour, one that in the long run may prove the most significant of all: namely, that they made this Welsh team look distinctly elderly, if not quite geriatric. Some of the men at the heart of the Red Dragons’ success over the last few campaigns – the props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, to name but two – struggled to live with the pace of the game and while they tried everything they knew, legal and illegal, to put the brakes on the home side’s high-energy, up-tempo brand of rugby, they could not slow them by nearly enough. Jenkins, in particular, was found out, and he ended his afternoon in the sin bin.
Away from the bump and grind of scrum, ruck and maul, there were other Welsh misfires: at half-back, where the error-prone Rhys Webb and the pedestrian Rhys Priestland endured many and varied indignities; and in midfield, where the much-vaunted Lions pairing of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies finished a distant second in their personal set-to with Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell. Eighteen months out from the next global gathering, their head coach Warren Gatland has a whole lot of thinking to do.
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
If Lancaster must also exercise his little grey cells as a result of this victory, the red-rose head coach will find it a far more pleasurable experience. He knows now that he is picking from serious strength on the wing, at centre and in all three front-row positions, and has plenty in the cupboard in every back-five position bar open-side flanker, where Chris Robshaw, his captain, remains head and shoulders above the competition. Robshaw fought the good fight at the breakdown with a rare relish yesterday, matching Sam Warburton, the nearest thing he has to a nemesis, every step of the way. And Warburton was bang on his game, unlike a clear majority of his compatriots.
At no point in the contest did Wales find themselves ahead, and they would have spent their day a hell of a lot further behind but for Leigh Halfpenny’s astonishing contribution from the kicking tee. Some of the penalties England conceded were of the super-soft variety, but four of his six sightings of the sticks were from telescope range. The Lions full-back also chipped in defensively: had he not forced Burrell into a brief but crucial brush with the touchline as the big Northampton centre set sail in pursuit of a second try midway through the final quarter, the visitors would have struggled to keep the score under 40. It was a brave tackle, to say the least, and the shoulder damage Halfpenny suffered means his season is at an end.
Not that he was alone in treating the crowd to a goal-kicking demonstration. Owen Farrell, presented with almost as many opportunities from almost as many ridiculously difficult positions, did not miss either: indeed, it was difficult to recall a major international match in which two marksmen achieved such levels of mastery. It should be added at this point that Farrell’s tactical kicking, including a couple of reverse-angled rolling touchfinders that forced the whole of Wales into a leaden-footed retreat, bordered on the sublime.
A year previously, when Wales ravaged England so comprehensively in Cardiff, their first meaningful assaults were at the scrum. But after winning themselves a penalty at the first set-piece yesterday, they were out-manoeuvred by Joe Marler and David Wilson. The French referee Romain Poite, the most accurate of the sport’s leading officials in this most complex of areas, took a distinct dislike to Jenkins, repeatedly penalising him for a failure to drive straight. Some of the long-serving prop’s rivals have spent years waiting for him to get his comeuppance. For them, Sunday was a red letter day, as well as a yellow card one.
It was Wilson, of all people on God’s earth, who made the first telling break in open field – a baby elephant-style rumble into the Wales 22 – and had England managed the resulting overlap correctly, they would have been rewarded with seven sweet points. Not for the first time in this competition, they butchered it. However, when Poite then pulled up Wales at a ruck close to the line, Danny Care spotted a number of opponents with their backs turned and promptly took advantage of the collective schoolboy error by scoring the easiest of sucker-punch tries.
That was on four minutes and while the hosts had to wait half an hour to strike a second time – Twelvetrees, receiving the ball and dropping it on to his right boot in one smooth movement, slid the most delicate of scoring kicks into the left corner for Burrell to touch down – there was a feeling that the only people capable of beating England in this game were England themselves.
But for an ill-timed disappearance into the red mist at the back end of the first half – Dylan Hartley, the hooker, conceded two penalties in the space of three minutes and gifted Halfpenny half a dozen points as a consequence – England would have turned round with a winning lead. As it was, Farrell made up the shortfall with two kicks of his own, firstly when the Welsh front row splintered at a scrum on 45 minutes and then when Jenkins committed one set-piece sin too many and left funereally for the cooler.
There was a Welsh response of sorts, but their huffing and puffing amounted to precious little. By the end, Farrell could be seen rejecting a kickable penalty in favour of a punt to touch. Anyone would have thought he was rubbing it in.
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