England 29 Wales 18 match report: Stuart Lancaster's men enjoy their day in the sun at expense of weary Wales
England enter next weekend's finale of the Six Nations in contention for title
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.
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.
19 points came from the boot of Owen Farrell (GETTY) 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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