Ashton adds the cutting edge for emerging England’s heavy mob
Wales 19 England 26: Northampton winger scores pair of tries to ensure Martin Johnson’s side survive late Welsh fightback as this year’s Six Nations begins with a thrilling encounter in Cardiff
A black Friday in Wales. Make that a Black and Blue Friday. The Red Dragons feared a going-over from a big, nasty English pack the moment they lost their two Lions props to injury, and last night's opening Six Nations match was indeed the stuff of nightmares.
The visiting forwards hurt their hosts at the scrum, did all that was necessary at the line-out and drove their hosts so hard and so far in open field that there was every possibility of the Welshmen taking an unscheduled dip in the Severn. The winning margin was a mere seven points, but Wales needed all their wit and ingenuity, not to mention a liberal helping of raw courage, to keep it that narrow. Some of England's close-quarter work was of a very high quality: Tom Wood, their debutant in the back row, performed as to the manner born, stealing the thunder of such elders and betters as Andrew Sheridan and Nick Easter. When Jonny Wilkinson, on at the last knockings for the exceptionally productive Toby Flood, kicked a wrap-up penalty in stoppage time, it was no more than the heavy mob deserved.
This victory opens up the championship for Martin Johnson's team: a win in these parts is always good for the English soul, and with a three-match run at Twickenham ahead of them, they will never forgive themselves if they do not visit Dublin on the final weekend as title contenders.
Mike Tindall, freshly installed as England captain after a decade of selfless service to a long line of red-rose skippers good and bad, had identified as crucial the first 20 minutes of the game. "Wales, the crowd... we have to put a stop to all of it before it really gets going," he had said.
The centre knew a thing or two, for the frenzy was in full flood long before kick-off. The home supporters were treated to endless big-screen tape loops of recent victories over the foe from the far side of the bridge, and when the name of the visiting hooker Dylan Hartley was announced, nine days of public baiting from the Welsh camp came to fruition. Hartley, cast in the role of chief bogeyman, was booed to the rafters. In Red Dragon eyes, he is Johnson incarnate.
Hartley took still more stick at the first line-out, both from the crowd and, no doubt, the Welsh forwards, but plenty of other stuff had happened by then: a crunching hit by Ben Foden on Stephen Jones, who needed a long rest and some rudimentary cognitive testing before resuming; a bristling period of ding-dong scrummaging, during which the phrase "no love lost" sprang to mind; and a couple of fluffed shots at the English sticks. Neither was remotely easy, but if James Hook could be forgiven a near-miss from near halfway, Jones would have expected to nail a chance from the 10-metre line.
Had England simply reached the end of the first quarter with Tindall's wishes fulfilled, they would have been more than happy. As it turned out, they reached it 10 points to the good and were close to delirious.
Their first sustained spell of pressure on 15 minutes gave Flood a running line between Paul James and Andy Powell, neither of whom would threaten Usain Bolt in a glory dash. The outside-half split the two forwards before finding Chris Ashton in support, and the wing finished in characteristically exuberant style.
If Flood's conversion was a formality, so too was his acceptance of a straightforward penalty opportunity five minutes later – the result of an excellent tackle by Wood on Powell as the Welshman tried to bludgeon his way out of strife from the base of a retreating scrum. Jones replied with a simple three-pointer, but a misjudged defensive punt straight into touch suggested the Lions stand-off was still short of a faculty or two. Hard driving from Wood off the resulting line-out might have earned England something, but Mike Phillips and Morgan Stoddart rescued things with an exhilarating counter-attack down the right.
This led to a startling change of fortunes. Bradley Davies, the big lock from Llantrisant who had caught the eye more than once with his muscular carrying, drove deep into the soft underbelly of the English defence, and after some swift recycling, Dan Lydiate took possession on the hoof and threatened the line.
Louis Deacon did not so much kill the ball on the floor as massacre it and his departure to the sin-bin was inevitable, as was Jones' successful kick from under the bar. Suddenly, Wales were in the debate and making a decent argument for themselves. Not even a second Flood penalty just before the interval dampened their spirit.
There was further encouragement for Wales when Jones, suitably refreshed, landed a third penalty, but England's swarming forwards were really fancying it now and they forced a numerical advantage by luring the inexperienced prop Craig Mitchell into a transparently obvious indiscretion on the deck. Off he went to the cooler, leaving the remnants of his pack to reorganise as best they could while Flood lined up another successful kick.
Their best was not good enough. Tom Palmer, a significant force at the line-out, made his presence felt in open field by rumbling round the corner from a ruck 15 metres from the Welsh line. The attacking platform he set looked just about perfect, and sure enough, Mark Cueto's long pass presented Ashton with a jog-in try at the right flag.
Yet Wales were not done. When they finally set up base in England territory bang on the hour mark, Jones threw a beautiful pass off his left hand to find Jonathan Davies, who had run an equally beautiful line to wrong-foot Shontayne Hape. The centre's scoring delivery to Stoddart was far from the best, for the Scarlet had to take the ball on the turn, but the try was completed nevertheless. Jones, running hot now, nailed the conversion from the touchline, while Hook added a penalty to set up a memorable finale.
Millennium Stadium details
Scorers: Wales – Try: Stoddart. Conversion: S Jones. Penalties: S Jones 3, Hook. England – Tries: Ashton 2. Conversions: Flood 2. Penalties: Flood 3, Wilkinson.
Wales: J Hook (Ospreys); M Stoddart (Scarlets), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); P James (Ospreys), M Rees (Scarlets, capt), C Mitchell (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), A W Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Newport-Gwent Dragons), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues), A Powell (Wasps).
Replacements: R Jones (Ospreys) for Powell 38; J Yapp (Cardiff Blues) for Lydiate 53-58; L Byrne (Ospreys) for S Jones 71; J Thomas (Ospreys) for Lydiate 76; R Hibbard (Ospreys) for Rees 78; Yapp for Mitchell 78.
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Français), T Wood (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Français), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: D Wilson (Bath) for Sheridan 62; J Worsley (Wasps) for Haskell 62; D Care (Harlequins) for Youngs 65; J Wilkinson (Toulon) for Flood 71; S Thompson (Leeds) for Hartley 76; S Shaw (Wasps) for Deacon 76.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
Today's fixtures: Italy v Ireland, 2.30pm, France v Scotland, 5pm
Man for man marking
James Hook Talents wasted at full-back. Not a natural runner of the angles, he longed to be inside. Eventually got his chance, but it was too late. Needs to be in the vanguard. 6
Morgan Stoddart Dropped one early and was erratic throughout. Came within a fingertip of catching Stephen Jones's crosskick and tasting glory. But reputations are won and lost on fingertips. 5
Jamie Roberts Largely anonymous on, the man of the series on the Lions tour had one his quietest nights. The blocking runner simply did not see enough of the ball. 5
Jonathan Davies Wonderful arching run created Wales's only try and, in fact, their only direct run of the night. Here was a glimpse of the young Scarlet's ability. Alas, that's all it was 6
Shane Williams Uncharacteristically booted away opportunity at end of first half, and after a long injury looked like he needed the match. Too lateral with his runs, but as enthusiastic as ever. 5
Stephen Jones Whacked in first minute and in a shaky start missed a penalty. 6
Michael Phillips Error-strewn display should have seen him withdrawn earlier. Is plainly lacking in confidence, and his place must be in doubt. 5
Paul James Cornerstone of a Welsh scrum which performed well above expectations. Showed his versatility by moving across to tight head. 7
Matthew Rees (capt) A few sloppy line-out throws will bother him, although held the front row together. 6
Craig Mitchell Exposed horribly for first try and also saw a yellow card. Buit he let nobody down in the scrum. 6
Bradley Davies The best Welsh forward, his ball-carrying skills almost rival his magnificence in defence. 8
Alun-Wyn Jones Not much wrong with the home line-out and not much wrong with the go-forward Jones provided. 6
Dan Lydiate The Dragon did not make the same impact he did in the autumn series. 6
Sam Warburton Has already established himself as Martin Williams's replacement and there now seems no way back for the veteran. 7
Andy Powell Ran hard but made mistakes 5
Ryan Jones Arrival gave Welsh forward effort much-needed structure. 7
Ben Foden Was solid enough and did show the odd glimpse of his running talents. 6
Chris Ashton Two tries enhanced his huge reputation and the first, in particular, exemplified his fine support play. 8
Mike Tindall (capt) Might not be the most inventive player, but sturdy in defence. 6
Shontayne Hape Stared down the Wales backline's faces and challenged them to come and pass him 6
Mark Cueto Quiet game when compared to England's other wing. But always offers himself for work. 6
Toby Flood Exploited gap to make first try and thereafter put in a near faultless performance. 9
Ben Youngs Strange to see him being replaced for Danny Care as he easily won battle with Phillips 7
Andrew Sheridan Failed to exert the sort of pressure on the Welsh scrum that was anticipated. 6
Dylan Hartley His nerve was challenged by the opposing coach in the build-up, but his nerve and line-out throwing held up. 7
Dan Cole Had a ding-dong with Paul James in the first minutes. Carried out his duties commendably. 6
Louis Deacon Fortunate Wales did not capitalise on his first-half yellow card. Otherwise was rock solid in the line-out 6
Tom Palmer Assured in the line-out, eye-catching in the loose. 6
Tom Wood Such an impressive first half of international rugby. An all-round athlete for the future 7
James Haskell Accomplished display in a role which doesn't really suit. 6
Nick Easter Good marshalling from the back of scrum, Easter also carried the ball with conviction. 7
Jonny Wilkinson Kicked the decisive penalty in nerveless fashion 6
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