Most of England’s nightmares came true as a Wales team who had every right to fall apart when they were ravaged by second-half injuries gradually reeled in the World Cup hosts and second favourites. England’s captain Chris Robshaw, faced with one of the most testing tactical decisions of his life, chose to kick a penalty for a line-out with two minutes to go instead of the more immediate chance of three points and a possible draw that would have been a perfectly acceptable result. Robshaw agonisingly saw control of Pool A pass to the Welsh as the visiting pack drove the white jerseys exultantly into touch.
Owen Farrell hadn’t missed a kick for England all evening, but Robshaw chose a different path, and while his team can still qualify for the quarter-finals they must beat Australia back here next Saturday, after a week that will be spent wondering how a position of marginal but discernible dominance, seven points ahead deep into the second half, ended in defeat to their old and bitter rivals.
The opening parries were definitively heartening for England in the scrum – where they had struggled in the opening win over Fiji eight days ago, they earned three penalties here and made life horribly uncomfortable for Wales’s adopted Yorkshireman at tighthead prop, Tom Francis. Two of the penalties were in kickable range for Farrell, and the fly-half recalled in place of George Ford in the much debated midfield selection also put evey muscle fibre of his right leg into slinging over a drop goal in the 18th minute. For Wales, Farrell’s opposite number Dan Biggar kicked penalties in the second and 16th minutes as they attempted to prove life could be sweet in south-west London without the injured backs Jonathan Davies, Rhys Webb, Leigh Halfpenny and Eli Walker, and the dropped prop Adam Jones.
Some pundits were desperate to bill this as the most important England/Wales match ever. In a World Cup context, there were two past quarter-final meetings of pretty heavy gravitas: Wales’s win in 1987 ushered England into an era of what was regarded then as professionalism, under Geoff Cooke and Will Carling. In 2003, an England loss would have changed history: whither Jonny, Johnno, Sir Clive and all that. What was certain was we had 82,000 spectators here, agog and en fete, wanting only to live in the moment while knowing the implications of a loss in the Pool A shakedown.
The majority exulted in England opening the try-scoring on 27 minutes, and it was born of a crunching tackle in England’s half by Sam Burgess on Jamie Roberts – the confrontation that had dominated the pre-match conjecture. A battle of the giants in the centres, Burgess’s 17st 11lbs versus Roberts, a mere six pounds lighter - weigh ‘em and weep, Rory Underwood and Barry John. It helped stop Wales crossing the gainline from a promising line-out and they conceded a penalty instead that enabled England to find touch on the Wales 22-metre line, Tom Wood took Tom Youngs’s line-out throw cleanly, allowing Farrell in midfield to call the shots of a set move. Anthony Watson did his bit well with a shimmy at first only to apparently muck it up by chucking his pass at Mike Brown’s shins. Brown is not one to give up easily, though, and the full-back gathered the ball in, set up a ruck with typical obduracy, and as Wales realised to their distress that their cover had not realigned well enough, Ben Youngs was able to feed Jonny May on the left wing to shrug off Hallam Amos and dot down his sixth try in his 18th Test. Farrell’s conversion had England 16-6 up.
The entire passage of play leading to the try was one of those mood-setting moments – a Welsh attack snuffed out, an English attack succeeding – and another followed soon afterwards, that again left England smiling. Wales could have used their hands with an overlap developing in their 22, but Biggar chose to hoof downfield. It ran deep but May’s effervescent run and Brown’s lusty boot cleared the danger. Something rather better arrived just befoe half-time, from first-phase off a line-out as Scott Williams cut past Farrell and hurtled into Brown’s tackle. England were penalised and Biggar trimmed their lead to seven points.
There had been heat on a chill evening when Dan Lydiate, Wales’s king of the chop tackle, went very low on Wood, tipping the flanker over. Brown and Wales’s Sam Warburton snarled over the entrails, nose to nose. With the seasons changing, were we seeing the dawning of the autumn of Sam? If so, which one? Burgess certainly gave no ground in the tackling stakes and penalties on the floor from both sides littered the third quarter, and Farrell, Biggar, Farrell and Biggar again moved the scoreline on to 22-15. But meanwhile the canny Warburton took every opportunity to press his opinions on the French referee Jerome Garces, aiming to bring to bear all the Grand Slam and Lions series winning nous that Robshaw and most of his England mates lacked.
And the predictably unforgiving collisions among two teams built for bashing took a heavy toll. Wales sending on the recently injured Samson Lee on for Francis may have been a tactical switch, but Courtney Lawes and Billy Vunipola , both limping, made way for Joe Launchbury and James Haskell in England’s pack. Wales, though, were hammered into serious disarray in the backs, with Scott Williams, Liam Williams and Hallam Amos all forced off – the first two named clattered in the midriff by Brad Barritt and the head accidentally by Wood respectively. Robshaw almost set up a try in the Wales 22 but could not work the ball free, in between more penalties by Biggar and Farrell for 25-18.
Wales, wonderfully, were not to be tied down. Lloyd Williams, a scrum-half forced to play on the wing, got outside Watson from Roberts’s pass, and sent a dinky left-footed kick infield, seized on by Gareth Davies, the starting No.9, just ahead of England’s covering Richard Wigglesworth. The conversion by Biggar tied the scores with 10 minutes left. Then George North’s burst sucked Brown into not releasing, and Biggar, from 45 metres and showing a kicking panache every bit the equal of the absent talisman Halfpenny, nudged Wales ahead, to set up the nerve-shredding, brain-teasing finish.
England: M Brown; A Watson, B Barritt, S Burgess (G Ford, 69), J May; O Farrell, B Youngs (R Wigglesworth, 49); J Marler (M Vunipola, 61), T Youngs (R Webber, 67), D Cole (K Brookes, 71), G Parling, C Lawes (J Launchbury, 41), T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Vunipola (J Haskell, 63).
Wales: Liam Williams (R Priestland, 67); G North, S Williams (A Cuthbert, 63), J Roberts, H Amos (Lloyd Williams, 67; D Biggar, G Davies; G Jenkins, S Baldwin (K Owens, 49), T Francis (S Lee, 49) B Davies (L Charteris, 69), AW Jones, D Lydiate (J Tipuric, 69), S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
Referee: J Garcès (France).Reuse content