Wales vs England match report: Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph lead fight-back as George Ford secures thrilling Six Nations victory

Wales 16 England 21: Wales threatened to blow England after an early Rhhys Webb try but a sublime second-half performance saw them secure a famous win in Cardiff

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History? It’s all bunk – especially the recent kind. Injuries? Nothing but a minor inconvenience. England, fielding half a team new to the bright lights of Cardiff and missing some of their most experienced forwards and midfielders, recovered from a rotten start to the most eagerly awaited cross-Severn game in ages, and with tries from the Bath backs Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph – two players fresh to the unique demands of Six Nations rugby – they set themselves up for World Cup year with a famous victory.

The Welsh supporters, in full and raucous voice, would no doubt have preferred the stadium roof to have been drawn shut – not simply so they could increase a decibel level that was already off the scale, but also to spare themselves the worst ravages of a perishingly cold night. But there was consolation to be found in the open air inflicted on them by England. “At least God can look down and see us play,” said one member of world rugby’s most passionate congregation, supremely confident in his country’s divine right to beat the bloody enemy.

And it seemed the Almighty would be in for a widely anticipated treat as the early exchanges unfolded, for the Red Dragons were 10 points up in the blinking of an eye, each one of them an English gift. The visitors’ indiscipline and error-count in their own half almost beggared belief: good teams tend not to give a player as exceptional as Leigh Halfpenny a foothold in a contest, for the same reason that good mountaineers prefer not to climb K2 in their underwear and slippers – namely, that the outcome is never less than painful. England were perfectly aware of this, having had the message drilled into them all week by Stuart Lancaster and his coaches, yet time and again they found ways of playing the Lions  full-back into the game.

 

A mere 35 seconds had passed when Jonny May  conceded the most transparently obvious penalty imaginable, failing to roll away from a tackle on Halfpenny.  Inevitably, he then found himself watching the sport’s most punishingly accurate marksman nail the  right-sided penalty from  distance.

 A short while later, Halfpenny was given too much space down the flank as the Wales playmaker Dan Biggar picked him out with a diagonal kick, and after a gentle yet precise prod towards the line, the full-back and hordes of his countrymen forced the inexperienced lock George Kruis into a fumble a few metres from the England line.

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Jonathan Joseph breaks free to score England's second try

The scrum was not of textbook quality but Toby Faletau managed to give James Haskell the slip round the blind-side and made a nonsense of what was left of a narrow defensive line before sending the half-back Rhys Webb scampering over with an off-load of the highest quality.

England were bang up against it: visions of the record drubbing they suffered on their last appearance at the Millennium Stadium in 2013, never a million miles away, must have loomed large in their collective mind’s eye. Yet with Haskell carrying strongly in the loose and Dan Cole giving Gethin Jenkins plenty to ponder in the front row, they worked their way back into it before the first quarter was out. Cole won a penalty at the set-piece, Billy Vunipola drove the line-out maul and when Mike Brown materialised from full-back to slide a kick towards the corner, Watson’s scoring pick-up in Dan Lydiate’s tackle was nothing short of inspired.

Frustratingly, the red rose fraternity  continued to find ways of handing free points to Halfpenny, the otherwise reliable Cole going off his feet at a ruck and being punished in traditional fashion from the kicking tee.

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George Ford was inspirational for England

There was also a smart drop goal from the Wales outside-half Biggar as the clock ticked into first-half overtime – a perfect strike from a seriously tough competitor, whose face had undergone comprehensive repairs after a sickening clash of heads with Jenkins – but his opposite number George Ford, growing in organisational maturity by the minute, had also hit the spot with a simple penalty  following Jamie Roberts’ early tackle on May, and for all their trials and tribulations, the visitors turned round in touch.

Suitably encouraged, Chris Robshaw and his men began the second period much as Wales had started the first one. The captain was heavily implicated in a long, pulverisingly physical attack, as was the increasingly influential Vunipola and the lock Dave Attwood. The upshot, when it finally arrived, was worth the wait: Joseph, eye-catchingly brilliant in the Bath midfield this season, rendered Roberts’ all-consuming hit on Ford at the posts irrelevant by beating Biggar, George North and the covering Webb in a swivelling run to the line.

Ford converted and added a penalty on the hour mark as the England pack set about squeezing a few Welsh pips at close quarters, although it could have been so much more: Haskell, such an energetic force, burst clear in the Wales 22 and would have completed a try at the right post but for Faletau’s freakish strength in contact and Alex Cuthbert’s helping hand. As it was, Cuthbert then flapped at the ball as the visitors continued the assault and was sent to the cooler for a deliberate knock-on.

Ahead for the first time, England now exerted the kind of control that Sir Clive Woodward and his 2003 World Cup winners might have recognised, and they would have made sure of victory at the last knockings had Nick Easter, off the bench and back into Test rugby at the grand age of 36, not obstructed Biggar as the heavy mob laid the foundations for Attwood’s close-range finish.

The score was rubbed off the board after much debate, but it mattered not. Ford’s long-range penalty with  seconds remaining calmed whatever nerves were left.

Line-ups:

Wales: L Halfpenny (Toulon); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Clermont Auvergne), J Roberts (Racing Metro), G North (Northampton); D Biggar (Ospreys), R Webb (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), R Hibbard (Gloucester), S Lee (Scarlets), J Ball (Scarlets), A W Jones (Ospreys), D Lydiate (Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons). Replacements: L Williams (Scarlets) for North 29-37; P James (Bath) for Jenkins 59; M Phillips (Racing Metro) for Webb 68; L Charteris (Racing Metro) for Ball 68; A Jarvis (Ospreys) for Lee 70;

England: M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), L Burrell (Northampton), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), D Attwood (Bath), G Kruis (Saracens), J Haskell (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements: M Vunipola (Saracens) 54; T Youngs (Leicester) for Hartley 54; K Brookes (Newcastle) for Cole 60; R Wigglesworth (Saracens) for B Youngs 68; N Easter (Harlequins) for Kruis 70; B Twelvetrees (Gloucester) for Burrell 74.

Referee: J Garces (France).

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