England were perilously close to tossing this thrilling match away when a resilient Wales scored two tries, by George North and Taulupe Faletau, in the last eight minutes. But Dylan Hartley and his emerging stars of the European firmament can now claim their country’s first Grand Slam in 13 years if they beat France in Paris next Saturday night.
Hartley was a controversial choice as captain by new head coach Eddie Jones at the start of this Six Nations Championship but the much-banned hooker now stands on the verge of emulating much-loved Slam-winning captains such as Bill Beaumont in 1980 and Will Carling, three times in the 1990s, to end the long wait for a clean sweep since Martin Johnson’s team managed it in the World Cup-winning year of 2003.
On a sunlit afternoon of tension as unpredictable as it was unremitting, Owen Farrell landed all seven of his kicks at goal on the back of some extraordinary work up front by the 21-year-old Maro Itoje, and England led 25-7 after 67 minutes. The incredible finish by Wales while their captain Sam Warburton was off with a head injury and England’s tighthead prop Dan Cole was in the sin-bin was not enough to prevent Hartley accepting the Triple Crown trophy from Prince Harry as Twickenham went potty. And as England enjoy a points advantage of 58 over their only remaining title rivals, France, a first Championship title since 2011 is very likely.
This result will never erase the horrible missed opportunity of last autumn’s World Cup when the England team captained by Chris Robshaw were beaten here by Wales with a second-half implosion. But Robshaw is now a cog in a new machine, one able to field 527 caps to Wales’s 675 in yesterday’s starting line-ups, yet able to look so struttingly dominant to begin with that you wondered whether there was much left to come from this Wales team, who have won three Six Nations titles in eight years under Jones’s gnarly counterpart from New Zealand, Warren Gatland.
Itoje was the standout act. Some accused this correspondent of an unseemly rush to anoint the young Saracen as England captaincy material like a teenaged king in Game of Thrones. But if Itoje did not actually lead his team out of the tunnel, he did everything else superhumanly possible. Which other European second-row could nick a vitally important Wales line-out at the tail in the 24th minute and follow up with a pulverising tackle on the raiding wing Alex Cuthbert?
Later in a first half that ended with England full value for a 16-0 lead, Itoje followed up a line-out on England’s right wing with a dynamic wrap-around run on the left to burst through Dan Biggar’s tackle and link with Mike Brown, so making a try for Anthony Watson – the Bath wing’s 10th in 19 England Tests.
Watson prefers to wear 14 on his back despite playing on the left wing, but at this strike rate he can take the field in a tutu with a diamond necklace if he wishes. England’s back three plus centre Jonathan Joseph have only failed to score a try between them in one match since the start of 2015. There is real firepower there, even if it wasn’t enough to get the job done in the World Cup.
The other first-half scores came from three penalties by Farrell, with Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate among those pinged by Craig Joubert, the referee back at the scene of his own World Cup misery surrounding the conclusion of the Australia/Scotland quarter-final.
With Biggar for Wales enduring a wretched run of spilled ball and a penalty that missed touch, a rare attack involving Warburton and Jonathan Davies was horrendously clunky. There was no speed coming from the breakdown or the base of the scrum; the latter phase, much debated among the chattering classes and bantering coaches beforehand, veered towards England.
Farrell’s penalty for 19-0 was followed by prolonged Welsh pressure at scrums near the England posts that seemed to have been blown when a smart tackle by Ben Youngs brought a turnover. But Youngs then threw a dodgy pass at Ford’s feet and Biggar charged England’s fly-half down for a try and a conversion to make the score 19-7.
Warburton was hurt when he appeared to take a team-mate’s knee to the head; his deputy Jones soon made way too, so there were two huge figures gone, while one came on for England as Manu Tuilagi was introduced for his first Test in 21 months. When the big centre’s pick and go led to the first of two more penalties by Farrell – now at fly-half with Ford substituted, and slightly worrying to England with his iffy form – the result looked beyond doubt at 25-7 with 67 minutes gone.
That changed when Cole went to the bin for pulling down a Welsh maul in the 72nd minute, with the visiting backs piling in. Bitterly disappointingly for Wales, their replacement prop Tomas Francis also piled in with a hand grabbing at Cole’s face around the eyes and though worse punishment was postponed by Joubert due to a lack of conclusive TV replays, the penalty was reversed. “That will need to be adjudicated on,” said Jones. “Rugby’s a funny game, you miss one tackle and you allow Wales back in the game. They get a few referees’ decisions and the momentum flows. It was only the last three minutes of the game when we increased our intensity – and we needed to.”
The reasons were a sweet try from a scrum with Liam Williams offloading out of a double tackle to Jonathan Davies, who put North over. And Talepau Faletau’s exciting follow-up after runs by Davies and North.
“The last ten minutes were not too good for us,” Itoje said. “In fact, it wasn’t good enough. But we will be excited by that challenge.” Them and all of a rejuvenated England.
England: M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath; E Daly, Wasps, 74), O Farrell (Saracens), J Nowell (Exeter); G Ford (Bath; M Tuilagi, Leicester, 63), B Youngs (Leicester; D Care, Harlequins, 63); J Marler (Harlequins; M Vunipola, Saracens, 56), D Hartley (Northampton, capt; L Cowan-Dickie, Exeter, 71), D Cole (Leicester; sin-bin, 71), M Itoje (Saracens), G Kruis (Saracens; J Launchbury, Wasps, 78), C Robshaw (Harlequins; K Brookes, Northampton, 71), J Haskell (Wasps; J Clifford, Harlequins, 67), B Vunipola (Saracens).
Wales: L Williams (Scarlets); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Clermont), J Roberts (Harlequins), G North (Northampton); D Biggar (Ospreys; R Priestland, Bath, 73), G Davies (Scarlets; R Webb, Ospreys, 63); R Evans (Scarlets; P James, Ospreys, 53), S Baldwin (Ospreys; K Owens, Scarlets, 53), S Lee (Scarlets; T Francis, Exeter, 53), B Davies (Wasps), AW Jones (Ospreys; L Charteris, Racing, 63), D Lydiate (Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, capt; J Tipuric, Ospreys, 56), T Faletau (Dragons).
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa).
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