Wales not so much ended England’s Six Nations Grand Slam hopes as destroyed them with a 21-13 victory and one of the best 40-minute displays seen inside the Principality Stadium to seal a record 12th consecutive victory against their fiercest rivals.
The hosts had to dig deep to fight back from a seven-point half-time deficit, built by an opportunistic Tom Curry try and the boot of Owen Farrell, but while starting fly-half Gareth Anscombe kept the hosts in touch it was his replacement, Dan Biggar, who changed the game
Wales capitalised on their superiority in the second half to turn the match on its head, and first Cory Hill and then Josh Adams went over in the final 10 minutes - both in the same corner - a record-breaking 12 successive victory was in the bag. They epitomised the Welsh turnaround, with Hill’s score coming off the back of a physically draining 35 phases, and Adams’ through their aerial superiority, with the Worcester Warriors wing soaring above Elliot Daly to claim a high cross-field kick. Biggar was at the heart of both of them.
England boss Eddie Jones spent the week claiming that Wales were the favourites because they were “the greatest Welsh side ever”, but with 40 minutes in the clock it was business as usual. In a hostile atmosphere where the English national anthem was booed before, during and after and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau roared at a deafening level, the visitors were still able to take a vice-like grip on the game.
This was largely thanks to the brilliant Tom Curry. At 20 years old, the Sale flanker not only scored the game’s opening try, but decimated Wales in defence and at the breakdown - an eye-watering 17 tackles by the break leading former Wales captain Sam Warburton - who knows a thing or two about exceptional openside flankers - labelling his performance “phenomenal”.
England ability to turn over Welsh ball gave them the ascendancy in the first half, and it was no surprise to see this lead to the opener. It came with a huge slice of luck though, as scrum-half Gareth Davies appeared to punch the ball out of Ken Owens’ grasp while looking behind him, giving England the platform to attack. Daly initially carried wide right that set England up to run back in-field through carries from Curry himself and Courtney Lawes, and although Ross Moriarty stopped the latter with an emphatic hit, Curry took advantage of a recovering Justin Tipuric to pick from the base and sprint over.
By that point Farrell and Gareth Anscombe had exchanged penalties, while Daly saw an early long-range effort shanked to the left. But the game proved, as expected, an attritional, physical and draining affair, with no more points being scored before the break.
By that point even the crowd were starting to wane, with Wales needing something new to get at the English. But in the second half they got it.
It came in a tweak in tactics from Warren Gatland, with his side deciding to beat England at what is essentially typical English rugby. Built around a strong scrum - which made up for their misfiring lineout - and one-out rugby, Wales started to dominate possession and territory, and when they could they peppered Jonny May and Jack Nowell with aerial bombs.
This allowed Liam Williams, the Wales full-back, to showcase his supreme ability off the ground as he claimed high ball after high ball that put England on the back foot.
Crucially, Wales were the first on the board in the second half. May was trapped deep in his 22 by Jonathan Davies, and the supporting Liam Williams and Josh Navidi flooded in to force the penalty, which Anscombe duly kicked.
The next two penalties were perhaps the match-defining moment, for so many reasons. Kyle Sinckler had been highlighted by Gatland in the lead-up to the clash as an “emotional time-bomb”, despite taking the tighthead prop in his squad on the British and Irish Lions tour two years ago. It was his block on Anscombe after a chip-and-chase that brought him to the attention of referee Jaco Peyper, and when he attempted to hold Alun Wyn Jones off the deck to force a turnover just minutes later, the Welsh captain quickly pointed out Sinckler’s grasp around his neck. Anscombe kicked the penalty, the lead was cut to one, and Gatland’s tactics worked as Sinckler was hauled off for Harry Williams, despite making a phenomenal defensive effort of 20 tackles that was second only to Curry.
Farrell restored the four-point gap soon after but the tide had turned, and when Gatland introduced Biggar, Cardiff roared in approval. Wales grasped the game by the throat, and when they went through an enormous 34 phases of tight carrying, it was Biggar who called for the ball and threw a long pass out to George North. The Lions wing very nearly added to his 36 Wales tries, but desperate defence stopped him short, allowing Biggar to play scrum-half and send Hill over on a beauty of a line as he split Williams and Billy Vunipola. Had Sinckler been there, would Hill have been stopped?
England were on the ropes, and Biggar finished them off. Wales attacked and in the penultimate minute, the replacement fly-half put up a high bomb on Daly, who misjudged his catch and allowed Adams to catch the ball to score in the same corner as Hill. Cardiff erupted, and for the first time in six years, Wales were left to celebrate victory over England and dream of what may lie ahead in the form of a first Grand Slam since 2012.
Wales: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Gareth Anscombe (Dan Biggar, 61), Gareth Davies (Aled Davies, 77); Rob Evans (Nicky Smith, 61), Ken Owens (Elliot Dee, 77), Tomas Francis (Dillon Lewis, 61); Cory Hill (Adam Beard, 71), Alun Wyn Jones; Josh Navidi, Josh Tipuric, Ross Moriarty (Aaron Wainwright, 77).
Replacements not used: Owen Watkin.
England: Elliot Daly; Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May (Joe Cokanasiga, 70); Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Ben Moon (Ellis Genge, 77), Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler (Harry Williams, 57); Courtney Lawes (Brad Shields, 77), George Kruis (Joe Launchbury, 64); Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements not used: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dan Robson, George Ford, Joe Cokanasiga.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
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