England overcame a tremendous middle third of a sizzling match by Wales to hoist their national record of consecutive wins to 16, and fulfil their head coach Eddie Jones’s prediction that the reigning Six Nations champions would win this endlessly bewitching clash of old rivals in the later stages.
The chit-chat about dirty tricks afflicting England’s preparation in past years melted away into a simple yet spine-tingling pre-match build-up of Welsh male voice choirs and pitchside flame-throwers that warmed your cheeks against the evening chill. And the two teams soon got on with the important business of gripping the 74,000-plus crowd with end-to-end rugby from the word ‘go’.
After a dodgy start by England in which they lost the ball in contact three times, and Leigh Halfpenny kicked the opening points form a third-minute penalty for Courtney Lawes dawdling on the wrong side, the visitors had a strong 15 minutes.
Owen Farrell levelled the scores with a penalty for the mildest of high tackles by Scott Williams on Jack Nowell, who had regained his starting place from Jonny May, while Wales had eventually confirmed the news rumoured all week that George North would not be fit from a dead leg, so Alex Cuthbert started on the right wing instead.
An attempt by England’s left wing Elliot Daly to reprise his long-range penalty from last week’s opening Six Nations win over France sailed wide. But England soon had the opening try, scored on Cuthbert’s wing, although it took patient attack through 26 phases to do it, as a long pass by Jonathan Joseph to Daly was slipped neatly inside to Mike brown. The full-back barged near the line and scrum-half Ben Youngs finished it off, with a conversion added by Farrell.
Halfpenny’s penalty for an off-the-ball block by Dan Cole reduced England’s lead to 8-6 on 22 minutes, heralding a long spell of Welsh pressue.
Dan Biggar had a chip and chase that needed Nowell’s scurrying cover to clear up, then Alun Wyn Jones was held up a metre short, and scrum-half Rhys Webb’s cheeky bid to dot a try down under the noses of Joe Marler and Daly was ruled out, with referee Jerome Garces playing an advantage.
Jones the Wales captain bravely chose a scrum rather than a kick at the posts and regretted it when Webb’s put-in was not hooked and a punishing England shove stole possession.
But just when it seemed Wales’s red-raw attacking might yield nothing on the scoreboard, they found a gap with a planned move three minutes before half-time.
England had been penned in by 15 phases and appeared to find an escape route when Jones knocked on a pass by Webb with a possible four-on-two overlap looming.
But the white jerseys still needed to get clear from a position in a claustrophobic corner of the Principality Stadium. And while Nathan Hughes made a few metres from the base, Youngs’s box-kick was charged down and Marler knocked on.
From the resulting scrum on the left, Webb stood off and drifted infield towards the posts as Scott Williams made a decoy run to fix Farrell in defence and allowed Liam Williams to ghost through to the posts and Halfpenny to convert for 13-8.
Ross Moriarty hammered Farrell with a marginally legal, rib-rattling tackle after the ball had been passed, in what felt like a symbolic start to the second half, as England’s back row were being blown away at close quarters in a reminder of the 30-3 loss here four years ago.
England quickly swapped their captain Dylan Hartley and first-time Six Nations starter Jack Clifford for Jamie George and James Haskell, with the notion of bench men as “finishers” being deployed early by Jones the coach.
The visitors surely felt they could not allow Wales’s dominance to drift on any longer, although the home side played a talismanic card of their own as No.8 Taulupe Faletau replaced Moriarty.
Farrell and Halfpenny each kicked a penalty as Haskell set up a ruck entered by Sam Warburton from the side then Haskell himself was caught not releasing.
An epic moment for Biggar arrived in the 64th minute as the fly-half anticipated a pass by Youngs after 20 phases and ran and hacked upfield to uproarious acclaim from the red portions of the stands.
There was plenty of time go, though, and in some ways it was a match you wanted never to end, as Farrell’s penalty on 69 minutes brought England to within two points.
The finishing thrust had to come, and although it was England’s to savour, there was a dollop of culpability from Wales as Jonathan Davies sent a clearing kick downfield and invited a counter-attack.
George Ford sprinted diagonally right to left and passed to Farrell who unleashed a superb flat pass to send the jet-heeled Daly haring past a flailing Cuthbert for England’s second try with five minutes remaining.
Farrell’s touchline conversion was another stroke of brilliance for the title-holders as their bid to achieve their first back-to-back Grand Slam in 25 years rolls on.
Wales: try: L Williams; conversion: Halfpenny; penalties: Halfpenny 3.
England: tries: Youngs, Daly; conversion: Farrell; penalties: Farrell 3.
Wales: L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, S Williams (J Roberts 70), L Williams; D Biggar, R Webb (G Davies 65); R Evans (N Smith 53), K Owens (S Baldwin 61), T Francis (S Lee 53, J Ball, AW Jones (capt), S Warburton, J Tipuric, R Moriarty (T Faletau 53).
England: M Brown; J Nowell (J May 70), J Joseph (B Te’o 65), O Farrell, E Daly; G Ford, B Youngs (D Care 65); J Marler (M Mullan 70), D Hartley (capt; J George 47), D Cole (K Sinckler 70), J Launchbury, C Lawes, M Itoje, J Clifford (J Haskell 49), N Hughes.
Referee: J Garces (France).
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