Tuesday 20 March 2018

England add some silver to new steel

England 25 Wales 21

Owen Farrell celebrates England’s victory over Wales which earned then the Triple Crown at Twickenham yesterday. Photo: PA
Owen Farrell celebrates England’s victory over Wales which earned then the Triple Crown at Twickenham yesterday. Photo: PA
England captain Dylan Hartley celebrates by carrying the triple crown trophy around the pitch. Photo: PA
England's Dylan Hartley in action with Wales' Liam Williams. Photo: Reuters
Wales and England contest a line-out. Photo: PA
England celebrate winning the triple crown. Photo: PA

Paul Rees

England collected the Triple Crown trophy after turning a comfortable victory over Wales into a nervous one and the Six Nations prize that matters may be in their possession this afternoon if France fail to beat Scotland in Edinburgh. That Wales scored three tries to one after being a distant second for most of the match said everything about their character, but it was a sobering defeat for them against opponents who will only get better.

England used their final two media conferences before the match to draw attention to what they claimed were illegalities in Wales' scrummaging technique. If the strategy appeared to backfire when the first two decisions at the set-piece went against them, it then dawned that they were distracting their opponents as well as showing that, unlike the previous regime, they were prepared to take the game to teams on and off the field.

It was the lineout Wales needed to worry about. The visitors lost their first throw and when, after an opening 20 minutes which they spent almost entirely on the back foot, they made it into England's 22 for the first time, Maro Itoje stole the throw. On Wales's next visit, three minutes before the break, Itoje forced Scott Baldwin to concede a penalty for holding on.

Itoje fully justified his selection ahead of Joe Launchbury. He played a key role in England's try at the moment when Wales, nine points down, looked to have got away with a shockingly slow start. The second row was stuck in heavy traffic when he received the ball from a ruck near Wales' 10-metre line, but he bounced off Dan Biggar and left the hapless Baldwin floundering before feeding Mike Brown, and Anthony Watson had a free run to the line.

Wales may have one of the most respected defences in the world game, but the surprise about England's try was its 31-minute gestation period. In the opening minute, Dylan Hartley startled tacklers by passing out of the back of his hand as he was about to hit the ground and sending away Jack Nowell on the right wing.

It set the tone and such was the alacrity with which England moved the ball from the tackle area that Wales had to modify their line speed in defence. As they became lateral, so they missed tackles and played behind the gainline.

England were sharp and smart. Brown was as coiled as he had been in the World Cup match between the sides here last September but considerably more focused. From the moment he broke Jonathan Davies' tackle in the second minute, Wales were on a search to find themselves. The traits they regarded as a strength - tackling, rucking, receiving kicks and physicality - were eviscerated as England passed their biggest examination under Eddie Jones with a higher mark than many had anticipated.

England have a clarity and cuteness they lacked in the World Cup. By disarming Wales, they fought the game on their own terms. They came close to scoring a try in the opening minutes when Brown's surge through Davies led to a ruck from which the ball bounced under George North's legs to the line. Ben Youngs thought he had touched it down, but was ruled on review to have knocked it on.

Even Dan Lydiate was missing tackles and conceding penalties as England maintained a relentlessly high pace. For all their experience and achievement, Wales were never able to impose themselves, apart from a brief period in the second half when Biggar charged down George Ford's clearance to secure a try the men in red had barely threatened.

Ford, who had earlier been flattened by Jamie Roberts, was replaced by Manu Tuilagi with 17 minutes to go having had his most influential match under Jones. He and Youngs, profiting from quick ball, widened the point of attacks: Watson, the menacing Nowell and Jonathan Joseph all stretching a defence most comfortable at confronting ball-carriers head on.

All England struggled to do was finish. Dan Cole, who had scored one try in his previous 59 Tests, got over the line after 14 minutes through challenges from Gareth Davies and Rob Evans, but a replay showed he had touched the ball down on his own arm. It was left to Farrell to move the scoreboard, his penalties on nine, 16 and 21 minutes rewarding his side's dominance before Watson's try.

Some of Wales's play veered towards the farcical, Alex Cuthbert allowing himself to be stripped of the ball by Ford, Roberts running into Biggar after a rare handling move and Cuthbert's clumsy attempt to catch a routine kick into his 22. They looked less like potential champions and more candidates for the wooden spoon. England's 16-0 interval advantage was improved by three points after the break when Farrell kicked his fourth penalty.

Wales suddenly stirred themselves, but poor passing wasted space on the right before Biggar charged down Ford. Wales threatened briefly, but struggled to put phases together. Sam Warburton was taken off the field on a stretcher after taking a blow to his head, but it was his side that was reeling.

Luke Charteris's first acts after replacing Alun Wyn Jones were to give away penalties for holding on in the tackle, presenting Farrell with six points. England led 25-7 with 12 minutes to go but switched off. Cole was sent to the sin-bin for taking down a maul, although Wales' replacement, tighthead prop Tomas Francis, was fortunate to avoid punishment after his hand made contact with Cole's face.

North scored his third try of the tournament which looked to be no more than a consolation before Taulupe Faletau crossed with three minutes to go.

England were hanging on and there were 15 seconds to go when North ran into England's 22 only to check himself when he saw Tuilagi coming towards him. He was pushed into touch and there was to be no second comeback from Wales.

Scorers - England: Farrell 6 pens, con, Watson try; Wales: Biggar try, con, North, Faletau tries, Priestland 2 cons.

England: Brown; Nowell, Joseph, Farrell, Watson; Ford (Tuilagi 63), B Youngs (Care 63); Marler (M Vunipola 56), Hartley (capt; Cowan-Dickie 71), Cole, Itoje, Kruis, Robshaw (Brookes 71), Haskell (Clifford 66), B Vunipola. Try Watson Con Farrell Pens Farrell 6 Sin-bin Cole 71

Wales: L Williams; Cuthbert, J Davies, Roberts, North; Biggar (Priestland 73), G Davies (Webb 68); Evans (James 53), Baldwin (Owens 53), Lee (Francis 53), B Davies, AW Jones (Charteris 62), Lydiate, Warburton (capt; Tipuric 56), Faletau.

Referee: C Joubert (South Africa)

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