Sunday 21 January 2018

England hold nerve as Itoje gives hope of bright future

England 25 Wales 21

England's Anthony Watson hands off Wales' Alex Cuthbert. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
England's Anthony Watson hands off Wales' Alex Cuthbert. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
England's Billy Vunipola is tackled by Wales' Scott Baldwin. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
England's Mako Vunipola is tackled by Wales' Liam Williams. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Mick Cleary

At long last the shooting star that has been English rugby, flaring brightly only to fizzle and fade, appears ready to take its place in the firmament.

France's defeat in Murrayfield yesterday has guaranteed Eddie Jones the Six Nations Championship with a game to go and his team left vivid traces across the Twickenham sky on Saturday afternoon that point in the direction of Paris and a promise of a Grand Slam to come.

And none shines more forcibly than the lustrous Maro Itoje, an all-consuming presence, destined to be a fixed part of the landscape for many years to come. The 21-year-old has not so much arrived as transcended, already moved beyond what might be expected of one with such early potential: wise, athletic and savvy.

Jones did not dismiss a comparison made with Australia's former World Cup-winning lock and captain, John Eales.

Rugby's Mount Rushmore had better get prepared for some new chiselling. England may not yet be the complete package - immaculate for an hour, shoddy and slipshod there after, but Itoje is. As he grows, so too surely will England. In any other company, the paeans would be pouring down on Itoje's partner, Saracens' team-mate, George Kruis.

England have a second-row combination that carries the promise of a substantial yield. Kruis was, once again, productive all over the field, a lineout chief and a developing menace at the breakdown as his turnover on Luke Charteris illustrated. Jones himself believes the pairing will be in place for a long time to come.

There were other notable upbeat performances on the day: the renewed form of scrum-half Ben Youngs, the indefatigable efforts of Chris Robshaw, singled out by Jones as being "the best No 6 in the championship", and, quietly but tellingly, the try-scoring prowess of Anthony Watson, nine tries in his last 11 Tests, better than any in the world over the past 12 months.

Let us praise too the Wilkinsonesque goal-kicking of Owen Farrell, 20 points landed, a perfect return from seven kicks, keeping the scoreboard moving when England were dominant in all areas except finishing.

England were distinct winners on Saturday, their cause unsettled by too many replacements being made as well as a flawed TMO decision on Wales prop Tomas Francis, who ought to have had at least received a yellow card for his finger-raking of Cole's face.

Instead Cole was sent to the sin-bin, Francis stayed and Wales scored two tries, through the impressive George North and Toby Faletau, in that period. It took a lung-busting tackle from back-in-the-fold Manu Tuilagi on North to save the day in the final minute.

It would have been a shattering blow to England if Wales had rolled back the stone to resurrect their title hopes but the flip side of that conjecture holds true. England will, and should, find great succour from the manner of their victory, if not the margin. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

England - M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph (E Daly 74), O Farrell, J Nowell; G Ford (M Tuilagi 63), B Youngs (D Care 63); J Marler (M Vunipola 56), D Hartley capt (L Cowan-Dickie 71), D Cole, M Itoje, G Kruis (J Launchbury 78), C Robshaw (K Brookes 71), J Haskell (J Clifford 67), B Vunipola.

Wales - L Williams; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North; D Biggar (R Priestland 73), G Davies (R Webb 63); R Evans (P James 53), S Baldwin (K Owens 53), S Lee (T Francis 53), B Davies, AW Jones (L Charteris 63), D Lydiate, S Warburton capt (J Tipuric 56), T Faletau.

REF - C Joubert (South Africa).

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