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England survive cauldron of fire

This victory was a defining moment for England. They have been poor travellers in the Six Nations and this was a performance that eases doubts about their ability to deliver under duress and on the road.

England knew that they had to strip the match back to its basics: be direct, be accurate and silence that crowd. They did just that with a trademark try from wing Chris Ashton in the 14th minute. It was a deflating experience for Wales and their support.

It was some task to try to reduce the Millennium Stadium to a mere 'rectangle of grass' as Martin Johnson had urged in midweek. The place has an aura, and the locals have centuries of perceived grievances to fuel their larynx. England were playing a nation more than a team.

The streets were thronged, the mood intoxicating and the clamour deafening. This was a test of character as much as skill. Heart and soul still count for as much as muscle and bone.

After weathering an early battering, in which Wales missed two penalties, the visitors struck decisively when Toby Flood spotted two props in front of him and arrowed between them. As ever, the poacher supreme, Ashton was on his shoulder to touch down under the posts.It was just what England needed.


England had to be secure, and initially they were, Mike Tindall setting the captain's example by gathering Stephen Jones's kick-off. It was a bruising opening, Ben Foden clattering into Jones and leaving him dazed on the turf.

England won a free-kick at the first scrum, only to concede a penalty at a scrum moments later, James Hook's kick from 50 metres only narrowly wide.

It was Wales setting the pace, though, England looking hesitant. Flood missed a tackle on lock Bradley Davies, England infringed but this time it was Jones who fluffed the kick from a straightforward, if long-range, position.

Finally Jones landed one in the 22nd minute after James Haskell was caught offside, but by then England were 10-0 ahead, courtesy of Flood's conversion and subsequent penalty.

Injury had shaped England's hand in the back-row, 24-year-old Northampton open-side Tom Wood, drafted for his debut in order to shore up their line-out. He did well.

Despite the pre-match sledging, hooker Dylan Hartley was up to the task. He hit his man in the line-out.

No matter that England had clout up-front. Wales had one of the most potent finishers in the game in their ranks. Shane Williams, with 51 tries in 75 Tests, was a constant threat.

So, too, was Mike Phillips. The scrum-half showed a great turn of speed after England lost possession in the opposition 22. Out came Wales, Phillips feeding wing Morgan Stoddart, who escaped down the flank only to be hauled down by Foden. It was a try-saving tackle.

Wales, though, had their dander up, launching attacks into English territory. The visitors cracked, lock Louis Deacon deliberately infringing. He was sin-binned in the 28th minute, Jones knocking over the penalty.

Wales had to take advantage. They didn't, Andy Powell stupidly giving away a penalty, duly converted by Flood. Powell was substituted minutes later with a shoulder injury. It was three points apiece during Deacon's absence, a poor return for Wales. England went into the interval 13-6 ahead.

Flood has become an integral part of the England set-up, directing the line and landing his goals. He's becoming as reassuring a presence as Jonny Wilkinson was in his prime. His third penalty was converted after prop Craig Mitchell was yellow-carded for diving over. Wales centre Jonathan Davies was fortunate not to get sin-binned as well for a trip on Ashton.

It didn't knock the wing off his stride and in the 56th minute, he rounded off an England surge by latching on to a floated pass from Mark Cueto. It was his second try of the night, his fifth in the last seven Tests. Flood converted and England were in the ascendancy.

It didn't last. Wales had to chance their arm, and they did. Mind you, poor England defence from Shontayne Hape helped as Jones' beautifully weighted pass beat the centre, allowing Matthew Rees to put Stoddart over. Jones converted to reduce the gap to seven.

It was nail-biting stuff. Wilkinson replaced Flood, James Hook moved to out-half for Wales and slotted a goal when Hape offended. 23-19, and the tension soaring with 10 minutes remaining.

Nerves were settled, though, when Lee Byrne was penalised for not releasing after a tackle from Tom Palmer. Up stepped Wilkinson for the kick. He did what he does best. Three points to England and Wales needed something special. They couldn't find it (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Wales -- J Hook; M Stoddart, J Davies, J Roberts, S Williams; S Jones (L Byrne 66), M Phillips ( D Peel 70); P James, M Rees, C Mitchell; A-W Jones, B Davies; D Lydiate, S Warburton, A Powell (R Jones 34).

England -- B Foden; C Ashton, M Tindall, S Hape, M Cueto; T Flood (J Wilkinson 66), B Youngs (D Care 70); A Sheridan (D Wilson 60), D Hartley (S Thompson 70), D Cole; L Deacon (S Shaw 70), T Palmer; T Wood, J Haskell (J Worsley 63), N Easter.

Ref -- Alain Rolland (Ireland).

Irish Independent