Thursday 18 January 2018

England hit back to silence Dragons' roar in epic opener

Wales 16 England 21

Mick Cleary

The crowd silenced, the opposition subdued, the roof defiantly open, England's sweet chariot roared out of Cardiff last night with their World Cup year launched in the most uplifting fashion.

Chris Robshaw's side avenged the humiliation of two years ago with a grafting, well-earned victory over one of the pre-tournament favourites, setting themselves up for a shot at a first ever Six Nations title in the Stuart Lancaster era.

They recovered from a ten-point deficit to overhaul Wales in some style, George Ford landing the clinching penalty with a minute remaining. This was only their second victory in 12 years over Wales at the Millennium Stadium, their 14th since 1893 in Cardiff. On 11 of those previous 13 wins here they have gone on to the win the title, already becoming something of a Holy Grail for this trophyless regime. The portents are favourable. This was a landmark night for Lancaster's England.

Emotion

They do emotion so well in these parts. The decibel level was ramped up prior to the game almost as if to compensate for England's decision to leave the roof open.

The locals were intent on being loud and intimidating come what may. It worked well in Wales' favour. They thrived on that feverish atmosphere with a cracking opening.

England celebrate defeating Wales at the final whistle in their Six Nations Rugby Union match at the Millennium stadium
England celebrate defeating Wales at the final whistle in their Six Nations Rugby Union match at the Millennium stadium
England celebrate defeating Wales at the final whistle in their Six Nations Rugby Union match at the Millennium stadium
England's George Ford is tackled by Wales' Taulupe Faletu
England's Dave Attwood wins a line out against Wales during their Six Nations match at the Millennium stadium

The son et lumière production prior to kick-off has its place but only if the action itself can match the hype and hoopla.

There was a delayed entrance as the teams had a stand-off in the tunnel as to who would go out first, the match kicking off seven minutes later than scheduled.

England captain Robshaw, as he was entitled to do, stood his ground and insisted his players did not go out on their own on to the Millennium Stadium pitch in front of a hostile crowd.

There are times when you yearn just for the rugby to be allowed to take centre stage. And, boy, it did, and was worth the wait. Wales made a thunderous start: Toby Faletau claiming the kick-off from under English noses, Wales going wide, Jonny May failing to roll away and Leigh Halfpenny striking gold with his first pot at goal from 45 metres.

Moments later, calamity struck when George Kruis spilt the ball near his own line. From the scrum, Faletau was missed by James Haskell, the No 8 offloading wonderfully to his scrum-half, Rhys Webb, who scampered outside May for a try. Halfpenny converted and it was 10-0.

The Welsh full-back is a danger from anywhere within the opposition half, banging over another long-range effort midway through the half. A straightforward miss later stunned everyone.

England's fledgling centre partnership, the 11th different combination used by Lancaster in his three-year reign as head coach, had braced themselves for an arduous shift.

Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph are only on nodding terms by comparison with the long-established duo in opposition, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, together for the 33rd time in the red of Wales, on song and on message, a formidable act in any company. Burrell lost his first ball in contact, while Joseph almost managed so slip clear.

But it was Burrell's sharp reaction to a bobbing ball that got England back into the match in double-quick fashion, the centre finding Mike Brown, whose deft nudge through behind the defence was snapped up by wing, Anthony Watson.

Ropes

It got England off the ropes and into the contest. They prospered at the scrum, and had the edge on Wales but it was the home side who rounded off an engaging first half in good heart when Dan Biggar knocked over a 40-metre dropped goal to send them into the break with a 16-8 lead.

England realised that they had to play to their strength and use their pack to batter forward, draw in the defence. And that is just what they did to immediate effect. On and on they churned, probing for an opening.

Wales's resolve was firm but they finally had to cede in the 20th phase.

And it was Joseph's wriggling ability to work his way through the tackle that did the damage, the Bath centre slipping outside Biggar and then shrugging off George North to skip over for a fine try. Ford's conversion was a formality and England were right back at the races, only a point adrift within four minutes of the restart.

England then had a gilt-edged chance to move ahead for the first time in the game only for Ford to fluff a relatively routine effort, albeit from 45 metres. A score at that juncture would have been a real fillip for England. On such small margins.

There was a sense of a gathering force about England's forward play. The tide was turning. England came again, driving a line-out, Haskell breaking clear and driving deep into Welsh 22.

The Wasps flanker was hauled down as he collided with the posts, Faletau and Alex Cuthbert saving a try only for Cuthbert to be yellow carded for interfering. Ford kicked the penalty to give his side a narrow 18-16 advantage.

England did not make best use of the man advantage, scoring just the three points from the original offence. It was unremitting, the collisions ferocious. Nick Easter made his first appearance in four years when coming on with ten minutes to go and into the second-row.

England thought they had clinched victory when Dave Attwood appeared to get over in the 75th minute only for the television match official to help rule the score invalid for supposed blocking by Easter. It was a savagely harsh call. But Ford settled nerves with a penalty at the death. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Wales - L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North; D Biggar, R Webb (M Phillips 69); G Jenkins (P James 60), R Hibbard, S Lee (A Jarvis 72); J Ball (L Charteris 69), AW Jones, D Lydiate, S Warburton, T Faletau.

England - M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, L Burrell, J May: Ford, B Youngs (R Wigglesworth 69); J Marler (M Vunipola 55), D Hartley (T Youngs 55), D Cole (K Brookes 62); D Attwood, G Kruis (N Easter 72); J Haskell, C Robshaw, B Vunipola.

Ref - J Garces (France).

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