Monday 23 April 2018

Williams breaks English hearts

England 12 Wales 19

England's David Strettle is prevented by Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny from scoring a try that would have given his side a chance of a dramatic late draw. Photo: Shaun Botterill
England's David Strettle is prevented by Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny from scoring a try that would have given his side a chance of a dramatic late draw. Photo: Shaun Botterill

Paul Rees at Twickenham

When Rhys Priestland was sent to the sin-bin four minutes into the second half, Wales had to confront their own demons.

They duly fell six points behind after picking up a yellow card for the sixth away match in their last seven in the Six Nations, and had been out-thought and outsmarted by opponents who were irked at being made long-shots to win on their own ground.

Wales concede an average of seven points in the Six Nations during the 10 minutes a player spends in the sin-bin: two years ago in the fixture, they gave up 17 when Alun Wyn Jones saw yellow for tripping.

Priestland's indiscretion, tackling Alex Corbisiero in an off-side position having had a kick charged down by Mouritz Botha near his own line, provided Owen Farrell with the opportunity to put England 12-6 ahead, a lead they fully merited.

Wales had started strongly, George North taking an inside pass from Mike Phillips from a line-out and accelerating into space with only Ben Foden to beat. David Strettle's ankle-tap prevented that mismatch, but otherwise Wales struggled to fashion openings as Brad Barritt effectively made the midfield a no-go zone for the men in red.

Priestland, the iceman, melted in the heat and his game dissolved. His strength in the seven months he has been the Wales outhalf has been his ability to detect what was on before he received the ball, giving players like Jamie Roberts outside him extra time and allowing Wales to play with both thrust and width, exploiting their power and their pace.

With Roberts getting smashed back by Barritt long before he reached the gainline, Priestland started kicking aimlessly and getting caught in possession. When he was sent to the sin-bin with 36 minutes to go, Roberts was already off the field having tweaked knee ligaments in the opening period. Two of Wales's pivotal players were off the field and England scented their opportunity.

The home side did not smell the ball for the next five minutes as Wales, organised by Mike Phillips, rolled and rumbled, their fun stopped when referee Steve Walsh decided that one team should not have possession for so long.

However, they quickly regained control after Jonathan Davies made a thumping hit on Farrell and by the time Priestland returned, Wales were no worse off than they had been when he trudged off as Dylan Hartley's hands in a ruck gave Leigh Halfpenny three more points.

It was a major turning point in the game. Another was England's substitutions. Stuart Lancaster had generally got his calls right in Scotland and Italy, but hauling off the scrum-half Lee Dickson on the hour and replacing Mouritz Botha in the second row with Courtney Lawes were not the best calls the interim head coach has made.

Given the strong way Wales finish matches, trusting their fitness, Lancaster's desire to freshen up his team was understandable, but Dickson had not been fading and had troubled Wales with his ability to raise the pace of the game. When Youngs threw a pass to Lawes's feet and the ball bounced forward to be played in an off-side position by Rob Webber, the score was 12-12 and there were six minutes to go.

Both teams were looking to play territory, hoping to get the penalty that would take them away, even if Farrell had limped from the field to be replaced by Toby Flood. When Ben Foden marked the ball in his own 22, he took his time kicking towards touch. The ball landed infield, away from what had to have been its target given the dangerous position Wales were looking to run into, but Chris Robshaw forced a turnover and it was advantage England.

It lasted no longer than the second it took Roberts's replacement, Scott Williams, to rip the ball from the grasp of Lawes on the halfway line, kick into space and gather the ball before beating Tom Croft to the line. A centre had won a wrestling match with a second row and for the second time away from home this year, Wales had come back from a six-point deficit.

They still had defending to do and the last move of the match saw England, after winning two penalties, move the ball right where Mike Brown, fractionally early, passed to Strettle.

The wing had saved his side in the opening minute and salvation lay with him in the final one. He reached the line, tackled by Davies and Leigh Halfpenny, and contorted his arm in an attempt to ground the ball. It took the video referee Iain Ramage three minutes to determine that the footage was inconclusive; Wales had won at Twickenham for the second time since 1988.

A draw would have been a fairer result. England, while still limited in attack, had Wales's measure, blunting their attack and preventing the visitors from using their own 22 as a launch-pad, closing down runners quickly. They also squeezed the line-out and slowed down ball at the breakdown.

England were also a threat with the ball. They looked to have created the opening try of the match when Manu Tuilagi scented the line only to be felled by Sam Warburton in the second quarter, and they were more adept at finding space than Wales.

Farrell looked more natural at outhalf than he had at inside-centre in the opening two matches, getting his line moving and kicking adroitly.

He was outplaying Priestland and giving his side a measure of control, but there was a moment in the first half when he should have scored a try. He had the ball 10 metres from Wales's line: the defence was drifting across with Chris Ashton the perceived threat.

Space opened for Farrell and a dummy would have taken him through, but he opted to put the ball through hands and England were not to come as close again until the last move of the match. England were that close:

Wales were vastly better against South Africa and France in the World Cup and lost, but all that mattered was the result. The performance was more important to England.

Observer

England: B Foden (M Brown 78); C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell (T Flood 66), L Dickson (B Youngs 61); A Corbisiero (M Stevens 66), D Hartley (R Webber 73), D Cole, M Botha (C Lawes 61), G Parling, T Croft, C Robshaw, B Morgan.

Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts (S Williams 41), G North; R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins, K Owens, A Jones, AW Jones (R Jones 54), I Evans, D Lydiate, S Warburton, T Faletau.

Referee: S Walsh (Australia).

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