England laid out their championship credentials with an impressive 21-16 win in Cardiff over Wales, to help ease the memories of 2013.
Tries from young Bath backs Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph along with the boot of their team-mate George Ford got England’s campaign off to the perfect start with a gritty performance.
Wales started phenomenally to make the likelihood of an English victory here seem remote, but with the ticking of the clock home doubts and errors along with away confidence grew.
Weeks of Hymns and Arias on a loop couldn’t have prepared England for what was a barrage of noise before kick-off. More of an opening ceremony than a pre-match warm-up, awesome to witness all the same.
Would England learn their lessons from 2013, especially with their discipline? Leigh Halfpenny reminded them that any penalty conceded under 50 metres is an opportunity for him to convert, as he duly did in the second minute.
Wales were sharp, illustrated by Halfpenny sneaking up the right touchline and threading a kick through that, while smartly defended by Watson, culminated in a Welsh scrum.
Taulupe Faletau was then too smart, England too slow, as the number eight brilliantly fed Rhys Webb for the opening try through the arms of those trying to stop him. That sickening sense of familiarity for Stuart Lancaster and so early too, with Wales cruising.
This though was a contest rather than another massacre, destined to twist and turn. Dan Cole notched up a scrum penalty and from the resulting territory Watson scored, collecting Mike Brown’s grubber in the corner.
Watson’s try was his first in Tests with no doubt many more to come, the athletic Bath winger leaping and cutting his way through tacklers time and again.
The scrappier the game grew the more absorbing it became, Halfpenny added a second long-range penalty after England infringed again at the ruck.
Ford responded – the England scrum winning more valuable territory as George North temporarily departed from a stray boot to the head.
For all the skills on show what was needed was some assuredness, Dan Biggar providing it with a well-taken drop goal right on half-time to give Wales a 16-8 lead.
Joseph mimicked Faletau’s earlier elusiveness in the exact same corner straight at the start of the second half. On his first start for two years he ducked and dived through the tackle attempts of three Welsh players to cross for England’s second try.
Momentum was with England but Ford couldn’t follow up Joseph’s key score with a penalty to take the lead, pushing the kick wide to the left to leave Wales ahead by one.
Time and again Wales were denied smooth possession around the ruck by stray English boots, as only the post could stop James Haskell’s bulldozing carry towards the try line, England settling for another penalty as Alex Cuthbert went to the bin.
Wales had no answer to England’s scrum as the forwards took control in all areas, Tom Youngs making a mark off the bench as Wales refused to concede while down to 14 men, just, with Luther Burrell’s pass leaving plenty to be desired as Mike Brown surged up on his outside.
Dave Attwood then looked to have the match sewn up, but an obstruction call on Nick Easter in the build-up sent the Millennium crowd roaring back into life with the win still possible.
Discipline and nerve were paramount and England held theirs when it counted, winning a penalty for Ford who shut out the din to put his side ahead by five. With all their injuries and doubts, they delivered when Wales failed to do the same. The inquest now begins.
Man of the Match: Standout performances from Halfpenny, Warburton, Haskell and more, but Anthony Watson for England was excellent.
Moment of the Match: With England’s second try, Jonathan Joseph gave his side belief and made Wales pay for some soft defence.
Villain of the Match: Nothing nasty to report.
Pens: Halfpenny 2
Drop Goal: Biggar
Yellow Card: Cuthbert
Tries: Watson, Joseph
Pens: Ford 3
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Paul James, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Liam Williams.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.