Champagne for England, real pain for Wales

Date published: February 12 2017

The glum faces said it all. Those Welsh fans walking out of the Principality Stadium had every right to fume having watched England sneak through the door in the final minutes to win again in Cardiff, and by the exact same score as two years ago.

Parallels with that 2015 fixture weren’t in short supply, with England trailing at half-time and forced to come from behind.

But this performance from Wales on Saturday was far better than the previous 21-16 defeat, displaying long called for improvements in attack and even a try off first-phase ball for Liam Williams. Physically there are few better than Alun Wyn Jones, while Ross Moriarty played out of his skin.

All of that means precious little now, not totally ignoring the losing bonus point. Wales’ phenomenal effort ended in defeat, and the reasons behind that outcome will have lodged in the minds of those supporters filing out of Cardiff’s iconic ground, shoulders slumped.

Dominant periods camped in England’s 22 yielded few points, and the decision by captain Jones to turn down consecutive kickable penalties in hindsight was disastrous – three points on both occasions exchanged for conceding a scrum penalty and then a mistake at the lineout.

Dan Biggar’s brilliant interception when Wales looked set to buckle put his side instead in England’s 22 throwing in on their own ball following Elliot Daly’s sliding clearance. And Wales messed up the lineout.

Of course if Jonathan Davies’ clearance kick finds touch, then there is no quick counter-attack for Daly to score in the corner. Why Davies in position for the kick instead of Biggar or Leigh Halfpenny?

Those earlier moments felt significant at the time and now loom large over a third straight defeat to England following Daly’s score and Owen Farrell’s fine conversion.

Playing their part in one of the finest Six Nations Tests for some time will not seem like much of a consolation, but Wales really should take solace from participating in a classic.

The intensity and physicality truly reached another level and already it is rightly being billed as one of the finest Six Nations matches for some time.

Moriarty, perplexingly replaced on 52 minutes after his finest game for his country, and Biggar both deserve high praise, as does the work of skills coach Alex King on that much-maligned attack which appears to be sinking in. All the ingredients for a win were there without the final product.

England on the other hand have walked off the pitch twice in a week with the win having been pushed excruciatingly close.

Eddie Jones wasn’t wrong when he opened his press conference saying that England have run out of get-out-of-jail cards.

As delighted as he will be by the sight of England digging deep once again, he knows as much anyone that well will eventually run dry.

At the same time the composure displayed in the build-up to that matchwinning score was exceptional, set up by Davies’ erroneous kick but executed thanks to crisp passes by George Ford and Owen Farrell before Daly’s speed and finish.

Winning truly is a habit and England now climb to the 16 consecutive victories, two this year, with the feeling that they are yet to peak.

Whether Jones will opt to update the side for Italy will be picked apart over the next two weeks but his philosophy of replacements being “finishers” rather than fresh legs feels stronger than ever.

Once again the input of James Haskell – the penalty he conceded in front of the posts aside – plus Jamie George, Danny Care and Ben Te’o proved to be pivotal, and there are certainly valid claims for Haskell and Care to start against Italy, even with Ben Youngs scoring England’s first try.

England’s starting XV were not exactly a disaster, with Joe Launchbury deserving his Man of the Match award following an absurd 18 carries and 20 tackles, but here was crystal clear evidence that England have bought into Jones’ concept of Test rugby being a truly 23-man effort with those on the bench not just there to provide fresh legs.

Facing Italy will give England a chance to stretch their legs somewhat after two bruising, tense affairs over the first two rounds – that is not meant with any disrespect to the Azzurri, but they have conceded 96 points at home in two matches – and Jones has already hinted at a tactical change of approach.

For now they will be rightly proud of a victory borne out of belief and calmness under pressure. But England’s best is still to come.

by Ben Coles