England v Wales: Five takeaways as error-ridden Red Rose edge ‘pragmatic’ Welsh in Six Nations tussle

James While
England's Ben Earl celebrates scoring his sides first try during the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday February 10, 2024.

England's Ben Earl celebrates scoring his sides first try during the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday February 10, 2024.

Following England’s 16-14 victory over Wales in the Six Nations, here are our five takeaways from Saturday’s clash at Twickenham.

The top line

It may have been scrappy, and it may have lacked the fluency of some fixtures, but yet again, England v Wales produced a game of high drama as Steve Borthwick’s men secured a two-point win courtesy of tries from Player of the Match Ben Earl and centre Fraser Dingwall.

But with Alex Mann, Tommy Reffell and Adam Beard putting in a characteristic display of spiky Welsh resilience this was a game that will see the visitors disappointed in not closing the match out rather than getting so close to their old enemy.

In the final analysis, it was the impact of England’s bench and defence coupled with the lack of penetration from the Welsh midfield and back three that was the real difference in a fixture that saw cards and penalties galore and no less inaccuracy from both teams.

It took a moment of brilliance from Earl off the back of the scrum to get the hosts back into the game, powering over the line to make a mockery of those who suggest he’s too small for a Test eight, and a solid kicking effort from George Ford after Dingwall’s try to seal the points for Borthwick’s men.

Welsh pragmatism

This was a classic Welsh display of rugby intelligence and incredible rugby resilience. They are a team that doesn’t have real superpowers or superstars, but their attention to detail in every facet of marginal play saw them take an edge from England.

Whether it be in lineout disruption via the excellence of Dafydd Jenkins and Beard, who put extreme pressure on Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum, or the ability to hold a scrum legally when conceding size and weight, their durability under pressure was quite remarkable. Beard, in particular, was absolutely immense in his maul defence, getting on the jumper immediately and using his power and reach to swim through and sack momentum at source legally and brilliantly.

With the Welsh defence absolutely tireless in fielding high balls and getting a return on them, and closing England down as a line with the momentum caused by their breakdown work, their youngsters showed once again the level of rugby intellect in the Principality, and it was only a rush out and deliberate knock-on by replacement Mason Grady that let down the team effort by a young and inexperienced Gatland side.

England errors

To say England were complicit in their own inefficiency is an understatement. The midfield of Dingwall, Henry Slade and Ford is like one of those nouveau cuisine dishes where the ingredients look delicious on paper, but halfway through the meal, they give you violent indigestion and little in the way of nutritional value.

Slade, in particular, made error after error, whether it be dropping passes close to the Welsh line as he did when the pack had put him in a fantastic position or missing simple first-up tackles like the one on Josh Adams that gave Wales a yard of front foot momentum to switch the play across the pitch and set up the impressive Mann for his second try in his second Test match. Even his break in midfield down the centre of the Welsh defence saw the Exeter centre fall over his own feet as he once again failed to finish a golden opportunity he himself had created. Dingwall was the pick of the bunch, crashing over on the left wing for his first England try, but the truth be known, it was the industry of the forwards rather than the skill of the backs that sent him over.

With England architects of their own downfall by failing to react to the pedantic whistle of James Doleman, we saw soft offsides in midfield and England spending a large amount of the first half with at least one man in the bin.

Whilst you might question either of the cards given that Chessum’s yellow was a deflection into the head at low impact and Ehtan Roots’ card saw a Welsh player pull him down when the England flank was wrapped on the ball, it’s an absolute truism that England did themselves no favours with their lack of accuracy and their schoolboy indiscipline in execution of so many aspects of their game that made it easy for the officials to make the calls they did.

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Wales excel at the breakdown

A focal point of discussion before the match was how crucial the breakdown battle was likely to be, and the efforts of the Welsh back-row, inevitably led by the India-rubber frame of Reffell, caused havoc in terms of English ruck speed and cleanliness of recycle.

It was clear from moment one that Sam Underhill was there to do almost a man-marking job on Reffell, hitting him hard and looking to clear before he could jackal, and although the Bath flank got some characteristically big hits in, one in particular into the exposed ribs of Gareth Thomas, his power was completely nullified by the craftsmanship of Reffell and Aaron Wainwright on the floor, demonstrating once again the limitations of Underhill as an openside.

Reffell had a field day; his steal count may have been lower than some of the games he plays in, but his effectiveness in slowing England to a ponderous kicking mess was evident for all to see.

Slowness of ball in this manner takes so much out of the attack; England were left with the choices of one-out runners off nine or box kicks, tactics which are admirable but won’t win you elite tests against the best.

With the lineout stuttering and Itoje coming under immense pressure from Jenkins, Wales succeeded in disrupting England at source, and that was down to the excellence of their dynamic and intelligent back row, led by Reffell.

Defence and bench work

For all England’s lack of accuracy in lineout, breakdown and attack, the Felix Jones-engineered defence was a raging success and a massive positive to take out of this match.

In particular, a set in the first half for four whole minutes saw Wales struggle to get any form of momentum as the hits and direct pace of the rush caused havoc in the Welsh backline. It was breathless, relentless and as physical as you like as the power hits rained in.

Wales didn’t do themselves any favours at all by the depth of Ioan Lloyd at ten, which saw him taking the ball so far behind the gain line that even a kick strategy meant he was starting so far behind his backs, there was zero chance of his players being onside to collect.

And whilst the primary defence was magnificent, demonstrated once again in the last few moments, so Freddie Steward grew hugely into the game, giving England a target in which to kick clear via spiral bombs and deep grass kicks.

With the England bench putting in a real uplift in tempo with Dan Cole and Ellis Genge putting in a big shift, it was the defence and the aerial game yet again that saw England over the line in a match that was far too close for comfort.

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