Wales have not won a Six Nations match at Twickenham since 2012 and that poor record remains. But until the final quarter of a mixed game, it was England who were nervously staring into the abyss. Steve Borthwick’s side manage to find ways to win tight games, but for the second weekend in succession the final margin was far too small to provide consolation.
On this occasion, England, trailing 14-5 at the break, had a George Ford penalty to thank with eight minutes remaining, as well as a 62nd minute try from Fraser Dingwall, playing in only his second Test . The home side showed only sporadic signs of flowing attacking until the final quarter, but eventually, via a juggling catch and offload from Elliot Daly and a gleeful finish from Dingwall in the left corner, their relieved supporters had something to shout about.
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Wales, down to 14 men by the end following a yellow card for Mason Grady, were left to rue not being able to continue what they had started. With Tommy Reffell excellent and Warren Gatland’s tactical plan also helping to frustrate England, it would have been a fitting reward for the visitors’ early spirit and energy if they had held on. Instead, again for the second Saturday in a row, they couldn’t quite seal the deal, with the England bench proving to have significantly more impact.
Wales had always known they would need an 80-minute performance to inflict their first defeat of this year’s tournament on England. For a long time they had their opponents where they wanted them and when they sit down to think about it, their hosts will realize they will have to improve substantially if they are to win at Murrayfield in a fortnight.
Part of the problem was England’s failure to capitalize on their momentum early in the match. Freddie Steward skimmed straight through Adam Beard, a hairy Welsh moment in every respect, Daly didn’t quite flinch to burn away the cover with space in front of him and Henry Slade kicked the ball out flat with other options available. Wales clung on and looked for a break of any kind.
One of these came when Ollie Chessum was shown a yellow card for a high clear on tight end Keiron Assiratti. Wales began to make some distance for almost the first time and an excellent kick to the corner from Ioan Lloyd gave them a perfect attacking platform. Sure enough, an accurate throw backwards produced a rumbling drive that an exhausted England could only illegally deny. New Zealand referee James Doleman immediately awarded a penalty try before sending Exeter winger Ethan Roots into the increasingly crowded box.
To England’s credit they hit back immediately, with Maro Itoje keeping Lloyd close to his own line and establishing a scrum position from which Ben Earl burst through Alex Mann’s tackle and stretched to score. There would be no conversion, however, as Ford’s slight shift in his positioning allowed the Wales defenders to run out before the fly-half had begun his approach in earnest.
Reduced to 15 players, this was the moment for this latest ‘new’ England – there are still an awful lot of new dawns – to put the pedal to the metal. Instead it was Wales who showed more energy, intelligence and punch. In Reffell they also had an architect of chaos with a poacher’s instincts, and the Leicester Tiger’s paw prints were everywhere during the visitors’ second try.
England’s new defensive structure remains a work in progress and once again proved porous as Wales found a gap with a lovely inside offload from Reffell to Tomos Williams, which sent rookie Cardiff blindside Mann to his second try in as many Tests. The 22-year-old is clearly a man for the big occasion.
A nine-point half-time lead was a far cry from Wales’ first-half debacle against Scotland in Cardiff. However, their recovery from 27-0 had clearly sparked some confidence and it was England who had to find answers. The home crowd, who had their eardrums pounded by a seriously loud DJ set at half-time, was suddenly cathedral silent.
They perked up when Dingwall cleared Daly wide on the left, only for a brave and highly effective tackle from Josh Adams to force the wing into contact. Daly has scored important tries for his country in the past, but one or two other finishers in the world might have been able to take a more ruthless advantage.
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A killer instinct is one of the key qualities that England only occasionally displays at the moment. Without dominance, they do not have enough weapons elsewhere to make the parties pay or to maintain the pressure for a longer period of time. They want to play at pace, but generally don’t have enough ball carriers and speed merchants to hurt opponents.
For a shrewd coach like Gatland, it potentially offers a rich harvest. George North and Nick Tompkins consistently asked physical questions of the England midfield and the visitors were also not about to repeatedly kick the ball off the pitch and give England a useful stream of lineout possession.
It left England having to find its own last escape routes. The first of Ford’s two penalties cut the score to 14-8, but with ball in hand it was still Wales asking the more pertinent questions. Not for the first time, England were once again drilled wide by a galloping Cameron Winnett who fed Adams outside him. Had Rio Dyer collected the inside ball from his fellow wing it could have been one of South West London’s great Welsh nights. Instead, it was a grateful England who belatedly enjoyed the last laugh.