Stuart Lancaster’s new look England were defending a 100% record at Twickenham, but did they have what it took to worry the World Cup semi-finalists?
Another week, another England metamorphosis. Manu “Ill-Advised Mischief” Tuilagi returns to outside centre, while youngster Owen Farrell assumes the hallowed No10 jersey. Young he may be, but who are we to stand in the way of inscrutable destiny?
Wales, on the other hand, return to something approaching full strength. The back-row trio of Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau is in place; so too is the first-choice back line of North, Roberts, Davies, Cuthbert and Halfpenny.
England - Foden, Ashton, Tuilagi, Barritt, Strettle, Farrell, Dickson; Corbisiero, Hartley, Cole, Botha, Parling, Croft, Robshaw (c), Morgan.
Wales - Halfpenny, Cuthbert, Davies, Roberts, North, Priestland, Phillips; Jenkins, Owens, Rhys Jones, Wyn Jones, Evans, Lydiate, Warburton (c), Faletau.
Kiwi referee Steve Walsh is a bit of a dreamboat.
After opting to kick possession away from the kick-off, England immediately concede a penalty for holding on during the tackle.
The lineout goes Wales’ way and, bursting from the familiar “battering ram” position behind the set-piece, North blazes through the English line. An ankle tap sends him tumbling to a halt five metres short of a try. Quick ball frees Priestland to measure a chip into the corner, but an unfortunate bouce prevents Cuthbert from touching down.
Awarded a penalty against the run of play, Farrell spurns a long-range attempt at goal and sends a punt spinning out of play on the left wing.
Hartley’s delivery at the resulting lineout is a poor one, though.
Warburton, forager par exellence, wins his first penalty of the afternoon.
It takes two to tango… and tackle Jamie Roberts. The Welsh inside-centre’s running, like that of George North on the wing, is causing mayhem.
Those frenetic early minutes are giving way to a more settled rhythm. England look a little ponderous in possession, while Wales have yet to capitalise on sustained pressure.
The Welsh advance through the phases is brought to a halt just short of the English line. Desperate to avert disaster, England concede a scrum and immediately set about interfering with Welsh attempts to establish a rolling maul.
Steve Walsh awards a penalty, but it could – should – have been a penalty try.
Halfpenny’s effort, from about 30 metres out, spins wide of the right post.
Signs of life from England! Chris Ashton offloads to Tuilagi. The centre, thrilled to find the ball in his arms, skips and shrugs his way into contact. His momentum backs Wales into the concession of a penalty…
… which Owen Farrell duly converts.
England 3-0 Wales
Piqued by the injustice of the scoreline – Farrell scored strongly against the run of play – Wales immediately set about manufacturing a penalty attempt of their own.
Kicking from a point 35 metres out and just left of centre, Halfpenny makes no mistake.
England 3-3 Wales
A fierce, rollicking series of passes and offloads sees England charge to within centimetres of an opening try. They probe the face of the Welsh defensive line, but somehow fail to find a point of weakness.
Wales, in their desperation, grant Farrell his second penalty of the evening, but they’ll be thrilled not to have ceded a more significant advantage.
England 6-3 Wales
He’s the new Jonny Wilkinson! He’s like Danny Cipriani with a brain!
Owen Farrell works some magic in midfield, popping a successful chip-and-chase over the Welsh line. He’s floored by a blur of red within miliseconds, but the Twickenham crowd – starved of creativity for so long – are in raptures.
Moments later, Halfpenny sends his third penalty attempt of the afternoon – a long-range effort from 45 metres – sailing between the posts.
England 6-6 Wales
The Chosen One (Owen Farrell, obviously), sends an arcing penalty effort dipping inside the left post.
England 9-6 Wales
Half-time: England 9-6 Wales
The edifice of Wales’ newfound confidence began to crumble in the closing stages of the half.
Having begun with determination and pace, they afforded the English attack, helmed by Owen Farrell, opportunity after opportunity in which to assert itself.
We’re back underway.
Wales have reemerged without Jamie Roberts! According to rumour/hearsay/word on street, he’s inflamed a long-standing injury. Scott Williams has taken his place.
Wales have begun the half with purpose, containing England with some organised rucking and long clearing kicks…
… but an error from Priestland swings the game in the home side’s favour. The fly-half dithers over a clearance and panics in the shadow of Moutiz Botha. The lock palms the kick down and races to gather. As the Welsh defence struggles to reset itself, Priestland wraps his arms around Dickson – who’s in the process of losing the ball – and slings him to ground.
Was it a legitimate tackle or a piece of a professional foul? Replays suggest Priestland couldn’t see the ball, but Steve Walsh is unforgiving. It’s a yellow card, and Wales are down to 14 men.
Owen Farrell slots the penalty from point-blank range.
England 12-6 Wales
Wales, looking devoid of creativity, grind their way through 22 phases in midfield… and concede a penalty.
The kicking of Halfpenny again draws his side to within three points of England. His third penalty of the game, it takes his conversion rate to 75%. Not bad, particularly considering how much pressure he puts on his left foot though the ball.
England 12-9 Wales
Ah, George Hook clarifies the yellow card decision.
It seems Priestland was penalised for deliberately interfering from an offside position.
An exchange of turnovers in the middle of the park sends Robshaw barrelling towards the Welsh line. He’s smothered, but the increase in tempo hands the initiative to England. Play swings from one wing to the other, first through Foden, then Tuilagi, before finding touch on the left.
Ben Youngs replaces Lee Dickson, who has been superb.
Rhys Priestland’s nightmare continues! The fly-half, who has just returned to fray, fails to find touch with an elementary clearance before conceding a penalty.
Owen Farrell can do no wrong. Or can he? He whiffs his first attempt of the game.
A limping, grimacing Owen Farrell is withdrawn to applause. He gives Manu Tuilagi some hearty slaps on the back as he makes way for Toby Flood, who looks like a the nerd of Stuart Lancaster’s class of public schoolboys.
Replays suggest the young fly-half has done his knee a mischief.
Poor coordination from the English lineout sees the two No7s, Warburton and Robshaw, come together in mid-air. The Welsh captain crashes to the ground and lies immobile for several seconds… only to be roused by the referee’s whistle…
Wales, doomed to slow ball, are marooned just inside the English half when Tom Croft concedes the most foolish of penalties. Under no pressure, with nothing at stake, he elects to contest a ruck and goes off his feet. The result is a Leigh Halfpenny penalty and, just like that, the scores are level.
England 12-12 Wales
Try for Wales! A stunning solo effort from Scott Williams carves the English defence asunder.
Dispossessing Courtney Lawes in midfield – isolated but with support outside, the lock should never have taken the ball into contact – Williams angles his run and cuts a kick towards the posts. A handful of English defenders give chase, but compared to the Scarlets man, they’re running through syrup. Dropping a shoulder to evade a last-gasp interception by Croft, he collects the ball and dives over under the goal.
The conversion is a formality.
England 12-19 Wales
Down but not out, England set up camp on the Welsh line. Driving around the periphery of the defence, searching for an opening, they force the concession of two penalties. In need of seven points, they can only kick to the corner. A lineout yields a rolling maul, which in turn sends the ball spinning wide through the hands of Youngs and Flood. Finally, it reaches Strettle on the right wing. Forced initially to check his run, he’s tackled and dragged, rolling, across the try-line. He reaches overhead to touch down, but did the ball make contact with the turf?
Successive replays elicit cheers from the Twickenham crowd, but the TMO deems the footage inconclusive. Steve Walsh disallows the try and, adding insult to English injury, brings the game to an immediate close. The English squad, despondency incarnate, stands assembled on the far touchline.
Full-time: England 12-19 Wales
England’s final assault on the Welsh line will steal the headlines, but this was a game ultimately decided by their failure to capitalise on the dismissal of Rhys Priestland. In possession of all the momentum at half-time, their failure to dismantle the shortened Welsh defence, their tentativeness, sucked the adrenalin out of the game.
Though they arguably came within a HD image of a draw, Wales emerge from Twickenham in possession of the Triple Crown. Their final-week encounter with France will likely decide the fate of both the championship and Grand Slam.